Last week we discussed the complimentary nature of self-interest and autonomy, and the tangled web which unites the two in a co-existing necessity. This week, we will continue along the trip through the Banana Morality where we begin to make some progress in our understanding of what it is to have a sense of self.
In its most narrow sense, the “self” is that which is not the other. Some of the first impressions that a baby receives of the world is that there are things that are immediately attached to its being (arms, legs, etc.) and many things that do not appear to be connected to it in such a readily intimate manner (cribs, bottles, mothers, etc,). Now some of these things likely come to be seen in the light of bananas: things like the mother and the bottle come to be recognized (even if such recognition is pre-linguistic) as valuable to fulfilling requirements of sustenance and maintaining continued existence. Moreover, these same attitudes reflect, rather nicely, similar attitudes in our primate ancestors: self-interest and autonomy are being gained by an individual through his or her recognition of those things that contribute to this same individual’s well being. Granted, the autonomy of a human baby is slight, if any, but the recognition of the importance of life sustaining/maintaining objects must tie into that same individual’s sense of direction with respect to his or her autonomy in later life. In other words, those things that are morally valuable arise as a function of not only the EP structures we’ve inherited, but also as a function of our formative years as human infants. However, these same formative years, if not recognized for what they are (which is indoctrination into a world divided by necessity”?that is, self and other must be distinct in order for there to be any being at all!) will then turn into a hindrance. If we continue to think of the self as only that which concerns the boundaries of our bodies, then surely we will be unable to blossom into a fully rational, fully autonomous being. Let’s explore the why of this.
If we look to the life work of both Jesus of Nazareth and that of Confucius, then we find two simple formulations of a moral doctrine, one being pro-active (like the yang) and the other being passive (like the yin). Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and Confucius says, “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.” Jesus would have us always doing things and Confucius would have us always not doing things. Together these two doctrines provide a simple and yet comprehensive formulation of morality that is free from deficiencies that arise from morality which is dependent upon any fixed set of social customs (and note that these formulations make no reference to any religious ideologies). The individual that walks the middle road between these is the individual that needs only ask themselves “what would I want or what wouldn’t I want” in order to make decisions concerning the welfare of others. We see that how something wears a cloak of moral value is a function of self-interest and self-consciousness. However, we need to have an expanded sense of self if we are to really walk this middle road. Which is to say, we have to come to see the self and the other as a feed back/forward loop where there is no distinction between the self and the other above the artificial sense that we learned as infants. Put differently, without reference to one and other there is no such thing as a self nor an other: the reality of both entities lies in the interim between their interaction”?a self is merely an other to a different self. To see this in less mysterious ways we might take a moment to reflect upon our own being. We need only ask ourselves what we are if we strip away any and all relations we have with any and all others. In a manner similar, but by no means identical, to Descartes meditations, if we remove all relations of our being to the things in the world, then all we have left is nothing, which is, of course, the potential for anything and everything. This is to say that we can recognize that the self, like Carl Jung has told us, is absolutely empty and in its emptiness the self contains any and all things. We are the world.
Let’s recap where this train ride has taken us, or perhaps better, let us now play the role of investigators examining the scene of the train wreck that has been this article. We wanted to ask ourselves how it is that something is morally valuable. We discovered that at least some of those things that are morally valuable become so due to our attitudes towards things in the world in so far as these worldly things contribute to sustaining our well being. Thus, a thing might be morally valuable if it contributes or enhances to the maintenance of our well-being. But this is not the whole of the answer, nor does it even guarantee that moral value is generated merely because something contributes to an individual’s well being. Further, we recognized that our notions regarding our well-being hinge on some sense of self-interest and this self-interest is a function and product of our autonomy: the two, as we saw, appear as intimately connected. From there it was a Disney tour through self-consciousness (short, sweet, and without substance) which hinted that the self is empty: selfhood is nothing more than a potential for everything and that selfhood which is bound by the body, while required as infants and primates, must be shed if we are to make any progress at getting at our attitudes towards things that we deem morally valuable. To put this last differently and frame it within the context of our metaphor, those things that are morally valuable are those things that are the yellow parts of us”?not green and not brown, but the lusciousness of a ripe banana. In a different sense still, a thing is morally valuable just in case it is binding on us in a categorically hypothetical and hypothetically categorical sense; that is, there appears to be no rigid criteria by which to decide if something is morally valuable, but only a criteria which will become revealed in tandem with a recognition of a vastly extended sense of self. Interested?
It might help the reader to recognize that an Eastern reading of the notions of “self-interest,” “autonomy,” and “well being” will assist in assessing the charred wreckage of our train. That is, Buddhist notions of emptiness and non-attachment are intended to be imbedded in these sorts of words. To crassly”?and so incorrectly”?summarize: a thing is morally valuable just in case it promotes a sense of an empty self”?if something commands our desires and we become attached to that thing, then there is no moral value to be found. We could perhaps call this the bodhisattva approach to morality.
b.e. hydomako is not sure whether his parents were human, and sometimes feels that the sun and the moon are his father and mother respectively (or vice-versa). He doesn’t have a belly button, and the operation to remove the alien implants is forthcoming. Sometimes he thinks that the world is a projection of some malfunctioning machine.