Tag Archives: philosophy

A Temporary Away Message of Sorts

Lately I’ve had no time to blog.
No … I haven’t fallen in a bog…

But perhaps, metaphorically, there’s a similar explanation:
I’ve been totally swamped by my dissertation!

Submerged in a pile of huge Braille books,
I’m Neglecting friends, and the dishes, and most else, by the looks.

And though being cooped up just makes me want to scream,
I’m consoled by the thought of realizing my dream.

It’s finally happened, the end somewhat in sight,
I’ll have to stay focused to make it all right.

It’s come to that time where the finish draws near,
So to make sure my arguments are perfectly clear,

Alas, I’m indoors, this second half of September.
I’ll try to post something, if and when I remember.

I promise a real post, one of these days,
When I finally emerge from this philosophy haze.

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The Treacherous Terrain of Spiritual Utilitarianism

Imagine that you, a person who considers yourself firmly on a fulfilling spiritual path, have just broken your leg in a freak accident. While recovering in the hospital, you are visited by someone who, up until now, has been a dear friend. Unfortunately, that is about to change…

Your friend opens her mouth to comfort you and says, “It must be really hard to be dealing with this right now. But,” she continues with unnatural excitement, “You’ve given yourself such a wonderful soul growth opportunity!”

When you gawk at her with both incomprehension and a sinking feeling that perhaps you’d rather remain ignorant of her meaning, she simply ploughs ahead with the explanation you never had been waiting for. “See, before you were born, your soul chose all the lessons you were to learn in your lifetime. You chose to sign up for all sorts of traumatic experiences, including breaking your leg, so you could accelerate your spiritual development in this lifetime. Gosh, what a wonderful thing! Think of everything you can learn from it!”

Wonderful? Your doctor is running late on his rounds and you’re in need of more pain relief. After ordering your friend to leave in a voice which sounds unsettlingly more like a growl than a human, you sink back on the hospital pillows hoping for some peace. But it doesn’t come.

Despite yourself, you find you are very disturbed both by what your friend said and what her words imply. How can your friend actually believe her own words? And what if, an admittedly terrifying thought, your friend is right? After all, can anyone really prove her wrong?

Did you choose before birth that you were going to break your leg? Does everyone choose what happens to them before birth? What about abuse or cancer survivors, what about survivors of genocide. Surely, assuming there’s an afterlife; no soul would choose such a horrible experience willingly, no matter how sweeping the universal perspective might be. You think back to spiritual teachings you’ve heard in the past about the other side being full of light and unconditional love. Could anyone possessing unconditional love for themselves and all beings ever justify or permit atrocities to be done to themselves or others they love simply on the grounds of expedience? Talk about violence inherent in the system!

The above example is of course hypothetical, but the concept it describes is alive and well. It is a concept that is perhaps most popular in new age philosophy and spirituality, but is gaining supporters from people of spiritual backgrounds of all sorts. It is defended in books you never would want to pick up and read, and books by people who genuinely, purposefully, and passionately live their own spirituality every day with heart and dedication. In the spirit of respectful disagreement, I chose to quote someone of the latter sort to exemplify.

Lissa Rankin is a spiritual person I greatly admire, many of whose teachings and perspectives I have also come to adopt along my own spiritual journey. She is definitely not the first, and certainly won’t be the last to defend the plausibility of what I call spiritual utilitarianism, the doctrine that actions are right or acceptable when they maximize usefulness, here understood to consist in the greatest personal and collective spiritual development over lifetimes. Here is her eloquent and succinct articulation of spiritual utilitarianism found in her book, The Fear Cure.

Think of the greatest challenges you’ve ever faced—childhood
Abuse, the abandonment or neglect of a parent, illness or disability,
The loss of a loved one, betrayal, heartbreak, divorce, poverty,
being the victim of a violent crime, selling your soul for a paycheck,
Or whatever has hurt you the most. What if, instead of
Being a victim of these traumas, on some soul level, you chose
these challenges?

– Lissa Rankin, The Fear Cure

What if, indeed? Houston, we have a problem.

First, let us inquire into some of the practical and physical world dangers which could easily result from the widespread adoption of this view.

• Victim Blaming: It wasn’t his fault, she asked for it … literally, before she was born.)
• Apathetic Response-Ability: I can feel like a good person while I do nothing to help with (poverty, homelessness, that woman being harassed at work, that man being discriminated against for his disability) because everyone having these experiences chose to put them in their life. Who am I to interfere with their spiritual development? I’m off the hook.
• Complacency and Disconnection: If you really believe that everyone’s hardships, including your own, are a result of soul decisions you made before incarnating, compassion and empathy are optional, not necessitated. It is hard to be authentically present with your feelings if you think you have set up the circumstances of them in advance. If this is true in your own case, it is even truer when trying to relate to others who obviously chose their own suffering.
• Standard Problems for Maximizing Consequentialist Theories: Spiritual utilitarianism holds that actions are spiritually good/worthy if they maximize spiritual growth and minimize spiritual regression or stagnation. It is for this reason a maximizing consequentialist theory—that is, the good on this view is defined in terms of maximizing consequences and outcomes.

Spiritual Objections to Spiritual Utilitarianism
• Spiritual Utilitarianism is a System That Fosters Disconnection: The choice which spiritual utilitarianism posits occurs before birth is itself, after drawing out implications of the theory, a vehicle for separation. That is enough to call its claim to being a theory of spirituality into question.
• A Theory to Shield One From Vulnerability and Mortality: Spiritual Utilitarianism is a wonderful defense mechanism against confronting your own mortality or your own susceptibility to pain, illness, disability, loss, and hardship. Are you struggling with a disability or illness? You can try to console yourself with the thought that your higher self lovingly wanted this for you. Are you currently able bodied and are afraid of disability or loss? You don’t need to confront your fears or seriously question your inaccurate assumptions about others’ quality of life if they all asked to have such experiences. You can ward off fears of facing your own vulnerability in this way, too, believing that while the future is uncertain to you, your higher self already knows all about it. Defense mechanisms always sound like a good idea until you remember they are one of the most common barriers between you and genuine spiritual development, interconnection with all of life, and self honesty. Defensiveness leads to self-deception, which prevents a person from either fully shining her own light, or being able to fully give and receive love. When any spiritual concept or theory is used as a defense mechanism, it creates suffering, disconnection and isolation, and blocks openness, integrity, intimacy, love, and acceptance.
• A Superiority Complex: If you are happy and healthy, spiritual utilitarianism could easily lead you to conclude that you’re quite spiritually evolved, while those who are suffering have a lot to learn. But one of the most fundamental spiritual truths that exist is that we are spiritually equal. And one of the most fundamental physical truths is that we are equally susceptible to vulnerability. After these considerations, spiritual utilitarianism seems right out, as well as highly divisive.
• Spiritual Utilitarianism Permits Betrayal by your Higher Power: Should god/source/the one betray you in the name of expedience? Assuming for a moment such a betrayal is possible, spiritual utilitarianism seems to condone such a soul-devastating occurrence if it will result in your rapid spiritual development (somehow.) It might also be permissible for human beings, in the name of spiritual utilitarianism, to create suffering for others if that suffering is found to further spiritual growth. At first, this might sound crazy. But it is most definitely not, when you remember that the theory in question defines right action only in terms of the act’s consequences.

Questions That Need Asking:
Before taking any theory on board as part of your ethical outlook or spiritual practice/belief system, critical thinking is a must. Here are the questions I’ve asked myself about spiritual utilitarianism.

1. Generally, we think it wrong to sign off on something without another’s consent. The incarnate you will not remember her link to the soul who made the decisions for her life to come. How is choosing horrendous hardships for your future incarnate self any different morally from making the same choices on behalf of your imminently arriving future clone?

2. Suppose you want to learn a spiritual lesson and there is a rapid harrowing way of achieving it and a much slower gentle way of achieving it. Is it really ethical (or an act of self-love or compassion) to willingly harm yourself by subjecting yourself to the former rather than opting for the latter? My intuition is that such self harm is spiritually/ethically wrong, but such a decision would be praised for its goodness on the spiritual utilitarianism theory.

3. If it would maximize your spiritual growth through a particular soul lesson for you to cause grave suffering to another, should you do it?

4. Is suffering ever absolutely necessary? Are unconditional love and prechosen courses of suffering compatible?

5. It seems that the claim that we need to maximize spiritual growth is incompatible with actually achieving such growth. That is, a person who goes about actively trying to maximize her development will, by the very nature of grasping after outcomes, distance herself even further from the goal. Does the same self-defeating logic apply on the other side?

6. Is it possible for a soul to live authentically, allowing the divine to lead her, while insisting on choosing for herself ahead of time how her life is going to go, at a general level.

7. What if you’re not a utilitarian? If spiritual utilitarianism were true, would all souls have to adopt it? What if you, as a spiritual being, lived by completely different principles or took a different approach to growing and becoming more generally. Aren’t you allowed to conduct yourself according to your deepest truth, or is spirituality cosmically standardized? I shudder at the thought!

Personally, after working through all these implications of the spiritual utilitarianism theory, I am willing to see it sent off to that lovely place to which absurd, harmful, or groundless theories go when their time has expired. I am willing, as well, to bet that whatever happens after we die, choosing the pivotal events of great suffering for our lives to come is not part of it. We can thank the gods for that!

I will eventually be following this post up with another which aims to explore what, if anything, might replace the rather misplaced theory of spiritual utilitarianism as a plausible theory of spiritual growth and right action. Don’t be surprised if it has virtue ethics in it. I mean, my entire dissertation is on virtue ethics. What else would I advocate? Surely, it would be the very stuff I believe and live by.

Meanwhile, question everything.

Stop, Look, Go! _ The TED Talk on Happiness, Gratitude, and Living Consciously

Everywhere I look people are waking up into themselves. They are asking themselves: What kind of life am I actually living, and if I desire to change it, then how might I want to live instead? In every walk of life, we are figuring out, even if it appears to be happening slowly, how to make the world a better place now, and for our children’s children.

Today I’d like to introduce you to the incredible and ground breaking work of David Steindl-Rast. His TED Talk on the power and gift of gratitude, is entitled “Want to be happy? Be grateful.” I believe we are experiencing a profound shift in consciousness that will transform the way we interrelate with ourselves, each other, and our environment until we shatter the illusion of our separateness and come home to our belonging within the pattern of all that is. I am so grateful, every day, to be a part of that change.

His words echo my own, both here on the blog and in my dissertation, but I doubt I can match his eloquence. So, without further ado, enjoy!

“The one thing all humans have in common is that each of us wants to be happy,” says Brother David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar. And happiness,
he suggests, is born from gratitude. An inspiring lesson in slowing down, looking where you’re going, and above all, being grateful.

An excerpt follows:

How can each one of us find a method for living gratefully, not just once in a while being grateful, but moment by moment to be grateful. How can we do it? It’s a very simple method. It’s so simple that it’s actually what we were told as children when we learned to cross the street. Stop. Look. Go. That’s all. But how often do we stop? We rush through life. We don’t stop. We miss the opportunity because we don’t stop. We have to stop. We have to get quiet. And we have to build stop signs into our lives.

And when we open our hearts to the opportunities, the opportunities invite us to do something, and that is the third. Stop, look, and then go, and really do something. And what we can do is whatever life offers to you in that present moment. Mostly it’s the opportunity to enjoy, but sometimes it’s something more difficult.

But whatever it is, if we take this opportunity, we go with it, we are creative, those are the creative people, and that little stop, look, go, is such a potent seed that it can revolutionize our world. Because we need, we are at the present moment in the middle of a change of consciousness, and you will be surprised if you — I am always surprised when I hear how many times this word “gratefulness” and “gratitude” comes up.

people are becoming aware how important this is and how this can change our world. It can change our world in immensely important ways, because if you’re grateful, you’re not fearful, and if you’re not fearful, you’re not violent. If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people, and you are respectful to everybody, and that changes this power pyramid under which we live. And it doesn’t make for equality, but it makes for equal respect, and that is the important thing. The future of the world will be a network, not a pyramid, not a pyramid turned upside down. The revolution of which I am speaking is a nonviolent revolution, and it’s so revolutionary that it even revolutionizes the very concept of a revolution, because a normal revolution is one where the power pyramid is turned upside down and those who were on the bottom are now on the top and are doing exactly the same thing that the ones did before. What we need is a networking of smaller groups, smaller and smaller groups who know one another, who interact with one another, and that is a grateful world.

A grateful world is a world of joyful people. Grateful people are joyful people, and joyful people, the more and more joyful people there are, the more and more we’ll have a joyful world. … People are becoming aware that a grateful world is a happy world, and we all have the opportunity by the simple stop, look, go, to transform the world, to make it a happy place. And that is what I hope for us, and if this has contributed a little to making you want to do the same, stop, look, go.

Listen to the full talk below.

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I to the Philosophy Library Came

I went to reclaim what is mine
I walked roads I did not know
I braced myself against the cold
And stepped inside

The halls were just as I saw them last
The people still strangers
Except for one friend from long, long ago
Joyous and startling, like stumbling onto a benign shadow

I went to reclaim what is mine
I sat down at the table
I had all I needed but did not feel prepared
I was mostly silent and tried not to give my name

They around me did not speak
Walls shattered, fears crumbled, doors opened
A strange and somber, still homecoming
To a place I had never before been alone

Traversing treacherous terrain, the warm sun chilled me
Cement walkways became vast mountain passes
Trees seemed to bar my way with rustling branches
Streets were moats where morose memories languished
Blindly I pressed on, directionless on my way

I ignored the screams that echoed across my mind’s harsh landscape
These screams I used to make, when all I knew was torn away
When I lost who I was, and all my love
I learned to live the lie that I was nothing

My dreams, I’d dashed in bewildered anguish
Contemptuous and indignant, disillusioned, full of pain
And when the ground below my feet sloped down, before rising up again
As if a tiny valley secretly sang its presence there
I left all that haunted me behind in that small remnant of ravine

I went to reclaim what is mine
I took the steps one by one
And walked inside
And sat at their table

I went to reclaim what is mine
I returned triumphant, exhausted, grateful
At home again I met all those who watched me soar
And knew that I was welcome, able