The problems of society – Part one: The normative question

The state of nature, for lack of historical evidence, is really just a thought experiment. But it’s still useful. I’m thinking about the period of human existence before any complicated society had come about. There must have been a time when the human way of life was still similar to our primate next of kin, at least for a little while; something along the lines of Rousseau’s natural man.

Suppose, for the sake of metaphor, that the state of nature is a simple hill.

As the human brain, and in turn, consciousness, memory, and symbolic communication, developed over the course of evolution, human beings must have, at some point, begun to ask the fundamental normative question that emerges with complex self-awareness. I imagine the first human ancestors to stumble upon the normative question experienced something like this: I realize now that I am conscious, and I have the sense that I can choose to act. So…what should I do?

Generally speaking, asking what should be done amounts to asking what is worth doing. The normative question projects the expectation that there exists a purpose with some intrinsic or consequential value that makes it worth taking on. Positing should therefore presupposes value, for it’s only by the presupposition of worth that normativity is possible. The question doesn’t assume a particular value, however. It can only assume that value, as an abstract possibility, exists. If the normative question were to assume a particular value, then that would mean that a judgment has already been made, as particular value is inherently a question of judgment. But the normative question is supposed to be prejudgment. So the question can only assume that value judgment itself is possible. It puts an “insert value judgment here” into the normative equation.

The mind can answer the normative question in two ways. It can conclude that there is no purpose worth its effort, and no action would occur. Or it can be motivated to act by the particular value of some purpose, and action ensues. What purpose in particular someone decides is worth pursuing is really just a variable. It is a subjective, arbitrary value judgment. So it could be anything. What’s important is that conscious action, when it occurs, is motivated by some purpose, the end of which has some perceived intrinsic or consequential value.

But this is only an account of conscious acts. A conscious act is an action consciously motivated by a subjective value judgment. Some things, of course, we just do with no real conscious involvement. These actions are unconsciously driven. An unconscious act is an action motivated by the value of fulfilling an objective condition. They are acts including foraging for food and drink, searching for mates, and sleeping. Like conscious acts, these also fulfill certain purposes and carry normative force. But these purposes are not based on arbitrary value judgments. They are based on non-arbitrary value, as they address our objective biological necessities. Unconscious acts are motivated by non-arbitrary purpose with non-arbitrary value. This non-arbitrariness is why it is so shocking when people make it their objective to not fulfill these purposes, like hunger strikes, vows of celibacy, or staying awake indefinitely.

Engaging with non-arbitrary purpose accounts for much of the human experience. Like any other animal, biological necessities are the main motivation for behavior and constitute the majority of our daily cycle. But in between birth, foraging for nourishment, searching for mates, sleeping and death, there are pockets of time that we restlessly seek to fill with purposive, and thus meaningful, activity. This restlessness stems from the nagging existential nature of the normative question; we long for meaning and significance. It is in these pockets of time that we create purposes for ourselves based on subjective, arbitrary value judgments that make our lives feel meaningful.

So, let’s return in our minds to the image of the simple hill. Prehistoric human social life likely originated around the collective fulfillment of non-arbitrary purposes, and in the process of securing those objective biological needs, they developed common arbitrary values and behavior. There is no way to really determine how that process played out, but the end result is that people live in proximity to one another, have common arbitrary values and exhibit similar behavior based on collective social norms.

These common arbitrary values are like philosophical seeds planted in the simple hill. Eventually, the seeds sprout roots and, through the proximate habitation of people and the collective evolution of arbitrary values, become established social norms. These constructions then grow into a complex trees, which branches off into different aspects of society that we call social, political, and economic life. However, because humans aren’t perfect, the various trees and branches will have their imperfections. These imperfections are the problems of society. They are problems like social inequality, political insolvency, vast wealth gaps, violent conflict, and ecological destruction. Such ecological destruction includes but is not limited to diminished biodiversity, global climate change, habitat destruction, extensive air and water pollution, deforestation, and the anthropogenic overwhelming of several of the Earth’s elemental cycles (Carbon, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, etc). Because environmental quality is intimately linked to the fulfillment of objective biological necessities, ecological degradation, in particular, is a problem of the highest fundamental importance and priority. To not prioritize overcoming the ecologically destructive trends of human society is a case where the pursuit of an arbitrary purpose and value obstructs the fulfillment of non-arbitrary purpose and value.

Most often, people try to solve the problems of society by tending to the branches themselves, pruning the immediate problems that are plainly in view. This is a worthwhile strategy. But, frequently we reveal that the policy solution to one problem has ripple effects that cause other problems which must then be addressed with polices that themselves have ripple effects that cause problems, and this continues indefinitely. This Sisyphean phenomenon is not necessarily a fault, it’s just one of the conditions we have to think about. Our lives are just too short for the extent to which we can manipulate our environment. We don’t live long enough to see the ripples of our actions touch the shore, so often we act with a false sense of impunity. The long-term effects of a generation’s decisions aren’t felt until latter generations, after all. The pruning method, however, is not the only option.

There are two routes that can be taken toward solving the problems of society, and they should both be used. It’s just difficult for one person to do everything at once, so one chooses. We can prune the problematic branches we can see, or, trace the problems of interest to their common, less visible root value. In the latter option, the strategy is to apply a subtle change to the root and use the ripple effects to help ameliorate a cluster of problems at once. I am partial to this strategy, in particular, to solve the cluster of problems referred to collectively as environmental degradation.

We cannot forget that the real commonality between all of these environmental problems is human activity. But we can’t help being human. Certainly none of us asked to exist. It just happened. We can’t change what we are, or that we feel internally compelled to behave in some way. So the environmental problems that arise from our behavior must be addressed through paradigm and behavioral shift. A reversion to primitive living or asceticism are not a realistic solutions. A less radical change is the appropriate response.

Problematic conscious actions are motivated by some conception of purpose with an underlying arbitrary value, so if changing paradigm and behavior is the solution, the solution can be attained by changing the motivating root value. But the root is below the surface. It hides as an unconscious assumption beneath a vast majority of our conscious actions, making it difficult to identify, much less change. With time and attention, however, one notices common threads and can identify the root value of the problem cluster of interest. The method is as such: first, identify the target problem cluster. Next, find the common paradigmatic and behavioral link between the various problems. Then, identify the common value motivating the problematic activity. Once the common value is known, the question becomes how we should tweak it to improve the problem cluster. This requires understanding the value in the context of its evolution. Given the proper context,  the appropriate tweak reveals itself.

Continue to Part two: The paradox of progress…


4 thoughts on “The problems of society – Part one: The normative question

  1. Pingback: The roots of oppression | tothesungod

  2. Pingback: Is electricity a non-arbitrary need? | tothesungod

  3. Pingback: Non-arbitrary v. arbitrary | tothesungod

  4. Pingback: Human consciousness: The normative question and the creation of value | tothesungod

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