Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Meaning of Life

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the search for meaning is that it exists at all. Meaning as a requirement for existence is absent in nature. Animals seem satisfied with the never ending quest for food and pleasure; human beings are unique in their search for the “why” of it all. Why is it so hard for us to find satisfaction in the knowledge that we exist? Perhaps we have sought so fervently because we know just enough to allow for the possibility of more; so our intelligence has proven to be a hurdle as much as it is beneficial. I suspect this is the concept that the author of the Adam and Eve story was attempting to capture when he caused his characters to eat from a tree that imparted the knowledge of good and evil to them. It's our intellect that's caused us, uniquely among life on earth, to distinguish between animalistic tendencies and a higher calling; but if there's no higher being calling us, could it be our own understanding of our potential at a primal, unconscious level that drives us to ask the question, “Why?”

No longer does mere procreation and food gathering serve to satisfy our desire for meaning. That would be like using a supercomputer as a piece of furniture. We expect more from ourselves and society, and with no god to provide artificial significance and no afterlife to assure us more will arrive, we are suddenly forced to create more. What that creation looks like depends entirely on the individual, but from the writings of wise men throughout history, the testimonies of others alive today, and my own experiences, I can write of three primary categories of existential meaning: social activity, personal fulfillment, and discovery.

Social activity includes any interaction between human beings. We find happiness in helping others, because we understand at a deep level that the true potential of the human race has never rested on the shoulders of any one man or woman; it is the accomplishments we make as a whole that are catapulting us to a celestial status when compared to other species on this planet. So, we find meaning by encouraging society to progress, either by helping others or performing our vocations well. The latter might be more difficult for someone whose job seems trivial, but in a free and democratic society, which all societies should strive to be, there is nothing preventing anyone from planning and reaching towards a more fulfilling vocation. Of course, the most stable source of fulfillment is found in the very act of contributing to society using a skill set that takes advantage of an individual’s strengths - not in the type of contribution; but I must confess to being far from such a state of Zen.

Personal fulfillment is fairly self-explanatory. If we seek out that which pleases us without debilitating ourselves in the process, we will find our time on earth to be more enjoyable, and therefore the sweet pang of existence will be more manageable. This isn’t a requirement for meaning; rather, it is a helpful tool for leading a fulfilled life. Rarely does one need to convince another to seek happiness in this way. More often that not, the challenge is in understanding that it is only a limited source of meaning.

Another vast source of social meaning is procreation. On a purely sexual level, this falls under the category of personal fulfillment, but in relation to family, it can be fulfilling beyond measure. In fact, there are those who seem to live only to create more life, and they appear to be content on a deeper level than those with money and power. I believe this is in part due to the natural provision of an existential Other through mutual respect, trust, and love - perhaps the one force of nature that transcends reason and science - inherent in healthy lifelong partnerships.

Love often results in offspring. Children permit humans to project themselves into the future through genetics, as well as the passing on of valuable information and skills - perhaps even cheating death on some small level. These tendencies are biologically hardwired into us as a way of ensuring our survival as a species, but given the intricacies of our brains, it's no wonder our familial functions have evolved to bewildering complexity. As with personal fulfillment, the biggest danger in regards to procreation is the tendency for those to forget that we must find meaning outside of it in order to live a balanced, healthy life. In short, social fulfillment allows us to find meaning in you, me, and the space between.

One of the most profound moments in the journey of life is the realization that there is no destination. Typically, there is no career, significant other, or cause that will provide true, lasting happiness. Fulfillment is subjective, but I and many others have found that it thrives in balance and harmony. A life spent carousing will fail to provide substantive long-term relationships or profundity. A life spent at home studying or at work being productive will be lonely. An impoverished life will often be full of strife. A life in exorbitant wealth will often be characterized by arrogance and a lack of discipline. However, a life lived in the center of all these will provide fulfillment. This, of course, is a matter of opinion, but one that is shared by many of the wisest people in the world’s most accepted worldviews, regardless of their reasoning. It's also frequently tested and found to be true, as it's difficult to base one’s entire life on the observation of others, however consistent the results appear to be from the outside. The important thing to remember is that these kinds of truths are not absolute. They will vary on an individual basis, and because there's no higher power providing us with a manual for existence, we're free to explore morality and determine from experience or the examples of others what thoughts and behaviors are beneficial, distinguishing them from those that are not.

Meaning is found to be more urgent and poignant without an omnipotent, omniscient dictator - even without an afterlife. Suddenly, it is up to us to seek it out, to give our lives context, to fulfill our own desires. The possibilities are limitless, and we are free to explore them. This is exhilarating, and can allow people to experience an enhanced version of life, in contrast to one held back by religious dogma plucked out of thin air by well-meaning theologians over thousands of years. With no afterlife, a sense of urgency arrives; coupled with the understanding that meaning is waiting to be discovered, the result is a desire to immediately get off the couch and make life happen!

On a societal level, discovery is the proverbial carrot in front of our noses, convincing us to move onward, much like the concept of the afterlife, but tangible and real. The unknown beyond the reach of our watchtowers, submarines, and satellites gives us motivation to continue seeking, because we do not know what we might find. The final answers we seek may be waiting for us to discover them on the outer edge of the universe, at the center of the earth, or possibly even in our own minds. If we do not take up this tremendous task, who will?

As far as we know, we are the only beings in the universe who have the capacity to explore it. The same holds true for technology; there are untold possibilities in front of us in the technological field. Discoveries that add dimensions to our existence we never could have imagined may lie in wait just around the corner. Consider how social media has transformed our lives, making it possible for humanity to instantly communicate to one another from opposite ends of the earth, bringing us closer together and enabling us to exchange ideas globally on a worldwide marketplace. The Egyptian revolution was the result of such progression; in fact, it may never have occurred or even been successful without networks such as Facebook and Twitter, neither of which existed just a decade ago; that’s 10 years in the light of thousands of years! If we refuse to accept the calling of discovery, and there are no others who are capable of doing so, that could be the greatest tragedy the universe has ever known. While not everyone can be on the forefront, we can all take comfort in the knowledge that we are part of the most magnificent organism in the known universe: humanity. Every seemingly insignificant action is part of the whole, and the whole is possibly the greatest meaning there is. Perhaps we are the mechanism through which the universe will discover itself, and to be a part of that in any way is to experience profound, everlasting meaning.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Humanistic Perspective on Politics

As our lens zooms out to focus on increasingly broader concepts, each built upon the structure of the other, we find politics to be among the outermost layers, because it directly applies to social order. There’s no need to groan, here. The importance of politics will rarely be discovered over cigars and whisky, with stuffy people in suits clashing intellects as rams butt horns. It is found in much more energizing and interesting environments, like streets filled with citizens in arms against tyranny. It can also be found in tragic, disheartening contexts, like slums filled with tens of thousands of people who have been beaten down by a ruling class, so that they no longer have the strength to hope for a brighter future. Those who politely discuss politics while surrounded by decadence have rarely been in need of political action. I think everyone’s worldview should include some measure of political opinion, because politics determines the degree to which individuals can function freely and society can progress; therefore, it affects every facet of our lives.

Power and wealth are the two primary, interdependent aspects of politics. A successful modern government serves as a solid foundation for the pursuit of happiness and equal opportunity for all in accordance with the Golden Rule, denying anyone the ability to interfere with the rights of another. For this to be the case, freedom must reign supreme, which is why a democratic government that gives voice to its citizens through a voting process is necessary; people tend to vote for their own good when given the opportunity. While Marx observed that culture can be used as a way of controlling the thoughts of citizens, this hegemony can be counteracted through education and the proliferation of postmodern philosophy.

A government should protect the rights of its people against internal and external threats, including those which exist within the government itself, while maximizing productivity for the purpose of human progression. Money plays a vital role in this delicate, intricate dance, because it represents freedom of choice. I may want to travel to another country once every few years, but unless I have the monetary means to back that decision, I am not free to make that choice. I may want to eat healthy food, have dinner out with my significant other, or take piano lessons, but none of these are even options to me unless I have money. So, quality of life relies heavily on income level. This shouldn’t be a problem, since there is plenty of money to go around. However, history has shown that people tend to want to acquire more money, including those who already have more than their fair share. This isn’t necessarily a negative aspect of humanity, as it gives us incentive to perform well at our jobs and rewards entrepreneurship.

The problem is, because wealthy people can afford to buy more resources, they tend to succeed in the acquisition of even more money and resources, which of course must come from somewhere, so every time a wealthy person gains some, another person loses some. This is why the gap between rich and poor tends to widen without the use of government regulation, and it explains how the very wealthy actually gained money despite massive job loss during the Great Recession of 2007. In a modern system with entitlement programs that ensure basic care is provided even for those in difficult financial positions, this means that for every person lost to poverty, the burden on those with money increases, at times creating resentment among the ruling class. Poverty also breeds hopelessness, addiction to substances that provide temporary escape from misery, and often ignorance as a result of these hurdles and a lack of educational funds, all of which contribute to crime.

Marx’s solution to the problem of unequal distribution of wealth and power was communism, which we now know to be deeply flawed, as it fails to take into account the need for incentive in the workforce. Of course, he had no way of knowing it would fail, because he wasn’t around to witness the fall of the Soviet Union. However, whether it works is beside the point. The forcible redistribution of wealth, goods, and human resources conflicts with the Golden Rule by removing freedom of choice from individuals. It is for this same reason that Socialism and Fascism are unacceptable.

Capitalism, championed on nearly a fanatic level in the United States, is an attempt to remove the government from economics entirely, while passively distributing wealth to those who are willing to work for it. Unfortunately, starting a business or making an investment requires money, or capital, thereby placing power and advantage firmly in the hands of the wealthy. It also blatantly ignores the tendency of the gap between the wealthy and poor to widen, relying instead on “the Invisible Hand” of the free market to guide us to economic success. However, our own history reveals the need for government regulation. Child labor laws, the police force, minimum wage, and the Civil Rights Act are all examples of government regulation that came about due to the tendency of those with excessive amounts of money and power to abuse those without. If pure capitalism were truly the answer, those laws would never have come into being, because the free market would not have allowed them to exist in the first place; yet, there are still those who seem to believe that the free market should not be tampered with.

The answer, as with almost everything, is balance: a democratic government whose economic system is a hybrid of capitalism and socialism, in that it contains a free market that is regulated. In the words of Eliot Spitzer, “I’m for a government that ensures the competition works […] markets have to work, which means competition, which means – to be technical – competition law, or anti-trust law.” This system must refuse to ignore the needs of the vast majority or pander to the desires of the wealthy.

The current system in the United States provides loopholes and tax cuts for the richest members of society, who are in fact the only members who do not need them, all in the name of the trickle down effect. There is, of course, some small truth to this theory, but it has been used as a way of ensuring that those with excessive amounts of money receive even more excess. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “poor people don’t provide jobs,” as a way of justifying the special treatment of the wealthy. How many yachts do these people need? And how does a CEO’s purchase of yet another yacht help the hard workers underneath her? Here, of course, I’m using yachts as symbols for luxury in general. If the benefits given to the extremely wealthy were invested back into their businesses to ensure higher wages for their employees, the argument might stand, but that is simply not the case.

Any business owner competent enough to acquire large amounts of money will hire and maintain the amount of employees necessary to operate the business and meet demand; usually no more, and certainly no less if he can help it. This remains true during a recession. If there are sales to be made and the sales team needs more staff members to keep up with the volume, the business owner will naturally hire more sales people, because every sale that is lost due to insufficient staffing is a loss to the owner of the business. Not to mention, that profit might be picked up by the competition. So, the burden is on the demand end of the economy, not on the generosity of business owners or the amount of incentives and tax breaks we give them. They have all the incentive they need already: the better their business performs, the more money they make.

For solid evidence that high tax rates for the wealthy do not have a negative effect on the economy, and in fact may have a positive effect, one can simply take a look at the state of the economy in America as compared to the rate of taxes on the wealthy for the last century; American quality of life is commonly thought to have been at its highest during the 50s and 60s, when tax rates were upwards of 80% for those with massive amounts of wealth. This all changed in the 1980s, when they were gradually dropped to a mere 28%. The rest, quite literally, is history. It may be difficult to make a direct correlation due to a myriad of other factors, but this information does show that high tax rates for the wealthy do not have the catastrophic effects that so many today claim they do. Keep in mind, GDP, while important for global competition, is not the ultimate judge of the economy, because GDP and quality of life are not directly linked, either.

Some capitalist purists will point out that wealthy businesses simply outsource jobs overseas if we do not submit to their demands; after all, there are plenty of impoverished areas of the world with human resources to be tapped who are willing to work for a fraction of the average American salary with no benefits. By their reasoning, we should stand by and watch thieves as they steal from cash registers rather than trying to stop them. CEOs who outsource to increase their own salaries or gain bonuses for saving their companies money may not be stealing from a physical cash register, but they contribute directly to the diminishment of our middle class; therefore, they are working against the interests of our nation, the very nation that allowed them to become wealthy in the first place - all so they can make more money and purchase more yachts while other Americans continue to suffer.

Many outsourced jobs are fueled by demand originating from our nation, only to see that money handed over to another nation by employing foreigners at significantly lower wages. So, our consumption ceases to benefit our own economy. There are those who suggest that this is charitable to those countries. I would remind them that we do not have the resources right now to give more charity than we already do to the international community simply to appease some wealthy individuals. If our middle class continues to decline, we will become like those nations who are in dire need of help, and we will no longer have the resources to keep up our charitable contributions. Enter China. I have nothing against China, but I do feel that their government’s emphasis on the good of the nation as a whole is not balanced by a healthy respect for individual freedom and civil rights, so I am uncomfortable with the thought that they might take our place as the world’s greatest superpower. This is not racism; it is simply acknowledgement of the facts.

Another problem with the idea that outsourcing is good for other nations is that it encourages the policies of those governments that do not protect the rights of their citizens. Businesses that outsource to nations that allow them to pay substandard wages to its citizens are rewarding politicians who stand up for the top one percent of their population, while ignoring the needs of the majority. In this way, outsourcing works against core democratic values. Of course, not every example of outsourcing is fueled by cold-hearted greed and apathy toward the common good of Americans, but it is a significant source of motivation for this bizarre modern trend.

Here, I must once again suggest that faith has shown itself to be detrimental to society, because those who would do harm to the population to benefit themselves have found that they can purchase the votes of the religiously devout by siding with them on issues such as abortion, prayer in schools, media censorship, gay marriage, etc. Some might argue that these are cultural issues, but religion is not only a driving force within society, it is an aspect of culture. If many religious values are based on irrational premises, then irrational thought begins to seep into politics through the voting system. Suddenly, the entire population is living under an unreasonable set of rules that work against the primary goal of government: to protect the rights of all, regardless of individual beliefs.

It doesn’t help that the structures of most religious institutions involve some amount of faith in and submission to spiritual authority figures, such as priests, pastors, and caliphs, so the politicians who stand up for religious values can be easily connected with spiritual leaders on an unconscious level. This makes it possible for fundamentalists who are told to believe what a pastor says in church based on faith to swallow the lies of a shrewd politician without doubt. They then take office and vote in favor of large corporations who recruit them via lobbyists. This takes place in the open - after all, voting records are public - with little attempt to be secretive, which shows how effective hegemony can be. All one has to do is look up the voting records of politicians to see what they stand for, and if they are in the pockets of others.

Here in America, we have a free society where government censorship is close to nil, and yet the majority of the population simply looks the other way while the system that protects our freedom and quality of life deteriorates in front of us. In fact, these practices are so widely accepted that “corporate lobbyist” is a career field in and of itself; yet, no one seems to mind. In other words, everyone knows that politicians are being influenced to vote in a biased manner, but few seem to care. To the contrary, a significant portion of the population actually votes directly against their own interests. I submit that this behavior is irrational and is made possible in part because the masses have become so comfortable with cognitive dissonance as a result of religious faith that it has become the norm, seeping into every aspect of society, making it vulnerable to attack by selfish, greedy, power hungry individuals.