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It is in the prosecution of some single object, and in striving to reach its accomplishment by the combined application of his moral and physical energies, that the true happiness of man, in his full vigour and development, consists. Possession, it is true, crowns exertion with repose; but it is only in the illusions of fancy that it has power to charm our eyes. If we consider the position of man in the universe,—if we remember the constant tendency of his energies towards some definite activity, and recognize the influence of surrounding nature, which is ever provoking him to exertion, we shall be ready to acknowledge that repose and possession do not indeed exist but in imagination. - Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Sphere and Duties of Government (The Limits of State Action) (1854 ed.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Naturalism on Responsibility

Encountering Naturalism, Tom Clark, p 29-32:

There are several important personal implications of naturalism that make it a useful and inspiring worldview.
. . .
Second, naturalism shows that since you didn't create yourself, you can't take ultimate credit for who you are in the way traditional supernatural notions of the self make possible; only supernatural souls have contra-causal free will that endows them with ultimate credit. You, a natural creature, have to share credit for you successes and good deeds with all those conditions -- people, places, things, and genes -- that make yo a good person. Even you striving for goodness has its causal roots, perhaps in parental expectations and an inherited predilection for empathy and selfless action. When we see the causal story behind virtue, there are no longer grounds for feeling morally superior, prideful, self-important, arrogant, or for holding any other self-aggrandizing attitude or belief about yourself. Just be grateful for your good fortune.
Third, and for the same reasons, you can't take ultimate blame for being nasty, selfish, lazy, fearful, or any other personal failing. These characteristics too are fully caused, owing their existence to a host of genetic and environmental conditions: your parents (their genes and parenting skills), your community, peer group, schools, and all the unpredictable happenstances of your life. Seeing that you don't have contra-causal freedom reduces unnecessary and counter-productive guilt and shame aimed at the self for its sins. Remember though, the fact that being nasty and selfish is fully caused doesn't mean you shouldn't stop being nasty and selfish. We don't lose our moral compass in accepting naturalism[].
Fourth, when we understand we are not self-made and can't take ultimate credit or blame, we might discover a deep, abiding acceptance of ourselves and our situation. There's no causally privileged agent who could have done otherwise in the circumstances of your life as it unfolded; all your decisions, good and bad, arose without benefit of a supernatural self that made things happen as they did. This rather startling realization, so contrary to the Western assumption that individuals can (and should) transcend their circumstances, releases us from the regret, protest, shame and guilt wrapped up in the supposition that we could have done otherwise as a situation developed. Seeing that, for instance, I was fully determined to do badly in a job interview prevents me from wasting hours or days in self-recrimination, time I could spend more productively in preparing for the next one.
On a larger scale, appreciating the full scope of the causal network that is nature -- a process that far, far transcends us -- grounds a stable acceptance of what is in all its manifestations, personal and global. Such acceptance, although it might seem like passive resignation from the standpoint of Western radical individualism, actually works as a sturdy foundation upon which to pursue our projects, less vulnerable to the slings and arrows of our own reactive psychology. This isn't to deny the importance of our strivings, but to put them in a wider perspective that might give us some measure of serenity. Although achieving serenity is rarely mentioned as a goal in our hyper-competitive culture, it's arguably central to mental health, in which case naturalistic acceptance works greatly to our personal advantage.
Firth, and lastly, here's what naturalism gives you in a practical sense, although as you may have noticed the "you" has changed quite a bit. By understanding that you are caused, and by seeing just how you are caused, you gain control and power over yourself. Instead of supposing you can just will yourself to be other than you are (stronger, smarter, more altruistic), you understand that self-change and effective action flow from concrete conditions. Create the right conditions, then self-change and self-efficacy will follow. Want to be more productive or creative? Investigate the factors that permit productivity and creativity, then go about creating them.

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