Oh, this one makes my heart hurt, not because it’s so shocking, but because it’s so easily believable. The truth is, I (and I think many other people) have trained myself to ignore. Since moving to New York I’ve taught myself here to say, “Not my problem,” as a coping mechanism. It’s not hard to imagine people seeing a homeless man lying in the sidewalk and simply assuming he was passed out or sleeping. A little moral judgment could have popped up to bolster their inaction. “Probably drunk. Junkie. That’s pathetic. Might be crazy, or dangerous.” or even the libertine “Guy wants to lay in the sidewalk it’s his business.”
There’s simply so much suffering in this city I feel like I’d die if I tried to engage with every destitute mother and child, every sad story, hard luck case, and stray cat. When I first moved here, I gave money to every homeless person asking. I stopped and engaged, sat down and talked, and generally tried to be as generous as my meager resources allowed. Over the years, though, I got busier, and less patient, and in time I was saying, “Sorry brother,” instead of handing over a dollar, or just avoiding eye contact altogether.
Twice, I have been walking down the street and encountered homeless men lying on the sidewalk. Both times, I stopped and engaged with them, and they were both just sleeping. Those instances were years ago though, who knows, now, if I were late for work or running to meet a friend, if I would muster as much compassion. I’d like to think so, but it would be arrogant to declare with certainty that I’d do the right thing. This change in myself troubles me. I do “good” work at my job. I’m helping, in a tiny way, to improve the educational system, but I often think I’m slipping into complacency these days. I’m paid better than ever before in my life, I have more free time, and yet I feel I’m at a nadir of selfless action. I worry I’m degrading into an armchair radical. “I read the New Yorker and wring my hands over the state of the world. In discussions with friends, I advocate for anarchism with loose unsophisticated arguments. I try to include the work of women and minorities into my powerpoint presentations. I look poor folks in the eyes, sometimes, when I shake my head in response to their outstretched hands.”
I don’t mean to make this some public self-flagellation though. I’m really just trying to communicate that while the NY Post may take an indignant, morally outraged tone about New Yorkers ignoring a dying man, I’m pretty sure the callous folks in that security video could have been any of us. I mean, I actually give a shit about social justice issues, I volunteered at a homeless shelter and I have friends who are or were homeless, and I could have been one of those people making a bad snap decision in a crucial moment. The scale of suffering we’re blasted with every day is just so immense that I think it’s impossible not to block out some of it. I bet some of the people in that video gave money to Haiti, have chaperoned middle school field trips, and help with canned food drives. We’re just doing the damn best we can every instant of every day. We’re also constantly fucking up, making the wrong choices, and unfortunately when that happens people suffer. We’re all spiked armor and soft underbellies and sometimes children get to nestle in our laps and sometimes we’re careless with the swing of an arm and someone loses an eye. Life, it’s messy. It’s a mess.
I’m sorry as hell for Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax. I’m sure he was a good guy, he did a good thing, and in the end he died for no good reason. I wish I had some deep ancient wisdom that could make sense of such tragedies, but I don’t. In this world, shit just happens over and and over. The best we can do is be present in every moment. Actually see the man on the sidewalk instead of merely seeing an archetypical drunk or a memory of another scene encountered once before. That’s all I’m trying to do.
By age 19 I had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Voltaire’s Bastards. With those two books my faith in science and reason was permanently shattered. Zen and the Art explained how the core tenant of science, that it’s possible to develop a number of hypotheses and test them to see which is true is inherently flawed. Hypothesis development is a creative process affected by personal biases, and so it’s impossible to develop a finite set of neutral hypothesizes to evaluate. One’s results will always be affected by where one started, and so the process of scientific inquiry, while useful and practical, is in no way value-neutral or capable of arriving at Truth.
Voltaire’s Bastards exposed how the men of reason who run our society—from the rational bureaucrats to the economists, politicians, and academics, are more dedicated to rational structures than to societal good. Reason can justify atrocity as easily as it can uphold egalitarianism. The Tuskegee Experiments were rational to those in charge and the Japanese hunt whales under the guise of scientific enterprise.
So, when I saw the title of Sam Harris’s TED talk, “Science can answer moral questions” I was skeptical, to say the least. Interested, though, I tried to be impartial and hear out his arguments. Within minutes of beginning his speech, Harris revealed his bias that Western rational thinking is “normal.” He said that “we” don’t feel compassion for rocks or ants because we don’t perceive them as suffering, and while it’s possible that further scientific evidence could upend these beliefs, for now it’s not a concern. But if you practice Shinto, you do believe rocks have spirits and if you’re a Jain, you don’t eat potatoes because they’re so full of life it’s a sin to be so glutinous.
To this criticism, Harris would perhaps reply that there is no scientific evidence that rocks or ants have a spirit or suffer. I would say, though, that science is a process of enlarging and enriching context, and there was a time when scientists failed to see the spark of intelligence in dolphins or chimps or people with brown skin. Just because science has not caught up with reality does not mean that reality doesn’t exist.
I am, perhaps, picking nits here though, because the real thrust of Harris’s argument is that regardless of its ideological underpinnings, morality is meant to guide humans towards a healthy, happy existence and through science we’ve pretty well figured out what constitutes healthy human development. Ergo, if science can determine the proper path to achieve the aims of morality, science can be used to evaluate moral decisions.
As an example, he points to all the states in the US that still allow corporeal punishment in the classroom because of Biblical justification. According to the Bible, it is deemed moral (i.e. will guide the victim to a better life) to beat children into submission. Through psychological research, however, we know that beating children is not good for them, and in fact can often be very bad for them. This seems like a clear case in which science can answer a moral question: Is it right to beat disobedient children? Science says, “No.”
It’s a good point, and it was around this point in his talk that I started softening to his thesis. He used the burka argument/the general mistreatment of women in fundamentalist cultures and I found these tough to argue against too. The fact is, I feel really conflicted about this issue. I’m not a moral relativist. I think genocide is bad. Hitting kids is bad. Rapists should be punished. And while I could listen to Harris’s examples, pull out my Zen handbook and ask with a half smile, “Who can say what is good and bad?” I just wasn’t feeling it.
I can ask that question with minor injustices in my life. I can contemplate the big picture and think that my relationship break-ups and broken bones are neither good nor bad (or both) I’m simply unable to do that with the glaring examples of injustice and exploitation that plague the world. Fuck zen, it’s just shitty for humans to be treated like second-class citizens, sold into slavery, forced to be child soldiers, or made to live in burlap sacks under threat of death. It’s just shitty, and I agree Sam, humanity should get on the same page about that.
The opposite of our morally balkanized, conflicted world, though, is just as scary to me. A world of scientifically proven morality is a world drunk on hubris. Who’s to say science isn’t lagging behind the Jane’s and potatoes are worthy of protection as valid creatures capable of love, suffering, and joy? Or even if they’re not, who’s to say that we’re applying the right criteria to determine what is and is not worthy of protection? To return to the Tuskegee experiments, or even earlier, slavery, it was rationally understood that black people were not human. Reason prevented no suffering there, and indeed promoted and justified it. More recently, James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA and a seemingly reasonable man of science, advocated eugenics and pronounced that the entire population of Africa is less intelligent than other peoples of the world.
Now, Harris would maybe counter that while science makes mistakes, it is more capable of admitting them and correcting than religion is, and that may be true. But I think its truth is contingent upon science existing in an ecology of belief systems. Enthroned, I think science could be just as tyrannical as any theocracy. Harris, I think, has an idealized idea of science, independent of human ambitions and immune to manipulation. In reality, and this is the point of Voltaire’s Bastards, reason is corrupted to the desires of those who claim to be reasonable. Rational thinking isn’t some natural phenomenon. It’s not like gravity. It’s a tool developed by humans to solve specific problems. Like any tool it can be used and abused.
I don’t want to hate on Harris though. You can see in his talk that he’s genuinely upset by exploitation. I think it kind of pisses him off in this deep way that I can relate too. He also has an interesting article on killing Buddhism that shows he respects many of the ideas communicated by Buddhism, even if he scoffs at the mysticism. That scoffing though is where I part with him.
The world is just so much bigger that science. Science is great but it’s always playing catch up, and you have to understand that other cultures and practices have reached places science hasn’t yet. Chinese medicine works even though it’s a completely parallel universe from Western medicine. The whole point of a zen koan is that it’s non-rational and great insight can come from wrestling with the non-rational. And Hinduism. I mean, it makes no fucking sense if you look at it superficially, but look closer and it’s brilliant. Just read this thing by Rah’s dad, he’s far more eloquent than I am.
Anyway, I should wrap this up, so in conclusion: I appreciate Harris’s efforts because the world is in some rough shape now, but I fear the scientific dictatorship as much as I fear the clash of theocracies. In the end I think it comes down to the Golden Rule. Unless the whole world is full of masochists, I think “do unto others…” would take care of things fine. It’s just easier said than done.
I read Atlas Shrugged in high school and found that not only is objectivism a loathsome, elitist philosophy, Ayn rand is a terrible novelist who uses her characters merely as storm drains belching her asinine ideas with neither emotion nor humanity. I actually agree with some conservatives and libertarians (small government, local autonomy, personal liberty etc.) but their attachment to Ayn Rand just baffles me. She’s a viscous harpe and her philosophy simply runs counter to everything that’s good and true about human beings and society. Thank you Exiled, this article explains a lot.
via: The Exiled
There’s something deeply unsettling about living in a country where millions of people froth at the mouth at the idea of giving health care to the tens of millions of Americans who don’t have it, or who take pleasure at the thought of privatizing and slashing bedrock social programs like Social Security or Medicare. It might not be as hard to stomach if other Western countries also had a large, vocal chunk of the population who thought like this, but the US is seemingly the only place where right-wing elites can openly share their distaste for the working poor. Where do they find their philosophical justification for this kind of attitude?
It turns out, you can trace much of this thinking back to Ayn Rand, a popular cult-philosopher who plays Charlie to the American right-wing’s Manson Family. Read on and you’ll see why.
One reason why most countries don’t find the time to embrace her thinking is that Ayn Rand is a textbook sociopath. Literally a sociopath: Ayn Rand, in her notebooks, worshiped a notorious serial murderer-dismemberer, and used this killer as an early model for the type of “ideal man” that Rand promoted in her more famous books — ideas which were later picked up on and put into play by major right-wing figures of the past half decade, including the key architects of America’s most recent economic catastrophe — former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan and SEC Commissioner Chris Cox — along with other notable right-wing Republicans such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Rush Limbaugh, and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.