Urgency to live

How should we live, considering that human history–as we’ve known it so far–may be coming to an end? If the ice caps melt, if the Amazon burns, if the world becomes a hot and desperate place we will lose the narrative of progress and security upon which our choices and values are based. What is the point of our commercial and cultural endeavours when this civilisation is so far out of balance?

Impermanence is nothing new, of course, but previously it was easier to turn a blind eye to the precariousness of life. We could believe the world would always be there, much as ever it was. There have always been parents, governments, schools, employers, and advertisers who are all too ready to give us a game to play to keep us busy. These forces have preserved their momentum but nothing matters in the way we once thought it did. What are the works of Shakespeare when crops fail? Who cares about an ambitious startup? Sporting successes? These things seem to be haemorrhaging relevance. It was ever thus – but now it becomes harder and harder to filter out the roar of emptiness.

To be aware of our finitude is a bittersweet thing. It makes urgency the currency of our times. Urgency for gratification, urgency to act, urgency to fix problems. However, there is also an urgency to live in the present. Whatever else we do, an urgency to show up for life whatever it contains may be the trait that ultimately decides the quality of our lives. This means being present and reflective. It means giving time and energy to things that matter, however we decide what they are. Perhaps this global crisis clarifies what is truly important in our finite lives. It teaches us that we can’t depend on a future that has always been uncertain and indifferent to our designs.

We keep playing the same old games, looking around to see how earnestly everyone else is playing. At the same time, it’s hard to know what’s next. Can we give up consumerism or will we continue destroying nature? Do we want economic growth or economic contentment? I find this very hard myself and frequently ruminate on what kind of device will make my life easier — usually when stressed out by those very gadgets.

So what do we really need as human beings? This is where the humanities can be restored to their rightful place after decades of devaluation. You could say that Shakespeare’s plays matter more than ever, especially to the individual mind and heart. Art has an inward effect. It can enrich our appreciation of life beyond the urge for sensory satisfaction and conspicuous consumption. It can make sense of our relationship to the world, to ourselves, and to each other. And art is often less destructive than other things we can engage with. The carbon footprint of reading a poem is smaller than many outward-bound activities but the personal reward over the long-term can be much greater. Art, literature, music, psychology: we may value these things more as a society in years to come, rather than seeing them as luxuries.

Meanwhile, in the 2,500 year old Buddhist tradition, we find the Pali word “samvega”, often translated as “spiritual urgency”. In this unpredictable world, meditators have always been chastened not to waste time but to practice meditation as though their life depended on it. To seize the moment. Ironically, I avoided my meditation bench to futz around with this piece and enjoy my favourite (unpeopled) view in the world, above. Even so, looking out at the horizon and finding myself actually where I was taught me a brief lesson in taking things as they come, and not trying to get anywhere but where I am. I was able to put down my ambitions and neuroses for a second and realise some very basic things about how I want to experience the world. It reminded me that even if the future is uncertain there is always this moment–only this moment–in which to live.

Thoughts on consciousness

If we believe that consciousness is the only ground of meaning and value (i.e. a universe without any conscious beings to experience it might as well not exist) then three conclusions may follow.

1) There would be nothing more worthwhile doing than enriching the conscious experience of self and others through activities like philosophy, meditation, the arts, counselling and cultivating our emotional lives, sciences, socialising and collaboration.

2) We might value neurologically diverse minds not only for their inherent worth as conscious beings but also perhaps as comparatively rare forms of consciousness.

3) Any meaning derived from the exploitation of conscious animals for food or sport would be at least partially undermined by violating this quality that makes all other value possible.

Finally, I’m not yet convinced about an AI singularity but (by these standards) bringing about a super-conscious intelligence may also be one of the most worthwhile things we could do. This providing it didn’t suffer inordinately or inflict greater net suffering on conscious life.

The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff is a powerful indictment of consumerism. In twenty minutes it paints a horrific picture of the planet-stripping supply chain that furnishes us with ephemeral gizmos. For instance, did you know that for every binload of recycling you put out, there are 70 bins of waste produced further up the chain?

Most astonishing is this quote from economist Victor Lebow in 1955, which seems to have been stated in seriousness:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

It’s clear that we have to find alternative ways of living and producing. As many have pointed out, it’s not like the current system is making us happier or healthier. Chatting with a friend in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, we were sure that change was in the air, that governments would take this opportunity to make decisive policy changes. How wrong we were. And yet, everywhere you find people who think the same way. Clearly, Lebow’s is an idea whose time has passed. The question is will change follow in the global economy, and how much too late?

Kant, and Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics

I’ve started Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics MOOC on Coursera. I’m probably most sympathetic to Kant’s thought, particularly his idea that we should…

Always recognise that human individuals* are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.
– Immanuel Kant

Singer gave two objections to this which he framed as being fairly mild problems for Kant, and a third, put forward by Derek Parfit, which is more serious.

The first objection gives the example of a postman employed to send your letter to a friend. Singer said that the postman was clearly a means to your end, yet this did not seem wrong. He was able to justify Kant here by saying that postman had elected to be a means, was being compensated for his work and so this was fine. I’m tempted to say that by electing to be a postman, the postman is fulfilling some kind of limited professional end for himself rather than passively and exclusively fulfilling other people’s ends.

The second objection went as follows: if on a cold and windy night you were to walk behind a crowd of people, placing them between yourself and the wind, you would be using them as a means without their consent and yet this seems harmless. I feel that this is a broad interpretation of the word ‘use’. There’s no harm or disadvantage to the crowd they would not experience otherwise. You are in fact using your own body to position yourself more than you are using their bodies to block the cold wind. In addition, the consequences are so small that there may barely be an ethical issue here. If we treat this as a life or death case it becomes more clear cut that Kant could be right. Think of penguins huddled together against winter storms: if those experiencing the warmth of the middle don’t take a turn on the outside periodically, many in the colony will die.

The third objection, put forward by Derek Parfit, is more troubling. I would say that it does not invalidate Kant’s idea, but possibly marks a point at which we need to shift our approach to a balancing act in order to do the least harm and, hopefully, the most good. Parfit imagines that you are inside a crumbling house with your child and an unconscious stranger named Black. The only way to save your child from the falling rubble is to use Black’s body as a means to block the rubble. You know that this will save your child and you know that it will also crush one of Black’s toes. Because of the balance between the potential good and the potential harm, it is fairly clear that most of us would sacrifice one of poor old Black’s toes. Singer pointed out that we can play around with the balance of harm and good until the right course of action becomes unclear. Not many of us could cheerfully break both of Black’s legs knowing that John Stuart Mill had given us the thumbs up. (Perhaps this is where the importance of intention comes in).

But imagine that Black regains consciousness. He is in agony with a crushed toe. He speaks enough of your language to make you aware that he has a child in another building who also needs to be saved. Unfortunately, you can’t fathom where the building is and Black is now unable to walk himself. Not only are things looking bad for this child but you’ve also crushed poor Black’s toe. Objectively, the net harm is now greater because you violated Kant’s principle.

From Black’s perspective, you have wronged him in the worst way. That probably wouldn’t change your actions, but we are left in the domain of consequentialism: your action will be right or wrong depending on just how bad the outcome is for Black.

To conclude, if you find yourself justifying using a person as a means to an end it seems to me that you’re already in a very extreme situation, and possibly a purely hypothetical one. Seek to do the best you hypothetically can.


*The discussion about how far we can use animals as a means to an end promises to be thought-provoking and very challenging.