Is Having A Conscience Worth The Trouble?

Do we innately know right from wrong? Is that what a conscience is? Is our conscience shaped by our environment? If so, would it not be compromised by the biases held by our environment?

I wonder about these things because it was Henry David Thoreau’s belief that we should act upon what we believe to be right, regardless of what the law says. Thoreau wasn’t just all talk either, for he served time in prison for his refusal to pay his taxes because those taxes would then fund the American-Mexican war which he opposed. So, the man stood by his principles and acted upon them. That’s very commendable. But there aren’t many individuals like Thoreau. I would classify Thoreau as a true individual because he was able to unpack what he desired, what he needed, what he wanted, what principles structured his life and what his limitations were.

All of this came from his deep self reflective nature, much of this is documented in his essay Walden where he spent two years living in a cabin. Thoreau was able to dissect himself and in doing so, came to the understanding that we should be governed first and foremost by our conscience.

But most people are not like Thoreau. Many of us rely on others to tell us what we should believe in and what we should oppose, the hive mind is real. The principles that structure our lives are set by other people, from the laws we follow, the way we behave, what we believe to be right and wrong, all of this is downloaded into us from a young age. Unlike Thoreau, who uploaded his own beliefs, we spend most of our time following trends set by others and in doing so, we get further and further away from our conscience.

Thoreau believed that corporations, like the government, don’t have a conscience but if we have individuals with a conscience in a corporation, then, that corporation could become conscientious. Such ideals are great but the issue isn’t the corporation, it is the individual. How can the corporation be expected to be conscientious when most people rarely find their conscience?

Thoreau was just one of the few who troubled himself in the search for his conscience but who knows if it’s worth the trouble. Life is definitely easier if you just go along with the trend. But is that really living or is that just existing?

Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. it is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily agents of injustice. (Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience). 

 

 

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Reflections On The Meaninglessness Of Life

We act as if the world cares about us. As if there is a future which is predictable and certain. If you follow the right steps that you may be happy at some point in your life. If you match the steps of people that have come before you, that you may find this life worthwhile. Our minds are meant to be chained to some meaning so we grasp at what is comfortable, what is easily attainable and believe that to be the truth. We seek stability for in a stable world we can make progress, we can make plans for the future, we can project ourselves 10 or 20 years from now and see the improvements we have made and thus, we can keep going, living the same rhythm of life that we have been living.

Such a belief is absurd. The world does not care about our needs.

It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. “Beings”—this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery.

Such a feeling may strike someone “on a street corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door” as Albert Camus put it. The feeling of absurdity. The absurd is the divorce between what a man wants and what life can offer. What man wants is meaning. A “why”, a reason for his struggle, for the hardships he faces, for the pain he endures. What’s heaven if not a prize for handling the hardships of life with grace. A possible reward for being a good boy. The same way we treat children or our pets. Behave yourself and you may get a treat, but there is no guarantee.

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.

There is freedom in this silence, in the meaninglessness of life. That freedom being that one is free to be who he or she wishes and do what they like. You are not destined to be someone. Your life has no fate. You can give your own life meaning without having to be chained to the coping mechanism of other people like God or the rat race to get to the top and buy the newest car and live in the most expensive house. You are not chained to such things because such things are just man-made concepts to keep the absurdity of life from overwhelming you. But the absurdity can be freeing if you embrace it and understand that your life can be completely your own if you figure out what matters to you, what you truly desire, what you want and through this, you can figure out what gives your suffering meaning and your life meaning.

Most people rather not go through the trouble of giving their own lives meaning. They rather just follow the prescribed formula imposed onto them by others and be fine going in circles, over and over. It’s hard to blame such people because life is difficult and it is hard and it ends rather quickly. Why torment yourself further by revolting to the world, confronting your beliefs, examining your limitations and constantly seeing the world anew. Such revolt may give your life value but it is also a struggle to live this way. It may be simple just to conform. Hence why there are much more conformist in the world than there are true individuals. I suppose spending your life trying to act as if life isn’t absurd is one way to cope with its absurdity.

Man is always prey to his truths.

The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays by Albert Camus.

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Joseph Campbell’s Advice to Artists

Should I study law? Should I become an accountant? A dentist? A painter? Should I devote myself to writing? How will I pay the bills? Can I make a living doing this?

I need __? I want __? Should I do __ or __? How can I __?

So many questions plague the mind when you focus it on the future. There is fear in not knowing what to do. Some might think that if you figure out what you wish to do with your life then that fear might subside. I found that not to be true. Making a living through art is never guaranteed. With anything there is uncertainty. Knowing what you wish to do is very different from being able to do that thing and even that is different from making a living doing that thing.

The questions of security, stability, happiness and purposeful living always revolve around such decisions.

Joseph Campbell also had similar thoughts. He understood the need to pursue a life of art but at the same time not wanting to be dead broke the entire time. He knew the consequences that could arise from living the “artist way of life” and that penniless living is just filled with struggle and hard times. That life is not for everyone. In order to help ease the decision between pursuing what one loves and what might give them stability, Joseph Campbell differentiated between work and job.

From Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion

The normal situation is that, perhaps for years, you work away at your art, your life vocation, your life-fulfilling field of action, and there’s no money in it. You have to live, though, so you get a job, which may be a low-degree activity relative to what you are interested in. You could, for instance, teach people the art you are operating in yourself. So, let’s say you have a teaching job, and you also have sacred space and time to perform your own work. Your art is what I would call your work. Your employment is your job.

Having separated what you love and how you make a living, Joseph Campbell goes further and talks about what to do if you are given a raise in your job.

Then, you are doing so well in your job that your employer wants to move you into a higher position. You’ll have to give more to the job than before, and you will receive a higher salary, but your new commitments will cut down on your free time. My advice is: don’t accept the promotion.

Time is what people do not have and cannot control. It goes quickly and you need it to do what you wish to do. Your art requires time. What happens when you spend more time on your job? You have less time for your work. In this way, you quickly spiral further and further away from your work as job commitments become more demanding along with higher pay.

Its’s like doing your exercise: you set aside a time when you’re going to exercise, and that is a holy time. With your art, you should do the same: give a certain number of hours a day to your art, and make it consistent. Then, whether you’re writing or not, sit there for those hours: it’s a meditation on communication and expression, the two factors in the art work. What will happen, ideally, is that gradually – and it might not be this week or next or even this year – as your given responsibilities drop off, there will be an expansion of the time available to you for the practice of your art. The point I’m making is that your work – that is, your art – and your job must not contaminate each other.

At the end of the day, the dream is to have your job and work be the same thing. For some people that comes early and for others, it happens much later in life. And for some, that combination never takes place. Regardless, a pursuit of stable living does not mean death to the artist inside of you. One can find the proper balance.

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Socrates & How To Think For Oneself

To think for oneself can be a difficult process especially if you harbor self-doubt, as many people do. Self-doubt causes us to conform to the opinions of other people. When you are unsure about yourself and your own reasoning, you naturally flock to the group consensus. Such actions are even stronger when the group consensus is what is considered to be the norm or “common sense”. The sheer number of people supporting one argument is enough for you to doubt anything contrary.

However, if one is to have an “independence of mind” as Alain De Botton puts it, we cannot take what we are told without critically examining it. It is the reason behind a statement that is supreme and not the number of voices speaking. It is reason that allows us to oppose socially sanctioned practices and ideas.

Many people adopt the beliefs and opinions of others without reason.

Other people may be wrong, even when they are in important positions, even when they are espousing beliefs held for centuries by vast majorities. The reason for this simple: they have not examined their beliefs logically.

How does one examine beliefs logically?

The answer lies in the life of Socrates. He was an individual who used his love for wisdom, for philosophy, as his guide. Such love put reason at the center and not traditions, norms, opinions, popularity, etc. His process was simple but it required a disciplined individual to practice it on a daily basis, hence why so many people rather divert such responsibility and adopt other people’s beliefs. But in order to be an individual, one must examine life for him/herself and see what they believe to be right and what is true to them.

The following method is known as the Socratic method of thinking and it can help one to examine the commonly held beliefs, not just of their own but those of the society they are living in as well.

  1. Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.
  2. Imagine for a moment that statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where that statement would not be true.
  3. If a situation is found, the definition must be false or imprecise.
  4. The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.
  5. Repeat the process if new statement also has an exception.

(The Consolations of Philosophy)

Often times the truth is discovered by finding out what something isn’t. What statements are not true, what beliefs have exceptions, what opinions are based on falsity and so on. Through such critical thinking, you begin to formulate your own thoughts and understandings and hence, begin to think for yourself.

 

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Bad Memory Has Its Benefits

I would love if my memory was better. Instead of vague recollections, the kind where you have to question whether or not something actually happened, I could recollect more clearly, remember the exact detail of some past moment, in a way, relive my past. If my memory was better I could recall the exact feelings, thoughts, and emotions which I’ve felt and that would make writing about such things so simple. Better yet, I would love to recall anything I read one time. All that information which seems to flow in and then out, only the smallest traces of it sticking with me, almost as if I hadn’t even attempted to learn it.

No more losing my keys or forgetting directions or spending the day trying to recall that one song I heard on the radio that one time.

Clearly, the benefits of good memory are immense. You may think who would ever want a bad memory? Or be happy that their memory is bad? 

The answer to that is Michel De Montaigne. Montaigne was a French philosopher who is best known for his collection of thoughts which he mixed with real-life anecdotes, which are promptly called Essays. It is the way Montaigne thinks which has attracted people to him for centuries after his passing and is one of the reasons I’ve read his work. An example of this unique perspective can be seen in the essay titled “On Liars” in which he lists a few benefits of having a bad memory.

One benefit is that you have to use your own reasoning ability, your own logic, instead of relying on the works of others because you are unable to recollect the arguments of others in a cohesive manner.

If, thanks to memory, other people’s discoveries and opinions had been kept ever before me, I would readily have reached a settled mind and judgment by following other men’s footsteps, failing as most people do to exercise my own power.

Another benefit that you may not have realized of bad memory, for I certainly did not, is that one talks less when their memory is poor.

I talk less; it is always easier to draw on the storehouse of memory than to find something original to say.

Furthermore, bad memory means to relive experiences and moments.

Books and places which I look at again always welcome me with a fresh smile.

Lastly, your mind is at ease when your memory is poor for you cannot recall information that would bring you discomfort.

I remember less any insults received. I would need an Official Reminder like Darius: in order not to forget an insult suffered at the hands of the Athenians he made a page intone three times in his ear as he sat at table: ‘Remember the Athenians, sire.’

If nothing more, this is a good exercise to practice. Whatever you deem to be bad, think of two or three things that demonstrate how that bad thing has benefits of its own. What I take away from this essay is simple: be mindful of your perspective. There are very few things in life which are black or white, good or bad, most things fall somewhere in the middle, the gray area, where one’s perspective matters more than anything else.

Perspective On What It Means To Lie

Lying comes easy to me. It’s almost like a reflex, the initial reaction is to lie. Even to a conversational question like “What are you up to?” I may reply with a quick lie, tell them I was busy doing something important or about to do something productive or perhaps its the opposite, lie and say I was doing nothing when in fact I was in the middle of work. It’s ego driven. I want to seem important or I want to seem flexible. It’s this reflex I have built over time, years of lying, honing a skill that I don’t want.

Just the other day I brushed off hanging with some friends because I was too lazy to do so. Instead of telling the truth, because that would hurt the ego, I told them it was too late, I was too tired, that I will see them some other time.

I used to never think about such lies. After I told them they were out of my head because I thought these lies to be harmless. This was my way of thinking until I read Lying by Sam Harris. This book brought a perspective change to the way I thought about lying and the importance of being truthful. Of course, I’ve always understood big lies to be bad, those lies that bring a level of shame and guilt after you have told them but the book helped me understand the harmful nature of what we call white lies as well.

There are three things I learned on the perspective of lying and what it means to tell a lie.

1. When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives—about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he can know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance. What attitude could be more disrespectful of those we care about?

By withholding the truth from someone we feed our ego. We act superior under the guise of being helpful. There is a level of arrogance attached to our actions when we tell a lie in order to protect someone’s feelings or emotions.

2. Lying is the lifeblood of addiction.

This is so true. How many times have you cheated on your diet? Lying to yourself that it’s okay, you’ve earned it or that you’ll burn off the extra calories later. How many times have you said just one drink isn’t too bad? or procrastinated by promising yourself you’ll do something later instead of right now?

The lies you tell yourself in order to feel immediate gratification only strengthen the poor habits you are trying to break and those are the habits which are holding you back from being your best self. So this addiction to lying is holding you back. You become an addict by either lying to yourself and/or telling lies to others.

3. Think of all the opportunities for deepening love, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding that are forsaken by white lies.

Lying deprives you of honest communication. It is only through honest communication do our relationships with other people deepen. Often times we lie to save face, it’s an ego thing. By telling the truth, instead of lying, we allow the other person an opportunity to forgive you, to accept you despite your flaws and in doing so, build a stronger relationship.

As Sam Harris says:

Being honest is good to avoid long term problems but at the cost of short term discomfort.

Discomfort is the root of many human vices. We all want pleasure, we all want comfort, we want that immediate gratification but by seeking these things we put a limitation on the growth of our relationships and also our own personal growth.

It isn’t as easy as telling yourself to never lie again. Just simple reminder won’t work, it’s not the same as telling yourself to get milk before you go home. In order for you to be a truthful individual, you have to look into your habits and actions which lead you to lie. The process is a difficult one which requires a lot of self-reflection. You have the change as an individual. Just as lying can be reflexive, telling the truth must also come without a conscious effort to do so. Only then you become a truthful person.