Living bravely

OVER THE holidays, as the old year was coming to a close, I found myself pondering, like everyone else I suppose, what it means to put order and meaning in one’s life. Most New Year resolutions take the form of lists of what to do to achieve greater efficiency in everyday life—how to keep work from piling up, how not to be late for appointments, how to stay healthy, how to free one’s self from vice, etc. But some resolutions go deeper: they involve a fundamental reorientation of one’s life. Instead of asking how, they ask why.

This is the realm of values rather than of norms, of purposes rather than of procedures.  We enter this mode wondering what life is about—what we must live for as against how we have lived, why we live as against how to achieve success.

Such moral questions belong to philosophy’s traditional concerns, alongside epistemology (how we know) and ontology (what the world is). Philosophers like Richard Rorty offer a fine but useful distinction between morality and ethics. Morality deals with how we should live with others, while ethics deals with how we should live.

For many, this distinction is not important because the moral is the same as the ethical. To be moral is to live one’s life according to duty. Therefore morality dictates how we should live. Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps the most contrarian of all philosophers, questioned this belief. For him, morality is nothing but a summing up of the defense and necessities of past generations, who lived in circumstances different from ours. We cannot assume, he argued, that what was good for previous generations must be good for the present as well. He said that every generation—indeed every individual—must create its own mode of life, one appropriate to its circumstances, rather than merely replicate, as an act of duty, what it has inherited.

We may see how these ideas seriously challenge existing morality. Those committed to a morality based on firm religious belief will have no difficulty dismissing them. The burden weighs heavily on those who are committed to living an ethical life without necessarily subscribing to any religious belief. They will sometimes go into an endless search for what is truly meaningful, only to land in the embrace of another faith.

Rorty says it may be more useful for such people, who are in quest of an ethics without morality, to switch from a vocabulary of searching to a vocabulary of creating. Thus, instead of pursuing a search for an imagined “real” or “higher” purpose in life, one commits oneself to “becoming what one is”—in other words, to forming a unique and beautiful self from the material that the contingencies of birth and upbringing have given us. This is as hard to explain as it is to practice. Those who are inclined to pursue this kind of reflection will find an excellent companion in Rorty’s book, “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.”  I will try to summarize here some of the key ideas that I have personally found to be fascinating.

In life, says Rorty, we find ourselves confronted by a “polytheism of values,” the major ones, I would add, being money, love, truth and power. In addition, there is the pursuit of fame, of social justice, of salvation in the afterlife, and so on. Whatever they are, the specific values we pursue are not entirely self-chosen.  They are mainly determined for us by the community and the times into which we are born, as well as by the particular gifts with which we are endowed. They are “contingent” in the sense that they could have been other than what they are.

Many of us go through life never knowing the “blind impresses” that have shaped us into what we are. This blissful ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, self-knowledge may often bring with it many burdens, not the least of which is resentment. We can protect ourselves against this useless emotion, says Rorty, by adopting an “ironic” attitude. That is, we accept what we are (amor fati), even though, in the best of circumstances, we know we may do no more than merely re-describe our lives.

Still, some strong individuals manage to get out of the fates into which their families have cast them—an artist escapes from a business-oriented upbringing in order to pursue his art, or a scientist frees himself from the straitjacket into which the political clan to which he belongs might have packed him in order to spend the rest of his life in a laboratory.

For me, the most heroic of achievements belong to those unique individuals who could oppose the established conventions of their cultures in order to do what they believe is right.  Let me cite just one example I came across in a recent article in The Atlantic magazine, which lists down a few notable “brave thinkers” in 2012.

In the course of his research, Jay Bradner, a scientist at Harvard Medical School, stumbled upon “a molecule that, in mice, appeared to trick certain cancer cells into becoming normal cells.” Rather than apply for a patent on the molecule, which he could easily sell to pharmaceutical companies, he did the unthinkable.  He published a paper describing the structure of the compound, and gave away free samples of the compound to laboratories around the world that were in a position to build upon it in the quest for a cancer cure. He was convinced, he said, that this was “the more efficient way to do science—and maybe the more honorable way.”

In a world overrun by the god of money, it is rare to encounter scientists like Bradner. So completely wedded to the code of their chosen vocation are they that they can afford to turn their back on the seductions of the marketplace and the political system. Rorty would have said they could only do so because they were equally driven by a strong sense of social solidarity.