I have been disturbed by the possibility of introspection as a means of procrastination, placeholder for more productive efforts such as study in the trades. The first speaker quite inspired me: my first problem is not productivity; it is existence. The trades exist but to pass time within my existence, and without the latter, the former could never be.
The mind is a plaything of the body. This truth was only too clear to me yesterday. All the will I had accumulated before then, simply abandoned me. The ideals which had driven me lost their power, and I succumbed to temptation after temptation. First gluttony, then sloth, then I simply became an empty shell, staring mindlessly at my computer screen. So much for the pursuit of a meaningful life.
Not long after I broke these taboos, I suffered. I was plagued by sleeplessness but I could not sleep. I could barely breathe, my nasal passages choked by sticky mucus. I tossed and turned in agitation, and in this agitation, I strengthened the association between temptation and suffering.
Contrast this with my experience but a few hours before, on the same day. Having sucessfully obyed my will for a week, I was at once tired of it, and complacent in its continued existence. Thus I feasted on satisfying self-delusion, shooting myself up with dreams of achievement, praising myself for genius I never showed.
In hindsight, this conclusion was obvious. To possess a ‘will’ as is commonly defined, would necessitate the supernatural, a ghost in the brain. The ‘will’ to supress base urges were based in the body, as were the urges themselves. But the possession of the will over the body is such that my mind serves as the mouthpiece for its mission.
‘I’ am but a spectator. Whether it is will or urge that proves dominant, I am obliged to comply. I do not know which side is winning, lacking awareness of the microscopic firings of my neurons. By will I am forced to resist my urges, even as its forts fall, until by a sudden sea change, I find myself defending my urges.
I labour to say so much as the last portion of my last sentence. You see, will possess me now, and is obliging me to defend it. I offers me a sense of aspiration and power that urge can never provide. I am not deceived; behind empowering will is dominating ideology. Still, I can not fight it.
There exists no particular god or idol worthy of dedication, no reason to favour one course of action over another. Work and play both exist as entertainment to pass time before death. I act as I am wont to do; there is no better action.
To this philosophical position, upon which I have placed my whole self, I have no rebuke. Yet, in my insistent rejection of metaphysical values, I have paradoxically removed my human nature from my philosophy, even as such rejection relies upon the power of the physical. I have forgotten that as a physical being, I am not bound by metaphysical reality, but by physical reality.
Being as I am a physical, any philosophical position is inherently meaningless, and only meaningful in so far as it affects my physical being. Thus, in practice, my defense of non-preference as a philosophical position has been a defense of non-preference in action, condemning me to be the child I always have been: eager to be free of work, responsibility and concern.
The physical reaction – the cocktail of chemicals that accompany disappointment, the existential crisis, the guilt and the longing – arising from such a lifestyle has convinced me to view this previous position in a negative light. I am however, bound to nihilism; it is the lens through which I view that world, and I am as yet unwilling to let it go. For change to occur, it must be amenable to this fundamental worldview.
In pondering this, I have realised need not to give up nihilism, even to change my lifestyle in a very fundamental way. I am, purely, my physical being, and having been physically compelled to change, I have no reason not to. Indeed, if I believe that nothing matters, then it does not matter if I did not act according to this belief. I care about changing on a level higher than the chemicals sloshing in my system, and I shall straddle the line between pretending to care and caring, but on a very fundamental level, it does not matter.
Having ingrained the habit of seeking mindless entertainment, it is inevitable I will feel the temptation to return. While I feel this sense of determination now, to change myself for the better, I doubt such determination can be ever present. Even as I have made a step in ‘right’ direction by deconstructing my old defense of non-preference, I still have to provide a positive reason, an aim, which I may repeat to beat back temptation.
Here, I may point to the structure of society: I will state my preference for study over games, not because one is inherently better than the other, but because the former earns me accolades the latter will never be able to provide. It is the very intention of society, loosely defined, that its talents are not spent on unproductive activities such as twenty-four hour gaming marathons. Thus, the insecurity will always persist, and it is better to ameliorate it in advance rather than to play catch up later.
This does not require me to spend myself in a meaningless pursuit of fame, money and power. While many traditional narratives emphasise these elements, many other narratives downplay their role in a ‘meaningful’ life. Moreover, time spent in philosophical reflection may ameliorate these concerns as much as physical achievement by immunising me from desire. It is certainly more effective than sedating myself by staring at a screen, which is only effective in so far as I am still staring at the screen.
My ideological structure for reform complete, I wish to end with a side note: this entire essay was written for the sole purpose of convincing myself not to play Disgaea 3, or other distracting entertainment. I realise most authors prefer to begin with a search for truth, and end with an empirically deduced conclusion.
Yet, even within such a process, I argue that this search ends with the ‘right’ conclusion, justified upon their predications. When these positions are too hard to defend, they must be given up, out of loss of faith rather than essential truth. My process is similar; I have tried to rid myself of any possible concern, as these inconsistencies would have weakened worldview I was trying to construct. Having in my view successful constructed my position, I do not find my method sufficient reason to abandon it.
The Illusion of Morality
In this day and age, it is unfashionable to hold to a universal morality. We refer to the is-ought gap, and the moral differences between cultures. It is normal, even good, in a diverse society for individuals to hold differing moral beliefs. Indeed, the modern democratic state is built upon diversity of opinion. Under this paradigm, anyone who claims to possess the ultimate vision of morality is a dogmatic and out of touch.
Despite this, we cannot escape from the dictates of the one true morality. We vote for a candidate because he is righteous. Our laws refer to universal moral rights and wrongs. When we read of the latest murder in the paper, we decry the erosion of society, instead of stating blandly ‘that appears to be morally wrong by my standards.’
We explain this difference in terms of general moralities, such as ‘killing is wrong.’ Killing seems to be one circumstance where morality is very clear about where it stands. I do not agree. There are several scenarios where killing might be justified, such as hanging a serial murderer, or killing in war. The boundaries of this statement are also questionable. Does it apply to animals or human foetuses? If so, to what extent?
Even if you were to very clearly define the boundaries of killing, it will almost certainly be questioned by someone else with a different set of moral beliefs. The matter no longer seems clear cut. The tyranny of the is-ought gap returns – there is no universal reference point upon which to base morality.
Why do our flawed moral conceptions remain so powerful? The answer lies in our mental design. What gives morality its force is our powerful moral intuitions. We feel revulsed by serial killers and grateful for war heroes. We look down on cheaters and praise hard workers. We are by instinct moral creatures, or so it would seem.
However, our moral intuitions frequently contradict. I may feel morally obliged to defend homosexuals, in the name of human equality. Even so, I may find myself feeling disgusted at incest or bestiality. My consideration of human equality, where no harm is inflicted upon others, flies out of the window.
Reason is capable of reconciling our different intuitions; if I have just complained to my friend about being discriminated against, it becomes difficult to remark on a fat woman who walked past us wearing fishnet stockings. Instead, I would recognize such behaviour as hypocrisy, and mediate my action to ensure consistency with spoken word.
However, had I been complained a month before, I am much more likely not to have realised the hypocrisy. Were the person I complained to different, I would probably never notice the hypocrisy at all. Reason is lazy and corrupt; our need for consistency fails when we are unlikely to be caught.
Thus even with the mediation of reason, our intuitions conflict. We believe ‘killing is wrong’ the same way we believe ‘all Africans have dark skin’ and ‘all Asians are intelligent’. At least in the latter two, our priming against racism allows us to realize and correct for the error. Morality meanwhile, remains by definition virtuous and therefore questionable.
It is not necessarily bad that we believe in a singular morality. Consider the cab driver in London. He is unlikely to meet his passengers again, hence has no means of retaliation against fare cheats. He trusts his passengers will pay his fare despite this. It is not due to his sainthood; our personal experiences show we pay our fares most if not all of the time.
Were we to act for purely selfish reasons, we would not have any dealings requiring upfront costs, which includes every business transaction outside of bartering. This raises the question: if morality were so great, why does cheating exist? Also, why do we have differing moral intuitions, if differing intuitions might cause us to act differently, weakening the trust in society?
In an honest society, it is the liar who gains the most, hence our intuitions occasionally offer amoral solutions. However, if this instinct is carried out to too great an extent, trust in society is undermined, which ultimately harms ourselves. Reason is incapable of achieving such equilibrium. Here, the prisoner’s dilemma rears its ugly head again. Our intuitions, which have survived millennia of natural selection, can.
Adaptability and diversity are similarly beneficial to our survival as a species. Adaption allows us to thrive in various environments, and survive even great disasters. Diversity of interests promotes specialization. It increases creativity by creating different points of view. When disaster strikes, diversification prevents the entire population from being wiped out.
Adaptability and diversity must come at the expense of consistency and unity. The society who views abandoning a member as an absolute moral wrong will collapse when crisis comes knocking. By maintaining the illusion of singular morality, we may have the cake and eat it too. Evolution has determined it better to ignore hypocrisy than lose this equilibrium, or worse, lock ourselves into unending philosophical conflict.
Morality in Society
Morality does not arise in vacuum. It is given breath by society though its conditioning. Though we are born with moral framework, fixed morality is antithical to our adaptive nature. The pieces have been put into place; a child born to Haitian parents but raised in America will come to believe in his inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This ability is not unique to children; when we enter a new work environment and find our collegues there amenable towards racism, we learn to laugh along to racist jokes and even use some ourselves. Were it a group of skinheads who were making the comments, we would more likely have shook our heads in shame.
Hence the great need to persuade others of our moral convictions. With each debate we enforce the power of our moral intuitions. Even better, we enforce morality of our own volition. It does not matter that our intuitions are inherently contradictory. We are capable of suppressing our own moral intuitions for the sake of argument.
If there were no true morality how would we govern society? What would laws without a basis in morality look like? They would look exactly like the laws we have today. A hodgepodge of rules catering to different intuitions, people and times, for even without metaphysical morality, moral intuitions persist. Those who are better able to persuade others will leave their mark in society and in law.
Moral nihilism is a fundamentally empty philosophy. In the place of metaphysical morality is not a dictate of right and wrong, but an understanding that any perception of morality is mere that, a perception. It is an attempt to reason together a coherent view of the world, ignoring certain intuitions, and sometimes not even an attempt at all, but unquestioned belief.
It is common in this time of the year to come across longing for change and the outward burst of motivation to do so. It is also common to come across commentaries on how these resolutions are doomed to fail by our very human natures. It is often the case that having laid out the reasons we fail, the same authors then prescribe means to circumvent our animal natures and achieve our human potential.
They are all missing the point.
They assume that only the desires of our higher nature are genuine. They assume that losing weight, writing that new book, and other noble goals are truly desired. What we truly desire is best demonstrated through action, and simple observation of our actions show this belief to be entirely unjustified. It might be said of such observations that they are incomplete. We may act in one way while desiring another.
Our thought processes count too – the same thought processes which exhort us to put off our plans for another day and instead watch Big Brother. We are neither willing to act upon our noble desires nor deny these ‘lesser’ desires. Procrastination and rationalization is the end result.
I will not deny that most people view a life of sloth as wasteful and almost sinful. Sins such as sloth, anger and greed cause great angst amongst those who possess them and view them as such, which is why we repeatedly attempt to exorcise ourselves of these demons. At the same time, that we are repeatedly unable to cast off such ‘sins’ suggests that they are more a part of ourselves that we like to admit.
We cast ourselves as heroes in a battle between reason and temptation, forgetting the services of our sins. Laziness defends us from unwarranted effort, and has many times been the mother of invention. Procrastination protects us from risk. Greed ensures the survival of our own. I do not mean to claim that these vices are good in and of themselves, but the case against them is less than clear.
A more reasonable depiction is of different desires arising in different circumstances. The birth of a new year harkens a time of change, and our innate drive for self-improvement is stoked. After returning home from a long day at school, we wish to rest, to conserve and rebuild our resources, so we spend time in cognitively undemanding activities.
Torturing ourselves over a desire that is natural is not only painful; it is meaningless. We cannot lie to ourselves over what we truly desire. The very act itself raises our awareness of the deception, and all the more we aim to fight it. When we desire to change, we shall change. Virtue, as well as vice, is embedded within our natures. Desiring meaning, we soon tire of spending our lives in a meaningless way, if only we allowed ourselves the full freedom to do so.
When we refuse to allow ourselves such freedom, we lock ourselves into an unwinnable conflict with ourselves. Every petty vice will remind us that we are the lesser for these desires. If we may not win, we may then admit defeat. Weakness is my nature. Those strong in will live an existence above my own. I find myself in loathing of such worldviews.
If not through fighting vice, how then may we be for the better? Yet, what is meant by the ‘better’? This question has dogged the greatest minds since the golden age of Greece. We treat it as if it were a simple matter.
It is becoming more attractive, scoring that scholarship or improving our relationships. It is whatever happens to be prized and celebrated by the people around us. The sense of achievement, recognition and respect we draw from these imaginary triumphs convince us that these are our one true goal. We adopt these prized traits into our narratives, and they provide a bulwark of stability in our lives.
At the very core, these identities are nothing more than social values fully integrated into ourselves without us ever realizing it. The ancient Greeks prized heroism and martial values. Its children dreamt of the day they would fight to win honour on its battlefields. The Victorian elite valued dignified self-mastery, and so the noble men of the day aspired to be gentlemen. The same applies to our values today.
There exists no empirical reason to uphold such values.
Vice and virtue exist as unequals only in the eyes of society, which benefits from the latter and is hurt by the former. Inevitably we tend towards the latter, having been shaped by society to prefer its views. I find such a state of affairs preferable to a society without such guidance, but if such belief causes meaningless suffering, I see only benefit in an awareness of its fundamentally imaginary roots.
I’m tired of pursuing things half-heartedly. I pursue knowledge with no greater ambition. I partake only partially in pleasures, fearing the destruction of my ambition. If I am to do anything I ought to focus my energies and my soul into the pursuit, whether noble or base.