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Thinking beyond Religion: Values and Moral Conduct for Life

[Part I]

 

Sin lies in hurting people unnecessarily. All other “sins” are invented nonsense–Robert A. Heinlein (Influential mainstream Science Fiction author, 1907-1988)

 

In this and the following Blog, I will attempt to answer two important questions one is likely to confront during one’s life: What is the meaning of life? And, How Does One Lead a Moral and Ethical Life? In this Blog I will address the first question.

Background

 Many years ago when I was in college I always appreciated and liked courses in science, the physical and biological sciences, but also the twentieth century social sciences of psychology and sociology. The one course I did take in philosophy as an undergraduate was Ethics. While discussions in my philosophy class were always interesting, and the instructor top notch, philosophy always seemed to me to be on a kind of circuitous merry-go-round. That is, the discussions never seemed to arrive at a final destination. Philosophy was to me a kind of word game where the object was the process itself, not an end product.

 As students we were always trying to get at the truth, but somehow we never arrived at the truth. Definitions resulted in defining other terms or words which in turn led to still more definitions. If one did enough defining of terms in search for that one final statement of truth, one found himself quite disappointed and often back to where one started the process. The word game in philosophy was much like infinity—it just seemed to go on forever.

 However, years later I began to develop a more sophisticated and appreciative view of philosophy and that process of “getting” at the truth. Philosophy asked many critical and important questions about ethical human conduct, knowledge, religion, and the world around us.

 That process of getting at the truth was an important consideration for study. Philosophy was good at providing many theories in areas such as Ethics, Political Philosophy, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Religion, the Theory of Knowledge, Logic, and Contemporary Philosophy.

 The science I loved was really not so different from philosophy in many respects. And in fact logic, and the use of reason, was a major tool in science as well as philosophy.  

 Scientists too posit many theories, but they also do something one might not find in a philosophy class; that is, scientists test the theories they propose with actual data from the real world. Having testable theories with data extends the reach of science to include drawing conclusions, however tentative such conclusions might be. I liked this because it got me off the word-game merry-go-round. Nevertheless, asking critical questions is important whether one is a scientist or a philosopher. So, how does one “get at” answering the question: What is the meaning of life? Actually, one needs to begin asking other critical questions before jumping into the “big” question of enlightenment; One must prepare mentally first for the journey to Nirvana.  

 

Connections: Finding the Meaning of Life and Seeking “Truth.”

 

Plato’s Socrates was right on the money when he said, “the unexamined life is a life not worth living.” To ask critical questions is essential to living a valid and authentic life. Needless to say (and this is not tongue-in-cheek) when people deny the need to critically evaluate and ask questions, it is both unreasonable and illogical. And, it is not an authentic way to lead one’s life. Do I make my point? What then is the connection between seeking the Meaning of Life and seeking Truth through reason and logic? That connection is intimately wound up with what are called Values.

 

How Values Influence Every Aspect of Life

 

 So, if there is no absolute truth, then what is there? And how is a consensus built around truth? And how do values relate to any process of consensus building?

 It is true that consensus building and truth go hand-in-hand. For example, scientific truth is always provisional and subject to change. And “truth” is what we agree it is. There is no final absolute truth whether one is talking about sub-particles of the atom, how the elusive neutrino behaves, how black holes operate, or whether one is debating science or the philosophy of religion. There is no absolute truth; absolute truth(s) are a cultural myth.

 What lays a foundation around life in general, and supports a consensus around what people agree that truth is, are values and/or value judgments (scientific values, social values, moral values, humanistic values, values of the enlightenment, etc.). So, what are values?

 Briefly, values are anything that is perceived to have worth. And the perceived worth of something is intimately tied to one’s personal needs and societal notions of what has worth collectively. It is anything that is evaluated for its usefulness, excellence, and is usually placed in a scale of other values. For example, the majority of people in American culture place the value of honor above riches, life over death, beauty over ugliness, education over ignorance, freedom and democracy over tyranny. Values basically form and shape everything we do, everything we say, and everything we believe.

 This is a sociological way of looking at questions of the meaning of life, or how one goes about leading an ethical life. The answers to the questions relating to meaning in life, or how to lead an ethical life, are not based on some sort of absolute set of values. Rather, all values are relative to the individual and to the culture or society one lives in. Thus, for a variety of reasons, values underlie how most of us think about the world around us, and how we think other people ought to behave. This notion of how people ought to behave or act toward one another is what ethics is all about. Leading an ethical life is also relative to the individual, and the collective way society tries to define behavior as either good or bad in a cultural context. 

 Exactly what behavior is defined as either good or bad? When assessments of “good” and “bad” conduct are evaluated at the societal level, the process becomes very political in nature. Values become politicized. That is, defining human conduct as either good or bad is as much a product of the “rule makers” as it is the “rule breakers.” Any kind of deviance from some norm is always based on the interaction of rule-makers and rule-breakers.

 Technically, values that are formalized within a society as rules of conduct are codified as Laws. Less formal rules, but nevertheless influential ways which impact people, are called Mores (morals). And common accepted habitual ways of doing things, normative accepted ways of acting or behaving, are called Folkways. Because of laws, mores, and folkways we all live in a very complex society. One day, should we ever discover intelligent life on other planets, one can be rather certain that conduct approval or disapproval will vary from planet to planet.

 There may be across countries and cultures what are called “universal values” (e.g., the prohibition against incest) but even the most famous rules (The Ten Commandments) are not universal values or value judgments. They vary by culture and different societies.  Although one can certainly appreciate the prohibitions against murder and stealing, even these prohibitions vary by cultural context as do several of the other commandments.

 

Lets Get Down to the Nitty-Gritty

 

Most of us are a product of growing up in a particular family, a neighborhood, a community, and a country. At every level values play a major role in forming and shaping who we are. Value neutrality is pretty much a myth in any culture or society. [Parenthetically, ever notice that politicians spend much more time, when making speeches, articulating “value-judgments” than they do presenting data, facts, figures, or concrete solutions to problems? This is because politicians understand the power of values rather than facts or figures when trying to influence people].

 Value neutrality is a myth primarily because values themselves play such a major role in all belief systems. Values influence what people want to do in life, how they derive meaning in life, and how individuals or groups go about codifying values into a set of rules or procedures to live by.

 We tend to call this latter activity, ethics. And ethics is defined broadly as “a code or set of principles by which men live.”[i] Complicating the situation of influential values (values of the enlightenment for liberals and moderates versus Christian values for conservatives and religious extremists) is Value Conflict.

 For example, there is a value conflict in the right to life versus a women’s right to choose, or the soldier’s conflict between not wanting to take life, versus one doing his duty by protecting his fellow soldiers and countrymen from harm. It is value conflict that makes ethical reasoning very difficult. When values collide with one another they provide the impetus to bring to bear all of the skills necessary to engage in ethical reasoning.

 What follows is an attempt to answer, despite persistent value conflicts: “What is the Meaning of Life?”  

 

What is the Meaning of Life?

 

 This sort of question is really ass-backwards. For it implies something external to the individual that will magically, or otherwise, convey meaning (and perhaps purpose) on an individual. A much better question is—what gives life meaning? Or, what makes life meaningfull?

 So, what does meaning mean? It is that which is meant, intended or aimed at. It is that which one intends to convey, especially by language. It is also the sense in which something is understood. It is accepted by a large number of writers and speakers as significant in how it’s conveyed or accepted and understood.

 Framing the question what gives meaning or makes life meaningful, is what humans bring to the table in the first place. Meaning implies something important to the individual (having value and worth) be it an act, something said or something written such as words or symbols. What is meaningful and what is perceived to be valuable often go hand in hand. But we must remember that one person’s bias is another person’s values and vice-versa. What has meaning for one person may or may not have meaning for another person.

 Humans first and foremost derive “meaning” because we are “social beings.” We are social because we yearn for close personal relationships; I care about you and you care for me. The greatest values we cherish and respect in this life are those having to do with people, those in our immediate environment but also those at a distance, i.e., humanity in general.

 

Social Meaning in Life

 

 It isn’t some anthropomorphic invisible entity (like a sky God who judges you) that gives meaning to one’s life. Meaning in life is derived primarily from the people around you, the people you love, and the people you care about. And, if you are fortunate in this life—you will find meaning from those who love you. People may derive meaning in art, science, beauty, careers, prosperity and good health, but the ultimate way individuals derive meaning in their lives is through the people one is close to.

 How does one prioritize those things that give meaning in life? In this author’s opinion finding meaning in life is very closely aligned to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Needs do not dictate specific values or meaning, but needs are intimately tied up with our perceptions of what is “meaningful.” Survival may be our greatest need but individuals often sacrifice their physical well-being in order to do what? That’s right, save other people. There are exceptions to this that do occur, but generally most individuals would rather “take a bullet” than let a loved one be injured or killed.

 Up till this point I have discussed the most important aspect of finding what makes life meaningful; namely, those we love, and those who return our love. Anyone who has ever had the privilege of falling in love, being in love in all its varieties throughout life has known perhaps the ultimate “experience” of finding out “what makes life meaningful.” Loving is more than an abstraction; it gets to the very core of our innermost feelings.    

 Probably the worst existence on earth are among those (for example, those suffering from a Bi-polar personality coupled with a Borderline Personality Disorder [BPD]) individuals who can’t relate to people at all. These individuals are simply not wired for sociability, and the relationships they do have are marginalized throughout life. These are the absolute worst forms of mental illness as far as finding meaning through other people and experiencing what makes life meaningful.

 There is a related connection for all of us between finding what makes life meaningful, and how one goes about leading a moral and ethical life.  Finding out what makes life meaningful is a “social act,” Leading a moral and ethical life is also a “social act.”

 Both involve consideration (or lack there of) of other people in one’s environment. Consideration of other people is significant  because it tells a lot about whether one will find what makes life meaningful on the one hand, and whether one will be (or not be) successful in leading a moral and ethical life on the other.

 In Part II of the next Blog I will discuss, How Does One Lead a Moral and Ethical Life? The answers forthcoming may not turn the world upside down, but I suspect it will make your life more meaningful.  

 

 

[i] Richard H. Popkin and Avrum Stroll, Philosophy Made Simple, Made Simple Books (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1956), 17.


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I’m Roy and I’m a cranky old retired dude who wants you to read my thoughts on whatever the hell I feel like talking about today!  Sometimes my wife will post a blog–but that’s okay.  She has rights to her opinions, even if I often disagree with them.

 

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