Saturday, September 22, 2007

Live, Give Life, Multiply

Dicebamus hesterna die ... when I first began my series on ethics, the main point was to underline that the source or foundational basis for norms need not be, and historically has not been, a divine being whose very existence I seriously doubt, but the universal human imperative to survive. In examining my proposed decalogue, we have reached the point at which we touch upon the subject of norms concerning life.

Put simply, I argued and continue to argue, good is whatever enhances the prospects of my survival and bad is the opposite. The corollary to "my survival" is that I could not have survived the first few years of my life alone, would not likely be able to survive in the style to which I am accustomed by myself and it won't be long before I will once again need to be nursed until I die.

We are all accustomed by movies and television to think of the "thou shalt not kill" imperative as involving a tawdry city murder by a jealous lover, a jilted husband, a betrayed conspirator and so on.

We are less accustomed to think of war as wrong. Indeed, our government makes every effort to enshrine Horatio's encomium to the young -- dulce et decorum est pro patria mori -- in advertising that simulates video-games. (Anyone who remembers the 1992 film Toys and is aware of the astoundingly successful 2002 PC war game America's Army will no doubt marvel at how life imitates art.)

Not only that, but no one ever considers elbowing someone in the subway or dropping a snotty word to the bus driver who is running late to be "killing."

Yet I meant to include both ends of the spectrum when I changed the Mosaic injunction into something broader and more appropriate to the ethics I am proposing: thou shalt not diminish the life of another human being.

Whenever we make life miserable for someone else, for even one second, we have stolen a possibility of joy that is irreplaceable. That second will never come again, that chance at some semblance of happiness is gone forever. We have killed that person for one moment.

Of course, those who know me will wonder where I get off spouting this proposition. Dismissive words? Moi? Guilty as charged. (Although I would still maintain that some things -- let those who have ears hear -- deserve to be dismissed.)

An ethical principle is not false merely because I fail to observe it from time to time. Enhancing, protecting, giving life is still the human imperative -- and every diminishment detracts from our collective and individual survival.

The wisdom of The Picture of Dorian Gray, whose proto-gay lib motifs are today all too obvious and uninteresting, is that, indeed, we do disfigure ourselves with our killing.

Our sarcasm turns us eventually into bitter prunes, our bullying weakens us, the hunger we inflict on others when we eat their rice bowl fattens us to the point of diabetes, the war and ravaging we inflict turns us into animals and the people we execute haunt us.

Taunt, prejudice and deprivation are all merely prolonged forms of premeditated murder. Most of us, I would argue, partake of these. Similarly, through our taxes we wage war and execute.

No one is pure any more. In Christianity, Augustine of Hippo called the condition "original sin"; in Hinduism and Buddhism it is simply referred to as awareness. When we become self-aware we become moral agents, enmeshed in our foibles and co-conspirators in the foibles of the society we choose to live off and in.

Let's turn this inside out and stress the positive.

To live is the only way we can continue to be moral agents, human. (After we are dead, who knows? The body is certainly gone; the "soul," which I am increasingly convinced by personal experience and what little I know of science is merely a compound of chemicals, returns its matter back to the universe. Most of us, I'm told, becomes nitrogen.)

To make life enjoyable, worthwhile, dignified enhances one's own life by enhancing that of others. To find ways to settle disputes peacefully and to reconcile criminals with society challenges and develops our intellect and makes us better people.
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