Day 21: On Duty

Last year, a few people asked me how I dealt with the difficulty of my fieldwork. It wasn’t just the frugal living condition, but also the crashes of self-interest in the face of contemporary capitalism that I had to deal with on a daily basis. My answer was that I coped with it by reading books on moral philosophy, mainly those of the Eastern tradition in which I have always been interested. Whenever I found myself in a troubled situation, I picked up a copy of a philosophical book on my shelves and stared reading it. After a while, usually after 20-30 pages, I’d begin to feel better either because I was distracted from thinking about the trouble at hand or because I was so immersed with the new insight to the human condition derived from the texts that I was reading. Books on Zen Buddhism were the ones that helped me the most. Zen stories are short, and like aphorism, they are extremely witty, sharp, and allow us to arrive at the point so quickly as if we’re being splashed with a bucket of iced water in a cold winter. I remember well that there was a time that I read 20 Zen stories in a roll, and afterwards I felt as if I had arrived at the point of perpetual content, in which there’s nothing more and nothing less for me to gain, as if I was in, what arguably the greatest Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant calls, the “numeral world,” or the world of things in themselves. Unfortunately, as I wasn’t that strong yet in terms of my ability to meditate deeply, I always got brought back to the “phenomenal world” the moment I began to hear motor vehicle honking on the street outside, or people spitting loudly in the alleyway, or my neighbors making very loud noise as they’re shouting at one another. Kant’s writings did not help me as much as Zen Buddhism because it only provides me with moral explanations, but not the normative guidance of how I shall act in difficult circumstances.

Also last year, through teaching an undergraduate-level introductory course in moral philosophy, I got to also read ideas about morality from the Western tradition, which I always make comparisons with their Eastern counterparts. The interesting thing that came out quite a bit is Immanuel Kant’s idea of duty. What is the duty that we have to our self, our family, our society, and the world? Eastern tradition seems to have a few answers, and one of which encompasses the entire spectrum of the participants in human society, that is, if we act in accordance with the moral code of righteousness and benevolence, “everything under heaven” (tianxia) will be in peace. I believe that this “everything under heaven” includes not only human beings, but also animals, plants, other betwixt creatures and the whole environment: both things we can see with our eyes and things we simply can’t. The idea of heaven encompasses both God and beyond. I think the thinkers of Eastern tradition are leaving enough room for us to think about what the heaven should be. It could be an anthropomorphic being who we like to refer to as God, or it could just be an amorphous being who lives beyond the laws of gravity, and therefore is not constrained by space and time by which human beings like us are bounded. But whatever the heaven is for the Eastern tradition, it’s the idea that gives us moral guidance. In the spirit of pragmatism, I like the idea of “whatever works.” In this case, although it seems rather unscientific to think that there’s a being who lives above us in the sky who has more power than anyone use.

Any skeptics would say that we can’t simply see the world that way because we really don’t have any ways of proving that such all powerful being exists. That said, there are so many things we can’t see with our eyes, does it mean that they don’t exist? Again, this kind of intellectual engagement is good for those who have a lot of time to spend (and waste), but for me, really, is, as the pragmatist William James once said, “whatever works.” In this sense, I am more than happy to be friends with those who are moral because they believe in what I don’t, such as the afterlife, God, heaven, and so on.

In fact, isn’t that great?

As I wrote in my earlier post, thinkers, both Eastern and Western traditions alike, have been coming up with new ideas about how we might perhaps do to combat the absurdity of life (i.e., the existentialists), the vicious circle of birth and re-birth (i.e., the conservative Theravada branch of Buddhism), and the lack of meaning of it all (i.e., Confucianism).

The best way, at least for me, is precisely to not think of such absurdity as merely as act of moving from point A (birth) to point B (death), but to make the most of it. One thing we know for sure is that no one who has arrived at point B ever comes back to tell us what it’s like beyond point B, so, in the spirit of positive and meaningful skepticism, we might as well make our lives count. One way is to think about life is to conceive it as a process by which each and everyone of us allows the time to past. Whether or not we are making the time past in a meaningful way is depending on each person’s motif and goal in life.

My goal is to give the meaning to my life, and therefore meaningfulness is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. In order to “feel” such meaningfulness, I need to slow down my life’s pace, induced by my urge to pay bills, to satisfy other people’s demands, and to follow the convention, in order to appreciate the world around me, and listen to my own inner self. One way of doing that is by resorting to spirituality, which I would like to define it not as in the forms of practice or thinking per se (e.g., meditation, going to churches or temples), but as the way of being “thankful to the life that we have as such.”

And how can we be thankful? The answer is simple: by not thinking about the absurdity of life as such, but to somehow put our faith on something, or someone, whom we believe to be the true guidance of our sense of morality. The great Immanuel Kant, of course, doesn’t believe in God, but he does make room for faith — because, as the old argument will always ring true, just because we can’t see God doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist in almost the same way we can’t see many things so small, or the cosmos, or the universe, etc. We could also be like Kant. Buddhism, in a way, is a theist religion because it doesn’t explain the existence of the all powerful being above, but is spiritual because it teaches us to really pay attention to the true genuine knowledge, or what Kant calls, the synthetic a priori, or the knowledge that we can derive independent of our experience and at the same time is not true by definition. The Four Noble Truths, for instance, is a great example of the synthetic a priori — we know for sure that by resorting to the understanding of cause and therefore the effect, we can arrive at true knowledge about how to go about to solve the problems without having to experience it.

So, what’s my duty?

I believe that I am a pragmatic existentialist (here we go, I just coined a new term!) and I am not just saying that. I know that I am an existentialist because I have lived basically in accordance with existential principles even before I knew of the term. That said, I am also a deontologist (not a dermatologist because otherwise I’d have more hairs on my head!) because I live in the present, act according to my own law, and am led by my good intention and prepared to accept the responsibility of my action regardless of the consequences. Whether or not there’s a crash between being in accordance with my own nature, and in accordance with the universal maxim of duty toward fellow human beings and therefore the human specie as a whole is another question (which I’ll probably spend time justifying at some point in the near future). I don’t believe in the notion of absolute freedom. I think we’re as free as our freedom doesn’t intervene or affect other people’s lives and livelihood. Also, I only see the sense of being free in the present, which means that I wouldn’t chain myself to something (e.g., work or family) just to be free in the future. My father, for instance, believes that he himself was a free man because he chose his own job, and served in his role superbly as he believed in his duty to excel in his job as a form of personal development. That said, he allowed himself to be chained to his job for almost four decades, as he believed that when his job was done, i.e., when he’s retired, he would have all the freedom in the world, such as financial freedom though his pension, and physical freedom through not having to go to work anymore and therefore could travel anywhere he’d like. The reality was much more painful than that, as he passed away only a couple of years after he retired, during which he suffered a great deal from both physical deterioration and psychological decline as he felt he no longer had any value in the society as a stay-at-home uncle to my cousin, and my dog. I won’t let that happen to me. There’s no tomorrow, or the day after, or tomorrow. I’ll act according to what I feel the urge to do today, and I won’t let the hope for better tomorrow chain me to anything that I don’t find to be morally satisfying in the present. That is, I have freedom, essentially, because I act according to law I give to myself (which is the same idea of freedom for which Kant argues) and the basis of which law is my understanding of my moral duty to myself, to the society, and to the human specie as a whole — in the present.

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