Category Archives: Philosophy

The Value of Tradition

There is a story of a 16 year old girl, who sat down by the kitchen counter and observed her mother prepare lunch for the family.  The meal is meatloaf, with rice and mashed potatoes on the side, something the girl had seen her mother prepare a hundred times in the past.  And like always, prior to putting the meatloaf in the oven, the mother cuts off roughly one-third from one end of the dish, and then proceeds to bake it, while throwing the cutoff chunk of meat into the trash.  To the girl, this always seemed strangely wasteful.  What’s the point of cutting off one end of the meatloaf?  Does it enhance the taste somehow?  Is it easier, faster to bake when you only have two-thirds worth of a dish?  Finally, she asked the mother for an explanation to this mystery.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the mother, “it’s the way my mother always made it.  I just figured she must have had a good reason.  She has been cooking much longer than I have.”

Unsatisfied with such a non-answer, the girl set out towards her grandmother’s house the next day to get to the bottom of this whole castrating meatloaf ritual.

After arriving at her grandmother’s house, the girl posed the same question she asked her mother:  What’s the reason for cutting off one-third of the meatloaf before baking it?

“Well, I guess you can say it’s somewhat of a family tradition,” said the grandmother, “cooking tradition, that is.  All I really know is that it’s the way my mother always did it.  And I assume the same goes for her mother, my grandmother.”

Fortunately, for the inquisitive 16 year old (with no apparent social life), the 96 year old great-grandmother was still alive, and within reaching distance–the mystery of Meatloafgate could still be solved.  So, she biked down a few miles to great-grandma’s, to once again ask the same question a third time:  What’s the deal with our family’s meatloaf cutting tradition?

“Tradition?” repeated the great-grandmother bemused, “Ha!  I’ll show you your tradition.  Gimme a sec.”  She lifted herself, balancing on her hickory cane, and wobbled to her tiny kitchen.  She looked through a couple of cabinets, before exclaiming a resound, “Aha, here’s your tradition, right here!”  Then she brought forward to the girl, a tiny baking tray, big enough to hold only two-thirds of a meatloaf dish.

The mystery was over, and from that moment on, so was the family tradition.

In the past, I have used this story a number of times to illustrate the mistaken value we might unknowingly be attributing to the various traditions we hold dear in our lives.  Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that traditions are nothing more but arbitrary customs that individuals are indoctrinated into by the community, stating, “How the tradition originated is indifferent; in any case it was without any regard for good and evil or any immanent categorical imperative, but above all in order to preserve the community, a people” (Human, All-Too-Human, section 96).  It is certainly true that many, if not most, people perform and take part in social customs for reasons that might elude them, other than a vague, “it’s just what we’ve always done.”

A good example would be the institution of marriage.  The exact origin of when, and why, marriage began as a common practice is unknown, leaving us mostly with various myths and legends of ancient cultures.  However, despite this murky genealogy, the notion that marriage is a sacred act is still a common sentiment in the general public.  In America, divorce is as prevalent as marriage, but no one ever says that divorce is a sacred act (even though, the origin of divorce is probably as ancient as the origin of marriage).  We take it as a given that getting married is a tradition that we, as a healthy society, ought to value.  Thus, because we are taught to value marriage as an important aspect of our cultural tradition, we see no reason to develop a rationality for its exists.  And the ones we have come up with are bound to spiral into circular reasoning and tautologies (it’s a valued tradition, because we traditionally value it).  For instance, take the following exchange:

“Marriage is a sacred tradition, because it enjoys a long history within civilized society.”

“But so did slavery.”

“But marriage serves a social function for the community, it has utility.”

“So did slavery.”

“Yeah, o.k., but marriage is a legal union entered into voluntary by consenting partners.”

“Historically, there actually have been legally binding forms of slavery, entered into by consenting parties, usually to pay off a dept or loan.”

“But now you’re talking about the exception, not the rule.”

“So are you.  Much of the history of marriage has seen the tradition as a form of coercion, in which one partner’s consent was neither needed nor sought to make the act legally binding.”

“We can’t just start throwing traditions out the window, we would lose our cultural integrity.”

“But we have done away with, or at least stopped socially valuing, a large number of traditions in the past (slavery, segregation, male/female gender roles), and often for the sake of cultural progression.”

“Your playing semantics with me.”

“I can’t help it.  Scrutinizing ideas and ideals may very well be part of my cultural tradition.”

Now, before anyone misinterprets what I’m trying to say, this post is not in any way about equating marriage to slavery, or a call for the dissolution of marriages.  What I am doing is asking why we feel the need to attribute value to traditions, for no other reason than that it is considered a tradition?  Why is it so hard for us to say that, yes, much of what we deem to be part of our cultural tradition is arbitrary, and in the scope of history, will probably prove to be provisional to our particular social era.  Does this undermine the value of our traditions?  I don’t know.  If we had a time machine, and were able to discover the exact origins of all of our traditional customs, would we still bother performing those whose history we now knew to differ from our original conception of them?  Again, I don’t know.

Perhaps, it would be best for us to simply start reevaluating out customs now.  Defend them as if they are on trial, awaiting due judgment.  After all, if the traditions we hold dear are as valuable as we perceive them, no amount of self-scrutiny and rational argument should be strong enough to even cause a dent.

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Thought-Crime is Imaginary

Every person of a halfway sound mind can distinguish between her/his fantasy life and the real world.  We all occasionally ponder away, daydreaming about a fictional version of ourselves, doing things we know we couldn’t possibly accomplish in reality; that’s why it’s called fantasy, where our minds offer us an escape from the limitations of our daily environment.

We know that we will never start a rock band; we will never write a bestselling novel; we will (probably) never get the opportunity to do something extraordinary in the face of human history; people will not travel far and wide seeking our grand wisdom when we are old and “wise”.  And none of that matters.  Because when we are daydreaming about the alternate us–the us we can imagine ourselves being–the fact that we recognize the futility of the scenarios created by our minds is a non-issue.  In this regard, fantasizing about oneself as more accomplished, more polished, stronger, and in other customarily decent settings, is perfectly acceptable and expected to just about every person (because, as already stated, we all do it).  However, from what I can gather, this reasoning also appears to completely negate itself when our fantasies go out of the acceptable fold of social decorum.

We find it disturbing when we hear that someone is having impolite thoughts on a topic, or about a person.  Thoughts of violence, sex, and misconduct, are seen as more threatening in comparison to the more positive-minded daydreams we occasionally indulge in.  Unsurprisingly, we grant more validity to people’s thoughts when we see it as potentially harmful to ourselves (and others), even if the source of these threatening thoughts is the same as the source of the uplifting thoughts.  And the fact that there is as much of a chance of any person acting on their indecent thoughts as there is of her/him acting on their decent ones, does nothing to the way we reason that the potential for harm is far too great to leave it to pure chance, causing us to respond with due repulsion towards the originator of the bad thoughts–the person having the indecent fantasies.  Moreover, our behavior towards said individual is such that it makes little distinction between someone having thoughts about an action, and actually carrying them out (after all, it is true that the first step in committing a crime, is thinking about committing the crime).  Hence, despite the low probability that anyone who has ever thought about doing something horrible to someone else (be it a fantasy about committing assault, murder, robbery, etc.), one never knows whether or not the person doing the thinking is simply soothing their frustration through daydreaming, or seriously plotting to make good on their unsavory fantasies.  Although all of this is completely noncontroversial, there is one fact that needs to be addressed on this topic; namely, that thought crime is imaginary.  And it is imaginary in the literal sense of the word, in that it occurs solely in a person’s imagination.

Now, the question becomes how exactly can one be held accountable (or be treated as if to be held accountable) for actions that, at the core of it all, never happened?  For example, if someone has a fantasy about physically hurting me, but never acts on these thoughts, why is it that (were this person to reveal these thoughts to me years down the road) I would instinctively behave as if an attempted crime has actually been committed?  No harm has actually been carried out against me, and more importantly no harm will be carried out against me; the offense was, quite literally, completely imaginary.  So, why the moral indignation on my part?  Of course, it should be mentioned that this is solely a hypothetically generic me, I personally don’t think I could care less if anyone is daydreaming about hurting me, as long as they don’t carry out the act (to be honest, I’m fairly certain that more than one person I’ve known has thought about punching me in my face on more than a few occasions).  But that’s not how we collectively react to hearing about someone else’s repulsive fantasies, even more so if these fantasies are about someone other than ourselves (in which case we will gasp in union at the plight this innocent person has suffered for being the subject of the potentially-dangerous thought-criminal’s mental trespasses).

At the base of it, I think the lack of control we are capable of exercising in regard to any other person’s thoughtful offenses against our person is what motivates the knee-jerk repulsion we fell towards any criminal fantasies someone might daydream about against us, or any other individual; since we do not have direct access to any mind other than our own, we reason that we can never be completely assured of the daydreamers true intent.  This is all understandable, and most of us recognize the threat associated with criminal thoughts, even if no actually desire exists to follow through on said thoughts.  And this is the reason why most of us choose to never share our darkest, indecent thoughts with anybody, lest we risk being ostracized from social discourse.

The thing that is left unanswered for me, though, is the reason for the inner guilt a person feels for having thoughts that might verge on the criminal, despite being fully aware of never actually wanting to carry them out.  Most don’t really need other people scolding them for their “wicked” thoughts, they do a fairly decent job of performing the mental self-flagellation all on their own.  I understand feeling repulsed at the knowledge that someone else has been having uncivil thoughts about a third party, since you don’t have any way of accessing someone else’s mind to truly confirm just how serious the potential harm is, but you do have access to your own thoughts; you can know how dangerous your crime-infested daydreams are to others.  And if you can say with reasonable certainty that the indecent things you have fantasized about have little to no chance in manifesting themselves in your real life interactions, then why engage in this immense grief over your imaginary crimes; at least in the case where you yourself are the perpetrator, is it still inappropriate to say that thought-crime posses of no real danger?  And if not (and you fear that to accept your indecent thinking would desensitize you to actually doing indecent things), how can you carry on contributing and interacting with a society, when you can’t measure or control the seriousness and danger of the mental concepts that you have created?  And how badly does it speak of a society that has taught you to fear the thoughts in your own head as being so lethal that you should internally apologize and repent for any impolite/uncustomary thought that pops into your mind?  Or can society even be blamed for a reaction that is so fundamentally human(e)?

The Value of Life, & How We Prioritize Some Lives Over Others

Occasionally I like to write things that make me somewhat uncomfortable.  I think of it as a cerebral enema, to cleanse by mind of sinister cobwebs that, from time to time, start building nests in it if not cleared out.  The topic concerning the value of life, and the fact of how–since we can’t save all lives–we prioritize some over others with partly reasonable, partly arbitrary justifications, is a discussion I find simultaneously disturbing and necessary to have.

The initial instinct for most of us is to vehemently maintain that all lives, regardless of mediating circumstances, ought to be seen as equal to one another, and thereby equally deserving of consideration and protection.  That if we are to have a truly just society we should focus on forwarding this simple principle because it is a primary means by which to preserve impartiality and reduce disparity in the legal system, as well as reduce our personal biases on matters of moral dilemmas.  Historical events, like the American Eugenics movement of the early 20th Century, are a clear example which we can point to as an obviously immoral/unethical breech of the egalitarian mindset we strive to (albeit, not perfectly) construct our society around today.

All this is well and good, however, I’ve noticed in these sort of conversation that we tend to also leave the specific details concerning the practical application of this egalitarian principle intentionally vague and open for interpretation, primarily because by dwelling too deeply on the finer points of this moral principle we promote, we might uncover a number of factors that would reveal the ideal to be both unattainable and undesirable in reality.

Although we might say (and truly believe) that all lives are equal in worth and deserving of protection, we hardly ever hold this moral principle to be absolute.  For instance, what happens when a group of people are stranded at sea, on a sinking ship, and they need to prioritize who gets into the lifeboats first (because it’s a simple fact that somebody will have to be the first one in).  The most fair thing to do would be to let people in on a first-come-first-serve basis; however, the problem then arises as to the inevitable fact that this sort of laissez-faire approach to the dilemma will create a situation in which a disproportionate number of people saved will be those most physically capable of getting to the front of the line.  In other words, just about all the children on the boat will potentially be left behind to sink.

“Fine, so let the children on first,” you might say.  But why is the life of an 8 year old worth more than that of a 20 year old in this scenario?  The latter hasn’t lived long enough to truly grow-up and experience life yet, either.  S/he might even be on the path to achieve something unimaginably beneficial for all of mankind?  So why would it be right to rob her/him of a chance to accomplish something in life simply because s/he had the bad luck of being born a few years before the prioritized group?  And what about the parents of the children who get priority–do they get a seat because their children depend on them for survival?  Does that then mean that the life of a parent is worth more than the life of a childless person?  By what right is this a fair system?

The point of the scenario described above is to illustrate that often situations arise that require us to prioritize one thing over another, which unfortunately can include prioritizing one life over another.  As much as it might go against our deepest moral inclinations, we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that we do in fact place more worth on some lives over others and see them as being deserving of greater protection; often depending on the situation we find ourselves in.  While the motivation and mentality of this truth is quite dissimilar from that which inspired the eugenicists of the early 20th Century, the underlying reasoning is certainly comparable.  And, to put it a bit controversially, this underlying reasoning does have a line of rationality behind it.  When it comes to the sort of dilemma presented above, one is faced with the harsh fact that to stubbornly hold on to the ideal of saving everybody, can yield a situation where you save nobody.  In which case, regardless of your good, sound, moral intention, it would have been equally useful if you had done nothing at all.