On progress, choice and individual responsibility

On progress, choice and individual responsibility

April 26, 2020 0 By Anton

It seems to me that a common thread runs through most actions taken and directions pursued by human beings throughout ages. Those who create or destroy, give or take away life, rule over or obey others, fight to change things or to maintain customs, desire to conquer or liberate – all these actions, thoughts and desires are fuelled by a common drive.

This drive is a by-product of both our consciousness and subconsciousness – when the former dominates this drive, it seems as if we willingly do something; when the latter dominates however, it feels as if fate or divine intervention plays a role in our lives. In my view, this drive is deeply rooted in us, biologically, psychologically and spiritually speaking. It is ever-present – in the hearts of primordial tribes, in the minds of ancient civilisations, through the darkness of medieval ages and in the speed of the modern world. This drive is what I call “progress”.

“Moving forward”, “preserving for the sake of the future”, “looking ahead”, “planning”, “creating or discovering something”, the idea of “leaving something behind”, actions such as establishing a family and giving birth to children – they are all manifestations, albeit of various intensities and under different forms, of the same driving force: progress.

More so, progress is generally perceived as some kind of improvement, a betterment of what once was, of how things were done, of what values were deemed acceptable and of what thoughts and observations were correct (empirically, metaphysically, or both). Indeed, when people speak about the future, they usually have a “better future” in mind, i.e. some type of progress, which most often than not is subjective but, at the same time, all too objective: it is the hope, desire and want for tomorrow, even if tomorrow may be in the same concentration camp, the same battlefield or the same prison in the mountains; this hope, desire or want is fuelled by the drive called “progress”.

However, is there a need for tomorrow? In other words, is there a need for us human beings to act on this driver to “progress”? If this question can be answered negatively, what does this entail for how we go about in life?

To my mind, the drive to progress was, in the early stages of human development, equivalent to the drive of “staying alive”. In this initial form, progress took the form of actions such as procuring food, eating, sleeping, building shelters from the elements and having and protecting children. However, as human societies evolved intellectually, spiritually and technologically, “staying alive” has morphed into a desire (that sometimes is a downright demand) to “be more than alive” – and so we have been gradually seeking various forms of enhancements to our existence through creating (e.g. arts of various sorts) and exploring (e.g. learning about the natural world).

Therefore, with time, the driver to progress no longer meant just having bread on the table, a roof over our heads and preserving our bloodline through having children, i.e. “staying alive”. Now we can add to the meaning of progress various notions like the gaining of abstract knowledge, self-expression, decorating our dwellings, building and keeping wealth and so on: all these aspects of human existence were initially non-existent in the primordial world, then, slowly, they have become options and now they are [almost] conditions that we deem part of what progress means.

However, this transformation of what we regard as progress from a process which fulfilled and preserved a collection of ancient, almost entirely instinctive needs, to a more abstracted process of intellectual and imaginary creation and exploration can be traced back to the need of “staying alive”. Consequently, to understand if there is a need for tomorrow (for progress), we must first explore if there is a need for “staying alive”.

Part 1

To what extent is “staying alive” a choice rather than a need? We must begin answer this question with an observation that concerns our pre-existence.

As far as I am able to imagine and logically deduce, we do not have a say in whether or not we want to become part of this existence, i.e. to be born. Stated differently, we do not choose whether we want to be alive, where and when we become alive, in what creed, what geography, what race, what gender or with what sexual orientation. In chaos we are born – we are all spawned into an indiscernible mix of rules, some imposed by nature while others fabricated by people, values, some acceptable (moral), others not (immoral), simple and difficult concepts, abstractions, norms, myths, systems, everchanging social organisations, economic forces and a pantheon of gods. All of this “life” is put on the shoulders of each one of us without our choice. However, do we need to remain alive or do we have a choice in “staying alive”?

Our biological and psychological instincts wire us against answering the above question in negative. Although it is not impossible to imagine not being alive, we would rather not. In fact, we may even find ourselves arguing that there is a need to stay alive: why did you do that? “It was necessary to stay alive!” or “In order to save someone’s life!”. Statements such as these are highly complex and, for now, it is beyond the scope of this short inquiry to analyse them in any depth. Suffice to say that, to me, they suggest that people have an innate gearing towards “staying alive” that serves as justification for considering this state of being as a need and, consequently, a forward-looking perspective on human life can seem most natural.

One can even argue that “in the beginning”, at the starting edges of human time and space, the mere idea of whether or not we have a choice in “staying alive” was to a large extent veiled from us: if we take the path of evolutionary biology, “in the beginning” we were simple humanoids without a well-developed capacity for abstract thinking and, speculatively speaking, probably with a thin sense of self, if at all. Therefore, how could we have entertained such thoughts, let alone discuss them? Similarly, those that adopt the creationist approach, could highlight that, even though humans were not simple-minded creatures (for they were made in God’s image and God, after all, is all-knowing, among other all-encompassing qualities), we were “left by God” to multiply, for God is Life. As such, a forward-looking stance of life was not only enshrined in us biologically but also psychologically and spiritually. These perspectives may be both true in their underling point: that “in the beginning” we couldn’t have thought about not seeing “staying alive” (and therefore, progress) as a need. Today however, regardless of what the “first conditions” were, it is much clearer to me that this need is a desire (which is optional) that masks itself as a necessity.

Reaching this observation is however not easy, nor does it come naturally. It seems that we (both as individual beings and as a society) are deeply against this perspective: those that seek to “exit” existence (i.e. to commit suicide) are seen as dangerous, outliers, heretics, unfortunate beings that were pushed to the edge, mentally imbalanced, diseased, sinners, ungrateful and so on. Some of these labels may be, to some extent, true, depending on the values that one upholds and the scientific theories one deems correct. I however am not concerned here with what is or not true, irrespective of what true may mean: I merely want to highlight the usual perceptions and opinions attached to the decision, whatever its source, to refuse “staying alive” (i.e. progress).

Nevertheless, it is possible to think about existing or not in a very lucid manner, akin to some sort of risk assessment, weighing the pros and cons of one state or another to the best of our cognitive capacities. This lucidity, which I regard as a form of awakening (from the intoxicating slumber of primordial instincts) does not happen overnight – it takes time and effort, searching within and outside of ourselves for [inconclusive] answers: it depends on each one of us how much we question our existence, on which of its aspects we focus on, the amount of courage we have to go further inside our thoughts and feelings, to gaze into our souls and then at the stars, to be stone-cold honest with ourselves or not. Initially, we tend to seek concrete solutions to our existential dilemmas; it is like an impulse which turns our attention towards explanations of any kind: rational, emotional, spiritual or a mixture of these.

Eventually however, we learn that concrete explanations do not exist, and we can only aim to explore our existence rather than explain it. Once we reach this perspective, chaos is no longer feared but embraced. Contradictions, doubt and change replace clarity, certainty and dogma: things no longer need to be a certain way; they simply are, without a qualification of how they are. More so: when we realise that things no longer need to be as such, we have the confidence to explore and create new things, ideas and processes.

One such “novel” idea is to imagine having the choice to not exist (or rather, to question the need for “staying alive”) – what would progress mean in this context? More specifically, if “staying alive” is just another choice, what does this mean for how we go about in life?

Part 2

There are numerous angles one can approach answering the above question. Obviously, I cannot offer all of them here, nor can I go into all the detail that I would like. What I intend to do is to provide you with the essence of my thoughts on this matter.

I want to start with the following statement: despite the rather ambiguous term, “choice” implies consequences – on this, we can all agree. These consequences might be seen or unseen by those that make the choice; they can affect the individual which makes the choice, the people around them and generations into the future; they can be immediate or inter-temporal (meaning that their impact is not necessarily confined to a limited present and, indeed, often it is not); how and when they manifest are not entirely predictable, even though some degree of foresight (calculated or perceived) may, sometimes, help anticipate them, entirely or in part; but, above all, they are inevitable: this means that no choice can be without its consequence(s).

This causal relationship between choice and consequence implies that someone or something (animals, plants, etc.) eventually bears the consequences of a choice made.

At this stage in the argument, we must venture (as briefly as we can) into concepts of morality. The idea that a code of how to live exists independently of each one of us is ancient – notions such as the natural law or the law of God have been around for thousands of years. These are highly complex psychological and spiritual concepts which deserve a lot more attention than I can offer them in this essay; suffice to say that they serve an important purpose in understanding who we are as beings: in this regard, one thing which they tell us is that we seek some kind of order in conducting our lives. A universal code of how things ought to be done, of what to do or not to do in situations of grave turbulence provides, above all, mental peace (one of the highest forms of order). But, in creating this external world of morals, we risk outsourcing responsibility.

If one adopts this approach to morality, the limits of what can be done, or thought are imposed by these higher, outer structures of rules. In doing so however, we proclaim that there are situations in which a [lucid] individual cannot take the full responsibility for his or her actions and thoughts for if nature (or God) wills something, then it shall be done without question, i.e. the actor of that action will have no choice in opting out. And so, someone committing such action is not responsible for its consequences because it was demanded from something or somewhere that transcends the individual, as well as the entire humanity. I reject this perspective of morality for it denies the role that the individual has played and continues to play in shaping human civilisation.  

To me, morality springs from the individual’s actions and thoughts. In this regard, morality comes from within us rather than from an external source. As such, we bear the responsibility for our choices.

This responsibility sets the limit of what we can do: I take that the ultimate limit to our actions is set by how the consequences of what we do impact on others. Because the choice of “staying alive” is available to all those that are born and represents the same idea to all those who make it (i.e. it represents the desire for “better tomorrow”, for future, for progress), its ultimate consequence is how much it restricts, widens or doesn’t change at all others ability to make this choice.

In a less abstract manner, what this means is that if we choose progress, we should be mindful of when this choice limits other people’s ability to make the same choice as we did. I hold this perspective because, to my mind, the notion that we have no say in whether or not we are born puts all humans on the same starting point – with the choice of “staying alive” or “exiting”, regardless of whether these choices are obvious or not. It is from this idea, namely that “we are all in this together”, that I place morality within the individual, allowing him or her to take responsibility for their actions of how they pursue progress.

A conundrum arises from the subjective nature of what progress means for each one of us: a better tomorrow means something different for a gang member than for a university teacher. I believe that the objective element that roots all subjective paths is the default position of “we are all in this together”, offering the same option to everyone: that is, to make the choice of “staying alive” or not. If morality arises from inside the individual, then the gang member cannot be judged for their actions unless the politician, the police officer, the fathers and mothers, the teachers, the journalists, the lawyers and bankers, all of us are: we are all under the same trial because if we have a socio-economic order to which we have all contributed in shaping it. We cannot look at another person’s actions (no matter how horrific and repulsive we find them) without seriously asking the question: “How did I contributed to this state of affairs?”

I want to make clear that I do not deny the agency of the individual – rather, I acknowledge that our capacity to act on our own behalf is impacted not just by internal forces (e.g. our emotions) but also by external factors (e.g. others’ actions). Briefly then, I shall touch on the interaction between the individual and the world around him or her. Before I start however, I want to stress that what follows is a distilled view – this relationship has preoccupied the minds of people for thousands of years; I can only present what I believe to be a satisfactory explanation for this short essay.

Let’s start with an observation: we are not living in a vacuum, isolated from others and immune to the consequences of actions pursued by others. We can think of the external environment as a limitless world, infinite indeed, which combines natural forces with human actions. This external realm constantly interacts with us and we with it, in an ongoing process of exchange: we shape it and it shapes us. The exact extent to which this reciprocity happens is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. But, to my mind, I cannot deny, logically or emotionally, that it occurs.

When I look at human existence, each one of us, individually, is indeed small – but not insignificant. It may seem that what we do matters very little in the big scheme of things and that it affects a rather limited area around us; however, it is not necessarily so. An individual’s work can change the world and there are plenty of such examples in history. As I said above, the consequences of our actions may not be immediate nor self-evident, but they are inevitable. What we do can impact the lives of others for hundreds of years to come. This ability rests in all of us.

In turn, the world around us changes us. The values (and ideas) we claim are “ours” are not entirely so: we borrow from what others have done, are doing and plan to do; we imitate, aspire, imagine, discover and learn. All these processes shape who “we” become. Sometimes, these processes seem so profound that it appears as if the external environment changes us entirely. I don’t believe that this is possible: introspection (such as self-exploration) reveals who we are just like our actions towards the outer world do – we can choose to go here or there, do this or that, learn this or that, create this or that and so on.

Conclusion

The conclusion which appears to me is this one: we cannot escape the world we live in and, as long as we do not exterminate each other, it cannot escape us. We are bound to it (not by it) and it is bound to us (not by us). How we act impacts not only ourselves but also the world around us and therefore, it impacts on others. “Our” environment is as much a collection of forces which we cannot control as well as of elements that we can: we cannot control if we are born in a neighbourhood torn by violence, or in a rich country or a dirty pit. But as we grow and, as we seek answers, we also look inside us and, from the perspectives that we develop through self-exploration, we look back at the world around us and at our past and future. Then we act – how we act, we can control to a much larger degree than how our environment shaped us.

I cannot however make the case that all consequences should be treated the same: if through my actions I create an environment that deprives others from their freedom to act, a freedom which comes following the choice of “staying alive”, then those who, due to the consequences of my actions, are put in a position to act in a manner which also limits the freedom of others around them, they cannot be on trial for doing so without me being on the same trial as well: for the soldiers to be guilty, first their commander, their MPs and their Prime Minister have to be found guilty too.

Progress therefore entails acting in a certain manner. It requires humanity to get rid of barriers to education, manipulation, power plays, competition for resources and dogmas, among other things. It necessitates accountability, first to oneself than to others who are affected by our actions; it requires weaving a common vision which maintains the uniqueness of individuals but encourages them to work together. “Staying alive” places upon anyone who makes this choice the responsibility not to limit the freedom of any other person who makes it.

PS:

Freedom here is vague, as it has always been. Freedom is not absolute – it can never be; it’s relative. Indeed, absolute freedom cannot exist because it cannibalises itself. But the limits of freedom should come from within the individual who awakens to the realisation that, although he or she had no say in being born, they have a choice in “staying alive” and that choice has consequences which they need to account for.