Friday, June 3, 2011

Contest Winner: "This is not a Good Essay", by Mike McRae

You won't like me very much. I'm not a nice man.

I helped a girl pay for an abortion when I was 19. It probably wasn't mine, but to be honest, I think I'm more confident in that claim than I really have a right to be.

I was married at 23. Divorced at 24. Remarried at 31 (she was initially a one night stand).

I don't believe in your god. Or any god, for that matter.

I mean it when I call illegal 'boat people' asylum seekers, think gay people have a right to marry and adopt children, see benefits in open marriages and might accuse you of being a bigot if you disagree with me.

I've been known to stand up for the rights of criminals and scowl at the praise lavished on public heroes.

I don't always believe in democracy.

I eat meat.

Maybe most damning of all, I'll take your most personal beliefs and tease them apart until all that's left are threads of truth and threads of wishful thinking. Depending on my mood, I might even do it in front of you.

As I said, I don't expect you to like me. And while I'd like that to be different, I don't apologise for who I am. In fact -- forgive me for indulging in a moment of smug arrogance -- I personally think my morals are rather sound. Oh, don't get me wrong; I've done some things I'm not proud of. But for the most part I'm secure in my ethics. In fact, I'd like to think I'm a relatively good man.

There are two ways I could be using that word, 'relatively'. One is to say there are people who are more virtuous, and those who are more evil, and relative to those latter ones I'm quite saintly. I mean it the other way. In a way Einstein might appreciate.

If we were discussing the motion of an object in a conversation about physics, rather than my vices and virtues, we'd have to agree on a frame of reference. Without doing so, we'd come to different conclusions about the object's speed. The reason is quite simple -- there is no universal reference frame against which we can describe movement. Two passing ducks bobbing along out in the open ocean could reasonably think the other was caught in a current while they sat perfectly still.

Likewise, ethics is devoid of its own absolute reference frame. A pair of fiendish despots sharing similar values could easily consider their colleague to be worthy of a statue erected in their honour in the town square. Our freedom fighters are your terrorists. Our Pan is your Ol' Split Foot. One man's saint is another man's devil, and without a heaven or hell to decide, it's moot arguing who is right.

When I look at myself in the mirror, I can look past the few mistakes I've made in my life and conclude I'm essentially a swell guy. You, on the other hand, see a man who is falling backwards into the dark depths of depravity.

I can't really blame you, though. Ethics establish a clear set of behaviours to which all members of our relative tribes are expected to adhere. As we grow and develop they seep into us silently, staining our brains in shades of reverence and antipathy. These standards define who we are in relation to our fellow humans. He didn't rape that woman -- the way she was dressed, she was asking for it!...Those foreigners are all taking our damn jobs!...Damn Muslims -- terrorists, all of them!

I'm not one of you. I'm 'the other'. And my morals clearly define our differences.

However we cut it, our moral values taint our perceptions of the world in such a way that we're happiest when we're amongst others of our own ethical colour, and at our most threatened when we're not. Good and evil can only manifest in the collisions of contrasting cultures.

The modern world is such an intense melting pot of clans, families, mobs and cliques that we cannot hope to keep our behavioural puddles from bleeding together. Colliding cultures are a way of life. We're forced to mingle and expose our customs and beliefs for constant judgment, and there isn't much we can do about it except hold tight to our vague sense of moral certainty for fear of losing ourselves to a void of relativistic existentialism.

Our moral compasses might resist flippant readjustments on a whim, but fortunately our tribal boundaries aren't quite as indelible. Throughout our lives we can move in and out of dozens, maybe even scores of cultural microclimates. As our social groups coalesce, we're challenged to consider the nature of good and evil and where we belong in relation to each.

How we respond to these changes depends on how prepared we are to hold our beliefs up to the light and ask 'could I be wrong?'. It means challenging our morals in ways that our social brains resist. Some will remain strong. Others will fall as we meet 'others' and find they're not quite the enemy we'd always expected.

Skepticism is a lot of things to a lot of people. It is often defined synonymously with science. Evidence. Doubt. Reason. Free thought. However its greatest strength lies not in its ability to evaluate the world around us, but the beliefs within. It is the strength to take a knife to the most sensitive ideas in our own minds and cut them away should they conflict with reason.

I once would have tutted at polyamory. Have sneered at the godless. There was a moment I might have even judged a person as arrogant for daring to challenge the sacred beliefs of another. Yet as I found myself amongst new friends and role models, my values adjusted accordingly. My ethical palette diversified. I became as critical of my own standards, ideas, morals and beliefs as of others. Then, even more so. I found those beliefs that were loose in their sockets and replaced them.

Some remain entrenched in a scaffold built around a firm belief in the right for all individuals to choose their own beliefs, regardless of how ludicrous they sound. This contrasts against a value in harm minimisation -- a distaste for any behaviour that puts one's physical, mental or emotional wellbeing at risk. No matter how I cut and trim and prune the words that define my morals, they don't all fit neatly.

Still, I can't not try.

Why would I do such torturous things to myself? Quite simply, it was because in my travels I'd met people who had done the same. These were strong people. Confident people. Intelligent. Respectful. I liked them. I wanted to be like them. So I learned to be skeptical of my beliefs, and gradually became the person I wanted to be.

It's been a slow process. And it continues yet. A gradual erosion of who I was. You might use another analogy, of course. Corrosion. Corruption. After all, we don't share the same beliefs, you and I.

I would suggest you think critically about your own ethical position, too. But to be honest, I don't expect you to take advice from me. After all, I'm not exactly the sort of person you'd like.

1 comment:

  1. I'm skeptical that you will not find people that will like you around here. That opinion clearly shows your availability bias, and false reference frame bias. Please adjust your bayesian probabilities when exposed to the population of this blog.

    tldr version: Awesome post! Love it.


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