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  • Writer's pictureCrone

What matters

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

Can anything be more significant than to fully accompany another person in their moments of extremity?

There's been much discussion about 'meaning' lately - in my online philosophy group and in the books I've been reading, podcasts I've been listening to, conversations I've been having. It aligns, I think, with ideas about a foundation for morality. Can ethics be based in reality or are our values always subjectively imposed on a neutral objective world?

Big questions, big debates.

A few morsels: Donald Crosby, the American philosopher, believes that values are inherent in the natural world. He needs no sense of a divine other or a dualistic notion of personhood to claim that value is evident. For a bear, the berries he eats are inherently of value. For a large fish, the small fish. For a tree, carbon dioxide and water. And so on. For a finite, living being, existence is the primordial value. If value exists as a basic concept, one can build on it. Cooperation, well-being, community, freedom...

Further, he suggests truth has value. In order to act in the world, one needs a conception that maps onto reality. As conscious beings, as beings that move around, that seek to sustain our existence, we humans need to work out what works to support us in our endeavours. The more we can know, the more we can effect, the more we can do. Yet he says that 'nature' - as in the dimension of time and the presence of energy/matter - are all that we can be certain of. Formals laws and logic too have a level of certainty. Beyond that, all is to an extent 'the best guess', 'the closest we have come so far to truth'. Certainty elides into contingency, but this does not, should not, lead to a resort to the extremes of fundamentalism or nihilism. Again, the ideal - and indeed the real - is a Goldilocks state.

Kwame Anthony Appiah writes that ethics is based on what it is for a human life to go well. He believes that this comes through meeting three challenges, those set by one's capacities, the circumstances into which one was born, and the projects one freely decides are important. The philosopher and legal scholar Ronald Dworkin describes making a life as the most important challenge we face and that is like a performance demanding skill. We all have different capabilities and start off from different places. We all set our own projects. So the performances of all of us are unique. How can we judge one against another? I have taken this section in large part from Appiah's book The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, which was based on his 2016 Reith Lectures.

My philosopher friend in California emphasised empathy. Social animals need to be able to read and predict the behaviour of others in their fellowship. It is an intrinsic 'good' to have that connection with others.

We considered the three commonly formulated bases for 'the good': meaning, pleasure and well-being. Nietszche posits that if you have a 'why', that will support you in any 'how'. So there seems an essentialsm to meaningfulness, but I would argue that with insufficient well-being, 'why' is irrelevant. It's only if you have enough physical strength that the need for food, for survival, can have any impact on behaviour. It seems to me that well-being has primacy - the continuation of existence.

Once you have that, you can then look toward pleasure and/or meaning. My Californian confrère referred to some research suggesting strongly that those who pursue meaningful activities experience greater physical health than those who pursue pleasure. If pleasure involves alcohol and snacks, that's an obvious outcome, but it seems the researchers were looking in a more nuanced fashion. Say, reading Facebook as opposed to studying a new language; going shopping for yourself or for someone else; mountain climbing as opposed to mountain rescue. I checked this out and there was indeed such a paper - which has subsequently been contested by James Coyne, a highly respected psychologist. Mind you, he also questions the evidence linking exercise with mental health, explaining that more research is needed before such claims can be verified.*

It seems plausible that some people will prefer pleasure to meaning and vice versa, while basic well-being seems irreducible and unquestionable. Once one has crossed that hurdle, though, as most in the Western world have - even during this pandemic - what next? Basic well-being perhaps need to incorporate a level of psychological well-being, in that severe depression and anxiety, for example, inhibit access to pleasure. In those cases, maybe meaning can make some difference? I wonder if there is a correlation between those inclined to depressive conditions and the like and those who place more emphasis on meaning than on pleasure? That seems an intuitive idea to me, based on anecdotal evidence. So, those of us with a naturally less sunny outlook may not be inclined to get the same buzz out of hedonia, and will seek instead eudaemonia.

I circle back to the image of 'accompanying' another person in an extreme of emotion. A friend the other night described a situation where she was an involved witness while a woman was enduring intense emotional suffering. My friend said that she knew she had to be fully focused. She was not there to try to lessen the suffering, for that was not possible - all consolation would be platitude. Pity was inappropriate. Sympathy not viable as the woman was undergoing her own unique pain that it would be disrespectful to claim to 'share'. My friend knew she could not look away or hide. She had to simply be there, entirely; a presence; expressing, inhabiting her complete willingness to sit with another human, to be open to the other, to allow the other to feel her own suffering, to accept the completeness of another's pain without it being mediated by her own subjectivity. What can be more meaningful than that? To open out the space where extreme experience can exist in its own way, without interpreting or defining it; without trying to moderate or mitigate it.

Perhaps the depths of what it means to be human are found in bearing witness. The vastness of existence is the truth of existence. The only certainty.

*I have an irritating habit these days of wishing to check out sources. I like to think it's my training as a journalist, or maybe as a Literature graduate, but I fear I have become less trusting of everything.

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May 18, 2020

Checking sources is a very good thing.

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