Monday, December 14, 2015

Written Dialogue: Action vs. Intention

Ethan: I first came up with this idea when a friend of mine challenged me on our Golden Rule episode. He took issue with our dismissal of Jesus' teaching: "love thy neighbor as you would yourself." We got into a rather puzzling exchange about the difference between loving they neighbor and performing acts of love toward him. I kept insisting that you cannot separate the two, that once you tell somebody to love they neighbor, you are telling him to perform a series of tasks. As a reminder, my objection to the golden rule is that it does not go far enough. That one ought to do unto others as THEY would have you do unto them. And even with this, you have some problems. But in any case, my friend’s objection centered around the notion that, if you love someone the way you love yourself, then everything else will follow. That DOING does not figure into it at all. Or, I should say, the doing is a byproduct of the loving. If I understood him correctly, love is a mode of being that determines an appropriate method of doing, no matter the circumstances.

The point is to clarify the distinction between, for example, loving someone and doing things that indicate you love him. Is it possible to separate the two? I think not, but it is a peculiarity of language that this is so. To be sure, love as an ethereal thing-in-itself can be separated from acts of love. But once you have a rule, you effectively capture the concept from out of the sky and bring it down to earth. Then you are forced to specify what you mean by “love.” This is the problem that Plato had Socrates bug people about all the time. What is X? X is this. But that is just an example of X-What is the essence of X? Etcetera. Only, this is an impossible game we play. You cannot speak essence. Essence itself is a funny thing. An essence is something that comes to be from a thing being repeated over and over again. It is never complete, in other words.

When I first brought this up with you, you mentioned the old adage, “It’s the thought that counts.” Is this true? What would Jesus say to it? I myself used to believe it. But if I’ve changed, then it is for complicated reasons. Neither the thinking, nor the doing, nor the being are enough for me anymore. Because in every single case, you will inevitably enter into the imaginary realm where possibility trumps probability. In other words, it is precisely here, in our minds, that the adage falls apart. For we can all think of a situation in which it would be false…in which everything would be false, in one way or another. Any acceptable adage has to somehow take this into account. 

Lastly, I wish to tie this into a thought I had as we were recording our latest edited episode. Or rather, it was something you said. Something along the lines of, “I am not interested in answering the question [What is the right thing to do?], only in staking out the territory of the question.” This interests me. As much as I understand the need to appropriately ask the question before answering it, I have always been more interested in the answer itself. Or at least in trying to answer the question, even if all we ever do is provide examples, specifics, and not generalities. To be honest, I’m not sure if all of this is really connected or not. But it’s the last topic that stuck to my brain and begged to get out. And I keep thinking about it as we further our ethical conversations. It helps explain why I am more interested in slaughterhouses and you are more interested in sadists. It also helps explain the obsession with rats and phalli, I think…But now would probably be a good time for me to let you respond!

Zach: —>I kept insisting that you cannot separate the two, that once you tell somebody to love they neighbor, you are telling him to perform a series of tasks.

This is funny because it harkens back to the Protestant Reformation, where the traditional Church insisted that God's grace was provided through both Faith (i.e. love) and Good Works (i.e. deeds), while Martin Luther and most Protestants believed that nothing one could do could assure one's salvation, and therefore insisted that God's grace was through Faith alone. This an old divide. The Catholic position is sensible, but the Protestants feel that God's grace is too subtle to be determined by the results of one's actions - they projected it inward and created a whole new psychological battlefront, since everything is now an internal struggle.

—>The point is to clarify the distinction between, for example, loving someone and doing things that indicate you love him.

Yeah this is classic Protestant Reformation stuff. Look up Faith vs. Works, and you'll see a centuries-long history behind it.

—>Neither the thinking, nor the doing, nor the being are enough for me anymore.

Now this is new. This wasn't in the Reformation.

—>“I am not interested in answering the question [What is the right thing to do?], only in staking out the territory of the question.”

Well, the very idea of the Right Thing to Do has to come from somewhere. Some people say it comes from God outside. But most interesting is the notion that there is ONE right thing to do - that is a clear bias towards a kind of monotheism. It presupposes that there is a Logos which can integrate all of the right things to do according to the many gods which have their particular preferences. You put the other gods' opinions into the equation which weighs them properly and gives a reliable output. That is a monotheistic idea. And it is of course very desirable, because the real problem with wondering what is the right thing to do is that there are many right things to do, according to different values we can have, which are symbolized by the traditional pantheons of gods.

The idea that God is Dead expresses the possibility that there is no Logos. It's really terrifying, because it puts all of the responsibility for deciding Right and Wrong on the individual. People resist this because it's a ton of work. Most people don't have the ability, and most people who have the ability don't have the desire (the Motive and Ability duo). But then you get the 20th century, where people show how desperate they are for someone to tell them Right and Wrong (Nazis, Communism, cults). Bearing witness to all these social failures would seem to lead to the post 1950s French philosophical movement. Maybe they were trying to address how ethics is both necessary and impossible. Just a guess. I do of course like Carl Jung's approach which acknowledges psychological stages, and therefore allows various ethical schemes depending on one's psychological development. Needless to say, it's difficult at a high level of development, because one must demonstrate one's knowledge of the lower levels from time to time, so as to avoid the wrath of people from those levels. (It's a lot of work to keep so many ethical levels sorted out at once.)

Ethan: Let's stick with Faith vs Works for the moment, then. To you, I would ask some assistance forming a coherent whole out of this episode. Try, if you can, to see the big picture of what I am getting at here. I ask this, not because I have a single thing to say that I wish you to dig out, but rather because I have many things to say, and I need some help getting it down to one.

In any case, I still have an issue with Faith. What is it if not a series of actions? This harkens back to things I've said about emotions in earlier episodes (like the fact that we can control them). It all seems to imply that emotions are actions. Feeling faith is as much an action as giving to the poor is.

But I may be alone in this. In all matter of intellectual debate, there is a distinction between thought/emotion and action. It ties into the difference between body and soul. But I am nothing if not a unifier. Thought, emotion, action, body, and soul are all made up of the same stuff. And, to the extent that I wish to be saved, all five of those things are under my control. I, for one, do not wish to elevate any of them above any other. I suppose that salvation, to me, is immanent to the doing of good things for others and the believing that these things are good for me as well. The most important point here is that salvation occurs in the present, not in the future.

Zach: I guess there's people who talk too much, i.e. they use the power of language to replace what would otherwise require actions to demonstrate, thus loving less because of language. The protestants would argue that there are people who, knowing this, act too much instead. They had a lot to complain about here, since the Catholic Church had developed a series of actions which were good for it, and supposedly for salvation as well. You had all the sacraments, but the biggest disgrace was that they created a form of action wherein you could give money to the Church to spare your relatives time in Purgatory. They were so clear about what actions would lead to salvation that the people withdrew the projection of God from the Church, deciding instead that they had been swindled. It's hard to imagine an equivalent power requesting such a specific action today. We have the opposite problem, in that all actions are considered suspect (by the left, certainly. Everyone is a capitalist stooge). Religious tolerance makes us isolated. The Great Phallus of Right Action has been cut up and sometimes obliterated altogether. We live in a society of Faith rather than Works, it seems.

Let's say you love somebody and you do actions which reflect your idea of love, but the person does not even understand your actions. The idea of actions being connected with salvation has something to do with public perception. For example, Hitler thought he was doing the right thing, but no Christian thinks he went to heaven. It's not just what one does, but how what one does is perceived by others. I think the original Christian opposition to the idea of salvation by works is the fact that works are perceived, and people very quickly realize this. Christians think that it's a sin to then adjust one's works based on how they will be perceived rather than trust the inner guidance of Christ to tell them what is right. Sometimes a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, but in most human society, one's actions are going to be perceived. I don't think it's the very fact of perception that is considered a sin, but the notion of adjusting one's actions only for their "perceived perception."

My problem is that I never encounter people who notice my actions merely for their intent. Christians say this is ideal, but I sure get pretty lonely. I have to decide if this loneliness really is divine, or if it's pointless. It could be anywhere from divine to pointless. If it is pointless, then it makes sense to start adjusting my behavior to improve how I think it will be perceived.

Here's the real problem with loving another  - that another person doesn't have a single self. They themselves are divided. If they want whisky, do you love the part of them that likes whisky, or the part of them that gets damaged from whisky? Some people are conscious of the division within themselves, and therefore can enter into dialogue with you over what you can do for them. Others are unconscious of said division and can offer you no help with what to do , since they  are unconscious of the split within themselves. (This would actually be most people, depending on the particular split in question.)

I don't really believe we can control emotions. I believe at best that we can become conscious of emotions, and can choose how to respond to them.

The difference between body and soul, between thought/emotion and action, is linked to the difference between Inside and Outside. I wonder if anyone has written a book about these. They are so fundamental that most people just assume they exist. For example, the whole mind/body problem occurs because the distinction between Inner and Outer is assumed, and not questioned. Probably someone has pointed this out, but I don't know who. The point being that examining the core dynamics between Inside and Outside might give one information that could solve the mind/body problem. What is assumed (but not proved) is that there is a barrier between them. Going back to Faith vs. Works, if there's no barrier, then there's no difference between Faith and Works.

But it's strange how the Catholics and Protestants disagree. The danger of emphasizing Faith is that one's can use one's words falsely, while the danger of emphasizing Works is that one can use one's actions falsely. All the Catholics are saying is that they think think it's a worse sin to use one's words falsely, and all the Protestants are saying is that they think it's a worse sin to use one's actions falsely. They're just debating over which type of sin is worse.

—>I suppose that salvation, to me, is immanent to the doing of good things for others and the believing that these things are good for me as well.

Of course, you have to build a mental picture of others in your head in order to do good for them. And you must make assumptions about what it is. But that's okay, because you could be wrong about your own good as well. I don't relate immediately to your idea of salvation. I don't know what is good for others. Also, how would I choose among them? Aren't there so many people that doing good for them requires choosing some over others? Maybe my failure to identify is related to not having a way to choose whom to serve.

Yeah, I definitely have a lot of resistance to the idea that salvation is connected to serving others. It helps if I can read their facial expressions and thereby see the gratification they are experiencing. That is the clearest signal, but for me it's far too rare to be the mainstay of a scheme for salvation. For me, salvation is wondering what the right thing to do is. It's not finding it, because I hardly ever find it. So I have to settle for searching for it. Salvation means wanting to do the right thing, even if it's impossible to know what it is.

But I also have to mention, what am I being saved from? It's guilt. If I don't feel guilt, i.e. sin, then I don't need saving. The guilt has to do with wanting a good relationship with the tribe. So it would seem like it's about making other people happy. But it's also about wanting the "rights of citizenship." I want to know what I have to do to deserve my share of the collective treasure brought home by the group. This issue gets internalized because of a lack of reliable feedback from the outer world, from the tribe. Then it gets weird, because if the tribe doesn't want to or cannot provide feedback, it calls the value of the tribe itself into question. It makes it seem like it doesn't want me, and why would I or should I want it, if it doesn't want me? "Salvation" thereby becomes less interesting, as the reward for achieving it is less.

Ethan: It will be interesting, here, to think about the history of these ideas/concepts/conflicts: Faith vs Works, Salvation, Self vs Other, God, etc. I suspect that there has been a shift in the collective consciousness, one that is rather difficult for me to interpret, seeing how I am inevitably thrust into my own particular Zeitgeist. Fortunately, we have plenty of texts to look back on and compare with our own. And speaking of this, we have to tackle a very specific problem at the start. For we can also do a comparison between American and foreign texts in the present. Or, more properly speaking, Americanized texts. For instance, it is tempting to say that Zizek thinks just like we do, therefore there is no "American" per se. But w have to admit that he is heavily influenced by American pop culture. Therefore, we would have to look elsewhere. And we would have to wonder, what combination of culture and language is at play in the slight shifts we see?

But in any case, I am not so interested in the American or English  problem as I am in the postmodern problem. What has changed over the past 150 years? Is it globalization? Industry? The communication revolution? How was it that such smart people were able to avoid these problems through the first 2500 years of civilization?

And I wouldn't ask all these questions if I wasn't concerned about the present. Because I believe that some sort of profound shift has occurred that had the potential to be great, but has sadly turned out otherwise. The shift, in a nutshell, was the loss of the self and God all at once. In Deleuzian terms, God became man and man became God. In my own terms, chaos was finally realized. No more universal morality, no more ideal forms, no more Cogito. This was a good thing, in the sense that it launched us one step closer to a more perfect truth. But we threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Because we had embedded so many of our ethical practices in the old guard, when they were felled we settled into a general malaise. Your last entry sums up the sordid state of affairs pretty squarely. If you'll allow me to paraphrase: "I shall not serve God, for he is dead. I shall not serve others, for they are not me. I shall serve myself, for that is all I know with certainty." But if I read between the lines, I see a problem with your logic. For you are multiple as well. You cannot effectively serve yourself, any more than you can serve another. I am not trying to fight with you here. I simply believe that this difficult realization pervades your mind anyway, and that it leads to many other bad things, like despair, resentment, loneliness, etc. In other words, you seek solace in your self, but all you find are shades of the rest of the world.

Maybe it was the cinema. Once we finally fully saw through the eyes of another, as projected onto the silver screen, we lost any semblance of self we had before. Self and other, faith and works, they were all suddenly thrown into question. But instead of taking Nietzsche's advice and shedding idolatry, we clung desperately to whatever we could. The shredded tatters of religion and selfhood were all we had left. This is why I believe we need a new morality, one that is not based on ideals, but rather, one that is based on creative play. This is difficult, however. Because play is inherently violent. The world is violent! So, in many ways, I have to simply accept that the end of ethics is not The Good any longer. The key, however, is to incorporate The Good into our play. To fully realize, and more importantly, to believe, that playing nice, that becoming better, that doing good is all part of a positive play. Again, difficult. Nietzsche hangs over me, haunting me. As soon as I ask a man to consider the values of his neighbor over his own, I am asking him to forego some of his potential. But I am going to stick with this and figure out why it's right. I have faith in it, it seems. Here's why:

Balance is inherently positive. I like to think of a square. How do you maximize the area of a square? Make all sides the same length. I may find myself disagreeing with Nietzsche here. For I do not elevate the realization of power any more than I elevate the realization of restraint. In other words, it may be a good thing to forego your own values in support of another's. Because (and here I think Nietzsche would agree with me) you shouldn't hold those values so dearly anyway! Doing good for others is a very effective means of transvaluation. So is doing good for oneself. So is faith. So are works! So is the Goddamn Golden Rule!!! My point is that not a single one of these things, nor any other, should hold sway over all others. But just because we have lost our ideals, just because we both can and cannot see through the eyes of another (and our own eyes, for that matter), this does not mean that all is lost. The universe has done just fine up to this point. There is no reason to believe that it will change just because we invented the smartphone.

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