News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Texas George Rex Judas (4b)

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Texas George Rex Judas (4b)

What I will suggest in the following is that Pres. Bush's new-found interest in history and his previous statement are all of a piece. That is, both Bush statements about history exhibit a reluctance to accept responsibility for his actions. By this I mean an inward responsibility, a psychological and spiritual awareness that he is indeed part of a community. And his reluctance to do so exhibits that Judas-like disruption and destruction of the very motives that bring about concord and understanding between neighbors, which the Christian Testament says is the primary commandment.

To make this point, I rely once again on Kierkegaard. In his analysis of what he calls "inwardness" and its relationship to the study of world history, Kierkegaard shows that there is nothing in the external world that can serve as proof for a person to act ethically. I might appeal to history as a reason for why I act or for a belief. Kierkegaard argues, though, that I'd be appealing to something hypothetical. For however precise historical methods get, they will always be approximations.

Kierkegaard uses this analysis of the chasm between truth and world history to show that ultimately any decision to act--and the motives driving me to act--in the right way is always open to question. This openness to question involves both why I do something and what my motives for doing it are. This follows from the idea that we are transient beings who do not have access to absolute truth. We can believe that something is true and right, but we can never prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. We can act as though what we do is the right thing to do, but we must always face the possibility that it is not.

Because of this potential for acting on less than honest and authentic motives, other than the passion to follow what I believe is right and good as well as true, I must remain vigilant about how I am acting. This "how" relates to "why" I am acting in the sense that my motivations for doing something are just as important as why I do it.

How does this make sense? There are many examples that might show that the reason for doing something is tainted by less than ethical motives. I might pay my taxes because it's the law but not because I owe something to the community that sends my children to school, paves the roads, or provides health care for the indigent. I can say I love someone and carry through the external actions of a loving spouse but do them without either true emotion or perhaps true love.

So Kierkegaard sets a high standard on what it means to be an ethical person. We must not only do the right thing but we must do it for the right reason. Reason here means motive and desire. Of all those things that might sway me to follow unethical demands or make even more questionable decisions, motive is paramount. There simply is no way around the fact, as Kierkegaard sees it, that acting ethically in the world is a risky and daunting business.

Of course, Kierkegaard could be wrong. Even worse, acting ethically does not get easier; the more we become aware of our interrelatedness with others as well as God, our responsibility and awareness of how deeply we are enmeshed in interrelatedness becomes more and more profound. It becomes more and more strenuous and impossible. But it is an impossibility, Kierkegaard believes, that belief in God can help you shoulder and confront. It's an eternal task that is ultimately never over until death.

Because of this strenuousness and objective uncertainty, we are prone to want to blame someone or other, usually outside of us, for making us do what we do. Blaming events or perhaps society is a well-known strategy used by criminals and non-criminals alike. These strategies of evading responsibility to being who we are in our actions and behavior lead to diverse forms of despair according to Kierkegaard. There are three main forms, the most prevalent of which is unconscious despair. For Kierkegaard (whom Thoreau unknowingly echoed years later) most humans lead lives of despair that they know nothing of.

Equally true, though, is the fact that we never make decisions in a vacuum. Ethical action is never simply the great and isolated act of an individual standing above or outside the community, as conservatives and others might lead you to believe. Given the social nature of our very selves, we must always be prepared to justify those decisions in rationally determined ways. No one has God's ear, and because of this, decisions affecting the welfare of others must include them in what I intend to do.

The latter comments are important for two reasons:

    1) Kierkegaard is often interpreted as being someone who advocates the "Great Man" theory of individualism. This is the theory that the crowd is always wrong and to find the truth I must isolate myself from it to formulate true and authentic acts. Kierkegaard does believe that the crowd is wrong. He does not, though, think that we only act as members of a crowd. Instead, we can, as individuals, act as members of a true human community.

    In fact, the only way to get to that community is by becoming individuals in the way that Kierkegaard describes. As some scholars note, another way is for people to debate issues rationally. This brings people out of their shells, so to speak, and gives them a platform on which to exhibit that individuality that is crucial to authentic community.

    As a correlate to the Great Man theory, there seems to be the notion that moral decisions are made in isolation from the concerns and interests of others. This view sinks very deep into the American psyche. Yet, any time spent reflecting on this shows that no one makes decisions without in some way being influenced by others. The point that people who try to talk about the isolated individual is that one must ultimately accept responsibility for one's actions.

    This is true, but an authentic decision is one made from an inward awareness not only of individual responsibility but also with the awareness that I make those decisions as part of a community. The community I grow up in has shaped me as much as I hope to shape it. The honest individual has simply become conscious of these influences and thereby critically assessed the good and the bad in them.

    2) Supporters of Pres. Bush's decision to go to war often say that he is courgaeous for standing up to public opinion and not simply following the dictates of popular sentiment. In this scenario, the President is often pictured as one who's acting for the good because he knows it's the right thing to do, whereas public opinion is based on ignorance and even justifies itself just because it is somehow popular. "They're just doing it because others are doing it," expresses this sentiment.

    Needless to say, the question begged here is whether the President is right or not and whether public opinion is always or even most of the time just such a doing or following what others say to do or think. Public opinion is not always the opinion of a crowd, a faceless, mindless, mass that knows nothing except supericial feeding at the consumer trough.

    There's no doubt that someone who stands up in the face of criticism--especially that of a crowd of unthinking and faceless ones--might exhibit courage. On the other hand, it could also be syubborness or a desire not to admit one is wrong or ignorance. Any number of things are possible. So, just because the President is willing--for one reason or another--to go against the grain of public opinion in no way says that what he is doing is the right way or not.

    As I have argued, perhaps tediously, Kierkegaard would say that there is simply nothing, nothing, to support the view that a decision you make is abolutely and inherently right. Indeed, to make any comment o the contrary and try to justify your actions will not only embroil you in a betrayal of the reasons spurring you to act but ultimately betray the very notion of existence itself.

Needless to say, on the way, you will also betray those who inhabit the planet with you.

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Anonymous said...

"the insanity of a wife filled with resentment cheating others" (paraphrased) what's this all about?

the cynic librarian said...

What are you talking about?