Tuesday, February 20, 2018

TRANSGENERATIONAL ETHICS



Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

Greek proverb



Introduction

Writing is as much an act of exploration as it is elaboration. The very process of describing an idea for others requires the writer to explore the details and edges of a concept which, for him, were not necessary or even visible, before putting pen to paper. Sometimes this reveals a connection to be weaker than it felt when left unwritten, and lines of reasoning that seemed conclusive or simple reveal themselves to be more promising, more complicated, and more pivotal than even the initial question.

I began writing In Defense of Hatred as a response to a bad argument, which was really just a bad association used in lieu of an argument. I wrote it as a general case that hatred is often a good thing, and a virtue for the same reason that love is often a good thing. I avoided the subject of what one should love and hate, as it would have been a distraction from the finer points about the emotion. However, the point remains: what is worth loving, and why? Much of the opposition between the sides mutually accusing each other of being hateful arises not from the question of whether or not hate is good, but what is good to hate.

Such a question requires us to move above the rules for argumentation and the relative morality of particular emotions, and look at life holistically. On what basis should we prefer one thing to another? To what degree can we be certain of our foundation for these preferences? Between the variety of good things, which are the most important, and which are the least? Is it better to acquire the good, or to avoid the bad?

The whole field is made more difficult by language. Words we have grown accustomed to using casually are laden with positive and negative associations divorced from conceptual understandings of their actual meaning. What is “justice,” for instance? What does equality look like? Is pleasure the highest value, or is there something valuable in life beyond pleasure, that is truly different not just in scale or source, but in kind?

Volumes upon volumes have been written in the history of philosophy, psychology, and politics about possible answers to some of these questions, or parts of them, and still more that simply try to straighten out the meanings of certain words--In Defense of Hatred being one of these latter books. Transgenerational Ethics is an attempt to dig a little bit deeper, and to make a case not merely for love, but for a foundation that can tell us what it is right to love. This will require clarifying the meanings of some casual terms that lie at the heart of many people’s value vocabulary despite having never been thought through--words like “freedom,” “equality,” “identity,” and “justice.” The lack of exploration, and challenges to the positive associations built upon these words, means that when these values appear to come into conflict, there is no clear way to resolve the dispute, leaving political tribalism as the most frequent default adjudicator.

Much of the hate in our society seems to arise from this political tribalism derived from confusion. I am not by any means opposed to hatred, but hatred arising from confusion over language is wasted energy, no matter how we break it down.

I believe that by clarifying our language, we can save ourselves a lot of energy. Furthermore, we can identify contradictions in our world view, and become wiser and more effective in our respective pursuits of happiness—or purpose—as a result.

I don’t believe any of the views I am presenting here are particularly new, in the historical sense. They may, however, put new words to old ideas, and perhaps put words to ideas tacitly believed but which never required articulation, having never been seriously challenged until the post-modernist implosion of the 19th and 20th centuries. This implosion of values—the transvaluation of all values—worked to the economic benefit of many people, perhaps even of all people, but it came at a cost which was difficult to articulate, especially juxtaposed with the solidness of material wealth.

There is a growing hunger for tradition, for family, for religion, and if I am correct, this hunger will continue to grow over the coming decades. Traditions by definition take time to forge, though they can die in a single generation. Many of them already have, and while nearly everything else can be created ex nihilo in moments in our interconnected digital worlds, traditions are among the few things which cannot be instantaneously created. Good ones take time, and the best ones cannot be created at all, only discovered.

It is not irrational to desire such things, as I hope to show in the following pages, although tradition is by no means sufficient for a good life. But the concept of inheritance, of legacy, is about as big of a contribution and as helpful of an aid to living a good life as we have ever invented. I think the popularity of ever-increasing estate-taxes is indicative of the way most Westerners think about inheritance, which is “unfair.” Personally, I am agnostic on the subject of estate taxes, as I do not believe money or property are the most important things people can inherit. I am not, however, agnostic on the broader metaphysics of inheritance.

Barack Obama was right when he said “if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.” It may have been a sleight of hand to credit the government as being the people who helped make an individual’s success, but the interdependence and reliance on others, especially on those of the past, is a critical component of everything we do. Greg Johnson wrote an essay in 2017 (in response to another writer I admire), in which he said the following:

In fact, however, we do have the right to things that we do not earn. They are called gifts. We did not earn our genes. They were given to us. We did not earn our cultural heritage. It was given to us. We do not earn the pride we feel in our families. It is their gift to us.

If we in the 21st century have seen further than our fathers, it is because we have stood on their shoulders. It therefore seems prudent not only to defend our fathers—and their gifts to us—but also to protect ourselves and the gifts we would like to give in turn.

And so, for love, for legacy, and for life, I present to the reader, Transgenerational Ethics.

C.B. Robertson



1. Overview

This book is an attempt to accomplish three goals.

First, it is to defend the concept of legacy against the presently incompatible value of equality. Equality as a value is itself worth taking seriously, being a social instinct that seems to have arisen deep in our primordial past as hunter-gatherers. It is not easily disposed of, nor is it necessarily desirable to do so. Equality lives much closer to us than legacy on the time horizon of our consciousness. This means that retaining legacy will require taking equality seriously, and ultimately reconciling the two. This is a goal for which our current conception of identity is inadequate.

Second, it is to give a psychological account of identity that is adequate as a foundation for a theory of justice that can account both for equality and for legacy. Individualism and collectivism have both generally failed in this regard.

Third, it is to synthesize the importance of legacy and the nature of identity into a basic ethical theory which can inform our value hierarchy and reorient our lives in a way that increases our sense of purpose in life.

Any philosophical treatise ought to be clear in laying out the definitions of the critical words being used. However, there is sometimes a problem in beginning immediately with definitions, which is this: all definitions are contextual. No dictionary captures the precise meaning of a well-used word, since a well-used word conjures an image that a platitude, a truism, or a worn-out phrase, does not. As an example of the ambiguity of definitions and their effects on judgment, I have elsewhere defended the moral righteousness of hatred, but there are forms of hatred that are spiteful and resentful, which “hatred” certainly can refer to, and which I did not defend, but attacked. Distinctions between kinds of hatred are critical in gauging the morality of the action in question, yet the vast label “hatred” encompasses both clear-minded identification of a threat to be avoided or destroyed and resentment towards good things which are not threats, but which expose an inadequacy in our selves. Accepting a dictionary definition of hatred would blur these two concepts, which are vastly distant from each other on the moral landscape, and treat them as though they are morally equivalent. So in order to properly contextualize the definitions we will be using, let us begin with one of the problems.

2. The Puzzle Room

Imagine you are observing two rooms. Each is temporarily occupied by a person, and each room contains two buttons. One button is located on the wall at about shoulder level. It dispenses crackers for the person in the room to eat. There is another button next to it, but it is protected by a layer of glass. The glass can only be opened by solving a complex puzzle. It is so complex that only the smartest 10% of the population will be able to solve it within 20 minutes. When pressed, this button dispenses $20.00 bills.

The occupant of room one has an IQ of 140, and will solve the puzzle in a matter of minutes. The occupant of room two has an IQ of 95, and will not be able to solve the puzzle. He will survive until he gets bored and leaves the room, but he will not become rich, as the man in the room next door will, as he repeatedly solves the puzzle and collects $20 to his heart’s content.

As the observer, this situation poses us with a moral conundrum. We may feel inclined to view the outcome as fair, because the intelligent man has been rewarded for his virtue in an otherwise equal environment (in this case, the ability to solve a puzzle), and the man who could not was not rewarded. On the other hand, we may notice that the intelligent man did not earn his intelligence, and so rewarding that particular virtue may strike us as unfair. Another’s gain is our loss; not in absolute terms, but in social ones.

To put it in the terms we will be using throughout this book, Justice declares that this outcome was fair. Equality declares that this outcome was unfair.

3. A Definition of Justice

The problem being reasonably outlined, it should be clear that ancient accounts of justice may be true, but are insufficient for the purpose of addressing the conflict of the puzzle room. As a virtue, justice is a useful instinct. As a moral or legal tradition, it certainly can be applied in the example. Yet neither of these traditional views captures what is under attack from the recursive application of justice which we call equality. Our definition of justice must be differentiated from equality if we are to resolve the paradox of equality.

What justice is, as it can be distinguished from equality, is stability[1].

If you drop a rock, it will fall. This is stability. If you commit a crime, you will go to jail. This is justice. In the face of chaos, justice makes the world stable and predictable by collective force of will: X causes will result in Y outcomes. The more just a society, the more certain the connection between X and Y. The more certain the connection, the less anxiety society will suffer, and the more hope we can enjoy.

Justice demands not only that those who deserve a certain outcome—positive or negative—are paid what they are owed, but also that those who do not deserve the equivalent outcome must not receive what is not owed to them. If you work, you must be paid for the value of your labor; if you do not work, then you must not be paid. If you commit a crime, you must be punished. If you do not commit a crime, you must not be punished. This strikes the modern ear as harsh, yet the rigidity is precisely what gives justice its attractive quality. It provides a framework of order in a chaotic world. When properly observed and maintained, it provides a sturdy scaffolding against which we can lean in the construction of our lives, our families, our nation, and our world. Justice gives everyone in your community a stake in your life, because an act of injustice against you becomes a threat against the entire system of order that makes the future predictable. Without justice, the world becomes hell—uncertain, ruthless, and impersonal.

4. A Definition of Equality

It will be observed that equality in any literal sense does not exist in nature. Two things being “equal” requires them to be identical, and people are not the same. They are not the same genetically, physically, experientially, geographically, or in virtually any other manner that can be conceived of.

One could just as easily make this point about justice, however. So both equality and justice are instincts, ideals to be pursued, even if they are never actually achieved.

As justice pursues stability, so equality pursues sameness.

This pursuit is not natural however; there is no reason to assume we would have any desire for equality, were it not for our instinct for justice. Yet our instinct for justice makes our desire for equality inevitable.

Equality observes that no individual chose the virtues which he has inherited, be it strength, height, an environmentally advantageous skin color, or a cognitive aptitude for unlocking button-puzzles. In fact, it becomes difficult to locate precisely what virtues he is responsible for having, because even those he has developed through intentional practice and effort were possible to develop due to affordances given to him by his environment and by others. We may still find a place for personal responsibility, and what we might call “agency”—if not “free will”—but the claim to certain benefits we may feel we are owed is heavily reduced by the fog of circumstantiality. So, too, are the punishments for crimes we did not intentionally commit, since we may not have been able to do otherwise. Our circumstances and environment bear much of the responsibility for our actions. Perhaps all of it.

5. Justice and Equality

In any discreet moment of time, the fact that individuals have been allotted different skills and circumstances represents an inherently unpredictable variable of human experience. This inequality threatens all other forms of justice if we arbitrarily ignore it, because it lies beneath every other kind of unjust inequality that the law attempts to prevent or correct. How can theft or murder be punished if the criminal was not responsible? How can gallantry or kindness be rewarded if the do-gooder was merely a medium through which their circumstances channeled a set of actions which would otherwise have happened through somebody else? What purpose would any attempt at establishing rules of stability serve if, in the attempt to enforce them, further chaos was imposed on the psyche of some other individual?

If we answer to the demands of justice rather than equality, then we act with injustice towards individuals, since their motives may not correlate with real-world consequences. For that individual, the world becomes hell; like a man with an IQ of 95 being unable to solve the puzzle, but expected to, in perpetuity. Individual agency is not adequately accounted for, and for any given individual, the world is made chaotic and unpredictable. It will feel unjust.

In this frame, equality does not appear to be opposed to justice per se, but presents itself as a recursive layer of justice that undoes the stability which justice pursues. Justice says “this man stole, so he must be fined.” Equality says “justice says this man can’t be held responsible for things outside of his control, for that would render the whole world subjectively unstable, and the man who stole was hungry.”

The fact that attempting to put equality (sameness) before justice (stability) will destroy the hard objectivity of justice, which underlays much of the progress in human civilization, does not make the criticism any less powerful. Before explaining why, let us go over why civilization truly does hang in the balance.

This progress is made possible by planning, and planning is only possible with stability. Stability allows us to have a rigid framework which renders change understandable, relative to what is known. This is the function of “control variables” in scientific research.

In a simplified, practical application, we can think of this principle of control in agricultural terms. If the Egyptian farmer can reasonably predict that the Nile river will flood and rise nine feet in height, he will be able to gauge how much land he can irrigate. If it floods and raises only six feet, than there won’t be enough water for the crops he planted assuming there would be nine, and much or even all of his labor will have been wasted on a lost crop. If, however, it floods to twelve feet, his crops will be washed away in the current. Without being able to accurately predict certain variables, any planning for the future becomes futile.

The most volatile and dangerous variable in our lives is also the most necessary and empowering: other people. Like the Nile, people can make or break our harvests, but they can also be the most important parts of our lives, as well as the destroyers of our lives and everything we love.

When we account for mental states—as equality demands—a new form of chaos arises from individuals who falsely represent their own mental states, often unintentionally. Sometimes we may think we are upset at the person in front of us, but perhaps we are anxious about something else, and maybe a little tired, and these two hidden inputs manifest as anger, rather than anxiety or exhaustion. And of course, people lie all the time, to others as well as to themselves. The mind simply cannot be measured the same way an action would be, by the mind in question or by others.

Paradoxically, this also leads to a chaotic and unjust state of affairs, because innovations which lead to the success of one individual over another represent both a concrete law of the world, and the introduction of an unearned (and hence, unjust) inequality into the social hierarchy. The man who solves the puzzle, for example, discovers a relationship between buttons and income--and by extension, between his intelligence and income. Correcting for inequalities like these may be “just,” but it can also contradict the world as we understand it. Nothing is less stable than working against reality.

In summary, humans require some stability to ward off the fear and anxiety that come with living in a chaotic world. A just state of affairs is one in which there are predictable effects to known causes, such that planning for the future and problem solving are possible. This has led to an instinct for justice. The need for stability, and the evolved instinct designed to pursue stability, are old enough to be visible in other primates as well. This instinct for justice, however, leads to circumstances of instability when acted upon, as the measure of subjective experience is inherently difficult, and the act of correction be itself be an unstable act. As equality is a subjective experience, justice influenced by the desire for equality can undo the stability sought for by justice.

6. The Importance of Legacy

As has been stated, stability allows for planning for the future. But why is planning for the future a worthwhile endeavor? Why think about tomorrow? Here, the mechanics of how planning for the future benefits us becomes important.

Complex tasks require simpler, previous accomplishments, upon which the undertaker can rely on as a basis for further action. This can be literal (i.e., the foundation of a house, on which the house itself may be built), or figurative (i.e., the experience of building dozens of sheds and garages, which give the builder the skill necessary to construct something more complex). But in the moment, we have only what is immediately available to us. If we want to be able to build a house tomorrow, we must have acquired the skills to do so over the last several years, and we must have been laying the foundation already. Put another way, we must have left an inheritance for our future self, in the past. For the purposes of this book, I will refer to this inheritance as legacy.

Legacy is the building block on which all of human civilization survives--civilization itself being our attempt to stabilize our survival in a world where nature is dangerous and chaotic. What is civilization? Houses to protect us from the elements, walls to protect us from dangerous animals and invaders, street-lights to protect us from falling and from muggers, institutions like the law and its enforcement, like fire-departments, insurance companies, the military, education systems; all of these came into being as attempts to facilitate survival and to push back against the unexpected.

Without civilization, life becomes solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Without legacy, the creation or even maintenance of civilization becomes impossible.

Yet without legacy, even creation without civilization becomes impossible. We are all, after all, inheritors of the legacy of our genes, magnificently complex blueprints for life honed over millions of years, and through some of the most strenuous and brutal circumstances nature could compose.

Without legacy, nothing of meaning or worth is possible. Without legacy, everything that can be done can be undone just as easily, or can be done later. Legacy is the building block of order, of life, of civilization. It is not good in itself, but the means by which everything that is good may be cultivated, created, preserved, and protected.

7. Legacy and the Self

When you save for the future, you are essentially saving for another person. Heraclitus once said that a man cannot step in the same river twice, because it is not the same river, and he is not the same man. Experientially, your distant future self is an abstraction, another being with whom we can empathize only with effort exceeding that required to empathize with another person in the moment.

Nonetheless we tend to work for our own self-interest more than in the interests of strangers. Much of this seems to be the product of culture, but some of our planning is instinctual and even emotional.

Two questions arise from these observations. First, what is the basis for continuity between the “I” of today, and the “I” of the future? And secondly, why does this continuity tend to lead us to act in the interests of our future self, rather than in the interests of others in the present?


8. The Ship of Theseus

The Greeks had a paradox about the ship of the great hero Theseus. As it sat in dock, and sailed around the Mediterranean, certain planks would rot or become damaged, and would have to be replaced. Eventually, it came to pass that every single plank on the ship had been replaced. The paradoxical question was this: is it still the same ship, if every single plank had been replaced?

The form of the ship was the same, yet there could, in principle, be many other ships of a similar—perhaps even an identical—form, and they would not be The Ship of Theseus. If some mast-head were added that dramatically altered the form of the ship, it might appear different, but would nonetheless be thought of as an alteration of the same ship.


9. The Body of Theseus

Our bodies pose us with a similar problem. Osteoclasts and osteoblasts are constantly breaking down and rebuilding our bones, completely replacing our skeletal system (excepting the teeth) every seven to ten years. Our skin is replaced every two to three weeks, and some internal organ components take even less time. While the neurons in our brain are relatively stable, the dendritic pathways between them are changing, strengthening and weakening as we learn and experience the new, and forget—or remember—the old. In our bodies and our minds, we are not what we once were, and are not yet what we will be tomorrow.

The continuity between the Ship of Theseus last year, and the Ship of Theseus next year, lies partly in our knowledge of it. The design, the history, the workings, and the exploits associated with the vessel form a stable entity in our consciousness which we call “The Ship of Theseus.”

So it is with humans. We are mercurial composites of ever-shifting patterns of cells, complex beyond comprehension, and yet stable in appearance to each other because it is advantageous for us to perceive ourselves in this way.

Yet it would be incomplete to hold that it is merely consciousness that defines an object. Some matter stays the same, even if it is only a retention of kind (i.e., wood replaced with wood, bone replaced with bone). So an identity is retained by consciousness and by matter.

Ships are built in accordance with plans. By understanding the plan of the ship, a repairman can replace a rotten plank with an identical piece that will fit precisely. If, however, the plan was somehow imperfect, or could be improved upon, the repairman can improvise the plank, making it longer or shorter to refine the fit and improve the ship.

Minor improvisations of this kind do not fundamentally alter the identity of the entity in question (ship or human), as there is always flux in being. Identity is maintained when the material substrate and our conscious memory of the entity resemble what it once was, such that we do not need to register the change.


10. Identity, Legacy, and Justice

Identity, then, is contingent upon the inheritance of a legacy; accepting the gift of your past self to your present self. This giving, receiving, and accepting of a certain state of affairs—of our maritime vessels, our bodies, our cities, and our world; in consciousness and in matter—constitutes a stability in our perception of the world. This stability justifies a continuity in identity in spite of changes; changes such as the replacement of the planks, or of the skeletal system.

This stability also forms the basis of the experience of a just world, one that is comprehensible and somewhat predictable.

I know, for instance, that this object I am sitting in is a chair. I know this based on some combination of the sorts of materials used and the fact that its appearance is associated with an image called “chair” in my head. These facts are true, despite not being completely true; the chair is not made of wood, as many others are, and it is shaped differently than most others. Nevertheless, it is true enough for my identification of the object as a “chair” to be functional, and for my predictions to match my experience. I sit in it, and it is comfortable. It does not break. Nothing else ceases to work. No one looks at me as if I have committed some social faux pas. The experience of stability and comprehensibility is sufficient to justify the continued identity.

The chair is no doubt losing and gaining molecules. It is affected by the wear and tear of cumulative usage, and will one day cease to be a chair, just as ships and people replace planks and bones. But until one day I sit in it and it collapses beneath me, its identity—in form and function—is stable.

It should be clear at this point why identity is relevant for any exploration of justice and equality: any serious examination requires there to be actors for whom the relationship is relevant. No one cares, for example, about the relative equality between a rock and a fish, or more pointedly, between a fish and the gills of a fish. Each of these pairs represents a different kind of category error: between the fish and a rock, an error in kind, and between the fish and its gills, in dimension, or level.

Determining what constitutes an identity that is meaningful for humans is necessary to evaluate whether a society is just. It is precisely upon this question of the appropriate boundaries of identity that the validity of the challenge of equality rests.

So what is the appropriate level of identity we should use to determine the justice of a society?


11. A Digression on Death

Here is an odd question: Why do people die?

The question is more complicated than it at first appears. Yes, people get cancer, heart-disease, and Alzheimer’s, but so far as we can tell, these diseases seem to be natural by-products of our body’s natural metabolic processes. Why should this be the case?

It is not as though nature hasn’t provided life with alternatives. The jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii seems to have the potential for immortality, or at least amortality (immunity from the normal processes of aging and disease which ordinarily accompanies age, also known as “biological immortality”). Planarian worms have the ability to endlessly regenerate because their stem-cells do not age in the way that other organisms’ cells do. While these are some of the most impressive cases, there are a number of other organisms which show little to no correlation between aging and death, which includes the Rougheye Rockfish (Sebastes aleutianus), the olm (
Proteus anguinus), several species of turtles (Chrysemys picta, Emydoidea blandingii, Terrapene carolina), the Red Sea Urchin (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus), the Ocean Quahog Clam (Arctica islandica), the Greenland Shark (Somniosus microcephalus), and the fantastically long-living Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva), which can live upwards of 4,000 years.

Immortality seems biologically possible, but evolutionarily undesirable, at least for humans. And why should this be the case? Because immortality requires a stable environment for our traits to be adaptive, and our environment is always changing. Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist from the University of Toronto, explains it in the following manner:

“Why is it that death evolved? It doesn’t really make that much sense from a Darwinian perspective, right? Because you’d make the presupposition that if you could just stick around and father children say for 250 years, you’d be doing a lot better job than the poor sap who only lived to be 30. So why is it that you only live to be 70, and really your period of fertility is really over by the time you’re 40? Why would that be? What’s the utility of death? And then you remember the environment’s always changing in this chaotic manner that’s represented by the great mother. Can you change with it? And the answer to that is ‘yes, but only to a certain point,’ which is why as people age they tend to become more and more alienated from the current culture. They’ve adopted their position of being, which is more or less fixed by the time they’re 25 or so, once their prefrontal cortex matures, and after that the world gets away from them. They don’t have enough biological resources left to constantly undergo revolutionary neurological processes, and part of the reason is this: you have more neural connections in your brain when you’re first born than you do for the rest of your life, any other time in your life. And as you learn, when you’re an infant, and as you learn over the first two years, what happens is that there’s a plentitude of circuits, and they die off, leaving only those circuits that have a function. And you think about that, it’s kind of a quasi-Darwinian process. And so what that means is that as you mature, and become fixed in your form, and adopt your personality, the excess possibility in some sense is being demolished by experience.”

As most of us were taught in High School biology, evolution is not about the survival and reproduction of an individual. Evolution is perfectly at peace with the disposal of individuals. Yet it still selects for some individuals over others because those individuals serve an underlying purpose; a purpose that is not the individual, but is nonetheless served by the individual.

What is this purpose? It is a purpose that is willing to entertain deathlessness in some organisms, but rejects it in the vast majority of cases--including the human case.

The biologically intuitive answer is “the gene,” and indeed, this is a component of the answer, but I do not believe it is the whole answer. Just as the individual is merely a component of our identity that predicts our behavior (one which does not easily account for many forms of altruism), so too is the gene one component among many that constitutes the force that wants us first to survive and then to die.


12. Despair in Palos Verdes

By all appearances, Chester Bennington had everything. Children, a beautiful wife, success in fame and fortune as a musician—the lead vocalist for the band Linkin Park—beyond the hopes of nearly everyone who has ever lived.

Then on July 20, 2017, he killed himself. He was found by a cleaning lady in the bedroom of his spectacular home in Palos Verdes Estates, CA, having hung himself.

Bennington was far from a one-off oddity, as a well-off celebrity departing from the world of the living of their own volition. In 2017 alone, Michael Mantenuto, John Rheinecker, Stevie Ryan, Jean Stein, and Chris Cornell, all commit suicide. Bennington, in fact, sang “Hallelujah” at Cornell’s funeral, only a few weeks prior to his own death. In 2016, Pratyusha Banerjee, Keith Emerson, Dave Mirra, and Tera Wray killed themselves. And to this day, we still hear about stars like Robin Williams, David Foster Wallace, Heath Ledger, and Kurt Cobain.

Albert Camus once said that there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. But the problem has another layer beyond the question “to be or not to be,” or perhaps behind it: why is suicide a question at all? How did evolution allow the idea of killing ourselves to survive, even beyond ourselves?


13. Suicide and Identity

From the biological perspective of a discreet individual, suicide never makes sense. One can certainly say that the suffering of a particular individual is so severe that the need to end the suffering might make death feel preferable to going on living, but suffering itself is an evolutionary adaptation designed to keep us alive. People who cannot feel pain tend not to survive very long.

We know that suicide is not a new invention. In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates argued against the practice of suicide, and Aristotle took a similar stance, albeit for a different reason. Judas hung himself shortly before Jesus’ appearance before Pontius Pilate. The early Christian church spent a fair bit of time discussing (mostly discouraging) the practice. Augustine argued in City of God that suicide is no better than murder, even when compassion demands understanding and empathy, such as when a person kills themselves to avoid another sin (Augustine interprets this as accepting a certain sin in place of a possible sin, and is thus unjustified). The council of Arles in 452 declared that no reproach would fall upon a Master if his slave committed suicide.

These depict a portrait of desperation among the poor and the destitute, but even in ancient times, the rich were susceptible to suicide as well. Boudica, referenced in In Defense of Hatred, killed herself by poison, and Hannibal, Brutus, Mark Antony, Nero, Otho, Cleopatra, Demosthenes, Cato the Younger, Metellus Scipio, and Qu Yuan all died of their own hand, prior to the beginning of the 2nd century AD. As previously shown, suicide among the wealthy and the successful hasn’t dramatically diminished since then.

Suicide does not make sense from the perspective of individual survival, and yet it appears to have always happened, and continues to happen. The question, then, is the perspective from which suicide does make sense.

The answer is that of the genetic lineage. If an individual’s chances of reproduction is low, and their cost to the reproductive efforts of related kin is high, then it makes mathematical sense from the perspective of the gene to remove yourself from the equation.

Humans are social animals—mammalian pack-animals, to be precise, like wolves, lions, and killer whales. We depend upon other people for our survival, which means that we are most secure when we can provide value to other people. If we feel as though we cannot provide anything of value, then the best thing we can do is remove the energy cost on others by killing ourselves. This is usually not a logical process, but an emotive and empathic one, which is how the very drive designed to maximize our genetic success can be twisted against our genetic interests in the right circumstances. Otherwise, people like Cornell and Chesterton would be unlikely to be in any psychological danger of suicidal ideation, let alone successful suicide itself. Neither of them were a resource drain on their families, their societies, or their nation.

The suicidal urge in the lives of modern people—and modern men in particular—comes from a conflict between two different identities: the self, and the group. In ethical terms, we embrace the collectivist ideal of obligations to others, yet shun the corollary ideal of dependence. Our rejection of dependence is not ideological, so much as it is psychological. As I wrote in my previous book, we do not love what is pathetic. People who are too dependent on others appear to us as pathetic, no matter how virtuous and morally righteous they may be according to the precepts of an ideology.

Yet the problem of suicide is at its roots not the result of a deficiency in love from others, but a perceived deficiency in being needed by others. Aedhan Cassiel compares the modern father to an old-world guildsman, in what they can provide:

…a man knew that the trade he invested his life in was one he could pass on to his children. He could mentor his children and pass on the lessons he spent his life learning, because the lessons he spent his life learning were directly relevant for their success, since they were assured a place in his occupation.

Modern free market economies sever this particular kind of intergenerational tie. And public schooling ensures that fathers no longer truly raise their children, anyway. Libertarians will be quick to tell us how much more economically efficient the free market’s severance of that tie is, but how do we account for the psychological and sociological impacts of a world where fathers really do have little to pass on directly to their children?

What we see, in the biological phenomenon of death, and the behavioral phenomenon of suicide, is the possibility of an alternative identity to that of the individual. The origins of this identity are not in the experience of selfhood, which we will return to, nor is it in a priori moral presuppositions, but outside of our heads and in the world.


14. Transgenerational Identity

This identity, in contradistinction to the individual identity, is the transgenerational identity. It is not identical with the gene, although it is more closely related to the gene than the individual, and contains sets of genes. Nor does it exclude the individual as unimportant for the purposes of the identity. The individual is the inheritor and caretaker of the identity, and in many cases, the life or death of an entire transgenerational identity will lie on the shoulders of a single individual.

Rather, a transgenerational identity is the total inheritance available to descendants of the identity. It is best thought of as a lineage, and it can be pictured as a family of symbiotically interdependent objects, genes, and memes[2] that survives across many generations.

Ideally, forever.

The transgenerational identity is the reason that people might die not only for other people, but for an idea. It is the reason why we care more about our family than strangers, more about our own race or nation than other populations around the world, and more about humans than other animals. It is the reason that suicide is possible, and also the reason why it is almost always wrong. It is the reason why we will die, why we have to die, and yet it is also why we never die completely.


15. Phenomenology of Identity and the Self

Thinking of transgenerational identity as the basis of action has tremendous explanatory power, but there is a hurdle: we do not feel like transgenerational beings. To the contrary, we feel like individuals, even if we don’t always act like it. In philosophy, identity is the relationship a thing bears with itself, and a component of our relationship with ourselves—how we distinguish “I” from “not I”—is consciousness. The experience of consciousness itself seems to show that we are not a transgenerational entity, but a discreet individual.

And yet when we examine this experience itself, a completely different experience emerges. Among the first notable observations is that when we look for where “I” is located, we can’t find it. Intuitively, we tend to imagine “I” is centered somewhere inside our skull, most likely because vision dominates much of our sensory experience of the world, and our visual circuitry is in our head. But the actual experience of the self evaporates when we train our attention on it. It does not seem to exist in the material world at all, in our head or anywhere else.

The substance of consciousness is a deep and complicated subject, though it seems to have some relationship with sensory perception. With diminished degrees and varieties of perception, it seems likely that we would have a diminished degree of consciousness. This does not mean, however, that we would lack an identity. We would still have a particular nature, just as plants, viruses, mammals, and fish have particular natures, despite showing every sign of being less conscious than ourselves. Consciousness, therefore, is a part of our identity, but it is not itself our identity.

Perhaps one of the reasons that we do not feel like transgenerational beings is that we cannot directly perceive the world through other people. When we watch the news, when we hear the latest gossip from our friends, when we read a biography, we are taking in information, but the information is separated by a layer of abstraction. Part of us knows that it isn’t necessarily reliable, at least not as reliable as what we can see, hear, and touch ourselves.

But there are plenty of animals who, by all appearances, do not appear to be conscious, and are nevertheless social animals. Take the ant, for instance. The facts that they live in colonies and have different castes (workers, soldiers, queens) are components of their taxonomy. They are parts of their identity. It is hard to guess what it is like to be an ant, but even if it wasn’t like anything at all—that is, if ants weren’t conscious—they would still have an identity. We know this because if a particular ant failed to perform its function as an ant, and tried its hand at living as a spider, sitting in corners attempting to spin webs, it would be a biological failure for itself and a waste of resources for the colony.

But more importantly than unlikely hypotheticals such as ants pretending to be spiders, the fact that ants are social animals as a statement of identity is not derived from their consciousness, or lack thereof. For ants, their behavior is sufficient for the purpose of identifying them.

Since human beings are conscious animals, our experience as individuals is itself a component of our shared identity. Our behavior, however, often works against our individual self-interest. Sometimes, we even behave outside of our conscious awareness. This also is a component of our identity. This means that our conscious experience as an individual does not in any way disprove or contradict our transgenerational identity. Rather it informs us of the sorts of tools at our disposal in pursuit of our goals.


16. Identity and Purpose

There is another way in which the conflict between the experiential self and the transgenerational identity can be resolved, which is not as philosophically powerful, but is perhaps more emotionally meaningful.

What makes us happy as individuals is not arbitrary. As a rule, we do not torture ourselves, and prefer to eat sweet and nutritious foods to eating dirt. Why is this?

Evolutionary psychology provides the most salient explanation: the individuals whose preferences aligned with the aims of survival and reproduction tended to survive and reproduce, thus passing on those preferences. Over millions of years—as this process long pre-dated our species—our preferences have been refined and engraved into even the older, less malleable parts of our brain. Love, disgust, ecstasy, pain, awe, and fear, are all deeply ingrained preferences by which we can navigate the world and refine our own habits and behavior.

This framework provides an obvious explanation for the powerful, low-resolution feelings we experience, but can also be used predictively. If we are unsure of what is likely to make us happy, then we can figure out what sorts of skills, relationships, and character qualities are likely to ensure survival and reproduction, especially those which have always corresponded with survival and reproduction across hundreds of generations. It is unlikely, for example, that our distant ancestors would have evolved predispositions for software coding. By contrast, it is highly likely that those who were healthy, who had strong social networks, and who looked after their children would have been successful. Odds are high that those sorts of behaviors would have been endowed through natural selection with the feeling of purpose and importance.

In other words, even if the idea of a transgenerational identity seems too abstract or strange to be compelling, acting as if the transgenerational identity is one’s raison d’ĂȘtre will increase one’s odds of finding purpose and happiness as an individual.

17. Locating Responsibility

The second, less immediate, but more important way in which reframing ourselves as components of a transgenerational identity is that it explains the origins of differences. From an individualist framework, these differences often do not make sense, and appear unjust, which is to say, random, and world-destabilizing.

Perhaps the most influential essay on this subject in the last several decades has been Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” in which McIntosh lays out the conflict between an individualist moral framework and its collision with the survival instincts of distinct collectives—equality against legacy:

…in facing [privilege], I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.

McIntosh is an individualist, and realizes that because of inheritances left to some, an individualist social system will inevitably be unjust. It is unjust because an individualist meritocracy can only account for gains achieved through one’s own efforts. The inheritances left to some cannot be accounted for, because they fall outside of the individualist meritocrat’s moral map.

McIntosh and many other individualists who pursue equality think that they have to eradicate all forms of legacy and inheritance that are not universally distributed in order to achieve the even starting point necessary for an individualist meritocracy to be possible. This desire is pathological, because in their pursuit of equality by the attack on all forms of ‘privilege,’ they attack the very foundation of civilization, and of human progress generally.

There is a better way of resolving this problem: locating responsibility in the transgenerational identity, rather than in the individual.

It is natural to think of responsibility in a framework limited to the individual. We may even slip this into our language, replacing “responsibility” with “individual responsibility.” It is from these intuitions that individualists begin in their pursuit of a theory of justice. However, our actions do not reflect this intuition. We devote much of our lives to the interests of particular individuals in our environment, and this means that to the degree that we engage in the service of those individuals, we become responsible for their interests. This does not mean that we owe the world our attention in a selfless, philanthropic manner, but rather that the aspects of our character for which we are not responsible can be morally accounted for in the actions of others.

The most basic example of this is the relationship between a parent and a child. My blue eyes are not my responsibility, for example, but the fact that my hazel-eyed father chose a blue-eyed wife might have something to do with it. My parents--my father especially, having been the choosing actor--are responsible for an aspect of myself for which I had no choice. Likewise, my mother is perhaps responsible for my predisposition towards working with words: on my father’s side, two of my three uncles were lawyers, as was my great-great-great grandfather; my great-great grandfather was a judge; my grandfather was a politician, and my great-grandfather was the president and chairman of the board of a sizeable company. The location of agency does not fade into irrelevance merely because it cannot be found in my own person.

A parent cannot control what the child will become with any certainty, but many aspects of the child’s behavior will be the result of the parent’s input: a gift or a curse, depending upon circumstance. When we consider our own actions carefully, the relationship between our past and future selves is quite similar. For the survival of our genes, for our own sense of happiness, and for the interests of the transgenerational identity to which we belong, there is essentially no difference between our relationship between our present and future self and our relationship as individuals with our descendants.


18. Cancer

We already tacitly acknowledged the moral premise of this responsibility in individuals. There is a certain category of actions which heavily prioritize present-moment pleasure over future well-being: we call them addictions. We treat these addictions as dangerous: in times past, as moral failures; in the present, something more like a disease. In either case, something undesirable and harmful.

For the sake of the transgenerational identity, however, the risk of present-moment selfishness is much higher, because the quality of our actions is gauged by our subjective experience in the moment. Instincts that defy our individual best interests for the sake of others exist in competition with natural individualistic instincts. In this tension, a rough balance which optimizes survival is possible, but this balance is thrown off by the presence of consciousness, which by nature, prefers the self to the non-self. This self-bias acts like an addiction, taking the momentary interests of the discreet individual over the transgenerational identity.

There is a potentially lethal condition that can affect an organism, in which cells grow beyond their normal rate, at the expense of the organism as a whole. It is called cancer. Individuals that are a part of a transgenerational identity, but like addicts work for their own present pleasure over the long-term health and well-being of the lineage do so at the risk of their own sense of purpose and meaning. They also threaten the health of the transgenerational identity, because they do not prioritize leaving a legacy for the identity. And legacy is the lifeblood of humanity.


19. Returning to the Puzzle Room

In “2. The Puzzle Room,” the reader was presented with two individuals in a similar situation, one of whom was rewarded beyond the other for traits that they themselves were not responsible for. This presented a conundrum for moral individualists, like Peggy McIntosh, who feel the need to make up for these inexplicable differences. The interests of equality and justice are at odds with each other.

Suppose, however, that the two individuals were identical twins. Instead of solving a puzzle, they were being tested on a subject—perhaps on moral philosophy. One twin spent five hours studying in the day prior to the test, so that he could earn more money from his high score. The other twin spent the day playing games.

In this situation, there is no moral quandary as to whether the likely outcome is just or unjust: the first twin put in the work in advance, and the second twin did not. If the first twin gets a higher score, and thus earns money, while the second twin fails and gets nothing, then it is a just outcome—being predictable, and therefore stable. This stability allows for the second twin to learn from the effects of his laziness, and perhaps to study harder the next time a situation like the test-room arises.

Within the context of a transgenerational identity, there is no difference between the puzzle room and the twin room. The choices of the present twin effect the outcomes of the future twin, in the same way that the choices of one individual in a transgenerational identity effect the outcomes of subsequent individuals within the same identity. The stability (justice) of these cause-and-effect relationships is universal across different transgenerational identities. And because the identities are immortal in principle—unlike the individuals that comprise them—competing transgenerational identities exist in a state of de facto equality. There is no limit in time, scale, or direction to successes, failures, or corrections in the accumulated legacies enjoyed by a lineage.

In this way, the stability of justice and the accountability lacking in the individualist worldview—the critique of equality—are reconciled through the transgenerational identity. In adopting this new paradigm, we may also increase our sense of purpose, our longevity, and our own legacy.



[1] This is a departure in meaning from the usage of “just” in In Defense of Hatred, where “just” more closely meant “justified,” or “explainable;” any given love or hatred being justified by understanding. Here, “justice” refers to a general state of being, and is phenomenological, rather than ethical. The two are related, in that just ethical actions result in the experience of a just society, but are nonetheless distinct.
[2] Here meme is used in the technical sense, as a unit of cultural information which can replicate across human society.