Friday, August 04, 2017

On stark contrast and the radical choice of ethics

A few years ago, two other distinguished mentors have also criticized my code of conduct:

The first told me that it is wrong to see the world, and our choices within it, in stark contrast (of black and white, for lack of a better metaphor), because almost all decisions reside in areas that are shades of grey. This was how she taught some of her other mentees: by offering them examples of difficult choices where there is no easy answer. I agreed, to a point.

Another told me on multiple occasions that he has always followed the maxim not to make perfect the enemy of good enough (this is the same as the Arabic maxim ما لا يدرك كله لا يترك جله). I also agreed, to a point.

They are both right that we are rarely offered obvious choice tests between pure good and pure evil. Those are too easy for everyone. Almost all tests are more complicated, and in this sense I agree with them that self righteously pretending like all choices have clear-cut solutions is not only foolish, but also dangerous.

But this is not the choice (of action) of which I was speaking. I was speaking of the Kierkegaardian or Kantian radical choice (one could call it a hyper-action or hyper-choice) of leading the ethical life, not the consequentialist life.

It is very tempting to be a little-bit consequentialist. But there is no such thing. If one is a little-bit consequentialist, then, by definition, one is fully consequentialist. The seemingly non-consequentialist ethical part can then be understood in terms of consequences to self esteem, anticipated afterlife, or other similar devices.

The ethical-human curse is to face complicated tests but be asked to find simple solutions (defined by who you are), knowing that, on average, one will be wrong approximately half the time, no matter how hard one tries.

I was having a conversation with my wife last week about a similar problem. She was blaming me for being afraid to have any excitement in life. I used the excuse of the yin-yang nature of life: With every excitement comes heartache. I am not afraid of the excitement, I said, I am afraid of the heartache.

Lest you may think that this is a Buddhist teaching and not a Muslim one, I cited the following verses of the Qur'an:

 ما أصاب من مصيبة في الأرض ولا في أنفسكم إلا في كتاب من قبل أن نبرأها إن ذلك على الله يسير
لكي لا تأسوا على ما فاتكم ولا تفرحوا بما آتاكم والله لا يحب كل مختال فخور

[Nothing happens on earth or in yourselves except having been ordained and written before We bring it into reality; this is easy for God. (We tell you this) so that you will not feel sad for what you missed or happy for what you get; God loves not the arrogant and haughty. (Iron: 22-23)]


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