12 September 2014

Living in a Non-Utopian Universe

Garden of Eden
Hieronymus Bosch
Recently I copped some abuse on Twitter because I disagreed with a tweet that, basically, argued that everyone is entitled to security no matter how risky their behaviour. Possibly what I'm about to write will earn me more disapprobation. This does worry me. Like most writers I crave approval. However it's an interesting area of ethics. Do we have a right to safety which is distinct from our duty to care for ourselves?

We live in a non-utopian universe. There are risks. I live in the beautiful and largely tranquil, City of Cambridge. On the whole the streets are safe, even at night. But I make a point of not going to certain places at night because there is a risk attached. There are some places I know where people have been attacked, where drug addicts congregate, or where I feel fear. I've never been physically attacked in Cambridge. I'm careful not to put myself in a situation where I might be, because when I was growing up I was repeatedly assaulted by other kids in my neighbourhood and I'd like to avoid a repeat. 

I'm not arguing that this is ideal or even OK. I don't like to feel afraid. I'd prefer to live in a world where people were all friendly (much more friendly than the average Cantabridgian!) but I don't. You don't. We don't. Most people reading this won't be living in a war zone, but there are people nearby who would rob us or hurt us for a variety of reasons. Even if we are actively trying to change this, it's a fact.

We live in a non-utopian universe. I envisage "utopian" here as a kind of analogue of Euclidean. Euclidean geometry is a special case of geometry that assumes a flat world. On a small enough scale the world approximates flatness so that Euclid's geometry is useful in the way that Newton's mechanics are useful. If you want to build a house, Euclid will do. If you want to circumnavigate the world in a yacht it won't do, you need spherical geometry (at least, though the earth is slightly oblate). There's a logic to Euclidean geometry and it works within artificially constrained frameworks, but it breaks down in any kind of bent universe. The real universe is non-utopian, in the way that real-world geometry is non-Euclidean. We can imagine a perfect world, even do geometry in it, but that does not make it real.

All actions have consequences. This is hardly rocket science. But it is something to keep in mind. In a non-utopian world actions also have risks attached. Some consequences are desirable and some not. For any given action there'll known consequences and unknown consequences; and each consequence will have a probability of occurring with respect to the action. In life we gamble on both good and bad consequences. Sometimes we play safe, sometimes we take risks. Sometimes risks pay off, sometimes not. Research suggests we're poor at gauging probabilities of outcomes, but even so it's still up to us to make the call. We decide.

There are two main issues: the risk and the risky behaviour. If I argue against the latter, it does not mean I endorse or enforce the former. It is terrible that everyone is at risk of being robbed or assaulted. But we live in a non-utopian universe. There's never been a time or place where anyone has lived without unfair risks. No one is, or has ever been, completely safe. If one can take reasonable precautions against the risk of assault that is realistic. It's not necessarily a capitulation to the criminal element. 

I've been assaulted many times, to the point where I have permanent psychological scars (and a badly healed broken arm). Not all the people who assaulted me years ago were male. A number of females joined in or initiated violence against me. But yes, on the whole men are more physically violent than women. The risk of being assaulted by a man are much higher. But the risk of being assaulted by any given man? I don't have statistics, but I've known very few men in my life who assaulted anyone, even counting a childhood full of violence. It was always a select few who were physically violent and everyone, men included, feared them. So I think we need to be cautious about assigning blame for the situation. Just blaming "men" for example, as many people do, doesn't help. All people are products of their upbringing to some extent. The fact of violence in society is complex. 

I had a number of insights on my ordination retreat in 2005. Often on sleepless nights I would walk up the valley to look at and talk to the stars. It was up there, late one night, that I let go all remaining hostility to the people who assaulted me in my childhood. My tormentors were the products of poverty, alcoholism, colonialism and racism and so on. I realised that I knew the fear and anger they experienced. I also knew that they were like that because they too were surrounded by frightened angry people. Being a target for their violence I never had any sense that I was privileged with respect to them, the main difference was that I was loved and cared for (though assaulted by members of my family at times also). We too were poor and working class; living in a rough neighbourhood of a small town with low educational standards; and we had low expectations of life. It was my mother who pulled us out of that milieu, inspired us to be educated and pursue our dreams. She came from a hellish background of abandonment and violent alcoholic adults, so where she got her aspirations I don't know. I think perhaps from the Church. In which case I'm grateful to the Church. I published the story of her early life if anyone is interested.

Today it makes me reflect on the risk of being assaulted. People are usually violent for a reason. They're usually the victims of violence, often from an early age. The fact that some people in my current city are violent is not because of sexism or testosterone or any of the glib arguments put forward by the kind of entitled modern feminists that I met on Twitter. A non-utopian society creates these people, fosters them, and fails to offer them alternatives. Whether it's too much effort, or too expensive, or we're ideologically opposed to helping people that won't help themselves, or whatever it is. Society has an underbelly because of the way that society operates. And we all participate in society. We all make it what it is.

The Utopian Universe. 

The utopian universe is supposed to be moral, it ought to take care of injustice and imbalances of various kinds and  automatically set things to right. In some ways Karma is the ultimate expression of this utopian ideal: it describes a cosmic balance unmediated by any agent human or supernatural. In the utopian universe, morality is or ought to be a zero-sum game. When Anubis weighs the heart of the dead against the feather of the law, that heart is either heavy or light and what happens subsequently is determined by which way the balance swings. 

In the olden days the olden people had agreements with the olden Gods. There was a quid pro quo. They offered sacrifice (we gave up something valuable) or got out-of-their-skulls on magic mushrooms or whatever and all agreed to follow God's rules (whatever they were imagined to be) and in return God would keep the seasons regular, send enough rain but not too much, keep us and our cattle free of disease, protect us from enemies (more on enemies in a minute), and generally give us our Daily Bread. Except God was a lousy provider. We got climate change; floods and droughts; we and our animals got sick; our enemies persistently attacked us; and everyone died sooner rather than later, often horrifically. God doesn't keep Her side of the bargain. When there were no scientists the failure of a bargain with God was not cause to reconsider the bargain. "It's not you, it's me," they'd say. "I did agree to follow the rules all of the time in the full knowledge that no-one follows all of the rules all of the time. Clearly if there is fault it is mine, and punishment is only just. Ebola virus? Well OK, it seems kinda harsh, but God must know what She's doing. 50% infant mortality? God must really love babies!"

In a utopian universe the harsh and unfair must balanced by the beautiful and fair. Rather than give up the belief we became schizoid. We split the World into two. Now & later. Here & there. Here, things are manifestly unfair. Most of the universe is inhospitable to life, and even the good parts are full of parasites and pathogens (the better the weather the worse the flies). Bad people prosper and good people flounder. But all moral debts are paid in the afterlife. It's there we find beauty and justice. 

The generalised archaic utopian religion lives on, but instead of buying it for a price, we demand it as a right. This sense of entitlement is a new game for humans. We have Rights, God damn it. We demand that we have Rights. And we also demand that we have these rights independently of whatever else we might do or not do. The Tweet I disagreed with was a demand for the right to security regardless of risky behaviour. It was a demand for the "authorities" to institute the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, but with no obedience or hegemony, no allegiance or quid pro quo.

"Rights" is also a capricious bulwark against the non-utopian universe. Like God, Rights tends to get distracted and allow terrible things to happen. The Rights of the rich and powerful tend to get more notice than the rights of the poor and oppressed. I may have a Right to live without fear of being robbed or have my arm broken, but that doesn't stop me being robbed and it certainly didn't stop me having my arm broken as a kid. 

Oh, Rights is a good thing in many ways. The UN declaration of Human Rights is enlightened in many ways. The values it expresses are admirable, they are my values. The actions taken on many fronts towards treating everyone with respect and ensuring they have food and shelter put God to shame, as She never did so much in all the Millennia of being worshipped. When we take pride in ourselves and take care of ourselves we do much better than God ever did.  

But the facts are these: we do not control the weather; we are still prone to disease; human enemies of various kinds still exist. Demanding our rights does not change this. Human enemies might include angry people; hungry people; people with compromised empathy; greedy people; powerful people (or some combination of all and more). Of course we can imagine a world in which no one wants to rob or assault us. The more so if we have been robbed and assaulted. But as the olden saying goes: "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride". Whereas in fact "beggars can't be choosers". 

We live in a non-utopian universe. Some people find ways to shut out this fact. And they tell you that shutting it out in their particular way is a panacea. All the ills of the world don't even seem like ills if we adopt the position that ills are just a matter of perception. Or the ills of this world are cancelled out by infinite bliss on the other side. But there is no panacea. The things we think will cure all ills are thousands of years old and they have not yet cured all ills. 

After 100,000 years of religion most people are still unhappy most of the time (even the one's with digital watches). Indeed if people weren't unhappy, Buddhism would have almost no customers. Ergo? Ergo, religion (Buddhism) is not the way to institute Utopia. No way of thinking that accepts the definite possibility of a utopian universe ought to be taken seriously. The universe is not broken. It is what it is. It is non-utopian and independent of our values. Fixing the universe is not an option. In a non-utopian universe, morality is a non-zero sum game. There are winners and losers. Some of the winners are good by our values system and some are not. There are values, just no universal values. If we understand what the game of life is all about, maybe we can play it better? Except it's not really a game, now is it? Hunger is not abstract. Pain isn't just a concept.

The best I can do is take responsibility for my own actions. I'm not responsible for all men or the British Empire. I don't blame my family or my neighbourhood for my difficulties in life. There's no mileage in blaming anyone. I joined a Buddhist movement in part because as an individual I am weak and vulnerable. As a member of this collective I hope to make a difference in the world. I could have joined a political or ecological group, but, I joined a religious group. I've dedicated my life to participating as much as I can in the activities of this group and to helping them as best I can to making the world a better, safer, more harmonious place. But the universe is non-utopian. It's never going to be perfectly good, perfectly safe, or perfectly harmonious. Indeed, even a religious community is not always good, safe or harmonious. 


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