I walk around a lot and allow my mind to wander into the free range of ideas that sometimes connect to perverse conclusions…..to places and things I’m sometimes ashamed of. But maybe that’s the cost of really trying to think things through. Or maybe it’s the truest test of whether or not a mind’s sinister or perverse….when unfettered, which path it naturally takes – the perverse or the divine. I don’t know.
But the other day I was out walking and got to thinking about the limits of absolute reason. Ya might wonder why I even pose such questions to myself. I suppose it’s because I’m an atheist and, in the absence of God, I got nothing else to trust. Of course, you can be guided by emotion but that’s such an easy recipe for disaster it’s not worth discussing. But, if I’m honest, I gotta admit that my own reason’s fucked me over plenty too. It’s justified to me horrible and stupid relationships. Led me down the path to career choices that were utterly ridiculous. And, speaking of me, it wasn’t only the bad career choices, but the clarity of real self-awareness that it’s never afforded me either. So we got some history, me and reason. And it ain’t all good.
So there I was questioning the limits of reason and asked myself, “Is life sacred? And if so, why? And, logically, does it make any sense that some life is valued more than others?”
It seemed to me that some life is sacred and other life not so much. For example, Porky Pig that we force down the slaughter shoot, squealing in terror and slipping and sliding in its shit and piss and blood and the shit and piss and blood from the others before him that have lost emotional and bowel control due to a similar terror……well, their lives don’t seem so sacred or worthy of dignity.
But Grandma Margaret, eaten alive by bedsoars in the nursing home and unable to feed herself or even take a dignified shit on her own, we strive to ensure that her life still retains dignity to its bitter and atrocious end. Though she can’t take a shit independently, we’re appalled to learn she’s been left to wallow in it. We’re (sorta) rightfully outraged.
From the standpoint of atheism or pure reason (not that they’re exactly the same), I got to thinking that life is life. From the position of absolute reason (let’s say in the absence of God or emotion), I got to questioning what gives Grandma Margaret’s life more value than Porky Pig’s? Porky, as evidenced by his terror, wants to suffer and die no less than Grandma. And if there’s suffering in terror, what makes Porky’s suffering of such little value or concern to us? But we let that one slide. Even those of us who are mostly vegetarian. We choose to simply not think or worry so much about Porky’s plight.
But, in the absence of natural law or God’s laws or emotion as trusted guides, what distinguishes the value of the life of the pig from that of the person? What reasonably coherent argument allows us to say, “the human’s life is of more value”? After all, aren’t we all, man and beast, one and the same within nature? Just ask the tsunami or volcano or earthquake if it cares any more for your life than it does the beast’s.
I get that pack animals, unless it’s under extreme pressures, don’t eat members of their pack. And we can observe that and say that since it works for them, and given our similarities, then if it works for them, then deductively that’s how it oughta work for us. But if it works for them and it works for us, then that’s just a natural law. In other words, we’re acting like them according to a shared nature, not deduction. But, by explaining it away in terms of deduction, we’re retroactively applying logic to our own behavior, which is what you’d do when you decided that reason/logical deduction is paramount in guiding your behavior and thinking. See how good our reason is at finding ways of making it paramount?
One approach to defending the person might be something akin to a pragmatic argument, that valuing human life over any other makes for a more harmonious or well balanced civilization than otherwise.
But where’s the empirical data for that?
Wouldn’t we have to run an experiment in order to draw that conclusion?
What, for example, stops us, especially in times of decline or crisis, from exterminating the bottom 10% to free up resources for the upper 90%, improving the majority’s quality of life. Of the bottom 10% I’m speaking mostly of the elderly and infirmed and the poor and stupid,;those, statistically, whose present (and perhaps future) contributions will never outweigh the resources it takes to keep them as mostly or wholly unproductive members of the social pack.
So you can probly see by now where this is going. And you can say this argument is just inflammatory rhetoric against atheists or the advocates of absolute reason. But to me, as I was out there walking around, it wasn’t. It was a fairly solid, logical conclusion. Now, I know I’m probably not even the smartest guy on my block, but if I could reasonably conclude this, especially in a state of relative social harmony, then couldn’t others just as easily too – especially in times of crises when there’s be incentive to believe it; when individual and collective emotions and reason get all jumbled up into one great big clusterfuck? After all, it’s more or less happened before, fairly recently, under similar conditions.
What keeps us from saying “fuck all ya’ll” to the cast offs and the infirmed? Human dignity? The sanctity of human life? But why just human life? How can reason distinguish between a higher value given to our aunts and mothers and children than the lowly pig, suffering, if only fleetingly, as he wallows in his shit and piss, awaiting that bolt to ramrod his skull so he can be tossed later into some Lo Mein or fried rice for an extra buck, since plain old Lo Mein or fried rice wouldn’t be tasty enough without him?
I ain’t attempting to climb atop no animal rights activism high-horse. I’m just saying, it seems nearly obvious that we got some logical problems here.
So, if by absolute reason….in the absence of God or emotion…..I can’t make the case against the equivalency of life then I can’t value Grandma’s life any more than Porky’s. And if eliminating Grandma’s life with the lack of conscience we do Porky’s in the name of the betterment of the majority (I mean, giving her a euthanasia drip is far more peaceful and dignified than Porky’s death, right?), then why not?
Of course, the question then becomes one of limits. Who do we euthanize? Just the elderly and infirmed? Just the poor and unintelligent? The violently criminal? How do we measure that intelligence? What’s the degree of disability that’s deemed beyond utility?
And what about groups of people? We love tribalism. And so my group doesn’t get targeted, we mobilize politically…..castigating “the others”. Placing the spotlight of skepticism on them. We round up the political force of our group. And instead of just focusing on individuals that are the least productive or most harmful, what about groups that are the least productive and most harmful? And why the fuck’s it even matter that much if we get it wrong if all of life’s the same – the Jew or Muslim or homosexual or Porky, all gutted and seared by flame? It don’t matter, I suppose, since we’re all one and the same with and within nature.
I began to think this was a terrifying and disgusting mental exercise. One that I should just keep to myself or shoo off like a raccoon in the garbage. But why’s it disgusting? I fancy myself an atheist and, in the absence of God, I got little to rely on or trust other than my reason which says, “Don’t back down. This is all reasonable. After all, life is just life. And, as such, human life is just like Porky’s life – something to be tossed in the trash when the free order of crab rangoons ya get at King Wok with a $20 order is more filling than expected and tastier than Porky and the noodles. And if an eighteen year old can be just cannon fodder or a religious/political tool in some silly war (not that ALL wars are silly), then life is just life in those instances too.” Our reason affords us the liberation to see life both ways, as something both precious and not. That being the case though, my reason dictates that I must at least flirt with the idea of which might be the better way of understanding it.
But there were undeniable pangs of shame and disgust that went along with all those thoughts. And I realized those feelings of disgust and shame are just that….feelings. It wasn’t reason. They came from emotion, I imagined. Ya see the problem here? It’s emotion, utterly counter to reason (I think), that forced me to consider that extermination of the lowest of the low might not be right or ethical or something, even when it might benefit the majority.
But whether that emotion….running abjectly counter to my reason……comes from God or elsewhere, I’m glad it was there, telling Reason in that instance, “fuck you!!!”.
And for me, walking around with the hidden shame of wondering if exterminating the elderly and the poor and stupid might really be an okay thing, it was only overcome by accepting the shame and disgust of those thoughts that allowed me to reject the reason that produced them.
But in times of strife, without that shame, I’m not sure that I or we could expel such sour reasoning. I can imagine it takes discipline to hold tight to that emotion.
“Hold tight to emotion???!!!??? You fucking heretic!!!” the Absolute Reason side of my conscience protests.
“Yeah, well fuck you too,” I reply, as a man who doesn’t necessarily believe in God but believes in something (but I know not what) that guides my moral instinct toward the good (hopefully). Something more than this instance of reason that’s led me to the naked and inhuman consideration of evil and perversion and the immoral. Moral instinct, you see…..not moral reason. And as I get older (but likely no more wiser), it begins to fit within a pattern of a healthy balance between extremes…..those of absolute reason and absolute emotion….reason tempered by emotion.
But reason won’t give up easily. It says, “just cause you feel genocide or mass euthanasia might be disgusting, don’t make it wrong. We overcome emotion and instinct all the time. Think about flight or flight. The military beats that instinct outta ya for a the greater good of the country and your people.”
“So then genocide or ethnic cleansing might serve a greater good?”
“That’s what I’ve been suggesting all along. It can serve the greater good of the greater number.”
“But they say the road to hell is paved with the unintended consequences of good intentions. So, emotion seems like the safer bet here.”
I don’t know where those emotions, the disgust and shame, come from. They say certain things are just passed along genetically…..instincts, emotions, reactions, etc., prior to experience. But whatever it is, if we ever start treating the Jews (again) or the Muslims or the gays the way of the pig, I pray that neither my emotion nor reason’s lost in the shit storm of it all.
I got another long walk to go on again today. We’ll see where that leads.
One thing that all that walking and thinking does is allow you to analyze your own mind.
Freud broke personality down to the triad: id, ego and superego.
My mind seems to work according to a triad. You ever seen politics portrayed as a distribution on a horseshoe? Like at each tip are the extremes of conservatism and liberalism or communism and fascism but everything in between is mostly the more moderate stuff.
Similarly, my mind works between the extremes of absolute reason and absolute emotion. I try to temper each extreme by weighing/countering them against the rest of the distribution. I conduct these sorta Socratic dialogues with myself, with Socrates, I suppose, represented by the majority/moderate distribution of the horseshoe and Meno or Ion represented at the extremes. And I work through an idea by weighing it against another, trying to gauge its position on the horseshoe, as extreme or reasonable, by comparison to other ideas’ positions on the distribution.
Here’s how it went today. I got this dialogue running through my head – a sorta Socratic dialogue, but I hate to soil Socrates this way. So instead of Socrates, I’ll substitute (when convenient) Snidley Whiplash – in this case, the villain of using reason against reason.
A Socratic-type Dialogue Featuring Snidley Whiplash
Snidley Whiplash (SW) to Absolute Reason (AR)
SW: If the world went to shit, if it descended into violence and political and economic chaos, you’re convinced that out of that, I couldn’t exploit the situation and the chaos of your reason and emotions enough for you to cede to the irrational or even the immoral? That I couldn’t get you to behave malevolently? Knowing that I’m Socrates…..er…..Snidley Whiplash. That I’m far, far smarter and more cunning than you?
AR: No, Mr. Whiplash. I’m far too intelligent and disciplined and moral for that. Do you not see that by reason alone I am a moral man, neither raping nor killing. But, just for my amusement, how do you propose you would implement such an ill-conceived plan against me?
SW: My dear friend, Reason, let me tell you this. You are living in an era of ease and comfort where your morality has never been severely tested. And this is the reason for your overconfidence. But even now, you falter – treating people who don’t deserve it poorly, etc. You think that because you have not murdered or advocated murder in a time when there’s little need for advocating either/or, that you’re a fine man. But you’ve simply never been tested in any serious or significant way. It’s easy to be generous when things are plentiful, my friend. But when resources dry up or lives are in peril, that’ll be the truer test of your philanthropy or philogyny.
AR: Hmmmm…….I see.
SW: Only a few men in a thousand will allow his family to starve along with the others when he has the resources to save his own. But you are not likely to be one of those men. You want to be but I assure you, it’s not likely. And this is not personal; it’s just cold, hard numbers. The odds are severely against you, that’s all. I must accept that, as a man of reason, should accept that too.
AR: But most men will allow the others to starve too.
SW: Yes. But a few will not. And some of them will be guided by faith and some of them by reason and some by emotion. Still, none of them is likely to be you.
AR: You think very low of me, sir.
SW: I think of you as I do most, as weak and fallibly human. Fallible by reason or emotion or laziness or cowardice or ignorance. Or reacting to the chaos of terror. Can you accept that?
AR: No. As I told you, I refuse to believe that I am those things. I’ve been a devoted husband and father. I pay my bills. I don’t roll through stop signs. I use my blinkers. I blow my grass clippings off the sidewalk. I don’t murder or steal.
SW: And I suppose you don’t punch little children in the face for no reason either. Well, kudos to you. But you prove my point. Grass clipping won’t make you Oskar Schindler, you fucking fool. Let me continue.
If, in a time of political turmoil, if came down to a choice between inflicting violence upon your group or family and somebody else’s, I think I could convince you to make a choice of who to harm. And that choice would be against the other.
SW: It would be easy, especially in a state of terror, when you’re vulnerable. You wouldn’t want to see your family slaughtered because you’re a decent man. I’d give you a reason for it being more moral for me to kill somebody else than your family. And you’d want to believe it. So you would. I’d lay it out rationally. And you’d want to believe it so much that you would. It would be so easy to convince you because you’d so desperately want to be convinced. See?
AR: But I’m Absolute Reason. I can’t be so easily deceived.
SW: Ha!!!! That’s your arrogance speaking there, my friend. You’re so arrogant and filled with self-deception, even now in a temperate moment when you can “think” straight you can’t see through the veil of your own narcissistic self-deception. Imagine how easy this would be if you were in crisis. That’s why it would all be so, so easy.
AR: How would you do it?
SW: I’d start off by convincing you that life is life. That, in the absence of the God you despise so much, that all life is equivalent. The ant, the pig and the person. In the absence of God, we’re all the same, after all. Nature herself looks upon no beast with particular favor. This is easy enough to convince you of even now, in this moment of peace and tranquility, am I not right?
SW: So, if life is life, if there’s a choice to be made between your tribe and another, what’s the difference between them dying or you?
AR: None, I suppose.
SW: So, if it’s your tribe, including your family, you’ll vote for the extermination of the other, right? I mean, taking into account that it doesn’t matter. That all life is equivalent. Theirs is no different than the ant or pig…so no big deal if you sacrifice them over you, correct?
AR: Seems okay. But maybe choosing their extermination is selfish.
SW: It’s moral to protect your own. We don’t abandon or sacrifice children or family.
SW: You see what I’ve done here?
SW: How easily I’ve persuaded you away from a First Principle.
AR: First Principle?
SW: Yes. That all human life is absolutely sacred and deserving of absolute dignity. And that each human life is equivalent in all that.
Absolute Reason looks away, ashamed.
SW: See how little your precious reason did for you in adhering to the First Principle. And you mock the theists for their stupidity. For their irrationality.
AR: So how’s the theist fare, according to this test, Socrates….er…..Snidley?
SW: He sometimes fails. Like me exploiting your narcissistically conflated sense of reason, I simply exploit his emotions. But he at least puts up a better fight, with his pleas to God. Not like you, so weak willed and pliable in your reason. So I suggest to you, give the theist a bit more credit from here on out.
Absolute Reason walks away, butthurt and hating Socrates and the theists even more than before. And this being butthurt is an emotion, an emotion that will forever cloud his interpretation of his perceived enemies, Socrates and the theist. He will perceive them through the deceit of his own emotion, which is to say, irrationally. But he will never admit that. For his reason is far too precious to him, even though it’s fucked him over in guiding him into unsuitable jobs and fucked up relationships and given him a wholly distorted sense of his true self. But, nonetheless, he loves his reason as a reflection of himself. Cause that’s what you do when you’re dumb and weren’t born with any inclination toward God, I suppose. Or you have an utter distrust of emotion or maybe weren’t even born with much.
And from this, it sorta made sense, at least for a while, that the theists and/or conservatives are so staunch on something like abortion. For them, it’s seen as taking steps, through reason, away from the First Principle that all human life is absolutely sacred. Taking steps to dissociate ourselves from the First Principle.
Any fool knows that absolutes don’t work in the real world and that nothing’s perfect, even first principles. Take, for example, the First Principle of the Absolute Sanctity of Human Life, which comes into conflict with the principle of freedom….freedom of the mother to choose and, later in life, freedom to choose euthanasia for oneself.
With this, the atheist or secular humanist can point to the real life imperfections in the application of the First Principle of the Absolute Sanctity of Human Life. And he’s right. It’s imperfect, as anything will be. But he’ll use this imperfection as evidence for the idiocy of the stubborn theist who won’t budge in the face of imperfection in its application.
But the stubborn theists sees it as the atheist’s move to abstract himself from the First Principle based on reason. And the theists isn’t stupid enough to be moved by the argument against perfection, knowing and accepting that any principle, including freedom or an insistence on absolute reason as a guiding principle, has flaws, imperfections and drawbacks as well.
Ultimately, it may not be unlike Socrates/Snidley Whiplash persuading Absolute Reason away from the First Principle of the Sanctity of Human Life Over All Others. And the Equivalency of all Human Life. The theist sees the easy deception of Socrates’ reason (which is easily our own or some leader’s reason) and knows that, being as weak and stupid as his theism tells him he is, that the atheists is too, just smugly and egoistically and narcissistically less aware of it.
The theists, in his absolutism toward First Principle, wants its monument erected in granite, not clay. He wants it to stand permanently, unalterable by any storm or arguments against it. For he knows in times of chaos, sneaky Socrates can easily dissuade us from it; hence, his stubborn insistence on an absolute adherence to it in times of temperance as well as chaos and in spite of its conflicts with freedom and its sometimes non-pragmatic applications.
For Christmas, my sister gave me a sealed grinder of apple ale from the brewpub where she worked. I just opened it and, all these months later, it’s still delicious. I don’t wanna think about this shit anymore so now I’m gonna drink it.