Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Thoughts About Stories, Myths, Narratives…and Ourselves

I haven't read Jordan Peterson sufficiently to know exactly how he uses the term "Narrative," and how it may differ from how I use it. But capitalized, I use "Narrative" quite expansively, to mean a fundamental "story" that explains for each individual the basic nature of reality, and of his or her own place in the world, and that provides a vision of "right and wrong" (hence, moral guidance) by which to navigate the world. Each of us experiences this worldview in the form of a usually implicit "story," in which the individual casts himself or herself as the main character.

What a "Narrative" is for the individual, a myth is for a culture. I believe they serve the same basic purposes.

Briefly, I believe that the initial source of Narratives (on the individual level) and myths (on the social level) lies in the nature of the human subconscious, and its interaction with lived experience.

Our subconscious automatically processes our lived experience in the form of concretes -- that is, in terms of perceptions and sensations, rather than abstractions. Our dreams are windows into that subconscious processing. We have no conscious control over dreams when we sleep, but our daily lived experiences become elements that our subconscious automatically, involuntarily sorts, associates, and integrates.

Also, during these associations, certain of our underlying emotions and past experiences -- often deeply buried in memory -- become fodder for psychological projections, in the form of symbols: images and "stories" that allude to what we have felt and experienced.

Again, we have no conscious control over any of this. That's just the way the human subconscious works. It is what makes we humans "the storytelling animal."

Unlike dreams -- which are subconscious, involuntary, automatic, and individual -- myths are consciously guided, symbolic projections that draw upon our subconscious reservoir of widely shared human experiences. But what "experiences" am I talking about?

I believe that the primary purpose of myth-making -- of storytelling in general -- is to help us grapple with causality in the world. Cause-and-effect is the universal "life experience" that stories are trying to sort out; and myths are accounts, in story form, of the most fundamental causal relationships in the world.

The relationship between abstract theory and story is important to understand. Both provide accounts of causal relationships in the world. You might say (crudely, and not entirely accurately) that a story is a populated theory, and a theory is a depopulated story. What an abstract theory does is generalize about causal relationships in the world. What a story (including a myth) does is personalize an abstract theory, showing the direct (or analogous) relationships and impacts of a causal process upon individuals, and its meaning for their lives.

For example, look at what may be the most popular or core myth: "the hero's journey" or "The Quest." It is a projection, in symbolic form, of the life experience of most individuals.

We are all born in a helpless state of sensory bombardment and confusion. As infants, we slowly begin to sort out sensations into perceptions, and then into very basic causal interactions. In myth, this primal chaos and early sorting-and-integration process is captured symbolically in the opening verses of "Genesis."

As infants and young children, we are utterly dependent upon our parents to meet our basic life needs. This is the comfort zone of our early lives, when we are taken care of and nurtured, and when we are not forced to take action -- hence, when we face no risks and exert no effort. In mythology, this is commonly symbolized as the "Golden Age," or "Garden of Eden": a past, primitive state of automatic wish-fulfillment that, in memory, seems like blissful "perfection." In the classic three-act storytelling structure, this is the "Ordinary World" at the start of every tale, in Act One -- the comfort zone of the protagonist.

But as we mature, we become more aware of the larger world outside of our little home-bound Eden. We become curious about it and wonder whether there are values out there to be obtained. So, we become more exploratory and active.

However, activity intrinsically entails effort and risk. To satisfy our curiosity and to achieve any of our individual goals, we must slowly venture forth from our comfort zone, from the automatic security of parental nurturing. We must begin a slow process of separation from them, and launch our independent life's adventure. In Greek mythology, this is the Iliad and the Odyssey; in Genesis, this is Adam and Eve; in the three-act storytelling structure, this is the Act One "inciting incident" or "Call to Adventure," followed by the protagonist's passage through a "Doorway of No Return," into the Act II "World of Adventure."

And on the story goes, along a course clarified by mythologists such as Joseph Campbell (drawing upon Jung's subconscious "archetypes"). Along the way, the life passages during our Hero's Quest lead us to encounter enemies, allies, mentors, shape-shifters, etc. We face mounting challenges and confrontations; encounter setbacks and betrayals; experience reversals of fortune, major turning points, and the darkest lows of failure. Yet in heroic stories and myths, the protagonist -- a projection of our own life journey -- presses on; faces the challenges and evil enemies; finds hidden resources and abilities within; and, in a climactic confrontation, overcomes all adversity to achieve his vital goals.

So this seminal myth, the Heroic Quest, is really a psychological projection of the basic course of our lives. Its source is the universal experience of all individuals in the world, from birth to maturity to death. We cling to this core myth because it speaks to our deepest experience and emotions as we navigate life -- which is why it is retold again and again, in novels, plays, songs, and films. In each telling, the story has its circumstantial variations, as does the protagonist: He is "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," as Campbell titled his seminal book. But it is a story we need to see and hear, again and again -- for encouragement, inspiration, and reminder of who we are and why we are here, and how we can create a life of meaning, purpose, and identity.

"The Hero's Journey" obviously is not the only myth. But if you examine the most popular, you'll find they are projections of common, widely shared human experiences. And most of them seek to grapple with the fundamental fact of causality. How does the world work? Why? What explains the natural processes we see around us? What are we going to do about it?

Seeing that humans and animals are causal agents in the world, it's only natural that primitives -- and children -- would personify natural processes, attributing to unseen spirits and demons control and causal power over them. That desire to understand the world has thus given birth to countless explanatory myths and fables.

But so too has the need for correct guidance in navigating the world: our need for a moral code. Through experience, societies realize that certain human traits are helpful and to be celebrated (virtues), while others are destructive and to be condemned (vices). These become symbolized in stories of heroes and villains, with their actions (and the consequences) becoming either sources of instruction and inspiration, or cautionary tales of evil and harm.

From our earliest childhood, we are exposed to these lessons in causality in the form of interesting stories: fairy tales, fables, myths, songs, cartoons, TV shows, films, novels, plays. Those that capture a common human experience and resonate most broadly with a vast number of people, become our cultural myths. Those that speak to us privately and intimately become our own personal "Narrative" -- our individualized "story" of how the world works, and our place in it.

This is why the most important battle of our time is the struggle to craft and establish a guiding myth for our society, and a Narrative for each of us as individuals. This battle is well-known to those whom historian Paul Johnson labeled the "Enemies of Society," in a book of that title. Their most consuming passion is "narrative control." They are telling an ugly tale about our civilization and its heroes, knowing that their success will deprive us of a unifying myth and tear our society apart.

Storytellers who understand what is at stake need to get busy. By providing a fresh, inspiring mythology for our time, they will become heroes of tales that will be told and retold to children in the future -- and the shapers of personal Narratives for generations to come.

Monday, April 27, 2020

A Meditation About the Popularity of "Self-Sacrifice"

Politics is force -- and the initiation of force necessarily creates classes of victims and their victimizers. Politics invariably results in "zero sum," or "win/lose" relationships, where some people succeed only at the expense of others. Politics thus fuels resentments, hatred, and social polarization -- which we see all around us, as our society has become so thoroughly politicized.

The coercive interactions that characterize the political world are exactly the opposite of the peaceful, voluntary trade transactions that characterize a free market, which are "win/win" relationships to mutual benefit. Every day at checkout counters we willingly exchange our money for goods or services, and both parties to the transaction customarily smile and say, "Thank you." Why? Because we have both gained something we wanted from the transaction. Neither party has taken something from the other, against his will. It's a peaceful, "win/win" trade, to mutual benefit.

So, you'd think that people who truly want a peaceful, benevolent, harmonious society would realize this, embrace free market capitalism, and reject coercive political interventions that pit people against each other. But no.


Here's where I think Ayn Rand and her followers got things a bit wrong about the popularity of "self-sacrifice." They believe that all value-preferences are driven by philosophical ideas. And they believe intellectuals have spread the moral doctrine of altruistic self-sacrifice, which lies at the heart of various collectivist ideologies. They conclude that to fight the left effectively, they must train their fire upon the moral idea of self-sacrifice, philosophically refuting it, thus undermining its appeal.

But I think this interpretation is mistaken. On its face, self-sacrifice seems unattractive and nonsensical. I believe few people ever become liberals or leftists because they find self-sacrifice to be appealing, or because they've become persuaded of its merits through philosophical argument. Instead, I think their affinity for "selflessness" is a conclusion they've derived -- perhaps even reluctantly, but quite logically -- from their broader worldview or "Narrative" about how the world works.

What worldview?

A huge percentage of people harbor the misguided view that economic transactions are zero-sum, winner-loser relationships. They believe human economic interests are fundamentally in conflict, so that the "self-interest" and gain by some necessitates the "exploitation" and sacrifice of others. They therefore see socio-economic interactions in terms of a binary choice: either gain power over others, or submit to the power of others. And that's why they gravitate to the "class conflict" theories of Marx and other collectivists. Those political theories ratify and rationalize their underlying core belief about the inherent predatory "unfairness" of economic relationships.

This inherent-conflict-of-interests Narrative is rooted deep within humanity's tribal past, when human relationships were all about dominance or submission. We have to remember that, historically, free-market, win-win capitalism is very new -- and from the outset it was misinterpreted through the distorting lens of the traditional zero-sum, win-lose worldview. Early capitalists were thus "robber barons," not society's creative benefactors. Marx, and generations he influenced, construed capitalism and social relationships in terms of class warfare. Today, "identity politics" rests on the same view of inherent tribal conflicts of interest among demographic groups.

So, if I'm right about this, then many people's idealization of the ethics of self-sacrifice makes a warped kind of sense. They come to it not from philosophical/ideological persuasion, but from their deep-seated belief in inherent conflicts of interest among men -- and the corollary conclusion that the only way for people to live in social harmony is for all sides to sacrifice their "selfish" interests for the sake of "the common good."

This puts a different interpretive spin on the popularity of the morality of altruistic self-sacrifice. Again, on its face, self-sacrifice makes no sense. Deliberately sacrificing one's own best interests and well-being is bizarre, and why people should want to accept it as a moral ideal is even more bizarre. Ayn Rand and her followers, who have viewed human action as powered entirely by philosophical ideas, tried to explain the popularity of self-sacrifice by arguing that philosophers and thinkers have pushed it upon the gullible in the form of various religious and philosophical "isms." They have written countless books and articles trying to refute it as a moral idea. Yet we see that their critiques have had little societal influence.

My explanation for their failure is that their attacks on self-sacrifice, though philosophically accurate, are strategically misguided. Altruistic self-sacrifice is less a moral cause than a moral conclusion, for those who believe that socio-economic relationships necessarily involve inherent conflicts of interest. If that's your Narrative about the social world -- if you see transactions as nothing but power relationships about dominance and submission -- then you have a logical choice to make: either to become a cold-blooded predatory brute, or to remain "nice" and allow yourself to be an exploited victim. Those who truly believe in this Narrative may conclude they'd prefer to keep their self-respect by being victimized, rather than join the criminals and brutes. Such erroneous premises and conclusions would explain, for example, the rise of Christianity and the appeal of its altruistic ethics, as summarized in "the Sermon on the Mount."

Is my view of this so far-fetched? In a discussion on Facebook with Objectivists, I found many participants recoiled from the view that even emergency situations are zero-sum conflicts that might require us to become brutes, surviving at the expense of others. That is not the Randian view of "selfishness": Most principled individualists, in fact, would prefer to keep their humanity and self-esteem by dying nobly rather than survive like predatory beasts.

Well, to them I say: Imagine how you'd live if you truly believed that normal life was all about zero-sum conflicts of interest -- that each transaction under capitalism entailed someone gaining at someone else's expense. You'd conclude, logically, that economic winners would have to be rapacious robber barons. You'd conclude, logically, that to keep your soul, you'd have to sacrifice your prospects for economic well-being, doing your work solely for the love of it, and not for commercial success. You'd conclude, logically, that to keep the economic predators in check, we need a strong cop to suppress predatory "greed": a powerful government to regulate Evil Businessmen.

If my interpretation of altruism's appeal is correct, then the real target of individualists' moral criticism ought to be the zero-sum Narrative -- the false belief in inherent economic conflicts of interest -- and not altruistic self-sacrifice per se, which is mainly an emotionally driven reaction arising from the zero-sum worldview. We need to show that economic relationships in a free society are "win/win," not "win/lose." We need to explain what 19th-century economist Frederic Bastiat labeled "economic harmonies."

And we need to teach that the "win/win" marketplace is the moral antithesis of the coercive world of politics, where all relationships are in fact zero-sum and "win/lose." The more relationships we can keep outside the political realm of force and coercion, and within the private sector of peaceful production and trade, the better for our social harmony.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Real Meaning of "Natural Rights"

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, devotees of individual liberty rightly became concerned about the kinds of drastic restrictions that were placed on our personal and economic freedoms. Is such interference with freedom ever justified? If so, what restrictions are excessive? And how long should they remain in force?

There are no easy answers to such questions. But they do raise broader and more fundamental questions about the nature and meaning of “rights.”

Some people object to any restrictions on individual freedoms, even during emergencies, seeing them as violations of their fundamental individual rights. That objection usually arises from the traditional view of individual rights, as being “natural” and/or “God-given” in origin. By this view—broadly accepted by most conservatives, libertarians, and even Objectivists—individual rights are elements or aspects of human nature itself. They are “intrinsic” or “inherent” parts of human beings; thus, they are “absolute” and may not be abridged or curtailed by anyone, at any time, for any reason—not even in an emergency.

This belief—that rights are intrinsic to human nature, and thus immutable and inviolate “by nature”—owes its appeal among liberty lovers to their justifiable fear of socially subjective theories of rights. This latter view, promoted by the political left, holds that rights are merely grants from some authority figure or from “society,” which confer special privileges, freedoms, goods, or services upon designated individuals. Viewing a right as a socially granted privilege implies that the source of rights is the granting authority. That, in turn, implies that the granting authority—whether it is a king, dictator, or social majority—is morally and legally entitled to exercise unlimited dominion over individuals. It means that individuals may act only by the authority’s permission.

But equating “rights” with “permissions” negates the very meaning of rights. To act “by right” means to act autonomously, without further permission. A right is a moral-legal entitlement—not a social permission slip.

It is therefore understandable that lovers of liberty would reject the left’s bogus interpretation of rights as socially subjective and instead seek some objective basis for the concept. Since the days of John Locke, those freedom-lovers of a secular bent have tried to ground the concept of rights in nature itself; those of a religious bent argue that individuals’ rights are “endowed by their Creator.”

But both err in thinking that their respective approaches provide the concept of rights with an unassailable, objective foundation.

Let me state up front that I believe the concept of rights does have an objective basis in certain facts of human nature. However, while my perspective draws from Ayn Rand’s seminal writings on this topic, I don’t believe the presentation she offered in her essay “Man’s Rights” (Ch. 12, The Virtue of Selfishness, November 1964) distinguishes her view unambiguously from traditional “natural rights” theories. And I do not accept theories of “natural rights” or “God-given rights” as they almost always are expounded.

First, the “God-given rights” view is problematic, not only because it reduces claims of rights to mere articles of faith, but also because I don’t believe there is any biblical reference to a concept or principle of “individual rights” that supports such claims by religious believers. Such assertions are, at best, shaky interpretations that believers have merely inferred from cherry-picked passages or ideas in the Bible, then inflated in meaning and elevated in status to become religious doctrine. Even a devout Christian ought to find such interpretations disturbingly arbitrary—especially when elaborated into full-blown theories of rights nowhere in evidence in their Bible. One does not successfully counter the left’s subjective notions of rights by offering, in their place, equally subjective appeals to faith.

That said, I want to focus at greater length upon the broader, more inclusive claims that “natural rights” are essences or elements of human nature itself. I do not accept that view, either. For me, rights are not aspects or parts of nature, or some sort of essences that exist in or arise from human nature.

Rather, I hold that rights are objectively derived moral principles.

What do I mean by that?

To illustrate: Does something called “honesty” exist in nature, as a kind of actual thing? Of course not. Honesty is an abstract moral principle, devised by men to govern certain kinds of actions. However, this moral principle is not subjective or arbitrary: It is rooted in objective facts. What facts? These: To survive and thrive, we humans must face reality—that is, face facts, and deal with them. Likewise, to survive and thrive within a human society, we must be truthful with each other. Why? Because civilized society rests upon mutual trust, and mutual trust rests in turn upon our honesty with each other. Without honesty and trust, all the values we gain from social relationships are threatened and undermined. If dishonesty and mistrust become the norm, civilization unravels. So, there is an objective, fact-based, life-serving need for us to uphold the moral principle of honesty—to root our social relationships in facts, not in fantasies, lies, and deception. It is therefore in our own natural best interests to uphold that principle firmly and consistently, as a “moral absolute” in normal circumstances.

But not in all circumstances. For instance, you don’t owe honesty to a criminal or dictator who is trying to harm you by force. The principle of honesty serves a vital purpose: It is meant to further our lives and well-being in social interaction. That principle can’t be applied unilaterally, in circumstances where our lives and well-being are being threatened by those who don’t recognize the principle of honesty—or any other moral principles—and who would use our honesty against us. Exercised unilaterally, honesty would assist aggressors and thus become a threat to our lives and well-being.

Here’s the point: We don’t live in order to practice honesty; we practice honesty in order to live. Abstract moral principles exist to serve our lives; our lives do not exist to serve abstract moral principles. The latter is a “platonic” view of principles—a view of principles as ends in themselves, rather than human life as an end in itself.

The same goes for the moral principle of individual rights. Like honesty, rights are not things that exist somewhere in Nature. They are moral principles, devised by men, but rooted in objective facts. What facts? These: To create and then survive and thrive in a human society, we need to view and respect each individual as an end in himself—not as sacrificial prey for others. Why? Because a predatory, kill-or-be-killed society is to no one’s long-term best interests. So, to avoid reverting to primitive savagery, we must recognize, as basic principles of social morality, that each individual has a moral right to live for his own sake (the right to life); a moral right to take non-predatory actions to further his life (the right to liberty); and a moral right to transform the resources of nature into the products he requires to sustain his life, including the right to keep, use, and/or trade such creative products with others (the right to property).

In other words, the moral purpose of the concept of rights is to establish essential moral boundaries among people, so that within his own personal boundaries each sovereign individual may act freely to support his own existence, well-being, and happiness. (This is what I understand Ayn Rand to have meant in her essay “Man’s Rights” when she defined a “right” as “a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”)

That is the “natural,” objective source of the moral principles we call “rights.” And we need to hold these principles firmly and consistently, too, as “moral absolutes” in normal circumstances.

But again, not in all circumstances. For example, no concept of—or need for—“rights” would ever arise in the mind of a Robinson Crusoe living alone on a desert island, because there are no others present who could pose a threat to him, or argue with him about food and shelter and land boundaries. The moral issue of rights arises only in social relationships: only when other people are around to dispute or transgress upon the protective moral boundaries between and among individuals.

Also, the principle of rights cannot apply during catastrophes that break down all civilized boundaries and institutions—such as a war, when invading enemies transgress all boundaries and threaten all lives. Warfare is a crisis circumstance in which rights are under such direct and dire assault that they can no longer be applied and exercised by the combatants, and often by those caught in the crossfire. During such chaotic emergencies, the only moral mandate for those under attack must be to stop the aggressors, to end or escape the emergency situation, and to restore the moral order and normal civilized life. At such times, when the survival of the entire civilized framework of rights is at stake, it may temporarily become necessary for the defending forces to take drastic actions that transgress the rightful boundaries that normally apply among individuals—such as sending the defending army across private property to engage enemy forces, or enforcing curfews, or risking collateral harm to non-combatants by bombing the enemy. Horrible as these things are, the alternative is morally unthinkable: to let the aggressor prevail to harm and enslave all. The only options, then, are among degrees of short-term or long-term harm to individuals; and the ultimate long-term moral objective is to minimize and end that harm. So, the morally proper course for the defenders is to terminate the threat as quickly as possible, in order ultimately to restore and protect the rights of the threatened individuals.

I see the same principle applying during a deadly epidemic. In a situation where a potentially lethal virus is spread rapidly by individuals through normal socializing, it may become necessary—temporarily—to impose rational social restrictions in order to get the disease under control, or suppressed to at least a manageable level. Nobody has a “right” to engage freely in conduct that poses an unreasonable risk of harm to others. And during a deadly epidemic, that’s exactly what normal social behavior does. This does not mean a total, long-term lockdown of society, which would cause its own catastrophic harm and death. But prudent, temporary requirements, such as “social distancing,” wearing face masks in certain public areas, and short-term closures of places where people congregate, make sense—again, only until the disease is brought under manageable control (e.g., sufficient medical supplies and tests are available, hospitals and emergency services are no longer overrun, etc.).

To sum up: “Rights” are not arbitrary social privileges and subjective conventions; nor are they elements, aspects, or metaphysical essences existing within nature itself. What we call “natural rights” should be understood instead as moral principles, defined and applied by men, but arising from our identification of the objective, factual requirements of human nature in social relationships. To survive and thrive in society, we humans require moral boundaries to protect us from predatory aggression and to resolve disputed property claims peacefully. Rights are the moral principles we employ to establish such moral boundaries between and among individuals.

We can debate exactly how such principles apply, or where and when emergency conditions arise that might require temporary exceptions. But this view of the basis and meaning of objective natural rights is, I believe, rationally defensible. And it establishes firm moral-legal barriers to stop would-be predators, tyrants, and mobs.

(Copyright 2020 by Robert Bidinotto. All rights reserved.)