Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Life in a World of Pervasive Immorality: The Ethics of Being Alive

I used to think I was a pretty good person. I certainly didn’t kill people, for example. But then Peter Singer pointed out that animals were conscious and that eating them led them to be killed and that wasn’t all that morally different from killing people after all. So I became a vegetarian.

Again I thought I was a pretty good person. But then Arianna Huffington told me that by driving in a car I was pouring toxic fumes into the air and sending money to foreign dictatorships. So I got a bike instead.

But then I realized that my bike seat was sewn by children in foreign sweatshops while its tubing was made by mining metals through ripping up the earth. Indeed, any money I spent was likely to go to oppressing people or destroying the planet in one way or another. And if I happen to make money some of it goes to the government which spends it blowing people up in Afghanistan or Iraq.

I thought about just living off of stuff I found in dumpsters, like some friends. That way I wouldn’t be responsible for encouraging its production. But then I realized that some people buy the things they can’t find in dumpsters; if I got to the dumpster and took something before they did, they might buy it instead.

The solution seemed clear: I’d have to go off-the-grid and live in a cave, gathering nuts and berries. I’d still probably be exhaling CO2 and using some of the products in the Earth, but probably only in levels that were sustainable.

Perhaps you disagree with me that it’s morally wrong to kill animals or blow up people in Afghanistan. But surely you can imagine that it might be, or at least that someone could think it is. And I think it’s similarly clear that eating a hamburger or paying taxes contributes — in a very small way; perhaps only has the possibility of contributing — to those things.

Even if you don’t, everyday life has a million ways that are more direct. Personally, I think it’s wrong that I get to sit at a table and gaily devour while someone else delivers more food to my table and a third person slaves over a stove. Every time I order food, I make them do more carrying and slaving. (Perhaps they get some money in return, but surely they’d prefer it if I just gave them the money.) Again, you may not think this wrong but I hope you can admit the possibility. And it’s obviously my fault.

Off in the cave, I thought I was safe. But then I read Peter Singer’s latest book. He points out that for as little as a quarter, you can save a child’s life. (E.g. for 27 cents you can buy the oral rehydration salts that will save a child from fatal diarrhea.) Perhaps I was killing people after all.

I couldn’t morally make money, for the reasons described above. (Although maybe it’s worth helping fund the bombing of children in Afghanistan in order to help save children in Mozambique.) But instead of living in a cave, I could go to Africa and volunteer my time.

Of course, if I do that there are a thousand other things I’m not doing. How can I decide which action I take will save the most lives? Even if I take the time to figuring out, that’s time I’m spending on myself instead of saving lives.

It seems impossible to be moral. Not only does everything I do cause great harm, but so does everything I don’t do. Standard accounts of morality assume that it’s difficult, but attainable: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. But it seems like living a moral life isn’t even possible.

But if morality is unattainable, surely I should simply do the best I can. (Ought implies can, after all.) Peter Singer is a good utilitarian, so perhaps I should try to maximize the good I do for the world. But even this seems like an incredibly onerous standard. I should not just stop eating meat, but animal products altogether. I shouldn’t just stop buying factory-farmed food, I should stop buying altogether. I should take things out of dumpsters other people are unlikely to be searching. I should live someplace where others won’t be disturbed.

Of course all this worrying and stress is preventing me from doing any good in the world. I can hardly take a step without thinking about who it hurts. So I decide not to worry about the bad I might be doing and just focus on doing good — screw the rules.

But this doesn’t just apply to the rules inspired by Peter Singer. Waiting in line at the checkout counter is keeping me from my life-saving work (and paying will cost me life-saving money) — better just to shoplift. Lying, cheating, any crime can be similarly justified.

It seems paradoxical: in my quest to do good I’ve justified doing all sorts of bad. Nobody questioned me when I went out and ordered a juicy steak, but when I shoplift soda everyone recoils. Is there sense in following their rules or are they just another example of the world’s pervasive immorality? Have any philosophers considered this question?

You should follow me on twitter here.

August 2, 2009


It seems you define morality by what other tell you are doing wrong. Perhaps you should stop reading books about what tells you are doing wrong and make up your own book about what you are doing right.

posted by Senthil Nambi on August 2, 2009 #

morality, like all other ideas, is made up. it’s a nice idea, but it’s just an idea; it’s not real.

posted by on August 2, 2009 #

How does your long post not boil down to ‘I can’t be perfectly moral, so I won’t bother’?

Also, as you suspected, philosophers have considered this issue at length: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/#ConWhoLimDemMor

posted by gwern on August 2, 2009 #

It seems to this inexpert reader that you are finding your way toward the principles of <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jainism

Jainism, especially Ahimsa.

To me, though, living a life attempting absolute least harm is a memetic trap that can only result in both failure to avoid harm and failure to maximize general benefit; and that any such effort is necessarily flawed due to the general lack of perspective on what ‘harm’ and ‘benefit’ really are.

Here is an example of a man who lives without money, literally in a cave. Does he live a more moral life than yourself? Who can provide a definition by which we can judge?

Kevin Kelly said of science, (summarized by Stephen Brand), “Our moral obligation is to generate possibilities, to discover the infinite ways, however complex and high-dimension, to play the infinite game.”

Perhaps you should consider what your unique skills, knowledge, drive, and ideas can accomplish that you think would best improve existence, and then work toward those things. Rather than focusing on harm done, which, from the viewpoint espoused in your article, is inevitable, consider that you might instead create a way to allow for (what many would consider) better quality of life. Depending on your viewpoint, of course, examples of such creations might include cheap fusion power, economical air pollution scrubbers, Médecins Sans Frontières, cancer cures, Amnesty International, genetic improvements, climate change stabilization, diversification of Earth life outside our world, human extinction (perhaps!), or maximization of reproduction of your personal gametes.

Best of luck, iff your ideas and goals are compatible with mine. And if not, well, I can either do better, or live with the results, or die; isn’t that the way nature works?

posted by Grego on August 2, 2009 #

You’re problem is a particularly obnoxious definition of morality. Morality is not doing good, morality is concerned with human choosing and deciding.

It’s impossible to decide on good and bad because what is good for you is bad for me and vice versa. In that sense both doing good and doing bad is moral behavior because it involves making choices and decisions.

The only way we can come close to as many people as possible doing good is radical transparency. We need to make sure that people can take into account as much as possible when they make choices but that’s about as far as we can go. The other alternative is to disallow people from making choices and choose for them (communism tried that.)

posted by Steven Devijver on August 2, 2009 #

Anything you do has endless consequences.

For example, maybe you push someone out of the way of being killed by a bus. He goes on to marry a gal and have kids, making some other suitor unhappy, who then dies alone. If you don’t save him, the other suitor marries her, and has kids. Either way you are killing off future people, because only one set of kids will exist (and exponential descendants from there).

However, keep in mind that even if all humans committed seppuku immediately, suffering would not end.

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

— Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” published in Scientific American (November, 1995), p. 85

The root of the problem is probably existence itself, in a Universe with this particular fine-tuning. One can conceive that there could be a different set of parameters that did not lead to a Darwinian struggle with incomprehensible suffering.

What to do about it? Trying to “fit in” with Nature is useless — not rocking the boat means being an obedient little phenotype and only propagating information slowly by genetic recombination, and then dying and letting chance decide if your offspring are any better off, which is obviously too slow a method to be useful to anyone alive now.

One solution is private virtual universes — like the Matrix, except everyone else is an AI, and it’s programmed to present you with a paradise. Every conscious being would have one, ending competition over limited resources, as every being would be presented with as many resources as that being could comprehend. AIs a million times smarter than humans would figure out how to hook up all the other non-human sentient beings and what their particular paradises would be. AIs would be better company than any real people, but programmed in such a way that they did not suffer.

Which also suggests another solution — hacking our brains/genome to remove the ability to suffer. This may be safer, as AIs that could give us endless pleasure could also torture us until the end of the Universe, and possibly longer than that, if they figure out space-time better than us with their incomprehensibly advanced minds.

posted by on August 2, 2009 #

Nobody questioned me when I went out and ordered a juicy steak, but when I shoplift …

Trouble for me is, that when you use a moral vocabulary, it always presupposes some sort of shared social order. Thus an appeal to moral principles against a practice, (in)action, … is always an appeal within the limits of that form of society.

For instance, your questions about “ripping up the earth”, “what can I do”, “juicy steak … shoplift”, … presuppose a lot of shared principles & practices between you and those around you. Eg. liberal-individualist relation to the social, a “natural” state of the world, private-property relations, …

I don’t think you or me as an individual can rationally evaluate all those presuppositions and arrive at a definite set of rules. And when you do, I doubt if you have found an absolute point, “outside” the principles and practices of our current society.

I therefore always feel a bit uneasy about pure moral arguments for/against certain (in)actions. They have a superficial, individualistic, fragmented and relativistic ring to them.

Personally, I’m not quite sure what else. Something I am exploring are theories (and practices) where a forceful (Marxist-inspired) critique of our social system is combined with a normative theory (for individual comportment). Eg. the work of Alisdair MacIntyre or Alex Callinicos (cf. combining Rawl & Marxism in “Resources of Critique”).

posted by mhermans on August 2, 2009 #

Well, you could stop thinking too much so you get two benefits:

+You consume less power trying to solve something impossible, so you will need less to eat. +You will be happier.

I tried to eat only vegetables, eggs and so. Not a good idea. I felt myself without energy all day. Now I feel good eating meat and fish. I was designed this way, so no regrets(imagine a tiger feeling ashamed for needing meat for survival).

I meet a man on Galicia(north of Spain) that lived without money on a cave(I thing he continue doing so in La Coruña). I didn’t liked this way of living for me.More than a decision I think this was escaping from other issues.

I think you don’t know anything about people in “third world countries” do you?. You should go there, not for you helping them, but for THEM HELPING YOU.

Stop letting others to decide what you should think and think by yourself. Have your personal experience, not other’s one.

I have been in Africa(Guinea) with a family that didn’t have money, but it had a FAMILY.(7 brothers, with parents, grandparents, and grandgrandparents. Believe it or not, they are way happier than any american family could be(so much people that are ALONE watching TV). They don’t work every day as machines and when they feel something, they say it. Their family was a solid entity. American people can’t understand it living in America, you need to live there by yourself to understand.

posted by Jose on August 2, 2009 #

You might want to read Yvon Chouinard’s book or watch videos at youtube ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVfy2T0rzMc ) and get some hints about use of your time to help the planet..

posted by Kishore Balakrishnan on August 2, 2009 #

Many of the choices we make are not made because they are moral, but because they are easier. As Goffman and other microsociologists demonstrate custom and mores solve important coordination problems that enable routine interactions. This doesn’t mean that conformance is always desirable, but as Richard Hamming points out, it is often often a very poor use of a human life to constantly be fighting them: Many a second-rate fellow gets caught up in some little twitting of the system, and carries it through to warfare. He expends his energy in a foolish project. Now you are going to tell me that somebody has to change the system. I agree; somebody’s has to. Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science? Which person is it that you want to be? Be clear, when you fight the system and struggle with it, what you are doing, how far to go out of amusement, and how much to waste your effort fighting the system. My advice is to let somebody else do it and you get on with becoming a first-class scientist. Very few of you have the ability to both reform the system and become a first-class scientist. http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html

This does not mean that one should ignore the effects of your life upon the world, but I think it does mean that one should give up on the idea of innocence of intention, and instead turn to an ethic of responsibility. Understanding and accepting the intended and unintended consequences of your actions, and letting the balance guide your actions. Weber’s Politics as a Vocation is invaluable for me:


posted by flunchg on August 2, 2009 #

“It seems impossible to be moral. Not only does everything I do cause great harm, but so does everything I don’t do. Standard accounts of morality assume that it’s difficult, but attainable: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. But it seems like living a moral life isn’t even possible.”

This is not quite true. Everything that you do may contribute to great harm, but in many of the examples you cite, that contribution is so negligible as to be statistically indistinguishable from no impact. Your individual choice to drive a car or not will have any impact whatsoever on the global configuration of energy use. Certainly, the aggregate of many individual choices matter, but if you want to change the world, changing yourself is often the least decisive point to intervene.

posted by flunchg on August 2, 2009 #

All living things are caught in a web of suffering. Could this be due to the possibility that life itself is destructive?

You seem to be thinking about what you are supposed to do and doing what you think you are supposed to do, all in order to fulfill… what? A concept?

You are wasting the most important resource that you have to contribute to the ecosystem. Just perform your role. When done, rest.

posted by Jamie Pitts on August 2, 2009 #

I think these are valuable questions to be asking. Globalized capitalism questions the basis of our morality. We assume that there is some sort of right choice to make, and capitalism does offer choices, including the choice of non-participation. So it seems like we ought to be able to satisfy morality somehow here, and yet we cannot.

I am not sure of this myself, but I think the primary error here is to compare what one individual should do versus what a giant seething organism such as the global economy is doing. The moral sense that does well to establish reciprocity at a tribal level (you shouldn’t steal soda) doesn’t have any effective response to such gigantic systems. The fact that you are suffering information overload just trying to live morally is a symptom.

Rather than put all the onus on yourself to live perfectly as an individual when all the choices are wrong, perhaps the most moral thing is to help organize society better. Then you can hope that, over time, more people down the road will be able to live more moral lives. So rather than look for moral blamelessness in yourself today, look to help morally perfect your society over decades or even centuries.

Maybe I can encapsulate it this way — I really like Coke, although I do know that buying it probably contributes to oppression somewhere. So maybe I shouldn’t buy it. But do I really want a world free of Coke? No, I really want a world where buying Coke wasn’t so problematic. So I should be working to fix that. To rewire the way society and capitalism function so the supermarket doesn’t contain horrors on every shelf.

In this formulation, we fix globalized harms through persuasion and better information systems, which is a felicitous combination for someone like yourself.

posted by Neil Kandalgaonkar on August 2, 2009 #

I’ve thought about these issues for years, to the point of mild clinical depression. No easy answers, but here are three pointers I’ve found helpful:

a) It’s all but impossible to live as a human being without causing some suffering to other beings, so accept it.

b) In many ways you are part of nature, with all that entails, but in other ways you are above and beyond it. It is this conflict that causes existential angst - c.f. Erich Fromm.

c) The really hard question is whether you want to have children, who will themselves suffer (at least to some extent), and cause suffering in others.

My bottom line after a lot of soul searching: Don’t consider yourself as an abstract being separate from nature, because you’ll never come to terms with the consequences of your natural needs. Instead consider yourself as an advanced mammal, accept your natural needs and their consequences, and feel good about the fact that you have placed “moral” limits on what you’re willing to do in order to pursue your desires.

Or to put it another way: don’t criticize yourself for doing things that you wouldn’t criticize friends or strangers for. In your core you’re no better than anyone else, and why should you be?


posted by Dave Green on August 2, 2009 #

How about being a billionaire philanthropist? As many people know, Warren Buffet, made billions and donated it to the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. He drives a Buick and lives in the same small apartment he did when he wasn’t nearly as wealthy.

His Buick pollutes. He probably consumes/uses goods manufactured by children in another country. He has paid a huge amount of taxes, some of which went to good, some of which want to Iraq.

So, he does some bad, but he’s done faaar more good (or will, when his money is spent on public health in 3rd world countries).

If your standard for morality is amount_bad=0, amount_good>0, then you’re in trouble. If your standard for morality is amount_good-amount_bad>0 (which I would argue is the utilitarian standard), then people like Buffet are extremely moral.

To do good while doing no bad at all seems infeasible as far as I can see. Minimizing the bad you do as a moral directive in its own right seems appropriate, but not at the expense of living in a cave instead of being productive and doing a huge amount of good. We have to shift bad on to some people in order to do a greater amount of good to others.

posted by Ted S on August 2, 2009 #

I can “admit the possibility” that meat-eating, foreign wars, and careless pollution contribute to net evil and suffering.

But your restaurant example is out-to-lunch.

Paying an agreed price for food preparation and service is a net good for all involved, an impressively moral act of cooperation expanding the possibility frontier for the participants. The cook no more “slaves over a stove” than you ‘slaved’ over whatever earned you the money to pay the bill.

If you or she were not engaged in your respective ‘highest callings’ when trading services for money, at least you were setting the foundation for the questions about higher values to be asked. Society needed a lot of specialization before it had written language, much less philosophy or blogging.

posted by Gordon Mohr on August 2, 2009 #

I just try to do more good than harm.

posted by Jim Gilliam on August 2, 2009 #

Unlike some, I actually think you are spot on. You aren’t that good of a person. Nor am I, for that matter. In fact, I’d go even further: we are a lot worse than even what you’ve mentioned. I, for instance, cannot live up to the standard of behavior that I set up for other people. At the very least, that seems like it ought to be attainable—but I find it impossible, whether in my actions or in the thoughts that I sometimes try desperately to control.

I’ve had to face it: I am immoral.

And, frankly, the more I try be “good,” the less good I discover I am. In and of itself, that is deeply disturbing and depressing. I’ve found only one solution that is willing to tackle this problem to my satisfaction: most either tell me that I have a poor definition of morality, or that it doesn’t matter, or (worse yet) that I need to work harder.

You might try reading The Concept of Morality in the Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards—there seem to be some similarities in your “strictness” and Edward’s.

Again, I think your analysis of the human condition is extremely correct: the question now is how you deal with the situation: ignoring it? working harder? or trying to find another rational solution?

posted by David Alan Hjelle on August 2, 2009 #

You’re caught in the classic logical fallacy of the false dilemma. Your entire article is almost a disproof of your thesis by reductio ad absurdum.

Also, you’re confusing morality with ethics

Just because you can’t behave entirely ethically doesn’t mean you can’t act more ethically.

Also, you should look at different ethical frameworks. Consequentialism isn’t the only way to calculate your ethical load. Deontology has perhaps a less iteratively complex way of looking at things, and virtue ethics allows you to take a more humanistic perspective on things.

Bottom line is, you’re struggling with concepts that are well addressed in the early parts of a philosophical education. If they bother you, go take some community college classes and stop making an ass of yourself on the internet.

posted by J Giles on August 2, 2009 #

I had the same point of view at one point (I even got it from the same person - I read an article by Singer, then a book by Unger, who writes about similar topics). However, now I think this view rests on a misunderstanding of the world.

The idea that my choice to buy from The Gap leads to the exploitation of children, assumes that I have far more control over the system than I actually do. Not in the sense that “I’m just one person.” But even if no one wanted exploitation, it would still happen.

More precisely, my choice to buy from The Gap is connected to exploitation; but my choice not to buy from the gap would also be connected to exploitation. The system is formally composed of individual actions, but the outcome of those actions is in many ways predetermined.

Consider the morality of a totalitarian state. Just to survive, one needs to compromise with the state - one needs to objectively support some of its goals, work within it to some degree. A moral person will stay apart from it as much as possible, think carefully about the compromises, and work against the state when given the chance. But there is no sensible idea that a pointless suicidal attack against the state is the only moral choice.

Why do we feel differently about the capitalist system? I do not want exploitation; I do not agree with it; and yet I have to work within a system which relies on it. The reason we see a difference is because the totalitarian state seems “external” or “imposed”, while the consequences of liberal capitalism seem to be “our choice”.

This is the great problem with trying to overthrow liberal capitalism: people see the problems it brings; and instead of feeling outraged and trapped, they feel guilty and forlorn.

So that is my solution. Compromise with the system, but be aware of what I am compromising. And at the same time, work to overthrow it.

You might like to read Zizek (e.g., “A Plea for Leninist Intolerance”).

posted by Jason P on August 3, 2009 #

After a discussion of ice cream, exploitation, meat, fireflies, and having to go home in the spooky dark night on an unlit trail, I leaned very close to my young child’s ear and said “the sooner you understand, really understand, that life isn’t fair, the better things will be.”

Perhaps I should say it this way as well- unfairness is in the very nature of the quality of life, perhaps as someone noted, the quality of existence. The Buddhists and the Taoists handle this stuff pretty well. Somewhat unsatisfyingly to the purveyors of the general good, a lot of it comes back to freedom and happiness born from within- spiritual stuff, if not precisely religious.

These questions become easier when you accept life on its own terms.

As for the restaurant example, this you can test. Just ask them, and offer them the money a few times, no strings attached. Fair warning though: you run the risk of hurting their feelings and damage their sense of worth and mastery.

One more thing, just to make it even more complex. If you are worried about the happiness and quality of life of any and all creatures, isn’t it hypocritical to suffer, and thereby add to the suffering of the world?

posted by on August 3, 2009 #

I shall refrain from making negative comments designed only to inflate my ego as some of your other readers have shamelessly done. I understand what you are experiencing and I myself have been struggling with finding a lifestyle that I can “live with”. Just try your best. It’s all one can really do. Laughing helps.

posted by adam on August 3, 2009 #

How does your long post not boil down to ‘I can’t be perfectly moral, so I won’t bother’?

No, it’s grappling with the practical question of how to maximize morality and arguing it’s far, far harder than is generally realized.

Far harder than realized? If you’ve read Singer you know that even an extreme utilitarian like him doesn’t, nor expects others to, impoverish himself for the sake of Africans.

And far harder compared to what? Compared to a theological system like Calvinism, where one is eternally damned to hellfire or bound for heaven, where trying to live a moral life is a metaphysical impossibility? Or compared to Christian sects in general, where an invisible undetectable taint upon our souls descended from the first mud-man twists and perverts the efforts of every human (except Jesus) to be moral?

Compared to alternative systems, consequentialist ethics are pretty refreshingly doable.

Also, as you suspected, philosophers have considered this issue at length: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/#ConWhoLimDemMor

Singer and Unger don’t seem to even scratch the surface of the problem. Even someone who donated all their money to charity would still be causing a great deal of presumably-avoidable harm.

Perhaps. I don’t really see why you keep insisting on perfection; nothing I have ever done is, nor ever will be, perfect. If I am a little more moral today than I was yesterday, that is enough for me.

It seems paradoxical: in my quest to do good I’ve justified doing all sorts of bad. Nobody questioned me when I went out and ordered a juicy steak, but when I shoplift soda everyone recoils. Is there sense in following their rules or are they just another example of the world’s pervasive immorality? Have any philosophers considered this question?

This is the sort of thing that irritates people - you’re asking all sorts of basic philosophical questions, but without having really read the literature (I’m surprised you haven’t trotted out the old chestnut about how utilitarianism demands that we cut up one patient to save 8 others) or carefully considered things.

First of all, you assume that steaks are bad. Why? The cow would not have been born if there was not projected demand by someone for its flesh; is it worse off for having living several years and then butchered? Would it have preferred to have never existed? It’s entirely possible that ordering steak, and supporting the meat industry, is better than not ordering steak.

Second, you’re assuming some of your conclusion. It’s perfectly possible to do foreseeable harm and also maximize your utility. All you need is a utility function that values yourself more highly than other people (there’s a whole universe of utility functions and approaches, and you seem to think there’s just some simplistic egalitarian additive approach). Well, why not? Demonstrably, just about everyone acts as if they have such a function. It’s not an obviously wrong thing to do; why should I value everyone equally with myself? Clearly not everyone is of equal value.

posted by gwern on August 3, 2009 #

Ought implies can.

posted by James on August 3, 2009 #

You aren’t making your tin (aluminum) foil hats out of domestic aluminum foil are you? Reynolds Aluminum has been owned by the Asian Oligarchs since it was bought up by Alcoa and the once bio-sympathetic reflective grating properties of aluminum have been turned into the inversely purposed medium of broadcasting brainwave activity. This is virtually impossible to prove since most tests like electro-spectra graph which requires a sample to be incinerated, turning it back into basic aluminum can never “reverse engineer” the lattice structure of ionic bonds that allows broadcasting to occur.

Just a little conspiracy humor since this post says above all other nuanced inferences (virtually screams) “I could use a little cheering up”.

Site search Aaron’s blog for the word philosophy (philosophy site:www.aaronsw.com/weblog/ entered in Google search): 71 hits. To me that sparse number doesn’t indicate a deference from philosophy but rather reverence for the concept.

Hand to everything I ever held to be the truth: there is a book named “One Stalk Revolution” and the author’s last name is Fukoto. I can’t find it anywhere. My personal copy is long gone and no search of the Library of Congress returns anything. It is a book about the philosophy of living as simple of life as possible. In that it mentions that the author lives in a communal situation, it promotes communal living. In an interesting concession to the challenge of completely self sustained existence, the commune obtains it’s vegetable oil from outside sources.

Some more than less than more or less advice would be: mellow out, listen to King Crimson’s “The Nightwatch” off of “Starless and Bible Black” and get your own “good works” in to perspective.

Oh yeah, this post and your last have the interlocutory devices of narcissism. “Hot Chicks” ie; the narcissistic among us and you (possibly just feigning) struggling to justify your existence in the world. Hah! That’s rich! Here, let me appeal to your narcissism- An interview on my own obscure blog: An interview with Aaron Swartz: The only person ever who’s research was mentioned on CSPAN who is currently alive to live in a cave as an alternative to having any impact on the environment.

Suck it up! We all have to concede to less than ideal existences

posted by James Hardy on August 3, 2009 #


You — just like me, and every other human being — are a parasite of the earth. I don’t mean that in a bad way. The earth is a fertile host, providing oxygen, water, and other nutrients which fuel life. You are a recipient of that life, for somewhere between 20 and 100 years. Before you, others existed, and after you, others will remain.

During your time on earth, you can choose to do a few things:

a) Consciously make things worse for others b) Consciously do no harm to others c) Consciously make things better for others

That’s really about it. You can’t save the world and you probably can’t destroy it either. As important as you may be, your deeds will be forgotten in X number of years. For the less important among us, X is maybe 10. For the most important, more like 5000.

Given that, the best thing to do is to simply have fun with your 20-100 years and stay in either Camp B or Camp C. Don’t stress about all of the 3rd order derivatives of your actions and whether or not they meet some sort of gold standard for benevolence. Be better than the average man, have fun doing it, and then take your place peacefully in the earth alongside the millions who came before you. There is no point in suffering… it does you no long-term good.

posted by Mike D. on August 4, 2009 #

This line of thinking has occurred to virtually every depressed college student who has thought about morality. I don’t think it is a useful argument except for what it reveals about the person who is making it. If you seriously think there is no way for you to do no harm, seek professional help.

Life is short and our brains our quite limited. Filling our mind with ideas about how bad you and others are (especially dangerous) is about the worst use of mental energy.

I wash my hands of virtually all things that go under the banner of ‘morality’. I think the term ethics is much more religiously neutral. Give yourself some positive goals, things you can achieve. Don’t obsess about what you shouldn’t be doing. It is truly ridiculous, and if that weren’t enough, and soul killing.

posted by Jeremy Corbett on August 4, 2009 #

Too much concern about ethics has driven you mad. Toss the Singer and join the Republican Party. You’ll be much happier.

posted by c23 on August 6, 2009 #

I feel your pain because I used to be just as incapacitated by moral decision making as you seem to be. The change came when I switched my world view from mere secular humanism to transhumanism/singularitarianism. I had to get over my cynicism and actually trust that such fundamental changes to the world are possible and can be achieved. Otherwise, I would probably recoil from life and wollow in my acquiescence (or worse). The world is physically organized so as to cause suffering, and no amount of personal moral action or social innovation can completely solve this problem. In order to play the game differently we need to change the rules of the game.

posted by haig on August 7, 2009 #

It’s actually quite simple - society as a whole (rightfully) only frowns on actions that would not be supported if everyone did them. We have plenty of cows that everyone in the world can buy McDoubles for only $1, but if everyone decided to steal from grocery stores, they would cease to exist.

posted by Jonathan Eddy on August 17, 2009 #

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