Sunday, 12 November 2017

So Who Do You Want To Be?

I am writing a book about ethics. Below is the prologue to that book.

It is with courage and hopefulness that I set out to write this book. This is not because of my own situation nor because of the situation I regard the world as being in which, in my estimation, is perilous on both counts and largely ignored for fear of perhaps having to do something about them. No, this courage and hopefulness come from the task I have set myself which is no less than to think about this world of our existence ethically, to muse upon figures of ethical interest from its past and to apply ethical thinking to problems of its present. Why might this task encourage “courage and hopefulness” you might wonder? It is, I think, because in performing such a task one realises that we humans can do better, it engenders hope and possibility. Of course, some have remarked that hope is, of all our failings, by far the worst because it keeps us hanging on to a possible but as yet non-existent future when we should let go and deal with the consequential present. This may often be true but this does not make hope any less a human quality and we are all, in the end, human. This perhaps obvious yet, for me, also deeply profound truth, that we are human beings, is something that has fascinated me for many years along with the obvious question it inspires: what does it mean to be human? One answer might be “to be ethical”.

But this is not to predict or prejudge the outcomes of this book of which I, its writer, remain at this point unaware. In thinking about writing this book I have not decided on conclusions I want to arrive at nor, I think, do I know what they will be. Of course, this is not to suggest that I am currently a blank slate onto which will be written my ethical conclusions. Indeed, as I set out I am not even sure that I will come to any ethical conclusions nor that I should want to. We live today in times much more conducive to libertarian strands of thought in which being told what to do by others, much less by others with a presumed authority, is found unwelcome. In this situation one more person telling us what to do will be unlikely to be happily received. Its also true to say that my predisposition is not one of rules and regulations, of precepts and prohibitions, for, having a spiritual sense and background, I long ago learned the wisdom that for something to be true it must come from inside a person rather than being imposed from without. And so I set out with the view that ethics is not fundamentally about rules people should follow but about what kinds of people human beings should want to be.

I chose to divide the book into two unequal parts. The first is to deal with ethics historically through certain individuals or schools of thought. This is not because I hold to any notion of inspired individuals and, in pretty much every case I will make use of, the people more directly referred to are each set in their own social contexts. Diogenes came from a particular time in Greek thought, Jesus was a member of occupied Jewish society before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Richard Rorty had a socialist and democratic upbringing (in the political not party political sense) and so on. I do not regard any individuals I will refer to as islands nor do I think of people as islands in general which is probably important to recognise as I begin my journey. As to the reasons I have chosen Diogenes, Qoheleth (the writer of the Jewish book of the Tanakh of the same name), Jesus, the schools of Zen and Taoism, Friedrich Nietzsche, the musician, artist and writer John Cage, those we may refer to in a discussion of existentialism and the pragmatist philosopher and public intellectual Richard Rorty, these are threefold. First, they are all people or schools of thought I’ve had a prior interest in and so are not completely unknown to me. Second, they all have an ethical interest, both from the outside looking in and within themselves. Third, there is no third point. Rules are made to be broken.

Having engaged with historical figures and forms of thought I will then address four areas of contemporary cultural concern. These are sex (encompassing sexuality generally and its expression in pornography and sexwork specifically), migration and race (the two, in today’s world, seem very linked), gender (which is separate from sexuality for my purposes here and more to do with identity) and what I’ve termed “politics, utopia and direction” which is to be a discussing of politics but set within the context of what it is nominally for which is to take society as a whole to an imagined better future, if that doesn’t now seem hopelessly naive of me. In turning to discuss contemporary issues I will hope to provide some clarity on the issues involved, including setting out any relevant ethical questions and what is regarded as being ethically at stake in the issues concerned. It is hoped, as I set out to write my book and do the necessary research to enable me to write it, that the historical aspect of my study will lead to me having tools to be able to address the issues concerned in the second part. All of my historical examples do express opinions on how one should live and that is partly why they have been chosen. What that will amount to in the writing is, as yet, excitingly unknown.

One point to note here, as I try to be as self aware and as aware of my environment as possible, is that in contemporary ethical debate one common observation today is that people are very cognisant of who they are speaking to and what they are (and are not). This is to say, not with much favour, that today people often argue the person and not the argument. This is regrettable. However, the truth is that today “identity politics” is a strand of contemporary debate one must take note of. I regard it as concomitant with a very strong partiality that pervades contemporary discourse, one which is not interested in evidence, investigation or debate but merely in supporting a pre-chosen side or party or identity. Whilst this may be understandable, I do not regard it as very helpful or as very fertile ground for useful debate and I am myself, by disposition, not so inclined. One point that I imagine will come out through this book (for I hold it as true from the outset) is that any future ethical world will surely not be a matter of people just like you, whoever “you” happens to be. Thus, the fact that I am a white, male, (almost but not quite entirely) heterosexual, middle-aged Englishman might mean that, for some, these things that I am but cannot change are obstacles because I do not fit into their predetermined idea of what someone worth listening to looks like. All I can say in response is that any ethical insights I might have are made both because and in spite of who I am. And that if the future is thought to be “sticking to your own kind” then perhaps we are worse off than I thought.

Before I finish the prologue it is required that I share a word or two on why this book is called “An Anti-Conventional Ethics”. Here I can only admit that I betray some familiarity with what will be my historical reference points for they all, in their own ways, redefined the current debates of their times. It is a presupposition as I enter this ethical arena that human beings have too often over-complicated, denaturalized and falsified their lives which have, consequently, become ossified artifacts that have lost touch with the world around them, making of human life something false, illusory, artificial and nihilistic. So besides being “anti-conventional”, something which I hope, but cannot certainly predict, will be more naturalized at the end of the book, this is also to be an anti-anthropocentric ethics. You would surely have to be blind, either physically or intellectually, not to recognize that we are not the only things alive on this planet. As I write now I do not hold the view that, of all things, the humans are most special, holy, set apart. I am, at least for now, unashamedly a holist in many ways and so I will be looking for an ethical whole rather than for bits of ethics here and there, much less for the ethics of one isolated species. I hold to the view that no one should be happy whilst other living things are in pain and nor should your existence impinge on another’s… as far as this is possible.

To many religionists the point of religion is some kind of salvation. Religion, in its turn, can take many forms and I have mused before on how certain kinds of atheist or transhumanist seem very religious people to me. But what then is the ethicist, the one who seeks an ethically-infused future? Is this but a transformation of a salvatory scheme into something very of this world, perhaps even an abandoning of heaven in the belief that we can make our world paradise? I must admit that I am now not so naive that I can believe in human salvation anymore… in any sense. We deal with variations of imperfect and perfect isn’t, wasn’t and will never be in view. It is too much for human beings, and might even be immoral, to think of paradise when all around are people who needlessly suffer and die on a daily basis. It is rightly said that we get the world we allow but, in that case, we need to look in the mirror, collectively and individually, of the world we do allow. I began by saying that setting out upon this task had awoken me to the idea that we humans can do better. That is certainly true. But it will only happen if we want to be better people, to treat people in certain ways, to show who we are by being the people we can be and not the ones we settle for. We live in a world of action and its consequences and so, however we act and according to whatever law, there will never be anybody to blame but ourselves.

So who do you want to be?