Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sentience, Power, and the Ground of Goodness

What is "good?"

That question is never as easy as we think it might be.  "Good" for Mother Teresa and "good" for Ayn Rand are rather different things.

So what, in the dense and thorny thicket of competing moral claims, can we reasonably claim as truly good?  Goodness is a teleological concept, meaning it's about purpose, the goal and aim of our being.  How does "the good" manifest itself in material reality?

For non-living things, the question of morality is moot.

Morality is, after all, about purpose, and minerals and molecules and fusion plasma have no evident purpose.  They simply exist.  A typhoon or a tsunami or an earthquake may be terrifying and powerful, but exists in a state where our understandings of "good" and "evil" are meaningless categories.

We may project our own morality onto these events, but they remain simply events, mass and energy, devoid of intention.  So perhaps the "good" for the inanimate is simply that it is.  It exists, in whatever state it exists.  Purpose fulfilled.

Living beings are different.  Life is different.  Creatures of all sorts have as their purpose both existence and propagation.  An oak does all that it does so that it might continue to exist and so that can create more little oaklings.  A shark exists to maintain the processes of its life, and to make wee little sharkies.

What is "good" for the process of life is that which serves this end.  What is "bad" for the process of life is that which blocks that end.  That will to life is, frankly, no different than the human desire for individual or corporate power.  I desire to be unimpeded in my self-expression and self-manifestation.  We desire to spread and grow our culture, taking land and resource to further Our Way of Life.

Life in this form does not particularly care about anything else.  The lion does not reflect on the rights and hopes of the antelope.  Locusts do not worry about the purpose of a field of wheat, or about your hopes for a harvest.  Fascists and spreading empires do not care for the fears and thoughts of their enemies or subversives.  Global corporations do not consider the costs of their layoffs and efficiencies on the lives of the human beings they use.

Thus, the short and brutish history of our species, which is nothing more or less than this struggle.  We battle for resources, we expand our territories, we rise proud as empire, and then fall from the sky like warring eagles with talons locked, blind to the onrushing earth.

This is how the Will to Power always ends, either one fed and red in tooth and claw or as two bloody splotches of bone and feather.

But just as life arises from non-life, sentience arises from life.  Our awareness, the interfolded capacity for rationality and knowledge of self as self, is grounded in life, but rises above it.  The purpose of sentience is as different ethically from life's will to power as life's purpose is from the inanimate world.

The purpose of sentience is deepening awareness of both self and Other.  It turns both existence and will towards that ever deepening knowledge.  That knowing is manifest in the iterative yearning of the scientific endeavor.  It is also the end towards which the radical compassion of the mystic strains of faith moves.

What is the hunger for knowledge, if it is not love?  What is love, if it does not seek to know the heart of another?

And there, there is where the good lies, not as an abstraction, or as a culturally mediated shadow, but as a real and pressing potency.