Choose Your Roots

People often seek a sense of purpose by participating in institutions more spatially or temporally extensive (i.e., ‘bigger’) than themselves; they feel that their lives can gain meaning or value from playing a part in religious revivals, political movements, scientific progress, and the like.  Some might even find greater meaning in serving with AmeriCorps, it being a program with a history and a large number of (past & present) participants unified under common principles of service.  At the end of training (thus, at the beginning of Round 1) for FEMA Corps, an event was held at my campus wherein the various teams were congratulated for finishing training and wished well on the upcoming projects; one of the ideas shared at this event was that we Corps Members are now part of something ‘bigger’, something with twenty years of history bestowing honor upon all who wear the AmeriCorps logo.  Our lives seemed to be imbued with value by the institution in which we were taking part, until a blasphemous thought entered my mind: what if my class was not deriving value from the program, but rather the program as an institution was more so gaining value from the participation of myself and my class of Corps Members?

Of course, if the institution and its members are viewed as a single entity, one can simply affirm the value of that composite whole and not worry about the primacy of one over the other; the question only arises when one component is said to give the other some value, some meaning, some purpose, some reason.  This is due to the paradoxical way in which, as Kierkegaard puts it, “to defend something is always to discredit it”; to justify something’s actuality (that is, to defend it as honorable or valuable) by appealing to an institution or external purpose is to deny the sufficiency of its own properties for justification in the first place.  Rather than a mere perk or bonus, a real reason for something’s actuality is a precondition of its justification; either this reason is external to it, and the thing is not valuable in itself, or the thing functions as its own justification, which is really to say that it needs no justification.  That which is intrinsically valuable (that is, valuable in itself, regardless of its relations to other things) needs, and thus has, no “reason”; its value is ultimately irrational.

This does not entail that the principle of sufficient reason (basically, the idea that there will always be an answer to the question “why”) has no place in the philosophy of value; not all of ethics is ultimately irrational, but only the roots of intrinsic value (the subject matter of “normative ethics”), from which the value of concrete actions “in context” (the subject matter of “applied ethics”) is derived.  Actions can be justified by reference to that which is good in itself, but that which is good in itself is not justified by reference to anything.  Moral progress is also possible, insofar as we can bring our actions more in line with root foundational principles given the state of the world as it is; what in one state of affairs may be justified by reference to an intrinsic good may not be so justified in another.  Nevertheless, in order for reasons to justify things as valuable, they must ultimately refer back to a standard of value which must be chosen as such, rather than logically derived itself.

If the principle of sufficient reason is never applied to itself–if we ask, “why?” and demand reasons for every action, without asking when we ought to ask “why” in the first place–then every possible standard of value is assumed to be merely extrinsically valuable (that is, valuable only because of its relation to something else); in the same way that the principle of sufficient reason (in the sense of a scientific quest for answers) is necessary for discovering a root order of nature, the principle’s suspension is necessary for affirming root standards of value.  Somebody thinks that their life derives value from participation in national service; from what then does national service derive its worth?  Why is their life not valuable enough in itself?  One can only properly value that which is good in itself by choosing it without reason, and by affirming that very act of irrational choice over and over again.  It appears that a sustainable love of the intrinsically good requires, as a precondition, a love of the absurd.

Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or Americorps.


Embrace the Suck

My last few weeks have been spent in the town of Vinton, Iowa, where training experience in NCCC North Central Region has shown us how Americorps NCCC FEMA Corps functions, as well as how we team members relate to each other.  I have also noticed that in a program such as this, schedules are subject to change–an administrative adaptation apparently necessary to constitute a sufficient response to the problems caused by natural disasters which most certainly will not bow to the schedule of any human government.  In order to address unpredictable disasters in the desired manner, the organization must be unpredictable itself.

At first glance, it may seem difficult to evaluate the unpredictability of nature; unpredictability may be a good or a bad thing, even a source at once of evil and of perfection.  One night out here in IA, for example, I decided to go out for a walk.  What I expected to be a mere breathe of fresh air revealed a heat-lightning storm to me unlike anything I have ever seen before.  No rain was present, but an entire face of the heavens was illuminated almost continuously by a flurry of lightning bolts, dancing across what must have been miles of skyscape.  After bringing some of my teammates out to share this phenomenon, we sat out watching the lightning for a good twenty minutes before a few drops of rain indicated that it was time to head back inside.  I could never have dreamed of seeing such a show actually light up the sky in that way, but the world releases such pleasant surprises without warning.

On the other hand, there are unexpected surprises which are less than pleasant, as well.  Obviously, disasters are such an example, but my experience in this department lately has been of the less significant problem of unexpected responsibilities and schedule changes.  I got Monday off on Labor Day, for example, but Saturday we had to work, and various instances of paperwork have taken chunks out of Sunday (our day off before starting on a regular schedule again on Monday).  In light of this, we have been learning to “embrace the suck”, as they say in the military.  But how is this absurd act of “embracing the suck”, embracing the un-embraceable, possible?  I find assistance in a realization stemming from a certain argument in the philosophy of religion.

This is the traditional “Ontological Argument” for the existence of God, popularized by Anselm of Canterbury.  The argument is an attempt at an a priori proof of the existence of God through a reductio ad absurdum against “The Fool”, who “says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1 NIV); Anselm tries to show that the Fool’s premises are incompatible and thus reducible to the absurdity of contradiction.  In Gareth B. Matthews’s and Lynne R. Baker’s paper “The Ontological Argument Simplified”, the Fool’s stance is presented in terms of “mediated” and “unmediated” causal powers; Anselm believes that God has “unmediated” causal powers and thus is “actual”, whereas the Fool believes that God has merely “mediated” causal powers (since, according to the Fool, God is merely possible, and only causally potent insofar as actual agents believe in God’s existence and act on those beliefs).  According to Anselm, the Fool’s beliefs are incompatible with the definition of God as “that than which none greater can be conceived”, for the Fool must think that than which none greater can be conceived to have merely mediated causal powers, as a figment of the imagination; since this being could be conceived as actual (i.e., with unmediated causal powers), and since being actual makes something greater than being merely possible, the ‘actual’ being referred to by the theist is greater than the merely possible one referred to by the Fool, and thus the Fool is mistaken when he talks of something nonexistent (that is, merely possible rather than actual) as the greatest conceivable being.  In other words, that than which none greater can be conceived must be actual by definition.

How does this relate to “embracing the suck”?  While the ontological argument is usually employed as an argument for the actuality of a certain pre-conceived “great” state of affairs (i.e., the existence of God), I find it to fit better as an argument for the greatness of whatever state of affairs–rationally governed or otherwise–happens to be actual; why not determine valuability in terms of actuality, rather than actuality in terms of our conceptions of valuability?  Going further than Anselm’s idea that actuality is a condition for maximal valuability (or ‘maximal conceivable greatness’), I contend that actuality is a condition for valuability in general; in order for something to be valuable at all, it must be actual.  Thus, the real Fool is the one who thinks that the merely possible–regardless of its appeal to our evaluative intuitions–is greater than the actual, despite its apparent absurdity.  The only alternative to “embracing the suck” of actuality is embracing the phantasmatic dreams of non-existence; I’ll take the former any day.

Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or AmeriCorps.