Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
We all tell lies. Most are little white lies that smooth the course of our existence. When the wife asks the husband “Do I look fat in this?” an honest answer will no doubt bring grief. A man can avoid answering this loaded question by feigning deafness or throwing himself out of the nearest window. Or he can give the obligatory “No Darling, you look fine” whilst avoiding eye contact.
Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was having none of that. He demanded that you always give an honest answer. That’s may be one reason he never had a wife. Kant held that any decision must be weighed against the question “What if everyone did that?”. Thus, if everyone lied, he surmised, that society would collapse. The weight of distrust and lies eroding values.
He founded his ideas on the concept of human dignity and respecting others. His achievement was to develop a philosophical system that separated morality from religion. For that, he deserves our praise.
In many ways, he was the father of the modern human rights movement. He also sought to remove emotion from the equation of what is right and what is wrong. In his view, we have a universal set of duties, including telling the truth. Yet, never lying is hardly practical or compassionate. Telling a dying traumatised child there is hope is the right thing to do.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) thought so. In his mind the outcome was important. Applying his ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’, the right thing produces the most happiness. If a lie can calm and content a dying child, then he’d allow it.
Bentham viewed humans as simple beings, who exist on a bipolar spectrum of pain and pleasure. He postulated that right or wrongness came down to the result. If a decision resulted in pleasure, then it's a good decision. His ideas fall apart when exposed to the wayward traits of human nature. Its argued that a series of endless blissful episodes undermines our very humanity.
For example, taking drugs because these bring you pleasure negates the long-term impact. The impact is on you and others. If we all act on our impulses for pleasure, the very fabric of civilisation gets weakened. Anyway, lets remember that humans can achieve growth through unpleasant painful experiences.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) sought to address the issue of consequences. According to him, adults may live as they wish, unless they cause no harm. The decisions they make are theirs alone. If there are no negative consequences for others, then in Mill’s world that’s fine. He made the distinction between offence and harm. A lifestyle can offend us without it causing harm. He asserted that offence alone does not justify us intervening. If the drug taker mentioned above can prove the habit has no adverse impact, then its held to be acceptable. If it does cause harm, it’s wrong.
Unfortunately, the power of religion over thinkers echoes through the centuries. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish philosopher, took the view that God can superseded human decency. This adherence to a God coloured all his work. Hence, he believed it was right and proper for Abraham to sacrifice his son. After all, God ordered it. Whether Kierkegaard was making a serious point is debatable. He often wrote under a pseudonym arguing against himself. Thus, he may have used the Abraham example to reveal the conflict at the heart of a decision.
Kierkegaard was a prolific writer on the human condition. He deserves mention for telling us that decisions are not easy. (We knew that). He stated "Decide to marry and you’ll regret it; decide not to marry and you’ll regret that too."
He had a dark sense of humour. His only advice … laugh at it all. Kierkegaard also gave us "life can only be understood backwards, but can only be lived forwards." In the end, he saw the only solution as blind faith to Jesus Christ. I’m not comfortable surrendering to a sky fairy or made up deity. Whilst Kierkegaard understood the dark places of human existence, his answers or solutions are trite.
These so-called thinkers cannot agree that one system of ethics is right. So unless you know something the rest of us don’t, your system must be wrong somewhere.
I’ve tried to keep religion out of this discussion. Religion, in various forms, confuses the issue. Especially when it ties integrity or goodness to a dogmatic belief. Be honest, belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as you believe a doctrine of any sort, then you stop thinking about that aspect of existence. You miss the gorilla in the room.
Its appears to me that we all have within us an innate sense of what is right and what is wrong. Yet, that sense needs calibrating against new ideas as humankind evolves. Be prepared to challenge yourself and don’t sit on a dogma.
Lastly, don’t trust the Internet to help with your decisions. Remember thousands of engineers have worked to give you a thrilling Internet experience. The purpose of their efforts is to make you want to keep coming back. Recognize that the Internet reinforces your confirmation bias by giving what you want. That does not include new information you may need to make a decision. Be ready, embrace uncertainty.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.