Your web-browser is very outdated, and as such, this website may not display properly. Please consider upgrading to a modern, faster and more secure browser. Click here to do so.
Most importantly we must decide what “human” is. I believe humanity to be the productive relationships of consciousness, compassion, and drive. All of our other qualities are shared widely throughout the animal kingdom.
Second to defining humanity, we must simplify “instinct.” Outside the realm of banal physical instinct, like hunger or sexual drive, is fear. Fear is likely the most commonly shared trait throughout that same, aforementioned kingdom of instinctive beings.
So how is it, then, that our instinctive fear makes us less human? The answer is that fear does what it always has done and always will do; it discourages us. Camus and Sartre call for a state of constant revolt in order to survive as fully human. What they both so nobly call for revolt against is your situation, the events the happen outside of your control. That struggle, as meaningless as it may seem in the works, is only meaningless without mankind’s interaction through the decisions of the individual. We create meaning and purpose for ourselves, and that is something that is easy to fear at first glance.
Our instincts, quite obviously, drive us to a determined existence. We can choose to keep our instincts at bay, as humanity has proven time and time again, and we can also let them conquer us. While I urged earlier the ignoring of banal instincts, it is still important to recognize that instinctive fear behaves much like unquenchable thirst. Fear is, it seems, basically physical. It is hard-wired and handed down through generations, often against our will.
Fear, as inherited, is this:
“I long to take risks, but the potential consequences would simply be just too much.”
Like I said earlier, fear discourages. Luckily, though, it is forever under your control. That is an absolute truth. That indented sentence makes “consequences” sound quite awful, but why else would we do anything if it weren’t for consequences? Sure, the results of our actions can be bad, but bad situations have never stopped us. In fact, looking back throughout history, bad times tend to mark the myriad births of improved-upon ideas.
Any determinist would gag at me saying, “we choose our lives to be determined in the case that they, in fact, are,” but instead I suggest that our lives are determined up until the point that we decide to consciously and compassionately involve ourselves in the expansive network of active, human existence.
There is a wide spectrum of finger-pointing determinists trying desperately to source “why” we do what we do and they’ll likely never give up. Many of us in this room have likely studied tragedies in the past and the stories of Macbeth or Oedipus the King provide ripe material for the endless debate of freedom versus imprisonment. Likely, the tragedies’ main characters could parallel the blindfolded and bound prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Always free to leave, simply never able to see their way out, even if that way lay behind the delicate façade of insanity.
Jean Anouilh’s rendition of the classic play Antigone, had the line, “Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless.” Personally, I attribute tragedy to one who never chooses to be free, and while significantly different from the obviously guilty of the theatric masterpieces, one who never chooses to be free is delivered the same, unproductive sympathy that the readers of the ancient plays hand out to the long-gone characters. That line defining tragedy inspired me to write a song that juxtaposes defiance and subjection to the objective and abstruse will of fear.
Tragedy is clean, it is restful
It’s flawless and it’s vengeful
In ways I see right through it
When bad things they pass, then you’ll see a sun
Just past the nick of time
You slip in skin to hide
In ways I see right through it
You tried adding parts and got only a sum
Yeah, that’s flawless and it’s vengeful
So, to all of you determinists, is it then more satisfying for me to say “those living determined lives had no choice in living like so(.)?”
We can only fall into a determined life; we can choose to combat it. Of course, that combatant struggle, as Camus and Sartre venerate, doesn’t seem so lovely as they try to make it seem. That is because they show little consideration of the effects of other people, our friends, on our daily lives. The obvious truth is that other people do matter, to a very significant extent.
Compassion, as it is defined online is: sympathetic consciousness for others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it (Merriam-Webster). Lonely consciousness can be to distress just as fear can be to hiding. Whether you happen to be a psychological egoist or not, the mere idea of altruism certainly brings warmth to our hearts; whether you happen to be an cynic-isolationist or not, the mere idea of compassion is something we all feverishly dream of. Lemony Snicket, one of my favorite authors since elementary school, wrote this of love, a particularly strong embodiment of compassion:
“One of the remarkable things about love is that, despite very irritating people writing poems and songs about how pleasant it is, it really is quite pleasant.”
Hitherto, fear has been insulted, consciousness has been proven flawed but necessary, and compassion seems just lovely. To bring compassion back to the central idea of the negative effects of instinctive fear on humanity, we must recognize that, while feared consciousness kills the human spirit, the fear of compassion leaves you lost amongst masses.
So what is it, then? What is it that consciousness and compassion so wonderfully produce together? They, together, create reason. They create a purpose. They create so much reason/purpose that any nihilist telling you “there’s no point” can instantaneously become the butt of some silly joke. When a compassionately conscious individual finds his/herself confronted with a reason, the nearly condemned result is drive. Reason inspires us, and it does so through embodiments that range from sneaky to obvious and beyond.
In conclusion, it seems apparent that our natural instincts do, in fact, make us less human. Throughout our lives we have access to the immortal tap that pours upon us our true individuality and ability to understand others. It works as water works for human life. Through millennia, our progress has been beyond evident, and that is solely resultant of either widespread or highly refined drive. Only during fearful times have we lacked our humanity and retreated towards the dark depths of animal-like existence. Only then have we been plagued with real stagnancy.
Everyone can face this. It may seem so monotonously banal that you don’t realize it, but it certainly happens, and likely on a daily basis. To play God is basically to make a decision while keeping in mind the outcome. It is to not be a slave to your head, and genetic capital (or lack thereof), and instead to realize the potential you have to make a difference in the infinite plane of interpersonal relationships in which you live your everyday life. You play God, to an extent, when you choose to cheat on some assessment or when you chose to turn someone in for the same, intrinsically bad, act. You also play God when you chose not to do either of those two things.
My most obvious introduction to this human “tendency,” if you will, was during a group project. Each year the physics classes at my school, from the remedial levels to their polar counterparts, all spend about a month working on the famous “Boat Project.” The basic premise is to build a boat, as one might imagine. Ideally, of course, your boat will float. As is usually the case, I never made it my priority to make this project one of gradual progress, so instead my group members and I saved construction for the week prior to the race.
Construction, though, went over with relative ease. The first day, two of the three other members showed up with enthusiasm and diligence (a pleasant surprise, considering they were second-semester seniors) and we worked away, all the while hearing nothing of our fourth member’s whereabouts. This didn’t really bother us, as we were sure a fourth member would’ve likely caused more inefficiencies than efficiencies. The following three days of work were all basically the same, each time lacking #4, while the other two would switch-off attendance to make various sports’ practices and whatever else they had already committed to. It was during these three days, though, that this ethical dilemma I alluded to earlier began to show itself. #4 had not only been avoiding contact, but when pressed told us that, in this order, for conveniently extended and placed time-intervals, he had two dentist’s appointments, one doctor’s, and one orthodontic appointment. All of which we discovered to be parts of a horrendously uncreative string of disproven excuses.
~ ~ ~
In determining what I would do with this information, three ethical theories began to show themselves, one of which I used loosely as a general framework for application of the other two. At this point during the end of the boat project, I had for some time been of the conviction that there lay a middle ground in the oh-so-heated debate of fate versus free will. That “middle ground” is said “general framework.”
Now, with a slightly larger vocabulary, I can call this middle ground a loose form of Soft Determinism, a philosophical position that accepts the notion that we may be products of genetics, social capital, or other outside forces, but it is our character, not these aforementioned forces, that dictates our lives past birth. In my “loose” form of this, I try to understand there to be obvious effects of one’s surroundings or inevitable genetic coding, but with some form of pseudo-consciousness exercise, the conscience can overcome these innate barriers. Genetics can thus be avoided and society forever changed, this is all reliant on everyday decision-making and development of habits. As odd as it may seem, it all really is so simple.
That being said, it is obvious that there is a power within playing God on the small scale, but what about the empathy? There is some universality in the effects of making decisions and habits, so how can one be sure of his/herself with such “powerful” actions? The key here, I’ve discovered, is this: beyond understanding oneself and his/her potential is what could even be considered more important, and that is called the effect. Like John Stuart Mill, I believe the morally right decision to make is the one that brings about the highest caliber of happiness across the largest group of people. While not ratting-out my group member in that project for his dishonesty may have provided him some satisfaction in escaping the bullet, I knew (considering what I could of the possible externalities) the right action was simply to not include his name atop our assessment sheet. This action, I believe, was concomitant to the qualitative-utilitarian perspective. This act would theoretically save us the shame of being passive, save him the pains of being subject to laziness, and save our teacher the cluelessness. All of these things saved could be argued to be seeds of opportunity. What I found surprising, though, was that this action was unanimously agreed upon, without hesitation.
What I did not make clear earlier was that, besides myself, the rest of my group were all particularly good friends. Talkative, friendly, loyal, you name it, I don’t believe a single soul in our classroom would have said otherwise. Despite all of this, when we had our final meeting discussing the issue of #4, it took less than a minute to understand we had all, sorrowfully, come to the conclusion that we couldn’t save our friend. “Saving” him, we knew, would be no better than letting him slowly bleed out. Our decision, then, had little to nothing to do with fairness or getting even. We came to what was an unavoidably natural outcome. In acting for what on the surface would seem selfish, we acted in conscience of mankind. We knew, that if he really could realize his shortcoming, the end of the line would be far beyond us not penning in his name. The situation would not be outside his complete control unless he allowed it to be.
In tying this all down, one could begin to see how, maybe, #4 grew up in a family of cheaters and evaders, how, maybe, he’d had boat-phobia! It is always healthy to be at least slightly relativist. In truth, we would never understand his situation, but it seems to be intrinsic to the human race that we all expect something of each other, generally speaking. This thing we expect, I presume, would be the will. It would be our ability to play God in our own, little, petty ways. To play God is really characterized by two things: it is to not be a slave to your situation and it is to understand your potential in the aforementioned “infinite plane of interpersonal relationships in which you live your everyday life.” That second part has, hitherto, been touched on as “empathy.” Allow me to elaborate, in conclusion of this essay.
Higher values lay within humanity. They are not untouchable, but they are also not surroundable. It is essential to the relativist philosophy, though, that there is no higher value. In other words, group members numbered one through three had no right to impose their opinions on #4, as what he did was by no means wrong, in his tiny, body-sized kingdom. The relativist ignores something completely, though, and that is humanity itself. Humanity is a collective consciousness that is like the Internet, but only slightly more invisible. To tell a human being that they are truly alone, as an extreme relativist might suggest, would be absolute nonsense. If I ask anyone whether they communicate with others, I think it safe to assume that they’d probably say “yes” and they’d probably think “no-shit.” Communication is unavoidable. Effect is simply passive communication. The existentialist would certainly maintain, no matter how similar his/her philosophy was to relativism, that there are higher values. What is “right,” therefore, is the most productive action. The most productive action is the act that, in turn, creates the most potential for future action, and so on towards infinity. In knowing what is right in any circumstance, I so far understand it all to be based on this. Creation of opportunity is real freedom. Real freedom is to be human. To be human is to create opportunity from dust.