Please welcome guest blogger Phoenix to the page. I’ve recently had the privilege of getting to know Phoenix by reading some of his voluminous work, and having philosophical debates with him as we serve the homeless community in our area. Phoenix is very passionate about his philosophical inquiries, and easing the suffering of those around him. He is a natural Bodhisattva. Links to his blog and to where to purchase some of his books can be found at the end of the post. Enjoy. 🙂
The Life Principle
I have found myself increasingly detached from modern life. I look at people in the city and don’t feel any connection. They tell you to make eye contact with others to establish reciprocity and compassion, but what do you do when this person looks at you with some form of hostility, or in fact doesn’t make eye contact at all? Indeed, our industrialized culture has detached itself from what I would like to call the “life principle.” The city has become a cesspool for disconnection and antipathy towards others. In this environment, it is hard to foster positive attitudes, kindness and empathy, understanding and compassion, and the promotion of life and love. But this certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
In Jainism and Buddhism, ahimsa is an important concept. This is, put simply, a virtue, a principle that states that you do not harm any living being. This includes animals, and even insects. As a Jain monk, you are required not to cause harm even unintentionally.
There are a lot of philosophical implications that can be extrapolated from the Eastern concept of ahimsa, both ethical and metaphysical, even though it seems simple. But in all reality, how simple is it really?
We harm each other all of the time.
Part of this is because we do not heed the life principle.
What is this life principle I speak of? That is a valid question, and I will articulate.
In modern ethics, we have categorized everything, and we have assumed that the right thing to do must be complicated, and we assume it can’t be simple, plunging us into a kind of relativism that saturates our culture. I am all for the study of ethics, but we must not get too carried away by philosophical abstractions and conceptual analysis: Sometimes, what we should do can be formulated in a simple statement: Don’t harm a living being.
Why this gets complex really quickly is because we have to define our concepts, if we are to make sense of things. Our concepts and beliefs and ideas, as some philosophers have noted, aren’t nearly as clear cut as we would like them to be.
So let’s start with life, as an assertion, as an entity, as something to be reconciled with, as something to respect. Why do we devalue life so much? In industrial societies, it seems pretty simple: Because we have a machine complex, and assume that everything must perform as though it were a machine, even if this puts us at odds with nature, even if it leads to us exploiting nature. Hence the need for complex architecture in the city. Also, it would be fair to say that we devalue life because we don’t consider it important. Why should we respect a sunflower or a robin? What ethical responsibility do we have to respect an individual who suffers from an illness or homelessness? What responsibility do we have?
I would argue, we have quite a responsibility. The reason for this is really quite simple: Because indeed, life is not something we own. We do not own the life of a bird or a cat or a stray dog. As such, who are we to decide what happens to this animal?
Speaking specifically of animal life, there is a theory and practice in philosophy called “human exceptionalism.” This is the notion that because humans have the ability to reason abstractly and possess complex abilities with language, we are naturally better than the animals. This means that we can say we are automatically above animals. I vehemently disagree with this philosophical school, for a number of reasons. One of which, is simply because abstract reasoning doesn’t make someone inherently better. The value and emphasis is on the perceived intelligence of a living creature, and I think this is a major pitfall. We could, by virtue of this argument in human exceptionalism, argue that certain races are better (as has been done in various ways in the past, for instance, through the measuring of human skulls). We could argue that people with certain IQ’s are smarter, and thus better. We could argue that the rich are the ones that deserve to survive and are fit, in a kind of social Darwinism. The list goes on. Any time we privilege some element in some beings and not in others, we have devalued a living creature, or a group of living creatures, whether animals or African Americans.
Surely, some might be arguing, I’m simply arguing for egalitarianism, which requires a sophisticated conceptual basis. To an extent, I am, but like any philosophical school, we must be aware of what our concepts mean. So I will say that I am advocating for the life principle, rather than egalitarianism.
And this is when I get to the clincher of my argument: What is most important, and what schools of thought such as human exceptionalism or sexism and racism lack, is an apparent respect and appreciation and cherishing for life. As I’ve said before, the reason for this respect should be simple: Simply because, it isn’t our life, and we are not to decide what happens to it.
Indeed, this is what we’ve missed in our society that promotes means-end reasoning, where animals are used for our pleasure and to improve our quality of life, where insects aren’t allowed to thrive, where whole groups of people are oppressed simply because of one deemed trait.
As has been said in the past by philosophers, we must be careful of our theories. This is because they lead to philosophies and attitudes that do not deal with life as it is, life of all kinds, whether animal life or human life or even plant life. And indeed, the importance of life has been siphoned out of the conversation. Perhaps this is because modern culture has moved closer and closer to nihilism and over analysis, and has forgotten some very basic concepts. For instance, an evolutionary theorist would argue that we would respect life only to preserve our own lives and thus ensure survival. But this isn’t that great of an explanation, because many times we actually don’t respect life.
Which brings me to ahimsa and this concept of non-harm. While I would not go as far as the Jains (I acknowledge that I am a fallible being, and I have not worked up to Jain discipline), I think that this concept of non-harm has implied in the approach and attitude that we respect life. We don’t hurt beings because they are sentient. And it’s as simple as that.
So then, why is it so hard to not cause harm? There are indeed accidents, but that’s not all of it. What about deliberate harm, or reckless harm? When you’re walking through the city and you’ve been conditioned to fear encounters with others because of the way in which they treat you, we’ve got a problem: We are not affirming life. We are not appreciating the lives that exist around us.
In truth, I don’t know what is wrong with the human condition. Certainly many thinkers have been asking this question for a long time. I think of Buddha and his understanding of all life as suffering, and understanding this is fundamental to living. But even beyond this, I think that we have moved to what could be called a decimation of the life principle (namely, an appreciation for life), into existential nihilism, and we are in a state of being that could be called “post-life.” This makes sense, when considering such pressing concerns as the ecological catastrophe in our midst. Why have we allowed ourselves to destroy the world so cruelly?
I can’t answer these questions, but I can propose one possibility: It is because we have decimated the life principle, we don’t practice ahimsa, we don’t practice compassion, we overanalyze things to where they no longer have meaning and thus plunge us into an existential crisis, and we don’t come back to the beauty and diversity of life.
To get in tune with this understanding requires great sensitivity. It requires no longer using other living creatures of any kind to supply some kind of need we want fulfilled. We must be sensitive to the needs of creatures around us. We must stop our self-destructive tendencies, we must stop our self-destruction. We must go back to our roots, both literally and figuratively.
Too many, I probably sound under developed and as if I haven’t spent enough time with these concepts. But that’s only because such people haven’t taken seriously what these ideas mean. Every time you cause harm to a living being, you have done something irreparable. And I have the concept of ahimsa to back me up: Compassion and kindness is a practice, not just a theory, but we have assumed in modern times that compassion is simply a theory, simply an abstract virtue, and this is how we mislead ourselves. What if getting out of our self-destructive cycle is as simple as acknowledging such basic fundamental principles as the life principle or ahimsa, where we don’t cause harm as much as we can possibly achieve this, and where we affirm life as beautiful and worth it? I’d like to argue that it might be this simple. I may have my naysayers, but just think of your own life. Do you see it as a gift? Do you see it as something beautiful? Are you sensitive to your own needs? If you answer no, perhaps you have been sucked into the existential nihilism and dread that seems to control our society and our cultural consciousness.
But if you answer yes, just think about how you’d like your life to be affirmed, and to follow the logic of such reciprocal laws as the categorical imperative or the Golden Rule, do that to others. Respect the life of others the way you’d respect your own. Affirm the things you need by affirming the needs of others.
And most importantly, don’t give up. The quest for truth is a hard one, and we may never find the answers we seek. But it starts with small steps, one of which I propose is as simple as the life principle, of affirming life as valuable and beautiful, and something we must be sensitive to.