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On making the world a “better place”
Posted: 28 June 2008 08:05 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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When a person sets about the project of “making life better for those around him”, he may or may not recognize that it is a subjective goal. Even if “those around him” give profuse thanks for the “noble service” of such an individual, he still has to take it on good faith that the others are not simply trying to “make life better for those around them” by mindlessly mouthing thanks. I don’t make the assumption that I really know what other people want, and prefer not to “over-interpret” the data I am given (by others) about the ways in which my actions are or are not “leading to a better world”. It’s only the scientist in me that shies away from over-interpreting the data. The mystics implore you to recognize that saying what you want simply throws you off the scent immediately.

I don’t know how a “better world” is defined in any abstract way, whether by “augmenting the sum of total human happiness” (always a difficult calculation to perform) or by taking “arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.” The only troubles you can ever be sure of ending are your own, and (unless you believe in fairy tales about an afterlife), they will end someday, by hook or by crook. By taking the word of others that you have done them a good turn, you are soothing and suiting only yourself. My world view looks nihilistic to some because I make no bones about who are the real beneficiaries of what might best be termed “virtuous action”.

And aren’t we just so conditioned by the content of the whole long list of “masters” that faithful folk cite over and over and over again, ad libitum and ad nauseam? Doesn’t every bit of sage advice on the books force the interpretation that all our virtuous actions are really-o, truly-o in the service of someone else or Someone Else? And isn’t the implicit rule that we are to take up the cause, not by asking other people what they want from us, but by telling other people what is “good” for them? By all the shades of sages past, are we never to be free of this grand old style of doing “good”, trotted out by people with no imagination, and only an eye to their own self-righteous subjective project that “that what the world needs now” is platitude layered upon platitude?

We are often reminded that the Zen archer makes himself the target. A lot of those out there to “make the world a better place” turn this on its head and make themselves the arrow. By doing so they make nothing in particular the target, and so are guaranteed to hit that at which they have been aimed (by none other than themselves). Being able to cite the traditional “wisdom” only sets the task at one remove. It is not wrong to regard ourselves as self-aiming arrows, and it places as much responsibility on our own tail-feathers as we can stand. Saying the target is “making a better world” puts off the problem of what we will do when we get there.

I get it that people used to delivering up these prescriptions and platitudes will be offended by my questioning the objective impact of their subjective quest to make the world a better place in their own minds. There’s nothing new to see here, folks, so move along.

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Posted: 28 June 2008 08:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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“You want to help people?  First help yourself.  Then, if you have any time left, you can help others.” Georg Gurdjieff

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Posted: 28 June 2008 08:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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I think what you are saying is that the only people pedding prescriptions online for making the world a better place are hypocrites, and with that, I heartily agree. This comes off to some people as nihilism, but you and I know better.

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Posted: 28 June 2008 12:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Salt Creek - 28 June 2008 12:44 PM

I think what you are saying is that the only people pedding prescriptions online for making the world a better place are hypocrites, and with that, I heartily agree. This comes off to some people as nihilism, but you and I know better.

Ah.  I’ve finally got it all figured out: Salt Creek is the Supreme Guru.  He has it all figured out.

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What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.
-Ivan Karamazov

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Posted: 28 June 2008 06:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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My theory is that the people who truly make the world a better place don’t have that as a conscious goal. We all feel good when we help others on their terms. But when someone consciously believes that he’s out to make the world a better place, it’s not just about subjectivity, it’s about ego. He wants to help people on his terms, because he has or seeks a hugely inflated sense of his importance. He decides for himself what is best for people. Calling the mindset “playing god” would be fair because it’s the same as the missionary mindset. Even when missionaries alleviate suffering, the motivation is not honest because they’re only doing it to raise their status in the eyes of their god. It’s not much different from working in a soup kitchen as community service to get out of speeding tickets.

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Posted: 28 June 2008 06:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Carstonio - 28 June 2008 10:32 PM

My theory is that the people who truly make the world a better place don’t have that as a conscious goal. We all feel good when we help others on their terms. But when someone consciously believes that he’s out to make the world a better place, it’s not just about subjectivity, it’s about ego. He wants to help people on his terms, because he has or seeks a hugely inflated sense of his importance. He decides for himself what is best for people. Calling the mindset “playing god” would be fair because it’s the same as the missionary mindset. Even when missionaries alleviate suffering, the motivation is not honest because they’re only doing it to raise their status in the eyes of their god. It’s not much different from working in a soup kitchen as community service to get out of speeding tickets.

Ditto. Any effort to make the world a better place, even in a very small way, is futile if you consider the chances of that actually taking place. What are assumed to be good and bad constantly reverberate and interfere with each other to the extent that, in the long run (probably even short runs, as well), no positive effect will occur by way of anyone’s efforts. Subjective stances and opinions about cause-effect, however, result in most everyone, including me, to keep on trying.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 29 June 2008 07:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Perhaps there are a few things that one can do to make the world a better place that don’t depend upon subjectivity. Feeding starving children or protecting abused innocents come to mind. It doesn’t really matter what the motivation is - the outcome is good for everyone (except the abusers), even if it just makes most of us feel good when we hear about it. H does this when he opens his home to kids in difficult circumstances. Even though he gets paid for it, it’s still good. It helps someone and harms no one. When we met at his house, the two kids he was helping seemed the better for it, so that equals a win-win situation.

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Posted: 29 June 2008 11:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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... and the hits keep on coming.

Carstonio - 28 June 2008 10:32 PM

It’s not much different from working in a soup kitchen as community service to get out of speeding tickets.

Bruce Burleson - 29 June 2008 11:03 AM

Feeding starving children

See, but I think that ‘twere better not to be born than to grow up starving and throw oneself on the generosity of strangers. It seems as if the encouragement of the production of starving children is an artifice to give someone something to do who cannot think of something to do without checking the manual of operation every ten minutes. Eau de bureaucracie.

There’s a statistical correlation between being born to ignorant parents and growing up ignorant. There’s a genetic correlation between having parents with low IQ and being born with low IQ. Exceptions made by divine intervention only.

[ Edited: 29 June 2008 11:54 AM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 29 June 2008 02:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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Salt Creek - 29 June 2008 03:31 PM

It seems as if the encouragement of the production of starving children is an artifice to give someone something to do who cannot think of something to do without checking the manual of operation every ten minutes. Eau de bureaucracie.

That sounds too much a conspiracy theory, like Syndrome from “The Incredibles” staging a fake alien invasion just so he could pretend to save the day. My point had to do with the motives of the strangers.

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Posted: 29 June 2008 02:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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Bruce Burleson - 29 June 2008 11:03 AM

It doesn’t really matter what the motivation is

The motivation does indeed matter because it affects the type of help offered. A selfish, ego-gratifying motivation leads someone to offer the wrong kind of help, where it’s either on his terms and not the other persons, or where the help is not needed in the first place. Help that is offered with an agenda is not true help.

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Posted: 29 June 2008 03:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Carstonio - 29 June 2008 06:14 PM

That sounds too much a conspiracy theory, like Syndrome from “The Incredibles” staging a fake alien invasion just so he could pretend to save the day. My point had to do with the motives of the strangers.

I don’t kid myself about the different psychic maladies that lead people to spawn children they cannot care for. Nor do I kid myself much about the vainglorious folks who, although they can give their kids every video game and little league opportunity known to man, never quite catch up to the fact that they were really betting on the long shot.

So here’s to all the gaffers and dolly grips and stunt doubles - their kids could grow up to be writers, and even have the contacts necessary to sell their writing. Cheers to all the coaches/sparring partners (in all kinds of sports), bat/water boys, and greenskeepers. At least their kids grow up in an environment that conveys what is worth money. Especially, let’s hear it for all the little imps that run across the courts at Wimbledon to grab the first service faults that die in the net, because, in all probability, they will work for a living only if they want to, and even if they’re not very good at anything but being imps.

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Posted: 29 June 2008 03:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Bruce Burleson - 29 June 2008 11:03 AM

. . . H does this when he opens his home to kids in difficult circumstances. Even though he gets paid for it, it’s still good. It helps someone and harms no one. . . .

Bruce, if a retarded child grows up to be a happy retarded adult, he’ll eventually die. End of story. The world is not a better place. Also, I of course like to pretend that my parenting styles and methods are the best attainable. But I also try to maintain the parallel knowledge that others are equally gifted at caring for children, and in fact much better at it than I am. If I for some reason decided that I wanted to go back to doing pre-press ad production work, I have no doubt that my place in the developmental-disability-care world would continue unfazed by my absence. Thanks, though.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 29 June 2008 03:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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Carstonio - 29 June 2008 06:14 PM

That sounds too much a conspiracy theory, like Syndrome from “The Incredibles” staging a fake alien invasion just so he could pretend to save the day. My point had to do with the motives of the strangers.

I don’t think that “motivation” stands as a saving grace. But it’s the thought that counts.

Carstonio - 29 June 2008 06:17 PM
Bruce Burleson - 29 June 2008 11:03 AM

It doesn’t really matter what the motivation is

The motivation does indeed matter because it affects the type of help offered. A selfish, ego-gratifying motivation leads someone to offer the wrong kind of help, where it’s either on his terms and not the other persons, or where the help is not needed in the first place. Help that is offered with an agenda is not true help.

I don’t think it destroys the gift to admit that one is merely trying to justify one’s existence. Not having to fight off predators really puts a crimp in the style of all manner of self-aware critters who see the dark at the end of the tunnel. Making up fairy stories about an afterlife is, well, nutso. Just say it with me, “I’m a meaning-oholic. I think I can justify my own existence by claiming to be altruistic. Who’s going to be the wiser?”

[ Edited: 29 June 2008 03:20 PM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 29 June 2008 06:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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Salt Creek - 29 June 2008 07:06 PM

I don’t kid myself about the different psychic maladies that lead people to spawn children they cannot care for…

Oh…you were talking about individual parents. Your comment about “encouragement of the production of starving children” appeared to be directed at organizations that promote large families.

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Posted: 29 June 2008 06:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Salt Creek - 29 June 2008 07:08 PM

I don’t think it destroys the gift to admit that one is merely trying to justify one’s existence.

I’m suggesting something quite different - the person’s attitude affects how he delivers the gift.

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Posted: 29 June 2008 10:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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God Damn, Salt!  Now you’re talking.  “Do gooding is like treating hemophilia…”

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Do-gooding is like treating hemophilia—the real cure is to let hemophiliacs bleed to death, before they breed more hemophiliacs. -Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

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