My Misanthropy – 5. Anthropocentrism

5. Anthropocentrism

Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.” – Agent Smith, The Matrix

At the age of 16, while working on a project for Jugend Forscht (Youth Researching, a German science competition for teenagers) in the biology lab of my school with two friends, I found a book in the small biology library: Theo Löbsack’s Versuch und Irrtum: Der Mensch – Fehlschlag der Natur (Trial and Error: Mankind – Failure of Nature, 1974, ISBN 9783570022603). In this book, the author – an anthropologist and science journalist – describes why mankind is NOT the summit of evolution. He claims that mankind is heading unstoppably towards its extinction, for the same reasons as the dinosaurs or the sabre-toothed tigers. The sabre-toothed tiger had teeth that were too large, specialised too much on a certain type of prey. For a while it was good, but as the world changed, this tiger species could not keep pace with this change, so he had to go extinct. The dinosaurs had too large bodies that could not adapt to the changing circumstances when it was necessary, so they also disappeared. And the same will happen to mankind, because the human brain developed into an excessive organ, too. The book features chapters about technological progress, about religion and ethics, about diseases and about human short-sightedness. In short: mankind stepped out of evolution by creating its own world, with high technology that people cannot control anymore. Mankind invented morals and ethics, inflicted onto people by powerful institutions like organised religion or political systems. The main adverse effect of it is that we can’t let fellow humans die. We save everyone! By this, mankind undermined important principles of evolution, thus avoiding the balancing effects of selection pressure, leading to genetic decay and vulnerability of health and immune system.

The book was in fresh and convincing contrast to the implausible nonsense we learned in religion classes and in the church classes that prepared for the Confirmation ceremony: Mankind as the crown of creation, God’s final masterpiece, equipped with ratio and reason, thus smarter than animals and superior to them. It never made sense to me! Not only is that entire God-story nothing but a bed-time fairytale, but also is the idea that humankind is superior to other elements of the biosphere highly flawed. For each and every ability that we have you will find an animal that is better at it. Our last resort was and is our cognitive and self-reflective capacity. In terms of human intelligence concepts, we are indeed smarter than animals since we have never seen a non-human animal solving math equations or flying to the moon and back. But what is intelligence? Obviously, the human brain developed into a state in which its output – enabling man to do impressive and creative things – threatens the future of its carrier and his/her offspring. We are not able to use our brain to secure our further existence. In contrast, with the help of our brains, we even put it at risk, unable to understand it and counter-act. A sustainable intelligence would, above all, ensure its survival, like ant or bee societies.

This worst form of ignorance – not admitting our humble position in the world fabric but believing strongly in the superiority and divinity of the human race – has devastating effects. Uprooted from the harmonious equilibrium of our ecological niche, human activity leads to a global disruption of environmental balance. Even worse, the ends, our motivations for all we do, serve avoidable, implausible, selfish desires, a craving for pleasure and well-being that greatly exceeds the necessities of survival and pleasant life. Selfish, in the context of mankind as a whole, doesn’t refer to individual selfishness of people, but to the widespread overestimation of human importance, significance and superiority. We may call that anthropocentrism. Human convenience, according to this view, may legitimately be weighed against environmental or ecological impact. A new tunnel that makes the train ride between two cities 30 minutes shorter justifies the destruction of natural habitat and landscapes. Producing electricity for our neon-light temples (malls, amusement parks, stadiums, etc.) and profit generators (factories for the production and dissemination of more and more goods) justifies the exploitation of Earth’s resources in an unsustainable manner, damaging the ecosphere and putting all life forms at risk. The industrial era is an unprecedented case of serving and increasing human suffering (in the Buddhist sense): We desire eternal life and freedom from unease, so we consume mindlessly everything that is offered to us, promising an increase in convenience and pleasure. Yet, today, more people than ever suffer from mental decay, psychological disorders, emotional instability and fears. Our destruction of the planet was even useless, it seems. People get older, life quality (in terms of hygiene, labour, medical care) is highly improved, advanced societies established peaceful ways of living together. Yet, doubts are frequently raised that overall well-being and happiness could be improved by that. Even worse: Our activities induced a change of the ecosystem (new germs and bacteria that are resistant to our antibiotics, climate change, prolonged recovery cycles of agriculturally important land) that the human race is not able to keep pace with. Current lifestyles (close to water, mostly coastlines, dependent on large scale agriculture, artificial protection from infectious diseases) turn vulnerable and fatal at a rate that no social, cultural or political system can react on (or against). Therefore, I see Löbsack’s prediction – extinction of the human race within a few generations – in a realistic light.

The source of all the trouble that arises from self-consciousness and self-awareness is fear. The fear of death manifests itself in eager activity and desperate attempts to avoid death. Biologically, evolution equipped us with features like emotions (to induce escape reactions or attraction to something beneficial), sense-perceptions and cognition. In the large time-scales of evolutionary pressure, these features developed because they brought advantages to their carriers. But now, within a few centuries – a very very short time frame for biological processes – the conditions created by ourselves turn to our disadvantages. Three artificial human-made systems, all the product of fear in one or the other way, are the root of all problems: power (manifested in religions and socio-political systems), materialism (the belief that things have a value, the basis of economy with its monetary system), and pleasure. They all increase human suffering since they support and fertilise the mind poisons (in Buddhist terms): Greed makes people long for power and well-being, often for the cost of others. Selfish interests in power and material wealth cause hatred and resistance against others, causing a lack of willingness to cooperate and form peaceful communities. Ignorance is more subtle: Religious and political systems are based on people being ignorant. The powerful and superior have no interest in others being potent and knowledgeable. I am sure you will be able to come up with countless examples for all these aspects.

To summarise: We are a life form that is equipped with an organ that enables self-awareness, learning, and creativity. The self-awareness drives us into fear-induced activities in which our creativity and cognitive potentials can bring phenomena (ideas and artefacts) with devastating effects into existence. This makes humankind a dangerous element in the global environmental equilibrium. Or with other words: We are not in a natural equilibrium any longer. Therefore, as with all life forms like us before, the ecosystem will try to get rid of mankind – man will go extinct. This is not sad, but good for the overall cosmic harmony and balance. Trial and error. But it wasn’t nature that failed! We humans had a good chance, with outstanding mental and cognitive abilities. We failed in using them appropriately. It is mostly sad and unfair for all those life forms that had to suffer from our stupidity!

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My Misanthropy – 4. Responsibility

4. Responsibility

Writing is a therapy. It makes many ideas clearer in my mind. After a text is produced, I think it over, which often induces some kind of progress or change in my views. At the end of the previous post, I sounded quite hopeless and daunted about human stupidity. Today, I am not that negative.

Where are we now? I explained that my misanthropy is the product of introversion, strong ego and self-confidence, and high expectation on rationality and reasonability. But in contrast to yesterday, today I think, my main concern is that there is always a chance for change. My critical statements are associated with a plea for practicing mindfulness and awareness, for sharpening cognitive and intellectual skills, and the strong belief in everybody’s potential to overcome mindlessness, delusion and stupidity. In this respect, my concern doesn’t even deserve the label misanthropy. There is always chance to do better, and that’s why I am telling all this! With other words: As a realist, I have to be a misanthrope (because people give me reasons for it), but as an optimist, I am confident that it doesn’t have to be like this forever.

Obviously, the call for fighting and reducing stupidity is an ethical one. Stupid decisions have an impact on others (human, biosphere, eco-system), usually a negative one. Therefore, I claim that everybody has an ethical obligation to reduce stupidity to his or her best knowledge and capability. This is a responsibility claim that needs further circumstantiation.

At a closer examination, we find that responsibility is never just one-dimensional as in someone is responsible. There must, at least, be a second dimension, that which that someone is responsible for. Moreover, it can be analysed what is means in this case. Where does responsibility come from? Usually it is attributed by someone to someone, or in some way expected by someone from someone, or delegated by someone to someone. These two someones should be in any way related to each other so that responsibility claims are justified. Last but not least, there is also a fourth dimension: Someone may legitimately attribute responsibility to someone for something only in view of a certain body of rules or a level of knowledge. A necessary precondition for being a carrier of responsibility is the ability to fulfil the duties and obligations that go along with it. Above all, the person claimed responsible must be in a position of knowing the rules or of having relevant knowledge.

Fig03

In order to clarify responsibilities, there are two strategies: We can start from cases and ask who is responsible for what in which way; or we can start from roles and ask what is the particular person’s situation in terms of responsibility. The former is often perceived of as accusation and blame. Besides, responsibilities are denied and shifted to other people. The latter approach appears more useful for our purposes: What can people in their various roles (family members, friends, citizen, consumers, professionals, decision-makers) be held responsible for? A pragmatic standpoint is necessary: Responsibility is a useful concept only when it is enacted from the now-perspective. Someone is now held responsible for future issues, that means in the position to respond to inquiries and claims for taking action. Note that past-related claims are usually expressed in terms of accountability: Someone is now held accountable for the effects of a decision or action in the past, that means the burden of reacting on it is on that persons account.

Let’s have a look at the four dimensions of a responsibility claim concerning stupidity. The blue someone – who is held responsible – is everybody. For single cases, it must be clearly distinguished between particular roles and positions, and also between individual and collective (institutional, social, etc.) responsibility. Yet, in one or the other way, I am addressing every member of the human race.

The now-perspective helps us defining what it is, exactly, that people and groups are responsible for (the yellow something): I am not stating that people are responsible for their stupidity (which, to be precise, would be a case of accountability), since that would be more like blaming (“See the result of your stupidity! Now clean that mess!“). Legally, of course, many foolish, asinine and idiotic people are responsible for their deeds and are sanctioned accordingly. Mindlessness, for example, is not an excuse for causing a traffic accident. Even though a person that caused a traffic accident is not a criminal, the person still violated the obligation to pay attention to safety and proper driving style. Here, however, I’d like to shift the focus away from the consequences of stupidity and towards the chance to interfere with it before it manifests itself: fight and overcome foolishness, mindlessness and idiocy by right vision, right thought, right consciousness and right concentration. Everybody is responsible for self-cultivation and training one’s self-awareness and mental and cognitive capacity. Now we have clarified the simpler two dimensions.

I am the red someone – I attribute responsibility to you. All of you! Is that legitimate? I need to show that there is a relation between me and everyone, so that nobody can claim that their stupidity (whatever form) is not my business. I do that on the grounds of a holistic concept of conditionality: Human decision-making sets forth cause-effect-chains that determine future states of the world. Buddhists call this Karma. With everything we do, say, or think, we influence the further course of the world fabric, sometimes in very tiny and incremental amounts, sometimes in huge and clearly visible ways. An easy example might be the last presidential election in the USA. Why would I mind that a sick society gets the president that it deserves, the masterpiece of an idiot? Be it their problem, far away from me! Yet, clearly, the US-American politics have a global effect, be it through war-mongering, protectionist economy, climate change denial, American soft imperialism (spreading the American way of life through Hollywood movies and dumb TV shows around the world where mindless people admire and copy it), and so on. What you US-American dumbasses do in your country has a more or less direct impact on my life, my safety, my health, etc. If you are not able to maintain a political system in which you have good choices (and not a choice between the two most despicable individuals on the planet) and in which pragmatism rules (isn’t that even an American thing, see Dewey, James, Pierce…?!), and if you are not able to connect with people around you in proper communication and persuasion that can prevent them from making stupid choices, then either your activity or your inactivity sets forth a causal chain at which’s end stands the entire world. That’s why you are legitimately held responsible! The same goes for consumerism, for example mindless purchase and application of cosmetic products (supporting destruction of rainforest, animal testing, pollution of air, water and soil, etc.). Sometimes the paths are more hidden, especially when the stupidity occurs in the private and not in the public sphere. If you easily lose your temper, your kid will be emotionally instable. It is very likely that your kid plays with other kids – maybe my Tsolmo – in the kindergarten or school and exposes them to his or her own bad temper, learned from the parents. One more example that covers foolishness from lack of education and collective social and political responsibility: I mentioned the unsustainable forms of agriculture and nomadic stock farming in sub-Sahara Africa. Attribution of responsibility to those nomads and settled-down farmers only makes sense in view of their capacity to satisfy existential needs and to understand the local and global context of their practices. With other words: They should be open for changes and alternatives as soon as they are available, feasible and justifiable. Responsibility in this context, must, furthermore, be attributed to people in the Western developed countries (Europe, North America)! Without our support, our care, our concern, and our active pressure on politics, there won’t be any change to the better. Increasing the motivation of local decision-makers in politics and economy to induce political and social changes that lead to a more sustainable lifestyle and practice, should be the concern of all those who know about this problem. As Peter Singer also pointed out: Remaining inactive in the face of global poverty and lack of education is highly immoral. Everybody can be held responsible to engage in collaborative improvement of human capacity and decision-making.

In short: There is only one case in which your existence has no impact on me: You live in solitude at a remote inaccessible place with no connection to the rest of the world. In every other case, there are possible pathways of karmic potentials that connect you to me. Use your creativity to think of more examples, even with the tiniest and longest chain of events and entities!

The fourth dimension – rules and knowledge – secures that the attribution of responsibility is justified in terms of the responsible person’s ability to understand and fulfil the responsibility claims. The claim for responsibility to try one’s best to overcome foolishness, mindlessness and idiocy weighs much heavier for an educated person that grew up in peaceful times at a favourable place in a stable and loving family than for a member of a poverty stricken society in a war zone with no access to school education. I’d like to use the example of traffic in Taiwan again: People say the traffic in China, India or Vietnam is much worse than in Taiwan, as if it could be worse was a proper excuse or even justification for the local practices. In China, for example, the discrepancies between urban and rural population and their development are enormous! In contemporary Taiwan, the coverage of education is homogenously high, the lifestyle can be considered modern and developed. Taiwanese people see themselves as a developed nation, a knowledge society with high life standard, technological advancement and international competitiveness. A comparison with China or India is inappropriate since it would mean to lower Taiwanese standard to that of developmental states. All Taiwanese have school education and may be expected to be able to estimate effects of physical causes like the velocity of cars or their momentum when driving though curves. They have driving lessons before getting a license, so they may be expected to know the traffic rules. They grow up in a society that is built on Confucian foundations, highlighting the importance of respecting social relations, so they may be expected to know concepts like consideration, safety, patience. Yet, they drive like fools, violate or disregard traffic rules, and act inconsiderately, impatiently and in an extremely self-centred manner. When I claim that Taiwanese people are fully responsible for their driving style, I find that very much justified in view of the degree of development of the Taiwanese society, including education, culture and self-perception. However, we might also turn that argument around: As long as Taiwanese people behave like this in traffic, Taiwan can’t be considered a developed country. Driving like this and not attempting to change it means to admit that we are a country of mindless fools.

I hope these reflections could create some clarity concerning the attribution of responsibility for working on one’s stupidity. Nobody is perfect! Mistakes can be forgiven! Yet, we must try, harder, every day! Giving in to stupidity – no doubt the easier way – is something we as mankind can’t afford! Too powerful and impacting our activities have become! With this I leave the field of individual-focused misanthropy and turn to anti-anthropocentrism and the problem of mankind as a failure of nature. This will be the topic of the next post of this series.

My Heroes – Contemporary Philosophy: Jürgen Habermas

My hero in the category contemporary philosophy definitely had the largest number of competitors. Apparently, for me, this is the most important field of human activity. There is no human progress without the great philosophical thinkers. I employ a rather wide definition of who counts as a philosopher: those who contributed significantly to the larger picture of society and individual in terms of ontology, epistemology and ethics (the three core fields of philosophical inquiry). Same as in the music field, I have many idols and sources of inspiration, all of which could be candidates for the “my hero” award:

  • Among the famous “classical” philosophers: Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, because their thinking is original and insightful. Interestingly, both were inspired by Eastern philosophy like Buddhism, and the attentive reader of their works will notice that!
  • The phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, because they contributed significantly to the foundations of my favourite philosophical position, constructivism.
  • The great American pragmatist and constructivist John Dewey, probably the best that ever came out of USA.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein for his clarifications on language and how it impacts our life.
  • Psychologist, philosopher and member of the Frankfurt school Erich Fromm, because his well-founded social criticism as expressed in “Having or Being” convinced me as a teenager and increased my interest in social philosophy and socio-cultural anthropology (here, I don’t mean the biological-archaeological direction of it).
  • Sociologist Niklas Luhmann, because he did ground-breaking work in the field of social theory.
  • John Rawls (after Dewey the second great US-American) for his incredibly convincing theory of justice with its veil of ignorance as the major tool in contractualism as an ethical theory.
  • Vienna-based philosopher Friedrich Wallner for his Constructive Realism as an epistemological model and “middle way” between scientific realism and relativistic empiricism.

Now, what happens when we take all these loose ends and tie them together in one philosophical figure? We end up at Jürgen Habermas!

juergen-habermas

Born in 1929 in Düsseldorf, Germany, he became one of the most influential philosophers of our time, mostly known and awarded for his contributions to critical theory and pragmatism. His academic interests and fields of inquiry cover a wide range. Anyhow, two major strands can be identified: socio-political issues (deliberative democracy, social theory), and elaborations on rationality, communication and knowledge. In the former field, his system-lifeworld distinction serves as a theoretical framework for constructive realism, and he added many missing links to Luhmann’s theory. More importantly (for me), in the latter field, he explicated the concept of communicative rationality in great detail so that it could serve as a basis for discourse ethics as an own-standing ethical theory (together with, but more convincing than, Karl-Otto Apel). It is certainly not an exaggeration to state that his ideas advanced my own academic field – technology assessment and S&T ethics – significantly. When today we have established efficient arenas of pragmatic discourse on scientific and technological progress as constructive input for S&T governance and policy-making, it is mostly thanks to Habermas’ achievements concerning ideal discourse, deliberative and participative democracy and a much clearer view on the relation between social systems and the cultural lifeworlds they are embedded in.

Jürgen Habermas is still active as a public commenter and intellectual mastermind. Find a list of his major works and a summary of his achievements and insights in this article by James Bohman and William Rehg on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and a list of his awards and prizes on Wikipedia.

My Heroes – Politics: Nelson Mandela

Apparently, this “my heroes” thing is a series of posts. To disclose the secret: It will be seven, altogether. There won’t be a category “sports”, because I am not much interested in sports. For the same reason, there won’t be actors, cartoon characters or PC and smartphone inventors. I am also not much interested in politics. However, when reflecting on who impressed me positively and who is an outstanding historical figure with inspiring and idol-like vita, the name Nelson Mandela always comes to my mind.

Nelson Mandela

I believe there is no need to introduce him. He might be one of the most famous political leaders in contemporary history. After years in prison, as president of South Africa, he contributed a lot to overcoming the long grown hatred and racism (“Apartheid”) that split the population. Awarded with a Nobel Prize of Peace in 1993, internationally respected and admired, he was honoured with very special tributes after his death in 2013. If you want to learn more about him, watch the movie “Invictus“.

What makes him so special? I believe it is, above all, two things: His impressive capability of forgiveness, and his farsightedness in overcoming hatred and ideological division. They are best captured in a statement made by him on his release from prison:

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

He would have had many reasons to hate his suppressors, tormentors and humiliators. But he didn’t! His only concern was “to build the nation” (of South Africa). To realise this vision, as he knew, it would be absolutely crucial to break the vicious cycle of hatred, resentments and revenge. He embodied many characteristic virtues of Buddhism, I think: Forgiveness, not being attached to the past, not giving in to “the dark side” of aggression and bitterness. He famously cited William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul!”. This also became one of my mottos. We become who we cultivate ourselves to be. We create karmic potential with everything we do, so we better reflect mindfully on what we do, what effect it would have and which of the options we may choose from is best in line with our values and visions. Mandela was a very wise man! He knew that his goal of a unified nation would only be realisable when the circle would be broken. By this, he mastered his fate, and – at least for his era – the fate of his nation.