RSSCategory: Meaning of Life

Getting upset about the right things.

September 2, 2017 | By | Reply More

Here’s a post by Darrell Lackey, a pastor challenging Christians to get save their energy and frustration for the right kinds of things. He begins the post with this statement that Tony Campolo has been known to use when addressing Christian audiences:

I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact I just said “shit” than you are that 30,000 kids died last night.

There is some good food for thought for all of us in this post, whether or not we are religious (I am not).  For example, many of us often get much more upset about the minor irritations of our own local lives than the enormous suffering and stark injustices over the next hill or the next continent. For instance, our own country has been bombing many countries in the Middle East for many years.  We’ve been bombing Afghanistan since 2001, and according to reliable sources, we have been killing many innocent civilians in a “war” regarding which we are utterly unable to articulate any meaningful objective or metric of success. Therefore, that “war” goes on, largely unchallenged and unnoticed, our news media almost never mentioning that we are even at war.  Out of sight, out of mind for most of us.

If we want to be morally cohesive, we need to use unceasing effort to make certain we are focused on the things that matter.  That is often not easy to do.  Trying to stay focused on important things in a sustained way wears us down.  It’s not easy to be moral.  It’s much easier to complain about that the microwave burned the popcorn.

To live moral lives, we need to stay focused on important things, and focus is another word for attention, a psychological resource that humans have in short supply.  Attention is like a spotlight.  When we look at a thing, we often exclude attending to most other things.  that’s how we are wired; we are almost the opposite of omniscient, even though we want to believe that we are generally aware of most things that are important.

Because attention is so limited, our attentional decisions and habits (maybe we should call this our “attentional hygiene”) gives us great power to define our “world.”  Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, we are capable of manipulating what we pay attention to, and whatever we choose to ignore simply doesn’t exist for us; if we are not paying  attention to something, it holds no moral sway over us because our attentional choices turn it into nothing at all. Most of us aren’t at all bothered by world starvation most of the time because  we are not thinking about that horrific problem.  Further, human animals are capable of not paying attention to things that are right in front of us.  This is especially true when we are emotionally motivated to not see.   See no evil and hear no evil functionally means that there is no evil.

I have long been fascinated by this confluence of attention and morality and, in fact wrote a detailed paper on it, drawing from many domains of cognitive science:  Decision Making, the Failure of Principles, and the Seduction of Attention.”  Feel free to take a look, if you find this general topic compelling.

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Delving further into the Moral Landscape

January 29, 2017 | By | Reply More

After Sam Harris wrote The Moral Landscape, he encountered both accolades and criticisms. In response to the criticisms, he held a contest, offering $2,000 to the best short essay to challenge his own work. He published both the winning essay and his own response to it. I find it to be a good read that cross-cuts some traditional concepts of moral philosophy (e.g., that there is no intersection between descriptive versus prescriptive statements) and points the idea that we can dispense with (or at least translate into factual observations) the notions of “good” and “bad.”

Here is an excerpt from Harris’ essay commenting on the winning essay:

Part of the resistance I’ve encountered to the views presented in The Moral Landscape comes from readers who appear to want an ethical standard that gives clear guidance in every situation and doesn’t require too much of them. People want it to be easy to be good—and they don’t want to think that they are not living as good a life as they could be. This is especially true when balancing one’s personal well-being vs. the well-being of society. Most of us are profoundly selfish, and we don’t want to be told that being selfish is wrong. As I tried to make clear in the book, I don’t think it is wrong, up to a point. I suspect that an exclusive focus on the welfare of the group is not the best way to build a civilization that could secure it. Some form of enlightened selfishness seems the most reasonable approach—in which we are more concerned about ourselves and our children than about other people and their children, but not callously so. However, the well-being of the whole group is the only global standard by which we can judge specific outcomes to be good.

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Empathy versus compassion: Fully understanding morality

December 13, 2016 | By | 1 Reply More

This lively podcast, featuring Sam Harris and Paul Bloom, challenges many traditional notions of morality, focusing on the distinction between empathy and compassion. If you give it 10 minutes it will be difficult to turn it off.

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Pseudoinefficacy: We are willing to help one person, but less willing when there are multitudes we cannot help

December 13, 2016 | By | 2 Replies More

Compelling 2015 research by Paul Slovic and others shows that we are often likely to help a person in need, but we are much less likely to help that person when our attention is simultaneously directed toward other people that we are unable to help. The fact that there are multitudes in need dampens our willingness to help a person we are most assuredly in a position to help.

Here is the summary of the research:

In a great many situations where we are asked to aid persons whose lives are endangered, we are not able to help everyone. What are the emotional and motivational consequences of “not helping all”? In a series of experiments, we demonstrate that negative affect arising from children that could not be helped decreases the warm glow of positive feeling associated with aiding the children who can be helped. This demotivation from the children outside of our reach may be a form of “pseudoinefficacy” that is non-rational. We should not be deterred from helping whomever we can because there are others we are not able to help.

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The body as the yardstick for meaning

May 8, 2016 | By | Reply More

Mark Johnson (of “Metaphors we live By,” written with George Lakoff) gave this excellent talk destroying the notion that meaning is something ethereal and disembodied. Instead, the body is the yardstick for meaning. This talk turns much of traditional epistemology upside down.

Johnson opens the talk with a Billy Collins talk titled “Purity.”

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What do existentialists believe?

March 14, 2016 | By | Reply More

At the U.K. Guardian, Sarah Bakewell asks and answers what it is like to be an existentialist. Her article is equally insightful and entertaining. Here’s an excerpt:

[Existentialists] were interesting thinkers. They remind us that existence is difficult and that people behave appallingly, but at the same time they point out how vast our human possibilities are. That is why we might pick up some inspiring ideas from reading them again and why we might even try being just a little more existentialist ourselves.

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Milgram experiment reenacted by the BBC in 2009

September 26, 2015 | By | Reply More

Consider whether we are capable of learning basic moral lessons. This in a reenactment of the Millgram experiment by the BBC. This video drives home the terrible things that human beings are capable of doing, even when not coerced, where they are merely requested to do these terrible things by an apparent authority figure. Massively unsettling.

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Eulogy by the Deceased

November 18, 2014 | By | Reply More

Eulogies are best when given by the (not-quite-yet) deceased.

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Early Racism

October 21, 2014 | By | Reply More
Early Racism

They were marched into the classroom, single file, and lined up along the blackboard to face the roomful of white faces. It would be sheerest invention to say I remember everything about that day. The only things I recall had to do with questions about how my own situation was about to change.

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