The Bane of Our Existence
There is a characteristic of humanity that is not part of our better nature. It is, in fact, the bane of our existence. It brings with it repeated trouble through missed opportunities, misunderstandings and even outright conflict amongst people. It persists because it comes under the guise of our betterment while being more easily engaged in than its alternative.
What is this bane?
Our bane is that we are existentially observational, but not self-reflective.
What does that mean? Floating abstractions do not help us and ambiguous claims are equally worthless as definitions are needed. Our bane consists of two parts. The two segments are simple, but like most things simple their application is difficult.
Part one - existentially observational - simply refers to that we can see things outside of ourselves and can make value judgments upon what we see. This by itself does not refer to the validity of those judgments. But to be existentially observational is to experience the existence of something, whether it is something tangible or conceptual, a physical object or an action, matter or a concept, it is a thing experienced.
Part two - not self-reflective - simply refers to that though we may see something 'out there', we do not process that thing as something that equally may affect us - that based upon its being out there and we are not out there or our bias to it, the same principles observed affecting others or happening elsewhere do not necessarily apply to us. This may affect individuals or collectives, but are more easily embraced and solidified with more people adhering to it. Those with similar ideas bolster each other, keeping the thought process maintained through the shared, preferred vision.
First we'll look at the existentially observational; second we'll look at not being self-reflective. The initial examples whereby the existentially observational seem benign and obvious, making their true principles set forth to be overlooked.
Existentially Observational: a moral principle states that between two neutral parties (neutral here meaning there is no prior obligation/victimization between the parties), it is wrong to initiate force of one upon the other to take the victim's valuables, and this remains the same even if a third neutral party is involved to 'out vote' the third. We recognize that we do not have the right to force another to act according to our dictates, or to take from them without permission what they rightfully have earned. Equally, we recognize that someone else does not have the right to force us to do things against our will, or steal our justly acquired resources - even if we are the minority of a group. A stranger or neighbor cannot simply and properly, come up and take the food off your plate.
Not being self-reflective: as a principle, not being able to force another to give up their property or work against their will applies to all. However, we allow it - and even expect it nowadays - when it is decreed as part of a government program, when the State says give or obey. Through various programs being implemented in welfare (whether it is individual or corporate/poor or rich), for health coverage, loan guarantees, or just to 'level the playing field' and for 'income equality', each one is deemed acceptable forced participation or redistribution of one's resources (time, effort and money).
Existentially Observational: we not only recognize that we do not have the right to force someone to do something, but that we also do not have the right to use force to deny someone from pursuing their happiness. In the same manner, we do not recognize someone else having the legitimate right to deny us from pursuing our goals, how we may interact with one another as long as no one's rights are violated.
Not self-reflective: in a similar vein as the first point, it has come to be allowed, even expected that the government may regulate how we interact with one another or how we pursue happiness in our daily lives. If you want to sell your goods or services to those who have reviewed your work and deemed it worthy of patronage, it does not matter if you did not get an approved license/permission from the State on an expanding range of goods and services. If we go outside that permission, we can get fined, arrested or worse if we challenge it. After your own deliberation, if you want to consume something that may have some risks, whether it is drugs, alcohol, raw milk or anything else whereby two free parties may wish to exchange, if it is not approved then you are legally denied it.
Existentially Observational: if you wanted to defend yourself, you have the right to do so and take the precautions to assist that defense. In a similar manner, you cannot prevent someone else from defending themselves in a manner they see fit. Not self-reflective: again, following the aforementioned examples (there is a pattern), the State is expected to regulate who can have what type of firearm, where they can have it, and currently trying to regulate how much ammo it can carry.
Existentially Observational: killing is wrong contextually, for if someone was coming at you with a knife or weapon with the intent of killing you or a loved one and you used lethal force in return, then killing is justifiable. Murder, bringing with it its own context of not in response to the use of force is immoral. We recognize we cannot murder, and expect those who do commit murder to be prosecuted if they succeeded (even, preferably, if they did not succeed).
There is a process, a context outside of self-defense whereby killing is deemed possibly justifiable whether it is through law enforcement such as the issuing of a warrant for the arrest of murderer who may violently resist or through the declaration of war in response to a hostile nation. In each case it is not up to an individual's whim, but a formal process through the courts for the issuance of a warrant or through congress to declare war because of a threatening nation. In either case, there is to be an objective panel that is look at the evidence and decide whether it is sufficient for an arrest warrant to bring an individual who violated rights to justice, or the collective action of nation acting against another; it is not just whim of one being the guiding directive.
Not being self-reflective: those in the government, in particular the president (not just one but most since the last declaration of war by congress during WWII) have gone beyond the process of the objective system leading them to be judge, jury and executioner. Not just individually such as when Anwar al-Alwaki and his son Abdulrahman who were killed in a drone strike, but countless others for anything from 'police actions' to 'nation building' (e.g. Vietnam to Iraq), with all the killing and animosity it brings. Obama is just continuing the practice established, for congress, as well as 'we the people' have not asserted our roles, allowing one branch of the government to exceed its bounds.
In the same manner, we cannot detain someone or search someone, or be subject to someone else's whim to search us, which is existentially observational. Being self-reflective, we see that we do allow arbitrary searches/surveillance regularly upon us, as well as detentions without just cause based upon the whims of those in authority, whether it is The PATRIOT Act, a TSA search, DUI checkpoint, NSA spying, stop-and-frisk, border searches or the like.
Existentially observational: we recognize it is wrong to categorize every member of a group based upon a superficial characteristic (such as race, or socio-economic status) as equally guilty or innocent of the malevolence or beneficence of one member of 'that' group. We resent being grouped with and be judged as guilty for merely being in the same category as one who did commit a crime. Not being self-reflective: we allow and expect various authority figures to make such collectivistic condemnations, whether it is the State to punish or benefit the rich through a tax to 'pay their fair share', subsidy to 'help the economy' or bailout for being 'too big to fail', or any group against another not being a member of one's own class/religion.
An existentially observational furtherance with respect to religion, let us look back upon killing: a parent whose negligence led to their child dying is deemed a bad parent, or at least one who is guilty of negligence even if beforehand they were a good parent; a parent who murders their children is properly deemed not just as a bad parent, but as a murderer.
Not being self-reflective: at a secular level, tying back into the aforementioned of not allowing the whim of an individual elected leader be the one who decides when military action would be made (congress being the one who should declare war), we do not hold the president guilty of all the killing done as collateral damage trying to get targets not formally declared guilty or deserving attack. In
alone, hundreds of civilians, including more than one hundred children have
been killed in drone strikes. Pakistan
On a sacred level, Abraham is held up as model of devotion when he was preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac to God. He did not actually sacrifice Isaac, so some may say he is an invalid criticism even though he fully intended to sacrifice his son and at the last minute was stopped from murdering him. If a different example is needed, look no further than General Jephthah who did sacrifice his daughter to God, and was rewarded for doing so.
Regardless of whether it is Stalin or Pol Pot starving the people, God targeting the first born, or everyone outside of Noah's family - millions of children and others were murdered: it is human cleansing of a specific population or humanity entire . All of these are done in the name of the 'greater good' whether that is to be in the name of one's country or humanity.
Lastly, this brings us to our final (non-exhaustive) existentially observational point: a basis for moral upbringing should be part of education. Not self-reflective: what should that basis be? Most want to have some religious base. There is an objective moral base, but most interpret their individually-based cultural norm as the objective moral standard. As just mentioned, different religions have different standards and examples of proper moral behavior (how to treat women, gays, infidels, apostates and so on), so when one wants religious teaching in school should it be Christian?-Islamic?-Pagan?-Buddhist?
In addition to whatever the believer's overarching religious base may be, exactly what subset of that system should be taught, for each has divisions/schisms within them: each has members that have gone to war and killed members of other religions (e.g. Crusades or more recently the various Muslim/Christian clashes initiated by both sides, in Africa for cross-religious conflict and the inner conflicts such as in Islam with Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis and in Christianity with Catholicism and Protestantism - some included bloodshed).
A true moral system without bias is possible when religion is removed from it. It is equally foolish to teach a biased religious system in place of an objective moral system in the same way it is to religion as objective scientific fact in Creationism and to 'teach the controversy' that the universe was 'spoken' into existence, just as a stork delivers babies.
Belief systems can be examined at the Existentially Observational level; here they can be dissected. However, ontology is not affected by the epistemological development of the seeker. Regardless of whether one believes in an actual entity of God named Yahweh, Allah, Zeus, Krishna or states there is no God, that the individual (or collective) believes it does not have an effect upon the reality of whether or not that Deity (or deities) exists or not.
Likewise, whether one believes a Capitalist, Socialist, Communist, Fascist or Monarchial system is the proper system of government for the best society does not have an effect on the efficaciousness of those systems in being the best for what is it to be the 'best'?-how is it achieved?-who decided for whom?-how is the plan to be the best implemented? That is at a pragmatic level; how moral each system may or may not be is unaffected by how efficacious it may be.
The key question requiring exact definitions is: what is it to be 'the best?' The corollary questions include to whom?-and how? If we only look at pragmatic concerns and efficaciousness, then we can see that the pyramids still stand for us to see, and Jim Jones was beloved by his followers - at least by enough to take care of all the rest of them. Slavery or brainwashing, both may be effective at achieving an end, but both are immoral.
Cultures and beliefs are not equal and many have contrasting if not mutually exclusive belief systems; people have the right to believe in them and participate in them according to the self-direction that they choose as their option. Whether one is a believer in a Deity or is an Atheist, they each have the right to believe as they so do and as an extension allowing each other to follow their right or wrong conclusions. If one wants to free himself from his cultural chains, that is his right, just as it is to put those chains on if he actually wanted to do so, or keep them on after seeing one has the option to remove them. The key point of this is being responsible for one's actions and choices; this is the reason why psychiatrist Viktor Frankl advised having a matching Statue of Responsibility to be with the Statue of Liberty. You can choose, but own your choice; abdication is a choice.
How does a culture embrace science, logic and reason as contrasted to dogmatism and superstition, and most importantly, how is its reason-or-superstition view placed upon the members?-allow its members liberty and self-direction in general, or force obedience/obsequiousness? Whether one's god is a Deity or the State, the base of belief is the acceptance that this third party/Deity has the authorization and ability to do that which we cannot, such as 'morally' steal from, imprison and even kill us, while also overriding the nature of identity such as ignoring the law of supply-and-demand, ignoring moral laws regarding the initiation of force, and changing a stick to a snake.
We cannot properly force another individual to think and behave to live according to our values. That is the principle of tyranny we do not want forced upon us. Individually, people do not have this power; if one person acts without any backing, they can be ignored, spurned or retaliated against either individually or with backing. Individuals acting as a group form collectives. It takes a system, a collective to implement and force obedience. Where is this not being self-reflected?-when dealing with other cultures - interventionism, 'spreading democracy' or sharia. 'Our way' is to be imposed upon the other.
Collectives fall upon a continuum: based upon ideas on one side, and superficiality upon the other side. Collectives can be based on morally irrelevant issues such as sports and which team is liked; collectives can be based upon such life-and-death issues such as nationalism. The crucial distinction to be made is how does the collective 'think', for collectives do not think; individuals think. It is the difference between scientists congregating to review the results of a study and coming to an agreement based upon the evidence against any group who states that by the fact one was born with a certain tint of pigment in their skin or have a different religion, each needs to be grouped differently and have a different moral value - not just description, but proscription and alienation based upon superficiality. Any thinking mind can contribute to a scientific theory; only those matching the appropriate demographic may enter the equivalent of a kid's fort with the sign 'girls stay out!'
Collectivist thinking is not thinking; it is in fact the lack of thinking. It is the embracing of a non-thinking characteristic, and giving it prepotency over actual thought. Collectivistic thinking embraces a non-substantial norm, and that norm becomes dogma.
The bane of our existence emerges from two parts: 1) that humankind is a social animal and we create group dynamics based upon various criteria, such as who is in 'my' family and friends, our culture, who likes the same music, sports team, religion and so on. There are those who are more like us, and those who are not. Others may have beliefs or act in ways one's own group does not like. The further someone is from one, the more their negative aspects will be taken as a personal characteristic - an ingrown/inherent part of who they are instead of people like us growing in a difference social context, in order to justify feeling contempt for them.
2) the valid cognitive task of categorization, but taking it beyond where its proper limits should be. Categorization is a valid, pragmatic process when kept in its proper place: differentiating Red Delicious apples from Ambrosia and
those specific apples from other fruits (colloquialism of apples and oranges),
and furthermore from ripe or rotten.
Categorization is improper as mentioned when it gets to proscription and
allowances letting someone or something be treated differently, or having
different capabilities, based on the same superficial level of differentiating
between an Ambrosia and Fuji
When this differentiation is made, new standards are created and people act upon them with the necessary consequences that follow. When 9/11 happened and thousands were killed in a single day with multiple explosions, many were understandably upset, angry and wanted revenge and/or justice. We were attacked, our innocent people were killed and that is wrong so a response to such an attack is right - right in context.
But what has our response been? There has been no formal declaration of war by congress; what has been passed are actions in response to an undefined 'War on Terror' and its corresponding high death tool. In response to the killing of thousands on one day, we have killed thousands over the course of years with multiple attacks and multiple explosions.
It's not self-reflective to think that those who have loved ones killed 'over there' don't feel the same anguish as we do when our loved ones get killed; without a declared war with a State (though for the citizens that would not make too much of a difference), it is people living their daily lives getting killed (family, friends and countrymen) by another group. It is not self-reflective to see the religious symbols one believes in are real, but 'theirs' are foolish, such as to state that though it is nonsensical to have Athena come from Zeus' head, but it is acceptable to have a woman come from a man's rib. We recognize it is perjury to lie to the to government, 'bait and switch' fraud when done by a salesman, but it is 'just politics' when elected officials lie and misrepresent. We recognize that we cannot kill arbitrarily, but allow and even celebrate it if our God does it for us. And an important conclusion to this point: when we grant God or the State permission to act as such, we also grant its agents to act accordingly to enforce its ends.
Each is an example of going beyond the obvious, and into our bane.
There is an objective good that is beyond any cultural interpretation, for each interpretation attempts to find the objective good based upon temporal and spatial limitations. Shadows hint, but do not show the actuality of the subject. This objective standard exists whether or not we humans will be consistent about it. We need to keep categorization in its proper place, in addition to recognizing that principles do not change because of crossing a cultural border, by a deity's commandments, or by a majority wanting something and stating an elected (or appointed) official makes a promise.