This week has been a real drag. Everyone I’ve spoken to is feeling the grind of groundhog day wearing away at them. It’s getting harder to remain positive and assertive as this latest lockdown in Victoria drags on with no clear end in sight. Even my beloved New Zealand is in lockdown which just goes to show that no one is safe from this bastard virus.
The most distressing issue (well for me anyway) is the feeling of being powerless. We have no control over what's happening and I find myself constantly turning to the news updates as if knowing the day's infection rates and restriction announcements will somehow give me more control. It doesn’t. If anything, it's acting as a barometer for how unfocused I’m going to be for the rest of the day.
I’ve been reading Everything is Fucked: A Book About Hope by Mark Manson (which I thoroughly recommend) in the early hours of the morning when I can’t sleep. At 4am this morning after being woken up by Alice (which is a daily occurrence at the moment!) I read a chapter called The Formula of Humanity which decants the ideas of philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Kant is probably most famous for his contribution to democracy and was one of the first to argue that all people have an inherent dignity that must be regarded and respected. To understand Kant philosophy we have to take a step back and look at how we grow up.
Let’s start at the beginning. Kids are driven by exploration. From day one we are exploring the world to discover what feels good or bad, what we like or dislike, what gives us pleasure or pain. Each discovery contributes to our understanding of the world and we start to prioritise activities based on their value to us. I’d rather eat ice cream than touch a hot kettle for example. Children are narcissists. It's all about them.
As we become adolescents it dawns on us that we will never be able to explore everything, meet every person, taste every taste or see everything so we turn our focus from discovery to developing rules to help navigate the endless complexity of the world before us. We make up some of these rules ourselves but most come from our parents and immediate influences. We normally end up with a few general ideas made through trial and error: Avoid dangerous things and you won’t get hurt, be honest with your parents and they will trust you and share with others if you want them to share with you.
These new rules are more abstract and rather than just going for the ice cream like a child, the adolescent has discovered that strictly pursuing her own pleasure to avoid pain often creates problems. Actions have consequences but if you play by the rules then you are more likely to succeed. This is maturity in action: having a set of principles to naivage the infinite possibilities the world will throw at you. The adolescent therefore becomes the king/queen of bargaining. If I go to work, I will get paid. If I’m nice to Mum she’ll let me go out Friday night. I’ll study so I get good grades and then get a good job.
This is a huge leap from the mindset of a child but you still never stand for something other than yourself. Your object is ultimately still to maximize your pleasure and minimize pain. You simply understand that this is done through transactions. Some people will grow through their whole lives in this bargaining state. Constantly feeling like they are owed something for everything they do. What most adults come to understand (hopefully) is that the most important things in life can’t be bargained for.
You don’t want to bargain for love or friendship or respect, that undermines what you are trying to achieve. If you have to convince someone to love you then they obviously don’t.
“The most precious and important things in life are, by definition, non transactional. And to try to bargain for them is to immediately destroy them”
Adult virtue is the realisation that a principle is right and good for its own sake; being honest even if it hurts you or others is the right thing to do. Being honest is more important than one's own pleasure or pain. Honesty is inherently good and therefore is an end, rather than a means to an end.
“An adult will love freely without expecting anything in return because an adult understands that that is the only thing that can make love real.”
God, parenting would be impossible without the unconditional love of our kids! The principled values of adulthood are unconditional and cannot be achieved through any other means. They are end in and of themselves.
Right, this brings us back to Kant! Kant started with the simple observation that the only thing that sets us apart from everything else in the universe is consciousness. We have the ability to reason and through reasoning we are able to iterate and improve. Kant argued that our moral duty is to preserve and grow consciousness, in ourselves and others, this became the “Formula of Humanity”.
Kant developed a one size fits all principe that explains how to act in our day to day lives:
“Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”
In other words you must treat humanity never merely as a means, but always as an end. In the book Mark Manson uses the example of wanting a burrito. If the burrito is the end, then getting in the car, buying petrol and driving to the restaurant are all the means. You have to do them to get to the burrito. If you got the burrito because your wife wanted one then that's great but if you got the burrito for you wife so she would make out with you later on then end has become sex which makes the whole thing a bit grotty.
Kant's argument was that when you use humanity (or any consciousness) as a means to some other end it is the basis of all wrong behaviour. This blew my mind at 5am this morning!
“You must love someone without expecting anything in return; otherwise it’s not truly love.
You must respect someone without expecting anything in return; otherwise you don’t truly respect him.
You must speak honestly without expecting a pat on the back or a high-five or a gold star next to your name: otherwise you aren’t truly being honest.”
Kant formula not only explains where we get it wrong (treating conscious beings as a means) but also explains why adult virtues work: Honesty is good in and of itself because it doesn’t treat people as a means. Courage is good in and of itself because failing to act will treat yourself or others as a means to avoiding your fear. Mansons argument is that the The Formula of Humanity is the best change we have. It is a principle anyone can live by. It isn’t faith or hope based and it doesn’t project some kind of magically new world or burning in hell consequences. There is no hierarchy, all that matters is that the conscious will be respected and protected.
Having digested all of this before 6am this morning I’m now feeling in a better position to face the uncertainty that lies before us. While it certainly hasn’t solved any of my immediate problems (no daycare and homeschooling!), it has given my maturity levels a kick in the pants. This sucks but it does for everyone. All we can do right now is show some of that unconditional love and respect we have for others. Ring a friend, go exercise with someone you miss, don’t lie to yourself that everything is cool because these are some very fucked up times and everything is not cool! We will get through it and be more resilient for doing so. x