Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Paradox of Moral Obligations

What is a person, fundamentally speaking? A person is a creative void facilitating a fractal tripling of natural forms in the symbolic and technological realms. The void in each person is functional, not physical: while we aren’t absolutely empty, we’re defined by our fictions, such as by folk conventions about our identity as supposedly unified, immaterial selves or spirits. In evolutionary terms, animal brains became more sophisticated over a long period until the cerebral cortex developed, becoming a brain within a brain that initiates a spiral of abstraction in mental space. The higher, primate brain is biologically discontinuous from the environment, by way of its isolation within the skull, but the cerebral cortex has autonomous and global, holistic access to the rest of the brain, providing the person the power to veto his or her emotional impulses or instinctive reactions, and to imagine strategic models of the environment. These models are pragmatic idealizations and thus, strictly speaking, fictive; in science, they’re called “ceteris paribus,” meaning that their generalizations pertain to the counterfactual scenario in which certain factors falling outside the model’s purview don’t interfere with the modeled regularity. That is, the model is about only a small part of the world that’s isolated by the imagination, even though in reality that modeled part is entangled with the whole of nature. Despite our having a substantive neurological identity, then, we’re effectively hollow as persons in that as we model ourselves as well, we retreat to evermore rarified reifications, including daydreams and theological speculations. While we seem to ourselves to be the universe’s starring attractions, we’re vacuous in our existential homelessness and chameleonic flexibility We can survive virtually anywhere because we’re so lacking in a fixed identity and are so detached from nature that we’ve devised an objective stance towards the outer world, which has empowered us with technological applications of our models that have reshaped the environment to our benefit.

Whereas an animal is like a robot in lacking much hidden, mental depth, a person’s mind is master of the symbolic niche. That mind and niche are physically nowhere, as such, and so we’re the proverbial ghosts in the machine. We’re cognitively detached from stimuli and from our animal side, and so we’re liable to feel alienated and forlorn, oppressed by our understanding that the world that’s given rise to such freaks as us must be godless and out-of-whack. We boast of our spiritual depths, making esoteric religious pronouncements such as that the ultimate material (Brahman) and Self (Atman) are one, that matter and mind are aspects of the same thing, that our personal identities are masks worn by ultimate reality and that each of us, therefore, is fully God. And we war over the contradictions between our religious fictions, not willing to face the truth that was put best and most recently by the so-called existential philosophers and psychologists. At most, matter and mind are one in that what we usually think of as mind is entirely imaginary, and so the former cancels out the latter; the fictitious mind isn’t nothing at all, mind you, but it’s an embarrassing lie, an instrument used by greater forces to marshal our skills for the next round of mass extinctions and evolutionary transcendence. And at best we’re divine in that we’re godlike tools for transducing natural stimuli into symbolic representations and for imposing the products of those idealizations onto nature in the forms of our artifacts. Far from making us worthy of being revered, our divinity is likewise an indignity: our omniscience and omnipotence depend on our ability to form Voltron-like megamachines, that is, social collectives or mass minds which are inevitably oppressive in their hierarchical composition. Thus, our personal capacity for enlightenment is typically shortchanged, as a minority takes command and sets about oppressing and infantilizing the masses; the rulers become especially godlike, corrupting themselves in the process, while the bovine herd idles, numbing itself with bestial diversions.

The Moral Conundrum for the Enlightened Few

If this is our existential reality or if some such account is, at least, the most compelling philosophical story about the meaning of our species, we face an ethical conundrum. The enlightened person must be poised between feeling compassion and disgust for us all. On the one hand, we have every reason to pity ourselves and others, since we’re all trapped as playthings of monstrous (unguided but creative) natural forces and elements, and our vaunted spirituality is ironically a form of profound emptiness (fictitiousness). There is no substantial unifying self, but only a mammalian brain that dreams it’s a god, which fiction ironically brings divinity into functional being, as evidenced by the results of our artistic imagination, scientific objectification, and technological industry. So we’re each more or less deluded and lost. Shouldn’t we therefore help each other find ourselves? Wouldn’t nobility consist in the humility needed to recognize that since we’re all victims of the same existential grievances, we all need help, and vanity must be due just to a crass sort of narrow-mindedness? The ethical task would seem obvious: to elevate each other however we can, not putting ourselves before others, but recognizing the universality of our struggles. 

And yet precisely because of the absurdity of our hollowness and of the entire sham of human history in which shameful delusions and neuroses have been so decisive, an enlightened person should lack the motivation to aid anyone, including herself. On the contrary, her empathy should be impeded by her disgust with the horrific implications of our existential condition. She may pity the fellow traveller who needs help, but she could just as easily take pleasure in watching that person suffer as she muses that the other is being inadvertently punished for that person’s inevitable faults. We deserve help not because we’re finite and fallible, but because we’re perverse; we abuse ourselves and flee from fulfilling our potential, and that willfulness makes us worthy of moral support. By contrast, animals may on occasion be pitifully weak or wrongheaded, but because they’re incapable of evil, helping an animal can be an act of charity but not a moral intervention. The ethical imperative begins with the sense that we should cheer for the underdog and should feel revolted when the weaker individual is bullied, as well as exalted when the weaker one triumphs against all odds. But a fully moral act also converts evil into some good. The underdog mustn’t be just physically inferior; instead, that weakness should be the source of the underdog’s squalor, and the weaker one’s degradations must stand out as signs of the grotesque impersonality at the root of all things. Otherwise, the underdog could merely use assistance (like any animal), but there would be no moral demand to offer any, because there would be no cosmic crime to be avenged, no grand absurdity to whitewash with an ultimately futile exercise of virtue. The spilt blood that cries out for vengeance must appall as a sign that the universe is a headless behemoth; otherwise, the sight of that blood would compel us merely to clean it up on instrumental grounds. But just because indignities are so appalling when understood by an enlightened person in their existential context, they provoke horror and disgust as easily as they do empathy and compassion.

Is it true, though, that compassion has moral status only when shown towards a faulty individual who’s in need of assistance? Suppose you encounter a wholly innocent person who’s made wrongly to suffer. Notice that this isn’t as easy to imagine as you might think. Take the biblical character of Job, for example. Job is supposed to be a righteous man who’s done nothing to earn the pains that God inflicts on him due to his wager with the angel Satan. But if Job’s righteousness depends on his faith in God, Job loses his status as a guilt-free individual since Job would thereby have to be gullible, ignorant, and likely tribal in his thinking. If Job loves his particular god, he would likely condemn outsiders and even kill them should they desecrate the holy sites of Job’s religion. The fact is that it’s not easy to imagine a perfectly innocent mortal. Even an infant or a child is nauseatingly self-obsessed. Still, a child is comparatively innocent, so suppose you encounter a child in peril and empathy compels you to save the child. What would make this action morally admirable? I contend that the moral status is due to the act’s heroism: saving the child undoes an outrage, but this outrage consists in the world’s exploitation of the child’s weakness. Innocence, in this case, is itself a kind of fault or deficit: the child can’t fend for itself, is easily overpowered, and is thus liable to suffer unless the child is protected by an adult.

So once again, empathy for a child’s plight counts as morally praiseworthy because the heroic act is in response to an offense against our sense of dignity. First there’s nature’s mindlessness which wreaks all manner of absurd havoc, but there’s also our helplessness—in the case of relatively innocent individuals such as children—or our set of vices which keeps us from fulfilling our potential, including Job’s vice of likely being too religious. The point is it’s not the unfairness of some suffering that makes its elimination a moral obligation. The unfairness is never absolute, because none of us is perfectly innocent; we’re tarnished just by being natural animals. Perfect innocence, that is, an admirable rather than a disappointing or revolting character entails not just a record of selflessness, but omnipotence so that nature at large could never get the better of such an individual. The purely innocent person, then, would be a god, which is another way of saying that mortality is indeed a sort of original sin. We feel obligated to aid those who don’t deserve the suffering they receive, because the whole sordid situation is an affront to good taste; both the more guilty party, namely nature’s monstrousness or the aggressor’s vice, as well as the victim’s helplessness or error in judgment that contributes to the victim’s predicament are despicable and call out to be rectified. Morality is an act of creative destruction: we erase the offense, if only to preserve our sense of dignity and to be able to live with ourselves, and we replace the offense with a less outrageous state of affairs.

Resolving the Paradox

Notice how Pauline Christian morality handles the conflict between the need to be disgusted by the world and the moral calling of compassion to help others. On the one hand, we’re revolting in God’s eyes, because of original sin, which is our “fallenness,” our tendency to be corrupted. On the other, we receive mercy rather than destruction by God’s “grace,” as a gratuitous, undeserving gift of God’s sacrifice. Thus, God’s hatred of sin is appeased by the torture of the messiah, while his pity for us, owing to our deplorable condition, manifests in that same displacement of his wrath. God accepts the penalty for our wickedness, while we receive the blessings; Jesus didn’t deserve that punishment and we don’t deserve salvation from hell, but we all receive those judgments nonetheless, and the absurdity of Jesus’s punishment must be meant to cancel out that of our gift of salvation. The conflict between the interests in justice and in forgiveness—which originates in the fact that morally-charged compassion is shown only to the unworthy, not to the innocent—isn’t resolved in Christianity but is only concealed by a Jesuitical shell game.

Secular, so-called rational morality doesn’t fare better, since reason and objectified facts are blind to all values, including both the moral imperative to strive for a highest good, and the aesthetic sense that our existential condition is appalling. Thus, reason-based morality doesn’t get off the ground and likewise disguises its deficit with scientistic rhetoric that compels consent by reminding us how admirable are the other fruits of reason. Morality is supposed to be just one more technical problem to solve by a feat of social engineering. We want pleasure rather than pain, and so, in theory, perfected know-how can make us happy under all circumstances. This may be true as far as it goes, but it’s not morality. We may actually want pleasure, but that doesn’t mean we ought to have that preference; on the contrary, we may deserve to suffer regardless of our genetically-programmed inclinations. Also, notice that a world in which everyone is physically happy is consistent with that world being dystopian, as in 1984 or Brave New World.

What, then, tips the scales so that either disgust or compassion should win out? Can the conflict be resolved? The real mystery is why pity and empathy should have become central to morality. The psychologically prior reaction is the negative one of being revolted by our torments. Of course, empathy has an evolutionary origin, but its cause in being part of some lasting fitness won’t suffice for any moral worth. Our species is fundamentally appalling, and that sense is reinforced as we learn more about ourselves and our history. The sadist who exploits someone’s weakness isn’t evil, then, in spurning the option to pity that victim instead. Sadism is neither moral nor immoral, but is aesthetically grounded in distaste for cowardice, duplicity, or other such common faults; the sadist punishes others for their imperfections. But the moral impulse somehow transcends this natural urge to loath that which can rightly be loathed. Instead of merely feeling contempt for us all, based on knowledge of our myriad wrongdoings, a certain type of person will suffer from a different reaction; she’ll feel a pang of worry on other people’s behalf, identifying herself with others and choosing to put them before her even to the point of risking her life in coming to their aid.

Empathy is likely premised on a utopian dream that our deplorable condition will be overcome once and for all, that our suffering is fated to end (in the afterlife or at the end of time) or at least that historical progress is possible if we learn to envision our equality in suffering. This hope derives from the Zoroastrian myth that elaborated on the primary fiction of a substantive, unified self. That self is immaterial and thus vacuous, as is the utopian future in which absolute good conquers evil. Again, these fictions take on a life of their own, as it were, becoming socially operative as noble lies that motivate us to act as though the lies were profound revelations. We help others because we believe compassion is for the greater good, and we do improve each other’s lives in the process, but once again progress as an increase in happiness isn’t yet morally relevant. Without suffering, there would be no morality since morality makes sense only on the condition of our wretchedness. The more we support each other and the less we suffer, the less we can speak properly of whether we’ve gotten what we deserve or of whether we ought to continue in that vein. Morality is about the peculiar choice to transcend evil by converting it into good. Once the conversion is complete, there’s no longer any meaning of whether the result ought to be so, since it then simply is or has been made so. That is, there’s no longer any horror to banish. This is why heaven is as terrifying as hell, since eternity in either case is inhuman. What’s human is the creativity that requires time, inner emptiness, and alienation to bring to fruition a project that transcends some commonplace, despicable reality.

When we suffer by identifying with someone else’s misery, we act anti-naturally. Although we could despise that victim for being a plaything of nature, fated to die like anyone else for no satisfying reason, we find we can elevate the circumstances by acting heroically to blot out the absurdity that’s finally responsible. We rescue the victim from some misfortune, because we imagine we all have special worth as autonomous, spiritual beings. Metaphysically, we’re not supernatural, but when based on the enlightened horror caused by knowledge of what we all are, empathy and compassion are nevertheless anomalous. We make ourselves godlike when we oppose chaos and mindlessness, like the biblical god who supposedly hovered over the face of the deep before creating the universe. We’re godlike also when we struggle to bring into being a world that subsists only in our imagination and in the fictions that express our creative vision. Morality is the wonder of a heroic revolt against a repugnant natural order, when the tide of pointless misery is temporarily turned back and we erect lighthouses of virtue with our selfless deeds.


  1. Excellent video.

  2. I've read your rants for years Ben, and I find great solace from them. I wanted to ask if you subscribe to a specific political ideology. I doubt you do, because of your cynicism about humans generally (and I share your misgivings), but I just thought it would be interesting to see where your political sympathies lie. I know you despise capitalism for it's cosmic cliches. Where do you stand on the alternatives? Apologies if you've answered this question many times before.

    1. Thanks for reading, Anon. I've criticized both liberalism and conservatism on this blog. I'm liberal on some issues and conservative on others. What's sacred to me is the potential for personal autonomy which leads to enlightenment and to real transcendence (to anti-natural, "satanic" creation of artificial worlds, to the slaying of the dragon of nature). This is a quasi-Gnostic starting point, so I value individual choice as long as it's philosophically informed.

      So on social issues like abortion or gay rights, I respect the right to choose. However, the proof that these personal choices are made in an enlightened and thus respectable way is that the individual should be humbled by the existential stakes rather than childishly proud of her subversion of nature, as in liberal identity politics. I'm opposed to the political correctness of postmodern liberalism, and to the scientism implicit in classic liberalism (to the view that reason can tell us how we should live).

      I side with conservatives on their pessimism about human nature, their valuing of honour, and the aesthetic (disgust) basis of their morality. But of course I reject the postmodern condition of current American and European conservatism as a disgraceful sideshow and smokescreen for their plutocratic deep states.

      I could go on and on, but the political view I'm trying to work out transcends the liberalism/conservatism dichotomy. I try to reduce these divisions to the animal dynamics. Thus, I prefer to talk about ethological classes of alphas, betas, and omegas, and of power relationships between the inevitably-corrupt, psychopathic deities who tend to rule our dominance hierarchies; the flocks of spiritually-unaware beta sheep who follow the psychotic gods and lead the megamachines to ruin; and the alienated outsiders who are enlightened but impotent.

      If you'd like a more specific answer, perhaps you could raise a particular political or economic issue, and I could ask my daemon what I should say about it. ;)

    2. If we confine ourselves to the root meaning of the conservative/liberal divide, the conservative would be skeptical of social change and so would cling to tradition for security, whereas the liberal would be optimistic and even iconoclastic, welcoming progress in the name of establishing personal liberties.

      This distinction is quaint in the contemporary political context. In any case, descriptively I'd say that conservatism in that sense is a smokescreen, since the traditions themselves are ideologies in something like the Marxist respect, except that the basic structures the dogmas rationalize aren't just economic but biological (class divisions between haves and have-nots). Even the most liberal, progressive, supposedly radical societies such as Soviet Russia, communist China, or democratic US devolve into oligarchies with class divisions that function like those between alphas, betas, and omegas throughout the animal kingdom. Kings, dictators or plutocrats emerge because power must be centralized for the sake of managing any sufficiently large social group. This is true in politics, business, and even the arts (e.g. a director on a movie set).

      It's not as if antisocial chaos would be a return to a Hobbesian state of nature, since our animality is preserved even in our most complex civilizations. That's my point: a culture begins as an anti-natural attempt at transcending the mammalian life cycle, but we lose our nerve, become corrupted, forget our guiding ideals (as Spengler said), and so we let our animal instincts take over. For example, in the US the beta class (what Thomas Frank calls the class of neoliberal professionals) becomes preoccupied with entertainment and so unconsciously welcomes the Trump regime rather than voting en masse for Hillary Clinton. Politics is a game for the average Western consumer, since her mindset is shaped by the postindustrial environment (e.g. by the internet and communications technologies which lower attention spans and intellectual standards so that we lose interest even in the difference between fact and fiction).

      Prescriptively, I see advantages and disadvantages to both the state of nature (naked or covert dominance hierarchies, disguised as transcendent, artificial social orders) and to genuinely radical societies. I see no reason to be optimistic about our chance of sustaining a non-mammalian (i.e. progressive) way of life, unless we turn ourselves into posthumans at the biological level.

      The fundamental question is whether society should be hierarchical or devoid of class divisions. The liberal says that although some social differences may be natural (innate), we should seek to give everyone equal opportunities. The conservative (who is a naturalist, not a religious lunatic, regardless of the rhetoric or lack of self-awareness) says that going against nature in that respect prevents the rise of individual greatness. This was Nietzsche's view of the "order of rank."

      Unfortunately, the greatness in question is often short-lived. Billionaires or dictators who climb to the top of a "free" society that allows hierarchies to emerge tend to become mentally subhuman as their power status corrupts their character. Trump is currently the most glaring example, since his mind is childlike rather than impressive or befitting his godlike lifestyle. Philanthropists can leave behind great organizations, but the leaders are often lucky and awarded with the success of their underlings.

      So the next question is how a hierarchy should be structured: who should be at the top? It doesn't seem to matter, since the leader tends to be corrupted by the access to centralized power. The differences are cosmetic (e.g. the difference between the George W. Bush and Obama regimes).

    3. Hi Ben, same Anon here. Thanks for the response. I would just like to ask one more question: would you define yourself as a misanthrope? Or is that too reductionist a term? I find myself torn on this issue.

    4. I think the question of misanthropy is about character and mood, not principles, and so misanthropy would come and go as a person's feelings change. As a social outsider in several ways, I am indeed appalled at what most people do.

      An outsider's negative feelings could be attributed to bitterness for having been marginalized, or to the objectivity of someone who doesn't have to protect conventions, because he's not part of the group. I suspect such negative feelings are typically a mix of both bitterness and horror/angst. When we see how things are, without the benefit of feeling at home in a culture, because we're alienated for one reason or another, we're not likely to admire what we observe, especially when the world generally is fundamentally absurd.

      There are always reasons to be disgusted by any human phenomenon. The only question is whether an outsider's capacity for disgust is bottomless. Presumably, it can't be, so the horror that's appropriate when contemplating, say, political, religious, or economic states of affairs must come and go, as the outsider tires of being in a foul mood and resorts to comedy or to some neutral pastime to keep his spirits up.

      In general, do I loathe people? No, because my capacity for contempt is limited. However, I suspect that if you look closely enough, you'll find that everyone is so vile that if your stomach for disgust were infinitely large, you would always find yourself repulsed by what people are and do.

      Still, there's more to people than our cliches and animality. There's also our godlike autonomy and creative power. So I think an existentially authentic witness of social practices should fluctuate between feeling disgust and awe.

    5. Thanks for your response, Ben. "Disgust and awe"--I think that would make a good band name (not to belittle your point). Cheers.