If we wish to change the world, I believe it is important to understand our motivation.
Are we motivated to help people by empathy for their suffering, or anxiety about their “problems”—or by a mixture of both? Does the existence of poverty make us feel bad because we see the humanity—the experiences, fears, and aspirations—of the billions of poor individuals around the world, empathize with them, and wish a better life for them? Or does “poverty” resonate with us because of the moral, intellectual, and emotional poverty of our own culture? If we advocate animal rights, is it really about the animals and their helplessness? Or are they a stand-in for the children we once were—for our own helplessness? Are we afraid of pollution or global warming because we feel true concern for our fellow organisms, or do we fear that our society is contaminated by an evil we cannot explain, as if the very air we breathe is toxic?
I care deeply about environmental conservation, but I must confess that I was not convinced to be an environmentalist by rational arguments. No accumulation of statistics, carefully crafted arguments, or scientific reports was necessary. I wasn’t brought around to conservation by news reports of a devastating oil spill or by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Conservation always just felt right. Even though I believe I have good evidence for my positions now, I didn’t originally accept those positions because of the evidence.
Could environmental conservation merely be a metaphor for an emotional need that I am acting out? If it is, then I am unlikely to be effective in helping to bring about significant, long-lasting change. My fervor will have more to do with me and my own anxiety than with the objective problems of the environment. In the end I will fail to achieve my stated goal because I didn’t know that I was really pursuing an entirely different goal all along. I will have used the environment as a tool for managing my own anxiety, and like any tool it will be the worse for wear—my intellectual abstractions and justifications notwithstanding.
When I was a kid, my dad and I used to visit the scrapyard or go dumpster-diving in search of raw materials for his building projects, with the maxim “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” I guess you could say this was my introduction to recycling. Thrift was a very appealing ideal to me, and I became rather obsessed with recycling and conserving “resources.”
The easiest place to act this obsession out was at school, where I was pretty bored anyway. At school I had access to a flow of resources that I could do my part to economize: school supplies. At the beginning of every school year, parents would eagerly buy their children exorbitant amounts of useless things insisted upon by supply lists issued by the school. Many times only the first few pages of a notebook would be used, and come May that scarcely-used notebook would be thrown away, along with reams of untouched paper, stacks of unused binders, and fistfuls of un-sharpened pencils. Next year the entire ritual would be repeated again.
I did my part to conserve supplies by using my own with extreme frugality. I only sharpened pencils when they really needed it, and I wrote in small print outside the margins on both sides of a sheet of paper. For a couple of years during elementary school I even ran a pencil “hospital,” where I would repair mine and my friends broken pencils and crayons. Conservation was something I could work on every day, but recycling came down to the last few days before summer. Most of the families in my neighborhood were pretty well-off, so it was not uncommon for the children in my classes to throw away just about everything in the bedlam that erupted at the summer jailbreak. I was the only person who ever had more school supplies at the end of the school year than at the beginning, because I collected the unused or reusable cast-offs from everyone else. By middle school my mom didn’t have to take me shopping for school supplies anymore—I had collected plenty of my own.
As a child, when I thought that something I did might be an interruption to someone, or that it might risk causing damage to something, or that I could be using “inappropriate” amounts of resources (material, financial, or even emotional), I felt a high degree of anxiety. This anxiety had a lot more to do with the behavior of friends and authority figures—the people around me—than it ever did with “the environment.” In psychology, strong feelings about abstractions usually turn out to be based on intensely personal experiences, while the abstraction is merely an ex post facto justification and explanation for the emotion.
Strategies for managing my anxiety manifested themselves in introversion, meekness, thrift, and conservationism, among other behaviors and personality attributes. Throughout much of middle school and high school, I preferred solitary activities to engaging with other people. I would hold myself back from approaching someone I was interested in talking to for fear of “disturbing” them, and I avoided expressing disagreement with teachers or peers for fear of “annoying” them. Not all the time, but enough that it was an important aspect of how I interacted with others. This pattern was even evident in how I handled finances. For most of my life, I have saved much more of my money than I have spent, when given the opportunity; and I have refrained from buying some things I wanted for fear of “wasting money.” I have always been careful to “leave things as I found them,” occasionally to the point of compulsion, and I have felt an extreme degree of conscientious care for mine and others’ property.
So you can imagine how much environmental conservation resonates with me emotionally.
There are many ways in which having a conservation-oriented lifestyle may be good. But the question for myself is the extent to which I have internalized conservation, not as something I do, but as who I am. I do not want this “conservationist” mentality to keep me from living. Nor do I want it to inhibit me from achieving my goals. When a behavior pattern becomes dysfunctional or neurotic (as conservation seemed to have become for me), the problem lies not necessarily with the behavior itself, but with the fact that I don’t have a choice over it. I want to be able to choose conservation, and to do it for reasons that take the relevant facts about human action and the environment into account. There is no pride or virtue in having conservation be an automatic reaction to something in my past.
I am not responsible for the way the world is. I did not cause the pollution, the waste, the war, the inefficiencies, or any other of the litany of social and environmental problems we face today. To take full responsibility for the destructive acts of those who came before me is to accept a kind of Original Sin. I did not make the world. I did not break it. And I am not responsible for fixing it. I want to help fix these problems, but there is no reason that the solutions must come at the expense of my own happiness. These faults are not my burden to bear.
If I am more aware of how I am affected by my history with conservationism, and of how I act in my day-to-day activities on the premise that resources are scarce, then I will have more of a choice in the extent to which I act on that premise now and in the future. Just being aware that it is a choice is a powerful first step. As a child dozens of examples of conservation (thrift in finances, protection of the environment, and meekness and submission in relationships) were modeled for me by the adults in my life. But I do not have to follow their example forever. As an adult, I can choose.
For me, “the environment” turned out to be a metaphor for my social environment and my relationship to it. I suspect this is the case for a lot of other people as well. But as I alluded to at the beginning, we do a profound disservice if we act on the pretense that we are talking about the environment, when we are really managing our own anxiety about something that is completely unrelated to the well-being of “the planet.” Now that I understand the root of my strong feelings, I can analyze the facts about the environment more objectively. I can work to make sure that when I advocate solutions to environmental problems, I am basing my solution in objective reality, that the problem I am solving is really in the environment’s present, and not in my personal past.
The following is a creation myth from the Rig Veda (c. 1200-900 BCE):
Before being, before even nonbeing, there was no air, no firmament. So what breathed? And where? And by whose order? And was there water endlessly deep?
This was before death or immortality. There was no division between night and day, yet instinctively there was breathing, windless breathing and nothing else.
It was so dark that darkness was hidden in the dark. There was nothing to show water was everywhere. And the void was a cloak about the Being who sprang from heat.
Desire pierced the Being, the mind’s first seed, and wise poet saints detected in their hearts the knot of being within nonbeing,
and this rope they stretched over…what? Was there up? down? There were seed spillers and fertile powers, impulse above and energy below,
but who can really know and say it here? Where did this creation come from? The gods came later, so who can know the source?
No one knows creation’s source. It was born of itself. Or it was not. He who looks down from the ultimate heaven knows. Or maybe not.
If you read the above creation myth as a failed attempt at recording the history of the creation of the world, go back and read it again. This time think of it as a figurative description of the creation of an individual human life. Think of the process of intercourse, conception, and embryonic development.
Like so many myths, this one is about ourselves, not about the “world.”
(Translation by Tony Barnstone and Willis Barnstone, Literatures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.)
Much ado has been made about ends and means. From university-level philosophy and political science classes to the mainstream media, the question is often asked: “Do the ends justify the means?” Historically, this question has been answered in one of two ways. Utilitarians and Consequentialists such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Niccolò Machiavelli have tended to justify or condemn human action based on its consequences. If the expected outcome is considered to be “good,” then the actions necessary to achieve it are good. On the other hand, deontological theorists such as Immanuel Kant have argued that some actions are right or wrong in principle, no matter the consequences.
Instead of constructing morality from the predicted consequences of human action, or attempting to derive principles of preferred behavior rationally or empirically, many religions try to base morality on assertions. The absolute “moral principles” of religion are not the kind of principles that tell doctors how to cure diseases, or that provide ecologists with a methodology for preserving threatened species. They are merely arguments from authority based on the supposed will of an alleged deity, in whose existence we are expected to believe because someone else says so.
Other philosophers have attempted to deal with the ends-means dichotomy without the teeth-gritting willpower of the argument from authority. Ayn Rand contends that the ends do not justify the means. In Rand’s view, the ends determine the means—human action is a “process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it” (“Causality Versus Duty,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 98). Rand recognized the contradiction inherent in Consequentialism: just because the goal is virtuous, it in no way follows that any means which are believed to help achieve it will also be virtuous. The ends and the means must be consistent. Rand writes, “The end does not justify the means. No one’s rights can be secured by the violation of the rights of others” (“The Cashing-In: The Student ‘Rebellion,’” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 256).
In the words of modern-day philosopher Stefan Molyneux, Consequentialism is an “argument from effect.” The problem with arguments from effect is that they require perfect knowledge of the results before any action can be taken. We could accomplish very little if we always had to base our actions on philosophically-derived, certain knowledge of the outcome. According to Molyneux, arguments from morality are much more powerful. We may not be able to perfectly predict the outcome of any action, but principles can guide our behavior even when we do not know the future.
An example may be helpful. If we are trying to decide whether a given government program—say welfare—is “good” or not, the argument from effect requires that we predict not only whether welfare programs will help particular individuals (which is very difficult, since some of welfare’s effects do not appear for years or even decades), but also whether welfare is a net benefit to all of society (compounding the initial problem millions of times over). Even if such a computation were possible, it would take lifetimes to complete.
By contrast, the argument from morality allows us to apply a principle (such as, “the initiation of violence is immoral”) to the question of whether welfare is “good.” Now all we have to do is determine whether the welfare programs in question involve the initiation of violence. In our analysis, we will eventually discover that government-run welfare programs are funded by the collection of taxes. Since taxes are taken from citizens against their will (coercively), and since government welfare programs require the collection of taxes, such welfare programs are only possible because of the coercion inherent in taxation. Government welfare programs are tainted by the violence of the taxes upon which they are based, and are therefore bad—even if their “expected outcome” is good.
Because of the complexities inherent in any system (but particularly in systems of human interaction), it is very difficult to predict the outcome of an action with certainty. The same forces that make weather patterns and economic trends so unpredictable are also at work in many other areas of our lives. We do not know whether treating a stranger with respect will result in a “good” outcome or a “bad” one, because we do not intimately know the details of his or her personality and history. We do not have any control over those things, but we do have control over how we behave in the interaction. Instead of guessing, we can choose to follow a principle.
If we wish to be positive change makers in the world, we have to understand that change is only made by pursuing actions consistent with our desired goals. Gandhi’s much-cited but rarely followed aphorism “Be the change you want to see in the world” captures this truth perfectly. We cannot achieve our goals by pursuing their opposites. Peace cannot be achieved through war. If we wish to see more virtue in the world, no amount of complaining, voting, or violence will get us there. We bring virtue to the world by making ourselves more virtuous—by bringing honesty and respect to our relationships with our children, parents, and friends first. As these virtues radiate through our social networks, we will find that we see the change in the world which we have committed to be.
Thus in practice, no distinction can be made between ends and means. We cannot be violent and expect the world to become peaceful. We cannot be uncaring and expect the world to become empathetic. The ends do not “justify” the means. The ends are the means. The ends which we envision today will be the means by which we seek to achieve new ends tomorrow. We achieve our goals by implementing strategies consistent with those goals. But each day, those strategies are also goals, and the steps for achieving them must be consistent as well. “Ends” and “means” are divided arbitrarily by a distinction without a difference. There are no “ends” or “means.” There is only human action, and we would do well to make the most of it.
I remember you
The way you giggled in the tire swing
As I pushed you
I remember you
The way your skirts fluttered in the breeze
As I chased you
I remember you
The way you hesitated on the balcony
As I kissed you
I remember you
The way your breath came softly in sleep
As I held you
I remember you
The way you promised
To love me always
March 17, 2009