Confusion, completion, misery and joy

Clouds taste metallic

Earlier, I observed that misunderstanding meaningness makes many miserable. I suggest that shifting from confused stances to complete stances can eliminate this “spiritual” suffering.

That is the point of this book. I hope it can help accomplish a positive transformation of your experience of meaningness. It is not meant to be an academic, philosophical analysis.

A couple pages back, I described a method for resolving confusions about meaningness. That explanation may have seemed dry and abstract.

On this page, I sketch one example. Although the discussion here is brief, I hope it is concrete enough that you begin to see how and why the method might work to replace unnecessary misery with joy.

An example: ethics

Let’s look at the dimension of ethics. Here are brief answers to the series of questions asked in the method of resolution.

(I will give much more detailed answers later in the book. I’ve also written more about this approach to ethics elsewhere.)

How does nebulosity manifest in ethics?

We are often faced with moral dilemmas, in which it is unclear what we should do. Usually these are situations in which different ethical norms conflict. For example, one should usually be truthful, but sometimes telling the truth would result in harm.

There doesn’t seem to be any general way of resolving such problems. Similar situations often seem to have dissimilar ethical implications; right action seems to have unlimited dependence on the context.

Why is this unattractive?

We want to do the right thing, but don’t always know what that is. This uncertainty can provoke intense anxiety.

Often we do harm that later we bitterly regret, and punish ourselves accordingly. However, we may not see how we could have avoided it, given ethical uncertainty.

How are fixation and denial used to avoid acknowledging the nebulosity of ethics?

One can try to fixate ethics by formulating totalitarian ethical codes that are supposed to tell you what to do in every situation. This is attractive because it suggests that it is possible to avoid ever being morally culpable—so long as you always follow the code.

Or, one can deny that ethics are meaningful at all, and refuse to take moral responsibility for your actions. This is another way of avoiding culpability.

How do these confused stances fail?

Ethical situations are unboundedly complex and variable. Any finite, fixed set of rules will sometimes require actions that are obviously harmful, for no reason beyond “that’s the rule.” In such cases, you are faced with the horrible choice of violating rules you believed sacred, or creating needless suffering by obeying them.

A fixed code also will fail to promote some beneficial actions in situations that present unusual opportunities.

Refusing to acknowledge ethical imperatives can sometimes work to one’s personal advantage. Obviously, it tends to harm others, though.

It also seems that humans are incapable of consistent ethical nihilism. Humans evolved to be ethical; that is just how our brains work. It’s usually impossible to avoid all shame and guilt. Even sociopaths, whose brains lack ethical function, do not often seem to have satisfactory lives.

What if ethics were unavoidably nebulous?

This opens the possibility of ethical responsiveness coupled with ethical freedom.

If ethics are unavoidably nebulous, in many situations there is no one “right thing” to do. Instead, there are alternatives with subtle trade-offs. We have the duty to pay close attention to the details, while also maintaining openness to the situation as a whole.

We also often have the privilege of choice. Where there is no definite right answer, we are free. We can choose at will. We also have room for creative improvisation: finding ethical solutions that are not applications of general principles.

This stance requires letting go of the fantasy that we could always avoid culpability. We have to accept that, inevitably, we will sometimes make ethical mistakes.

Regretting ethical mistakes makes us less likely to repeat them. However, acknowledging their inevitability means that we can let go of ethical anxiety. Ethical maturity is measured by the ability to find good-enough solutions to ethical problems, not by the amount you punish yourself.

What helps adopt the complete stance?

We need to destabilize the confused stances, by understanding their defects, and stabilize the complete one, by understanding its advantages.

In this case, confusion is destabilized by understanding that it is not feasible to achieve blamelessness, either by following the rules or by denying ethics altogether. Both approaches inevitably cause needless harm to oneself and others.

The complete stance is stabilized by understanding that ethical freedom can be a source of benevolent joy, not mean-spirited selfishness. It is stabilized by understanding that ethical responsiveness eliminates anxiety, and is not an intolerable burden of infinite responsibility without control.