April 11, 2010

Becoming Humanly


The Promise of Humanity

In his lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) asserted, “existence precedes essence”, meaning that, first we “exist” and only afterwards we “define” ourselves. In other words, there are no innate values, meanings, or essences that predetermine who we are. Likewise, the contention under consideration here is that no one is readily born a human proper. However, we seem to be born with a unique capacity to become humansin the same sense that an apple seed is not an apple tree, yet the seed has the potential to become an apple treeif and only if the seed is situated under the proper environmental conditions. In the same manner, a woman or man is a seed that can grow to become a human beingif placed under certain conditions. In cultural terms, humanity is a promise that can be fulfilled under proper social, economic, and political conditions. However, readily referring to ourselves as “human beings” creates a mirage that we are already humansthat the task is already accomplished. Often the noun “human being” not only reifies and turns the concept into a mere physical thing, but also it does not render the concept as a project to be actively and concretely undertaken. My contention is that there are no human beingsbut peculiar beings who may choose to become humanly. In this context, a human being is not a biological organism, but a possible set of qualities and functions of this organism. To “become humanly” is to attain a particular state of being that is qualitatively different than the states of being of other animals and objects.

But what does it mean to become humanly? Throughout the course of our biological development throughout time, our animal existence has acquired another dimension which sharply distinguishes, but not separates, us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Aristotle argued that our capacity to “reason” rationally sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. In the same vein, René Descartes affirmed that what does not “think” and “rationalize” is nothing but mere “matter in motion”. Human reason, besides other factors, appears to be a main foundation for human ethics, morality, and values. Without reason, we are reduced to animalism, or perhaps less. Therefore, would it be cogent to conclude that if one does not cultivate and implement one’s uniquely human ability to reason and to be rational, then one is not becoming humanly? Furthermore, why should one become humanly? What does justify this becoming? An assumption is that one’s physical and psychological well-being (or some may call it “happiness”) is a justification for becoming humanly. In addition, one’s well-being is contributive to the well-being of the society in which she or he partakes. Our well-being, within the context of our social existence, seems to be contingent on the proper use of our fundamental capacity (not the only capacity) to reason. However, this well-being is far from fostering a mere life of pleasure, and it does not preclude pain and suffering.

According to thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche, humanity is not an empty promise; it is not an ideal that can never be realized. However uncanny this promise seems to us under the present social, economic, and political circumstances around the globe, all these thinkers, who had foreseen our present social maladies, saw a light at the end of the tunnel. In a strict sense, the promise of humanity has already been fulfilled, not on a mass scale, but on individual basis. The promise was presumably incarnate in great individuals such as Socrates, Michelangelo, Goethe, Beethoven, Gandhi, Einstein, and et cetera. What did all these great souls have in common? To characterize them in a Nietzschesque fashion, they were able to overcomenot depreciatetheir impulses. They were able to harmonize their passions and reason; they were able to organize the disarray of their impulses, giving style to their own characters; they were masters of their impulses; they were able to overcomenot oppresstheir animal drives; they were able to sacrifice (make sacred), spiritualize, or sublimate their own impulses. They knew that mastering their passions was pertinent to a suffering that breeds strength and depth of soul. They were able to be tolerant not out of weakness, but out of self-cultivated strength. They gave to others not out of pity or impoverished need, but out of the richness of their characters. Where they found their well-being, others find their own ruination. They suffered from the overfullness, not impoverishment, of their lives so much that they had to redeem themselves by creating and recreating themselves. They were creators. In contrast, what are the prevalent “creative deeds” in our age: perpetually staring at television screens, materialism, consumerism, drinking and/or drugs, money making, boring jobs, endless bills, debts, and the like. Our uneventful lives are a negation of the motto of the Age of Enlightenment: “Dare to use your own reason.” Perhaps, the promise of humanity is not for everyone according to Nietzsche’s moral pluralism.

In his famous funeral oration, Pericles (the statesman-ruler of the democratic ancient Athens) declared to the citizens, “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in the politics [i.e., the affairs of the city-state] is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all.” In the same spirit, the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated, “Create citizens, and you have everything you need; without them, you will have nothing but debased slaves, from the rulers of the State downwards.” The promise of the U.S. Declaration of Independence to endow “all men”not just in theory, but in practicewith “certain unalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is of no avail if the citizens are impoverished by their government and are not enabled to exercise these rights.

Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), a prominent Russian-British philosopher, in his Two Concepts of Liberty developed two concepts of liberty, namely, “negative liberty” and “positive liberty”, that are usually in a state of resistance against one another within the context of the state. Further, he made a distinction between two concepts of “freedom from” and “freedom to”. The former is the negative aspect of freedom (i.e., the negative liberty) while the latter is the positive aspect of freedom (i.e., the positive liberty). Both aspects are value-neutral and equally necessary in pursuit of freedom.

Very generally construed, the concept of “freedom from” is indicative of a condition wherein one disabuses or educates oneself in order to free oneself from one’s own internal constraints, prejudices and ignorance. In other words, one cultivates a strong character that is conducive to mental growth. In short, this negative liberty is absence of personal obstacles or is a removal of personal preventive conditions. So, in this sense, negative liberty is an enabler—enabling one to cultivate character. However, how can this negative liberty be possible if certain external conditions, such as poverty, prevent one from realizing it?

This introduces the concept of “freedom to” which generally signifies removal of external constraintssuch as poverty, unjust labor conditions, lack of healthcare, lack of leisure, unjust social and political conditions, and ideologies designed to impoverish the masses—in order to actualize oneself in the society. In short, the positive liberty is, socially speaking, an enabler—enabling one to act and to achieve excellence in personal and in civic terms. There seems to be a symbiotic relation between the negative and positive liberty; otherwise, freedom proper would be impossible.

What is the point if one demands “freedom of speech” when one is not enabled or educated enough to know how to exercise the right? If we do not criticize and reform ourselves and our social systems, how can we have the opportunity and the ability to truly cultivate ourselves and our society? Both components of freedom—“freedom from” abuse and “freedom to” use—are essential in order to give meanings to our lives and to fulfill our common social aspirations. We need to be “free from” in order to be “free to” act.


April 5, 2010


“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix

A Brief Exploration of History of Western Individualism

With the dusk of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the modern era, individualism gradually began as a way of adapting to the new social, economic, and political conditions in Europe. And, henceforth, it evolved into social, economic, political, and philosophical doctrines expressive of one’s independence, self-reliance, self-determination, and, hence, individuality. In general, individualism gives primacy to the individual over what opposes her/his individuality, be it a social institution or the state. This new way of adapting to life under the new circumstances found diverse expressions, not always in agreement with each other, in the philosophies of the French philosophes, Immanuel Kant, W.G.F. Hegel, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, and et cetera.

The word “individuality” (derived from Latin word indīviduus, meaning “indivisible” or “inseparable”) is commonly stipulated as the state or quality of being an individual who exists as a distinct entity and possesses sum total of qualities and characteristics that form the individual’s identity and distinguish the individual from others. However, the concept of individuality and the doctrines in which it has been embodied are not easy to unravel. They have been viewed differently in various historical periods, and they can be examined from different perspectives, such as that of psychology, sociology, political science, and ethics.

Here, we are faced with an important distinction between the two concepts “individualism” and “individuality”. From a technical viewpoint, the former is often depicted as social and ethical phenomena of human relations and conduct, while the latter is often depicted as a psychological phenomenon of mental growth. In this sense, not without exceptions, individualism is a proper subject matter within the disciplines of sociology and ethics while individuality is an appropriate subject matter within the discipline of psychology. Nonetheless, each discipline has its own distinct concepts of individualism and individuality. Moreover, each discipline can examine these concepts in interdisciplinary fashions. For example, a sociologist can examine the sociological concept of individualism under the light of psychology; conversely, a psychologist can examine the psychological concept of individuality under the light of sociology. In addition, a sociologist can examine individuality within a sociological context, and a psychologist can examine individualism within a psychological context.

The nature of relation between the individual and society or state has been a recurring theme in history of individualism. Should the individual have primacy over the state? Or, should the interests of the state have priority over the interests of the individual? Or, should there be a symbiotic relation between the two? This article is an attempt to briefly explore the complex phenomenon of individualism mainly within a historical context, starting with the Greece of antiquity.

§1. Age of Antiquity of Greece

In his The Origins of European Individualism, historian Aron Gurevich (1924-2006) asserted, “[T]here seems to have been no awareness of individuality in ancient times [which includes the classical Greece].” Although some scholars dismiss this assertion, they acknowledge that the Greeks, unlike the contemporary Western societies, probably did not have high-ranking value for individuality. Within the socio-political context of their society, it is said that the Greeks of antiquity did not seem to have a word for “individuality”; they reportedly did not appear to understand it. Our contemporary Western lifestyles, in many ways alienated from the life of our societies and their institutions, would have been appalling to the classical Greeks. To them, our contemporary individualism would have been an unconscionable act of social division—estranging ourselves from each other and the society. The Greek polis (i.e., the Greek city-state), especially during the Golden Age of Pericles (448-404 BC), was not just a guarantee of citizenship; the Greek polis made it possible for a man to become a human. Fifth century BC Athenians were interested not in the rights of man as an individual, but in the rights of Athenians as a whole. In his famous funeral oration, Pericles, the statesman-ruler of the democratic Athens, declared to the citizens:

“We do not say that a man who takes no interest in the politics [i.e., the affairs of the polis] is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all.”

The Greek city-state functioned as a civilizing force by collectively creating social conditions necessary to development of good life for its citizens. The Athenians would have found our cult of egocentric individualism incomprehensible. To the Greek thought, even our cherished ideal of privacy would have been a scandalous failure of human maturity.

To the Greeks, the Delphic Oracle’s maxim “know thyself” did not mean to individuate or dissociate themselves from the society. For them, one’s livelihood, well-being, and personal developments were essentially dependent on the communal life. This is manifest in life of Socrates when he, out of respect for the laws of Athens which had condemned him to death, chose not to escape from his own execution when he had the chance. He argued that individuals who disobey the laws of their own society tear away at the foundation of communal life.

The Greek sense of community is also exhibited in their intellectual activities. For the Athenians, the pursuit of philosophical truths was no private, individual affair; truth was not something that could be attained individually and monologically, but something that could be achieved collectively and dialogically. As demonstrated in Plato’s dialogues, the directive “know thyself” was not carried out in private, away from the public forum. For Socrates, in accordance with Plato’s dialogues, truth is achieved by way of dialogue and dialectical interaction with others. This Greek disposition, in the realm of politics, is deemed to be a contributing factor to the unprecedented birth of Athenian “democracy”, which is a Greek word (δημοκρατία, dēmokratiā) meaning “rule of people”—not individual.

While the Greeks did not seem to comprehend or highly value individuality, they did emphasize the cultivation of human character (ēthos*) and virtues (aretai*). In general, the Greeks ideally valued the life of “excellence”, which entailed the development of human potentials such as “beauty” (as evident in their works of art), “courage” (as indicated in their myths and tragedies), “justice” (as obvious in their invention of democracy and how the polis existed for the good of all), “intellect” (as shown in their pursuits of theoretical disciplines such as geometry and philosophy), “wisdom” (as evident in the characters of their thinkers), and et cetera. The Greek city-state placed great value on and made possible the cultivation of human character and virtues, which were not deemed as individualistic pursuits. In general, their view of ethics (derived from the Greek word ἦθος, ēthos) was mainly character-based, emphasizing the pursuit of “excellence”, whereby one actualizes one’s potentials within the social context.

§2. Medieval Age

During the Medieval Age in Europe (roughly from 476 to 1517), Christian beliefs and values dominated the scene. While some of the legacies of the Greek and Roman civilizations were retained by the Roman Catholic Church, many of their intellectual and cultural achievements were pronounced unworthy. The Church charged them with being pagan and immoral. For centuries, Christianity shaped the entire cultural, social, and political life of Europe. Social institutions, economic relations, arts, literature, philosophy, and science were put under the strict control of the Church. The free, rational, Greek-style speculation was brought to an end by the Church and was not to be restored until the advent of the modem era, beginning around 1650. The Medieval Christianity put an end to free thinking, and replaced it with dogmas and authoritarianism, enforcing strict obedience to the authority of the Church. As a general rule, anyone who dared to challenge the dogmas or authority of the Church was tortured and/or put to death. Consequently, individualism found no significant expressions in the Dark Ages of Europe. However, there gradually developed a growing sense of doubt and mistrust toward the Church, its authority, its worldview, and its political control. Hence, the conditions were ripe to gradually give birth to the age of individualism. History seems to demonstrate that when religious, social, and political institutions are untrustworthy and lose their legitimacy—and no longer function for the sake of the common good—people individuate and break away from them to shape their own fragmented lives. (Of course, another contributing factor seems to be an unprecedented development of complexity of social life, which can have alienating effects.) In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle deemed this mode of social existence as sub-human.

§3. Renaissance

The 15th century Renaissance (which is a French word for “rebirth”) in Europe brought about a revival of Greco-Roman art, literature, philosophy, and humanism. The Greek man-centered view of the world (cf. Protagoras’ statement, “Man is the measure of all thing.”) inspired them and brought about an intellectual and social revolution, which reaffirmed the dignity, worth, and powers of human beings. Renaissance is deemed as the rediscovery of the human—that man is a capable being, with the power to direct one’s own destiny. This emergent view, of course, undermined the influence of the Church and weakened the structure of the Medieval feudalism. The new ethical posture of the Europeans, coupled with the invention of the printing press, Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and the discovery of new trade routes via water and land, gradually promoted advent of a new social order.

§4. Protestant Reformation and Cartesian Thinking

With the authority of the Church having been undermined and the faltering of the Medieval institutions, the phenomenon of individualism gradually began to unfold in Europe. A substantial blow to the authority of the Church was the rise of Lutheranism and Calvinism (collectively known as the Protestant Reformation, from 1517 to 1648). These movements ideally put the emphasis on the individual to read and interpret the Bible for oneself without the interference of the Church. One may narrowly construe the two movements as a sort of individualism within the sphere of Christianity itself. In due course, Christianity gradually became less of a communal affair than a personal matter. This progressive shift from the communal life to the individuated lives is still present in our time more pervasively and cynically than ever.

The sense of incertitude and mistrust was also projected in philosophy, which was not impervious to the unfolding phenomenon of individualism. In fact, the sense of incertitude and mistrust seems to have instigated an unprecedented shift in the way of thinking as exemplified by French mathematician, philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), the father of modern philosophy. Modern philosophy is recognizably different in many ways from the Greek philosophy. While the Greeks of antiquity philosophized dialogically and outdoors in the public, Descartes (and many subsequent thinkers) philosophized monologically and in seclusion away from the public view. Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, with the self thinking in solitude, becoming conscious of the false and doubtful ideas one has accepted so far in life, and deciding that the time has come to overthrow all of one’s beliefs. In the first paragraph of his “First Meditation”, Descartes wrote:

“Everything must be thoroughly overthrown for once in my life, if I ever want to establish anything solid and permanent in the sciences. . . . Today I have freed my mind from all cares. I am quite alone. At last I shall have time to devote myself seriously and freely to the destruction of all my former opinions.” (Meditations)

His problem was: Can I, by my own reason, establish solid and permanent truths? Unfortunately, for Descartes, the historical conditions of his time, when the Church was authoritative and intolerant, had no mercy on free thinking; therefore, he had to take refuge in the safety of seclusion.

§5. The Age of Enlightenment

Following the footsteps of Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment (roughly from 1650 to 1770), celebrated human reason and reawakened a sense of self-confidence and self-discipline. Having observed how human reason had managed to discover the natural laws of nature under the hands of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the Enlightenment figures applied reason to human nature and society to infer natural rights of liberty, equality, and property for all mankind. French philosophes, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), charged the Church and the political establishment with having conspired together to fetter human reason and to keep the masses ignorant and impoverished. Jean Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778), another Enlightenment philosopher, stated, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” (The Social Contract) Eventually, such Enlightenment ideas contributed to the French Revolution (1789-1799), which put an end to the dominance of the Church and monarchy in France. Thereafter, the Enlightenment gospel of independence and freedom spread throughout Europe, paving the way for the modern individualism, which was concurrent with the rise of secularization and bureaucratization of the social and political structures of European societies, adding to the complexity of the modern life.

The Enlightenment—invigorated with the truths of science and of human nature, and with its daring spirit to challenge the authorities and the longstanding traditions—brought about a paradigm shift in human thinking and relations. This paradigm shift, which is part of our psyche today, can be characterized with what they referred to as the “natural law of progress”: human reason can discover scientific truths about the world and human nature, and in turn this body of knowledge can be put into practice to improve human societies and living conditions through history. About a century later, Karl Marx reflected the same idea of progress in his dialectic of history.

§6. The Modern Age

With the diminution of the power and influence of the Church hand in hand with the cessation of the Medieval age and its feudal socio-economic structures, the modern age gradually took form as a result of many factors, among which are: the new Cartesian mode of thought, the scientific understanding of the world, the Enlightenment values and their applications, propagation of money, and the formation of the nation-states accompanied by secularization and bureaucratization of their social and political institutions, and the advent of capitalism and industrialism. With the rise of “modernity”, a new ethical view of human conduct—which put the accent on the individual—emerged in the Western societies.

The Greek ethical view of human conduct, often referred to as “virtue ethics”, valued cultivation of character and virtues, such as strength, courage, prudence, justice, and moderation, in a society that principally functioned for the common benefit of the citizenry. In contrast, the Medieval ethical view was principally “authority ethics”, that is, the right conduct was prescribed by whoever had the authority within the hierarchy of power, such as the Church, prince, feudal lord, or community. In contrast to the Greek and Medieval ethical postures, the modern ethics is generally based not on “character” or “authority”—but fundamentally based on “autonomy” of the individual in choosing her/his own conduct. German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) put forth noteworthy, ethical theories based on autonomy of the individual.

Today, our Kantian and Millian legacy is that the individual’s autonomy is central in making ethical decisions. In principle, the modern ethical view is a narrow inquiry, on the part of the autonomous individual, into whether action a, b, or c will be the good one to choose. And, in choosing, the individual applies a formula to judge the action. Kant’s celebrated ethical formula is, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law of nature.” (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals) In other words, do not lie or cheat if you do not like to be lied to or cheated. And, Mill’s ethical formula is, “One should always act so as to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.” (Utilitarianism) Since the French Revolution until present, the authority that has been most recognizable has been fundamentally that of the autonomous individual.

In the modern era where individuals are estranged from one another in a society where social bonds are fragmented and not as fundamental anymore, ethics has become formulaicinstrumental, and considerably quantitative. For the most part, the new ethical view of man does not seem to put high value on the cultivation of character or virtues. As mentioned earlier, the existing modern ethical view is principally a narrow inquiry into whether action a, b, or c will be the good one to choose, a choice that is often predicated on safety, pleasure, expediency, profitability, efficiency of time, and/or minimization of hardship.

In passing, it is worth mentioning that German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) had a negative view of political individualism and found it detrimental to the state. Inspired by the classical Greek city-state, in his Philosophy of Right, he gave primacy and power to the state over the individual. In the book, he insisted that individuals exist for the sake of the state, not the other way around. In fact, according to Hegel, nation-states are the true individuals of world history. As he put it in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, “[T]he Individuals of World-History are nations.” Furthermore, for Hegel, individualism does not make possible one’s selfhood. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, he wrote, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.” In other words, one would not know that he is a self until he is looked at by another self, acknowledged by another self. Other selves act as mirrors through which one can become conscious of one’s own self.

By the time German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), an heir to the promise of the Enlightenment, appeared on the scene, he lambasted the Hegelian idea of state. For Marx, the state only serves the interests of the ruling class through ideologies that are designed to impoverish the masses. By seizing upon Hegel’s own statement, “what is rational is real”, Marx claimed that Hegel never meant to defend the state’s status quo—that only what is “rational” has a claim to be called “real”, and the most important task is to mercilessly criticize the government and the social institutions so that they are compelled to become more “rational” and, therefore, more “real”. “Criticism” became the slogan of Marx. “The philosophers”, Marx wrote, “have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” In his Manifesto of 1848, he wrote: “The communists . . . openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world unite!” It is dubious how critically we have inherited the Enlightenment ideals when we, as a nation, actually desire our “chains” and are senselessly absorbed into materialism (in spite of our revered Christian values) while the government directly or indirectly condones this irrationality.

At last, it is worth briefly mentioning that, according to Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), if we think we are always consciously in control of our decisions and conducts, we might be mistaken. The faculty of consciousness is invisibly enslaved to the subconscious impulses. So long as our conscious mental activities and unconscious impulses are not integrated, the illusion of self-control, hence “autonomy”, may subsist.

§7. The Post-Modern Era

What is the post-modern ethical outlook in the Western societies? Perhaps, it is too premature to make a well-founded evaluation. The perpetual scientific, technological, economic, and political developments keep transforming our lives and social environment at such a fast pace that one can hardly make a full appreciation of what is happening. Things are changing too rapidly to be able to pause and think. It seems to me that even ethics itself is undergoing changes, developing new modes of thinking, categories, definitions, and concepts (such as “hyper-ethics” and “hyper-individualism”) in order to be able to deal with the pace of change and new complexities of human relations. The post-modern ethical view of man seems to be inverting (markedly in the spheres of business and politics) truth and lie, right and wrong, good and bad, and so on—with the implication that such normative judgments, in addition to the time-honored ethical values that have proped them, are losing their traditional meanings and standings. On this ground, the post-modern individualism seems to be buttressing itself. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) had predicted the collapse of the traditional values which, he warned, will lead to a crisis of unparalleled magnitude, which he coined “nihilism”: “What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking; [the question] ‘why?’ finds no answer.” (Will to Power)

A Heideggerian may make an observation as follows: Within the context of our post-modern lifestyles in the contemporary Western societies—where our conceptions of being and time are distorted by our crisis of imagination; where being is tantamount to having and time is indistinguishable from what is immediate; where, hence, we are inauthentic (alienated) and do not trust one another; and where, as a result, our socio-politico-economic institutions are fraudulent and untrustworthy—, individualism (i.e., detachment from others and the society) has become a way to survive, as opposed to live. In this sense, individualism—which is oftentimes associated with cynicism, narcissism, pretentiousness, fanaticism, facile nationalism/patriotism—is a dead-end. If, as the classical Athenians reckoned, human relations in a socio-political setting which functions for the good of all is a necessary condition for the cultivation of one’s humanity, then individualism as it stands is a reductio ad absurdum. The Greek polis provided the conditions that made it possible for the citizens to develop as humans. And, in turn, this made possible the citizens’ contributions to the polis.

But the Greece of antiquity, which never ceases to mesmerize our imaginations, comparatively had a small population, and life was simple and devoid of the modern complexities. According to literary critic and essayist George Steiner:

“A mass democracy never inspired the ancient Greek thinkers with much confidence. They did not think it could work. Then, under Thomas Jefferson and under the great figures of the Enlightenment, they tried to bring together the ideal of a true mass democracy with that of a high culture of debate, of freedom, and of openness in the discourse of law, of public affairs, and of government. And, the two have not lived very comfortably together. The dream of Jefferson, and of Lincoln as well, that somehow the ideal of ancient Athens could be extended to a continental scale has proved illusory.” (Oliver Taplin, Greek Fire)



*Ēthos: According to the definition of “ēthos” found in the Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Peter A. Angeles:

ēthos (Greek, character, one’s habitual way of living, one’s moral motivation or purpose) 1. the character, tone, disposition, values, and sentiments of a person, community, or people. 2. in Plato, one’s ēthos is the character produced by habitual responses. 3. in Aristotle, one’s ēthos is the character produced by moral as opposed to intellectual habits. Aristotle describes different ēthoi (plural) found at different stages in human development. . . . 4. in Stoicism, ēthos refers to that which motivates behavior or conduct. (This is reminiscent of Heraclitus’ saying that the ēthos of an individual is his daimōn. )

*Aretai (plural for aretē): According to the definition of “aretē” found in the Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Peter A. Angeles:

aretē (Greek, the goodness of a thing, that at which a thing excels) in Greek literature, when applied to persons it signified qualities such as valor, prowess, courage, and strength. In a moral sense it meant virtuousness, meritoriousness, and goodness of service. It is often translated as virtue. (See entries under VIRTUE)

The philosophic meaning of aretē has to do with the functioning excellence of a thing. When something performs the function it is designed to perform and it does it excellently, then it has aretē; it is virtuous in that respect. Example: The aretē of a pruning tool is to cut branches. It was intended for this purpose. It does this better than anything else. Insofar as it performs its function well, it has aretē.

To determine human aretē, the Greeks asked: “What is unique to the human? What functions does a human perform that no other thing performs as well?” It is not locomotion, not growth, not sensation, not procreating; these and many other functions are shared in common with other beings such as animals. The aretē of humans will be found in that which they can do uniquely: reason. The use of the rational faculty is that which distinguishes a human from all other beings. A human’s aretē consists of the development and use of reason to the utmost level of functioning excellence. (And, for Aristotle, in this consists also an individual’s ultimate happiness.)

*Virtue: According to the definition of “virtue” found in the Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Peter A. Angeles:

virtues, cardinal the highest ideals or forms of conduct in a given culture. All others are of secondary importance to them and are derived from them and/or depend upon them for their existence. Greek culture stressed four basic (cardinal) virtues: wisdom or prudence, courage or fortitude, justice or righteousness, and moderation or temperance. . . .

virtues, moral (Aristotle) those functioning excellences (aretai) of human conduct that are controlled by the rational part of humans. . . . Some of the main points in Aristotle’s ethical philosophy: 1. moral virtues are achieved by means of a consistent practice that creates a habit of action. 2. the principal ingredient in this process is the following of the means between extremes. . . . Extremes are to be regarded as vices. For example, the moral virtue of courage is the mean between two extremes: that of foolhardiness (rashness, stupidity) and that of cowardice (being overwhelmed by fear). 3. an action is not in itself a virtuous action merely because it follows the mean. An action is a morally virtuous action because it conforms with, or is controlled by, reason. Insofar as the action conforms with or is controlled by reason, it will automatically involve a mean between extremes.

virtues, dianoetic (Aristotle) also called intellectual virtues (dianoetic, form Greek, dianoētikós; from diánoia, the intellect) 1. the intellectual (rationally thought-out) virtues or values. 2. in Aristotle the phrase aretai dianoētikai refers to the values inherent in the awareness (and acceptance) of the rational principles which guide moral conduct. This is contrasted with the moral virtues . . . , which have to do with the everyday reasoned control of our sensitive and appetitive life. According to Aristotle, the rational part of the soul has two parts: (a) that which contemplates the unchangeable, universal, eternal principle of things; and (b) that which contemplates objects that are subject to change. The aretē (functioning excellence) of the first is the intellectual virtue of sophia, abstract wisdom (theoretical intelligence); The aretē of the second is phronēsis, practical wisdom (prudence, thoughtfulness, ability, and intention to do the right thing).

virtues (Stoics) the principal or cardinal virtues in Stoicism are: reason, courage, justice, and self-discipline. . . . For the Stoics, the virtuous life is the only good but is unattainable without knowledge. The end of the virtuous life is the ideal of complete self-sufficiency and self-mastery of the individual living according to the harmonies of his or her inner rational nature and the corresponding universal rational necessity in the cosmos.

April 1, 2010

Ethic, Morality, and Values

Filed under: Axiology,Ethics,Philosophy — Omid @ 6:30 am
Tags: , , , ,

Reflections on Ethic, Morality, and Values

In the American society, we ubiquitously hear phrases such as “ethics and religion must not stay at home when we go to work”, “the U.S. President urged us to maintain our moral clarity”, or “family values remain a core issue for Americans”. But, what are “ethic”, “morality”, and “values”? In my assessment, these terms are definable and understandable only within the framework of social activities and relations. Outside this framework, the three terms seem to be obsolete as they have always been germane to and descriptive of human conducts within the framework of social relations.

While the three words definitionally bear certain relations to one another and are oftentimes used synonymously, there are elusive distinctions between them. Moreover, due to the abstract nature of the three concepts, it is a difficult task to unambiguously define and understand them outside a specific context of human activities. They are often defined differently or with certain nuances depending on the contexts (such as business, law, politics, medicine, sociology, philosophy, or religion) in which they are expressed. In addition, It is not rare to find inconsistent constructions for each of the terms within a given context. Throughout the history of Western civilization, the three concepts have been differently construed by different groups of people; nonetheless, a common thread seems to run through them.

This is a brief reflection, which is very limited in scope, on the concepts of ethic, morality, and values from a philosophical perspective. Although my thoughts on these concepts may seem unconventional to a lesser or greater degree, I believe they are complementary to the conventional understanding of the concepts. My principal intention is not to examine what an ethical, moral, or valuational act is like, but to try to understand what makes an act ethical, moral, or valuational. These are such convoluted concepts that I am not sure to what degree I have done them justice in this discourse.

§1. Ethic (Being Able):

“Ethic” is commonly defined as “a set of principles of right, human conduct”. While this definition is helpful and adequate, I am going to take a different approach toward a more fundamental understanding of the term. What does make “principles of human conduct” fundamentally possible? What do all such principles across societies have fundementally in common?

The word “ethic” is said to have originated from the Greek word ēthika (meaning, “ethics”), which is said to be a derivative of the Greek word ēthos, (meaning, “character”). And, in turn, the word ēthos is said to have Indo-European roots in the Sanskrit word svadhā (meaning, “self-will” or “strength”). The word svadhā is composed of two Sanskrit words: sva (meaning, “self”) and dhā (meaning, “deed”). In my opinion, these qualities—i.e., “self-will”, “self-deed”, “strength”, “character”—are not only at the heart of the discipline of ethics, but also are pivotal in understanding the concept “ethic”.

“Ethic” is still a term that is categorically applied only to human beings and their spheres of social activities and relations. Ethic does not apply to the sphere of inanimate, botanical, or zoological objects. For obvious reasons, we do not hold a stone, flower, or ape as an ethical being. Human beings possess a strength (cf. svadhā) that invests them with unique abilities (which are neurobiologically based) which seem nonexistent in physical inanimate objects, plants, and animals. As such, ethic is significative of an enabling propensity or disposition. And, it seems to me that the ethical finds direct expressions in qualitative states of being able.

The ethical is deemed categorically concomitant with the human ability to think rationally, the ability to choose deliberately, and the ability to act of one’s own accord. Without the ethical, humanity, as we know it, would seem utterly impossible. For Greek philosophers Plato ( c. 427– c. 347 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC), the human natural capacity to reason is what distinguishes humans from other beings. And, for them, the role of human reason is indispensable and intrinsic to ethical conduct. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) had a more radical approach:

“When one speaks of humanity, the idea is fundamental that this is something which separates and distinguishes man from nature. In reality, however, there is no such separation: ‘natural’ qualities and those called truly ‘human’ are inseparably grown together. Man, [even] in his highest and noblest capacities, is wholly nature. . . . Those of his abilities which are terrifying and considered inhuman may even be the fertile soil out of which alone all humanity can grow in impulse, deed, and work.” (Homer’s Contest, translated by Walter Kaufmann)

The human drives which are deemed “terrifying” and “inhuman” can be destructive if they find unchecked expressions. Yet, Nietzsche insisted that such drives are fundamental to human life, in the sense that enhancement of life is considerably contingent on “sublimating”, not suppressing, these basic drives. Ethic, as a social phenomenon, seems to be fundamentally rooted in the human impulse system—that is, in human neurophysiology. As Nietzsche put it, “If we subtract the nervous system and the senses . . . then we miscalculate—that is all!” (The Antichrist, 14)

The ethical entails taking a conscious, deliberate stance on one’s own being and conducting it in relation to oneself and other selves. In a strict sense, normative judgments such as “right”, “wrong”, “good”, or “bad” are not always or necessarily admitted in the sphere of ethical. In this sphere, what is paramount is being ablenot just being capable (i.e., having the capacity or potential), but being able—without which no principles of human conduct are practical.

§2. Morality (Becoming and Responsibility):

A prevalent definition of “morality” is “a system of morals”, that is to say, “a system of right and wrong conduct”. Alternatively, it is defined as “the quality or state of being in accord with principles of right conduct”. In addition, morality has an “evaluative” or “judgmental” function with regard to human conduct. For a more fundamental understanding of morality, I posit the following questions: What does make morality fundamentally possible? And, what do morals have in common fundamentally?

In etymological terms, the word “morality” is said to be a derivative of the Latin noun mōs or mōr (meaning, “manner”, “way”, “rule”, “regulation”, or “law”). Morality, precisely like ethic, is a term that is unconditionally applied only to human beings and their spheres of social activities and relations. Morality seems expressive of what, why, how, under what circumstances, and to what end the human capabilities are to be cultivated and implemented. We know we are capable of deceit, greed, and lust, but should we incorporate these behaviors in our relations toward others? If an answer is “no”—why, how, under what circumstances, and to what end should we not be deceitful, greedy, and lustful? Here, the role of human reason or intellect is central to answering these moral questions.

Being able, i.e., being ethical, is a necessary precondition for becoming moralIf one is somehow deprived of the strength to freely (ably), consciously, deliberately, and rationally choose one’s own course of action in thoughts and in deeds, then one’s action under this destitute condition is not moral. Becoming moral seems to be a free (enabled), conscious, deliberate, and reasonable actualization of one’s ethical abilities. Of course, this does not imply that lack of such qualities automatically makes one immoral. A newborn child in whom such potentials are not actualized yet is not characterized as immoral. The child is a capable being that has the potential to become a moral being.

Ethically being is the sine qua non of morally becoming. In this framework, morality presupposes freedom (“strength” or “being able”). In other words, ethic is the possibility of morality. In this sense, the “freedom” to think and act precedes a moral deed whereas “responsibility” (the ability to respond) proceeds from a moral deed. While ethic is about “being”, morality is about “becoming”; while ethic is about “being able”, morality is about “what” to do with the ability, and “why”, “how”, under what “circumstances”, and to what “end”; while ethic is about “freedom”, morality is about “responsibility”. How can one be responsible (i.e., act morally), if one is not free (i.e., enabled) in one’s own actions? No court of law would hold an ape responsible for stealing a banana. Apes have neither ethical, hence, nor moral capacities.

In more concrete terms, morality seems expressive of principles or criteria that give humans the means to evaluate, judge, qualify, and/or choose a proper course of action under various circumstances. The role of the human ability to reason seems pivotal in making such evaluations, judgments, qualifications, or choices. In this context, if a mentally sound and reasonable adult member of this society, for whom murdering is categorically wrong, murders someone on impulse (without reflection) in the passion of the moment, then the murderer acts as a “moral agent” (i.e., free agent), but perhaps under extenuating circumstances. Therefore, the murderer is expected to take responsibility for his action. As another example, if a murder was committed willingly and deliberately in cold blood by a mentally sound individual, then the murderer has acted as a moral agent, and his act was in that sense morally wrong and, hence, “immoral”, besides being illegal, in the eyes of the society. On the other hand, if a one-year-old child (whose behavior is naturally impulsive at that age) happens to find a knife on the floor, picks it up, and pokes his mother in her eye, the child’s action is construed as neither moral nor immoral, but simply amoral. The one-year-old child is not a moral agent yet; consequently, the child is not held responsible.

Normative judgments such as “good”, “bad”, “right”, “wrong”, and et cetera belong to the moral domain. Without depreciating human emotions or feelings, the role of human rational reason seems critical in making moral judgments. Morality, at individual or social level, creates a condition that makes it possible for human beings to reasonably judge human thoughts and actions as morally good or bad, right or wrong, worthy or unworthy.

Plato believed that reason is the distinguishing feature of human nature. For him, the moral life is closely tied to reason; man can know and do what is good by applying reason itself. Indeed, according to Plato, by acting in accordance with “reason” and the “good”, people can fulfill their true nature. Further, according to Aristotle, appetites and emotions motivate animals to act. When human appetites and emotions are directed by reason, he believed the non-rational part of human psyche would be in the proper condition. A person then possesses what he called the “moral virtues”. Plato and Aristotle held that man is also an animal who must concurrently fulfill her/his bodily impulses and desires, under the guidance of reason, in order to attain happiness.

According to German Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the choice to live as a free human being is the supreme act of “self-respect”; it is the most important moral choice open to humans, and all other moral choices flow from it. For him, morality or moral laws are fundamentally related to the idea that we are free, rational beings. Kant fiercely opposed the attitude that freedom must include freedom from laws or restrictions. To his thinking, freedom is not vitiated or extirpated when human life takes on a particular shape and design, eliminating alternative lives that one might have led. Freedom is lost only when the shape and design of human life is the work of human impulses, somebody else, or some other intervening factor—when one is denied the freedom of choice. Restrictions do not entail lack of freedom but lack of prudence or wisdom. For instance, a man’s lack of self-restrictions on his excessive drinking habits can cost him his own life. Kant championed a freedom that both expresses and arises out of reason, rather than a freedom expressing human desires and inclinations. It is a freedom of self-mastery, not self-indulgence. For him, moral freedom is rational.

Kant insisted that human beings could prove they are free in “practice”, not in theory, and by living to the best of their abilities as they believe a free person should live. One does not claim one’s freedom just by thinking, but by acting. Later, German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) restated this view as follows: “The self is the series of its actions.”

In regard to the relation between morality and happiness, Kant stated:

“Morals is not really the doctrine of how to make ourselves happy but of how we are to be worthy of happiness . . . [O]ne must never consider morals itself as a doctrine of happiness, that is, as an instruction in how to acquire happiness.” (Critique of Pure Reason)

Morality, in Kant’s view, is not about pursuit of pleasure; it is not a doctrine of human happiness; it is not concerned with enjoyment of life; it is not based on individual human interests; it is not troubled with human feelings; it is not based on human inclinations. Morality is based on reason, not desire; it is rational, not impulsive; it is about “self-respect”, not self-love. For him, morality and happiness—happiness as the highest and most respectable form of self-love—can be at times coincidental, but they are not identical; conversely, demands of morality and happiness can run into conflict.

Kant argued that reason is at the center of moral life. That human beings are capable to become rational means that they have purposes or ends. As Kant insisted in his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, “Rational nature is distinguished from others in that it poses an end to itself.” Kant was convinced that our ultimate end is to realize our own rational nature. As rational beings, humans not only have ends, but also they are ends in themselves. “The human being is thus fitted to be a member in a possible realm of ends to which his own nature already has destined him”, wrote Kant. Further, he expressed, “Such a being is an object of . . . respect, i.e., a being whose existence in itself is an end. Such an end is one for which no other end can be substituted . . . without them, nothing of absolute worth could be found.” Purposes of humans shape their actions, and they provide a basis for judging their success or failure in performing them. Without possessing rational nature, Kant believed they would formulate no purposes at all and would be reduced to their biological necessities; they would have only short-term, immediate goals, such as escaping from danger, finding safety, or procuring food akin to the rest of the animal kingdom.

Morality comports with not yielding to bodily impulses and self-indulgence in comfort, pleasure, easiness, and laziness. Moral codes demand victory over animal instincts. According to Nietzsche, moral codes of nations have one thing in common: they are significative of the “will to power”. He wrote,

“A table of virtues hangs over every people. Behold, it is the table of its overcomings; behold, it is the voice of its will to power. Praiseworthy is whatever seems difficult to a people; whatever seems indispensable and difficult is good; and . . . the rarest, the most difficult—that they call holy.” (Thus spoke Zarathustra)

Hence, the will to power is portrayed as the will to attain self-mastery, to overcome oneself. To his thinking, moral goodness evokes us to do what is difficult, not common. What is easy holds less moral weight and may not be self-constructive at all. A moral act is not an impulsive act; the former ought to overcome the latter. To be moral is to overcome one’s impulses. Paradoxically, however, if one possesses no impulses, one is not moral, Nietzsche proposed. Castration of human impulses does not make one moral. For Nietzsche, moral behavior is a sign of vitality, not weakness. If human impulses are too weak to entice and excite one, then there may not be any hope. In his Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, philosopher Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980) wrote,

“Nietzsche insisted . . . that there was more hope for the man of strong impulses than for the man with no impulses. . . . Nietzsche believed that a man without impulses could not do the good or create the beautiful any more than a castrated man could beget children. A man with strong impulses might be evil because he has not yet learned to sublimate his impulses, but if he should ever acquire self-control, he might achieve greatness.”

For Nietzsche, power consists in employing or sublimating one’s impulses—not in considering them evil and declaring war against them.

Surrendering to human impulses in their unsublimated forms renders one a slave to their forces, with no control over them. However, becoming rational and reflective gives one control and mastery over oneself. Nietzsche considered reason as a manifestation of the will to power, inasmuch as it is capable of harnessing, organizing, integrating, and harmonizing the “chaos of impulses” and, hence,—making man the non-accidental master of her/his own destiny. Nietzsche wrote,

“‘Giving style’ to one’s character—a great and rare art! It is exercised by those who see all the strengths and weaknesses of their own nature and then comprehend them in an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason . . . under a law of their own.” (The Gay Science)

“Sublimation”, a concept tantamount to “spiritualization” for Nietzsche, signifies the triumph over human impulses. He conceived of “sublimation” as a creative act to harness destructive human impulses. He construed “the sublime as the artistic conquest of the horrible”. Perhaps, one can portray this phenomenon in a parable as follows:

Once upon a time, there was a ferocious water current which, out of its will, erected a dam against itself . . . Now, it is more powerful than ever—it possess character; it has depth of soul; it is worthy; it is spiritualized!

In his Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche depicted man as “a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss.” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra proclaimed, “I teach you the Übermenschen [overman]. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” Self-overcoming—i.e., harnessing or sublimating the human impulses—is the nucleus of morality.

It has been a subject of endless debates whether morality is a private or social affair. Can morality serve any practical purpose outside the boundaries of a society? Does it mean anything outside the context of social relations? If social morality is somehow reduced to individual morality, then morality becomes a set of principles that primarily serves the interests of the individual over the society. Yet, paradoxically, individual or artistic moralities of certain individuals such as Mozart or Beethoven have had tremendous social benefits. Their eternal music is a testament to this fact. Mozart and Beethoven were cognizant that to create new music, the old laws had to be broken or modified. In his Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann wrote,

“The weak needs to rely on the rules of others. Man should be able to generate his own standards, if only he were powerful enough. The will to power is essentially a creative force. The powerful man is the creative man; but the creator is not likely to abide by previously established laws. A genuinely creative act contains its own norms, and every creation is a creation of new norms. The great artist does not stick to any established code; yet his work is not lawless but has structure and form. Beethoven did not conform to the rules of Haydn or Mozart; yet his symphonies have form throughout. Their form and law Beethoven created with them. To create involves going ‘beyond good and evil’: established codes must ever be transcended by men who are creative.”

§3. Human Values (Modes of Relations):

A frequent definition of “value” is “the property or quality of something concrete or abstract that makes it important, admirable, desirable, useful, worthy, or an object of interest”. Sometimes, the term refers to “a principle or standard of human behavior”. Values are often popularly grouped into classes such as ethical values, moral values, religious values, and et cetera.

The word “value” is said to be a derivative of the Old French word valoir (meaning, “to be strong”, “be worth”), which is derived from the Latin word valēre (meaning, “to be strong/powerful”). Within the context of the web of psychophysical relations between human beings and the world in which they find themselves, values appear to be relational modalities. Human values seem to be expressive of: the modes or ways the psychophysical relations are constructed between a person or social group and the world in which they find themselves. I propose that, human values fundamentally seem manifestive of modes of projecting and relating ourselves to ourselves, to other selves, to physical objects, to circumstances, to events, and to abstractions (such as qualities, ideas, ways of being, ways of doing things, and so on).

On the surface, this indicates that, as an example, if a woman values vegetarian diet, it may mean that she has the possibility to “relate” herself to that kind of behavior and incorporate it into her lifestyle if the circumstances would allow it. Or, if a man needs a car and values a BMW over a Ford Escort, it may mean that he will possibly “relate” to and purchase a BMW if he has the financial means. Or, if a woman does not value theft, then she possibly will not choose to “relate” herself to a person who is a thief if the conditions in her life are conducive to this choice. Or, if a woman values and commits herself to Buddhism, it is perhaps because she is of the conviction that Buddhism somehow positively “relates” to the order in her life. As abstract and intelligible as they are, human values seem indicative of the “ways” humans relate to or interact with the world in which they find themselves.

Human values seem circumstantial and purposive, meaning that every situation presupposes particular mode(s) of relating ourselves to ourselves, to others selves, to objects, or to other factors in order to accomplish an end. If one lives in the comfort of a modern city, then one would be more likely to value a cellular phone over or more than a box of matches. However, if the person is stranded and lost alone in the middle of Antarctica, then the person would be more likely to value the box of matches (to make fire and keep warm) over the cellular phone, given that there are no cellular signals. Or, if the person is stuck alone in middle of the Nefud desert, known as “God’s furnace”, then the person would be more likely to value a jug of drinking water over the cellular phone and matches. The point is that, human beings seem to fundamentally value, relate to, or interact with what enables them under the extant circumstances to achieve their ends or to sustain their existence.

It seems to me that values are like bridges between us and the world with which we interact, between us and our ends. Moreover, it seems to me that values are, by analogy, like hooks that do not change, but what we hook them to (be it a cellular phone, box of matches, or else) do change. In other words, the person who valued the cellular phone over the matches in the city and conversely valued the latter over the former in Antarctica—did not change the value, but what he related or attached the value to changed. Contrary to the popular wisdom, human values—if fundamentally construed as expressions of the psychobiological energy that is supportive of the human organism in its relation to the worlddo not change. In his Will to Power, Nietzsche suggested that the state of the world at any time depends entirely on how the “power quanta” are temporarily organized and related. He wrote,

“My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (—its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement . . . with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they conspire together for power. And the process goes on.”

The science of physics generally defines the concept “energy” as follows: Energy is that property something has that enables it to do work. No energy, no work. In biological terms, no energy (i.e., adenosine triphosphate or ATP), no cellular activities, which means the death of the biological organism. As such, it seems to me that in the spheres of human activities and relations, the tendency toward attainment of energy, power, force, or strength is a fundamental human drive—which can be instrumental in explaining certain aspects of human behavior. In their activities and relations, human beings fundamentally seem to value that which is construed to empower them, to facilitate the attainment of their goals, to invest them with qualities/qualifications conducive to their ends.

To sum up, human “strength” is the fertile ground of human ethic (being able); ethic (enabling freedom) is the possibility of morality and moral responsibility; and morality (“what” we do with our abilities, and “why”, “how”, under what “circumstances”, and to what “ends”) under the guidance of rational reason makes moral valuations and evaluations possible. Accordingly, moral conduct—as a mark of having overcome our impulses—is a sign of strength. Within the social framework, the correlation between one’s ethical disposition, moral conduct, and values constitutes one’s character. One’s values (i.e., how one relates to oneself, to others, and to the world) in alliance with one’s ethical enablement and moral directives influence one’s conduct. At last, ethic, morality, and values as social phenomena seem to be natural outgrowths of the neurobiology of the human species.

§4. Application

In certain respects, examination of human values (hereinafter interpreted from a different angle as the rationales, motivations, fundaments, or rudiments that underlie our choices and deeds) can have psychoanalytical implications. One’s attempts to unconceal the values underlying one’s own choices and deeds can often be an uneasy task, a task that may reveal one’s uncertainties, insecurities, anxieties, or fears in one’s relation to oneself, to others, or to other factors. For instance, we all have reasons as to why we pursued or did not pursue a college degree, why got married or divorced, or why behaved in certain ways at critical moments in our lives. Whatever the case might be, what were the “values” (distinct from “reasons”) beneath our choices when we made them?

In the hypothetical case, discussed above, of the woman who became committed to practice Buddhism, one can ask evaluative questions such as: What was her problem to which she construed Buddhism as a solution? Under what circumstances and state of mind did she reach the conclusion that Buddhism is an answer to her issue? What was the “value” underlying her choice, which made her feel that she would attain the desired “state of being” she was aiming for? Once the value is excavated and brought to conscious acknowledgment, she may realize that Buddhism is actually not the solution to her problem, and that it might be diametrically opposed to a definitive solution which may had escaped her at the time. Or, she may realize that Buddhism is actually masking the problem, or she used it as an excuse to distract herself from the problem. Or, she may realize that her problem was a subconscious fabrication concealing her actual problem. Alternatively, she may realize that Buddhism is a proper resolution to her issue.

Although our values often tend to elude capture, they are communicative of our self-knowledge and self-worth. Human values are subtle, but not unintelligible to the mind. In his Some Elementary Lessons in Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) wrote about a case wherein a doctor hypnotized a patient of his and instructed him, while under hypnosis, as follows: I am going to leave the ward, but upon my return you are to bring my umbrella and hold it open over my head. Thereafter, the doctor brought the patient out of hypnosis and left the ward. When he returned, the patient grabbed the umbrella, opened it, and held it over the doctor’s head. The doctor asked him why he did that. The patient became embarrassed and gave a fictional “reason”, such as that he thought it was raining outside and the doctor would need his umbrella. The point is that, the patient’s “reason” for why he acted the way he did belies the actual “cause” of what he did. Here, a distinction is made between the “cause” of the patient’s action (the “cause” of which he was unconscious) and the “reason” for his action (the “reason” of which he was conscious). Likewise, often “causes” precede our actions, while our “reasons” proceed from the actions. We commonly fabricate reasons for our choices or deeds—reasons that conceal, not reveal, the values that underlie our decisions or actions. Upon honest examination of the values underlying our choices and deeds, we may realize that many of our choices and deeds are subconsciously carried out without being consciously aware of them. It is, as though, we are put on automatic pilot, acting with minimal conscious, deliberate effort until we suddenly realize that a mistake has been made!

Think about a mistake, a regrettable mistake, that you made in the past. I mean, more particularly, a kind of mistake that did not entail conditions such as lack of health, energy, time, and/or money. And if it did entail such conditions, they could have been reasonably overcome with some efforts. Whether you were fully consciously aware or not, prior to making the mistake, you had envisioned an ideal or goal to realize. Accordingly, you took certain actions toward realizing the ideal, but instead you reached the mistake. What did make it a mistake? Or, perhaps, I should ask: What did you pretend not to know about yourself and the surrounding circumstances before realizing the mistake?

What were the conditions under which you made the mistake? What was your state of mind in which you projected and committed yourself toward that which turned out to be the mistake? Before you realized it was a mistake, did you evaluate to see if you were on the right track toward your goal, or did you distract yourself somewhere along the way? What could you have done differently to avoid the mistake and attain what you had actually aimed for? Then, why didn’t you do it? Pay heed that opposite of the mistake might be the underlying “value”—i.e., the “mode of being” you had envisioned. Ultimately, one’s values are expressive of how one evaluates one’s own worth in relation to oneself and to others. The questions of value can be quite challenging and perplexing to answer, and it often takes courage and honesty to be face to face with them.

Create a free website or blog at