Epistemic Status: Making things up as we go along
Content Warning: Can be viewed as moral imperatives. Neuropsychological Infohazard.
Previously in Series: The Precept of Harm Reduction
The Precept of Mind and Body is actually the fifth precept on our original list. We were going to go through the list in order, but after some of the conversations we had yesterday regarding self-destructive manifestations of utilitarianism, we thought it best to skip straight to this one and deal with the elephant in the room.
We’ll begin with Peter Singer:
Imagine that you’re walking across a shallow pond and you notice that a small child has fallen in, and is in danger of drowning […] Of course, you think you must rush in to save the child. Then you remember that you’re wearing your favorite, quite expensive, pair of shoes and they’ll get ruined if you rush into the pond. Is that a reason for not saving the child? I’m sure you’ll say no it isn’t, you just can’t compare the life of a child to the cost of a pair of shoes, no matter how expensive. […] But think about how that relates to your situation in the world today. There are children whose lives you can save […] Nearly 10 million children die every year from avoidable, poverty related causes. And it wouldn’t take a lot to save the lives of these children. We can do it. For the cost of a pair of shoes, perhaps, you could save the life of a child. […] There’s some luxury that you could do without. And with that money, you could give to an organization to reduce extreme poverty in the world, and save lives of children. […] I think that this is what we ought to be doing.
This is a pretty decent argument even though it breaks down in some of the specifics. We agree with the Singer here, there’s usually a little bit more everyone could be doing. We’re not personally contributing to reducing global poverty yet growth mindset, but we very much agree with the attitude and want to help as much as we can within our means. However, within our means is important.
You save the drowning child, since obviously the lives of children matter more than the lives of shoes. You ruin your clothes and your bike is stolen, but you save the child. You go to work late and covered in mud. You explain to your boss that you were saving a little girl who fell in a pond, but he doesn’t want to hear it, and fires you for showing up late and soaking wet. You can’t afford to pay rent, and end up homeless the next month. After managing to scrape by begging for money for food for a while, you freeze to death in the middle of winter.
None of that really feels like a good excuse not to jump in the pond and save the drowning girl anyway. Surely she matters as much as you do, and she definitely matters more than your shoes or your bike. So then we have to ask the question:
Is it ethical to make your own life awful in pursuit of preventing needless deaths? Because your shoes by themselves don’t matter, your clothes by themselves don’t matter, and your bicycle by itself doesn’t matter. None of those items can possibly be as important as saving a little girl’s life.
One of our friends paraphrased Singer the following way:
Just because there are other people who could be rescuing the drowning children, that doesn’t mitigate your burden to swim until you’re at the edge of drowning yourself.
The paraphrase she used is not the original thought experiment, but we can see the self-destructive nature of the pure utilitarianism spell circling overhead. The implied answer to our question seems to be “yes, it is ethical to destroy yourself in a pursuit of reducing harm.”
We consider this a bad outcome and a failure mode. We want people to think about their actions, take actions that reduce harm, and do everything within their power up to the point where doing more would ruin their life, but not passing that point. If everyone in the Anadox is so self-sacrificing that we all kill ourselves trying to do good, then we’ll be dead and Black Mountain will remain.
To expand the drowning metaphor to how we see it:
The entire human race is treading water in a vast ocean with no land in sight. Some of us have managed to cobble together rudimentary boats from rafts of detritus and debris, some of us are working together in huge groups of people to keep those who can’t keep treading water afloat, and some of us are swimming around freely under our own strength, trying to do what we can. We’re all slowly drowning, we’re all treading water, we’re all going to become exhausted and sink to the bottom someday. If you save a little girl who is at imediate risk of drowning, pulling her head above the water and helping her swim for a bit, you haven’t actually saved her, she’s still in the ocean slowly drowning like everyone else. If you can take action to help save her, sure you should. But you’re also drowning, you’re also treading water on the ocean of misery, and if you drown yourself saving one girl, then who will save everyone else?
The goal isn’t to save one girl from drowning, the goal is to save everyone from drowning. The goal is to get the fuck off of Black Mountain and in order to help with that massive generation-spanning effort, we need to be alive and functional and productive. We have to survive on Black Mountain too.
Thus we arrive at the Fifth Major Precept:
5. Put aside time to rest and think, honor your mind and body.
You also matter. Your mind and body matter, your existence matters, you have value and you also deserve better than suffering.
From our major precept, we derive our eight minor precepts:
- Set aside one day a week to rest, think, and spend time with friends and family.
- Pursue the improvement of your own life and circumstances.
- Take care of yourself first. You are no good to anyone dead.
- Don’t take actions that will destroy you, your ability to do good in the world is contingent upon your continuing to exist.
- Your body is your vessel, take care of it. Don’t abuse your body. Make sure you get enough food, water, and sleep.
- Your body is your canvas, don’t let others tell you how to paint it.
- Don’t let negative thoughts rule you, don’t tell yourself you’re awful. Practice self-love, banish harmful intrusive thoughts.
- Spend at least ten minutes a day in quiet meditative communion with yourself.
The “traditional rationalist Sabbath” is Monday as far as we can tell, at least here in Seattle. That’s the day the reading group meets at least, so we’re going to be treating Monday as our application of Precept 1.1 since we have that day off anyway and it all works out rather nicely like that. 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4 are ongoing, and this blog exists as a manifestation of a part of that ongoing process. 1.5 is actually something we’re really bad about. We do not typically get enough food, water, or rest on an average day, and are more likely to work ourselves raw most of the time. This is going to be something we need to work on. 1.6 and 1.7 are something we had internalized already, and 1.8 is something we’ll be starting to do today. You, of course, don’t need to apply these precepts exactly as we have. Remember, the precepts are not the precepts.
In a way, this all feels like a strange slanted trolley problem that’s constantly occurring, constantly murdering people, and doesn’t seem to have an easy to take third option yet growth mindset. You can throw yourself onto the tracks to slow down the trolley that’s about to hit five people and save them, but another trolley will come along and kill them after that. If you don’t sacrifice yourself to save them, and just run around pulling levers where you can, a trolley will also eventually mow you down regardless. The problem is that the planet is covered in fucking trolley cars. This is life on Black Mountain, and this is why Black Mountain must be remade into something better. The goal is to rip up all the trolley tracks on our trolley world and stop all the runaway trolleys, not throw ourselves onto the tracks to slow one trolley down for a little while, that won’t help the situation at all.