Saturday, December 20, 2008

Harm and Malice

The practice of Actualism is to minimize, and finally remove, malice and sorrow in oneself, so that one may live happily and harmlessly. There is usually little argument on the happiness aspect, but there can be a lot of confusion about being harmless. I will try in this essay to express my understanding of what it means to be harmless and how one can avoid getting hopelessly mired in achieving an impossible ideal.

Harm is a very vague term which carries a negative judgment with it. To clarify its meaning, let us see how it is used in English.

According to the dictionary, harm is "the act of damaging something or someone" or "the occurrence of a change for the worse".

The first definition contains the word "damaging". The natural question is, damaging to whom, and ascertained by who? Anything one does (even breathing) affects the world. The affected objects can be broadly categorized as (a) inanimate matter, and (b) living things. Inanimate matter gets rearranged (e.g. petrol turns into fumes), and livings things may be injured, or die. In the case of living things, an objective definition of damage is a reduction in their lifespan. In the case of inanimate matter, "damaging" can only mean a reduction in its value to a set of living beings, usually humans.

The second definition, "the occurrence of a change for the worse" is a comparative judgment which compares two states of affairs and decides, according to a set of criteria, that the later state falls lower according to those criteria.

In the light of the above elucidation, let us try and make sense of certain common uses of the word "harm".

- We harm the earth by using up oil and wood too quickly.
(i.e. the kinds of material transformations involved in burning oil and cutting trees are not healthy for many species, especially humans.)

- You harm a cow when you eat beef.
(i.e. a cow's lifespan is cut short when it is killed for food.)

- America's foreign policy is harmful.
(i.e. the foreign policy decisions of USA lead to, or will lead to, an increaesd risk of armed conflict which will cut short the lifespans of many human beings)

- TV is harmful for children.
(i.e. watching television leads to a decrease in the health (physical or mental) of children)

- "First do no harm." (as told to doctors)
(i.e. do not lessen the survival prospects of a human being under your care)

- "Don't harm my car."
(i.e. do not lessen my car's mechanical and aesthetic utility)

- "Don't harm others."
(i.e. do not lessen others' well-being (which may be emotional, physical, financial, etc. as per the context))

Now, I will present my understanding:

1. As a human being, psychological suffering (Malice and Sorrow) is what I seek to end in myself.
1.1 Malice drives me to intend harm to others, and to thence harm them through overt acts.
1.2 Sorrow drives me to unpleasant mental states. In order to get out of those unpleasant states, I depend on material distractions and use other human beings.

2. It is impossible to survive as a human being completely harmlessly (as to the effects of one's actions)
2.1 Some living things will be harmed no matter what one does.
2.2 Some forms of matter will be transformed into inferior forms of matter, as per human standards of usage (regarding their energy content, their calorific value, their use to other humans, their aesthetic form, etc.)
2.3 The unachievable nature of this goal (total harmlessness) means to chase it is to invite frustration.

3. The minimizing of malice and sorrow is possible, and worthwhile.
3.1 It is possible by various techniques, e.g. awareness, introspection, understanding, etc.
3.11 It is not my intent here to debate whether a particular method is effective or not.
3.2 It is worthwhile because to live with malice and sorrow is unnecessarily harmful to oneself and to other life forms, especially one's fellow human beings.
3.21 And why, one might ask, is one primarily concerned about one's fellow human beings, and not, say about other mammals or vertebrates or plants? There are at least three reasons for that:
3.211 Humans are the most advanced, complex, and able life forms on earth. As such, they are more valuable than any other life form.
3.212 The minimization of malice towards one's fellow human beings also leads to the minimization of malice towards other forms of life (since malice and sorrow are states of mind which when active, affect all of one's acts). Hence, one does not act out of malice towards (say) a dog, a cow on the road, a bird, a snake, etc.
3.213 In the absence of sorrow, one's needs become simple and one does not use other life forms out of psychological reasons. (e.g. hunting or fishing for pleasure, cutting trees for unneeded furniture, traveling to ward off boredom, watching animals fight, buying a big car, eating more than one needs to, etc.).

4. I consider that my focus must be on the minimization of malice and sorrow, and not on being harmless.
4.1 Ascertaining harmlessness of an act requires, so to say, fieldwork. The absence of malice is a standard that I can set for myself, even in the absence of an encyclopedic knowledge of the world .
4.2 A lessening of harm which results from a vow (e.g. vegetarianism, talking feebly, etc.), and not due to a lowering of malice and sorrow, does not lead to happiness (since sorrow, loneliness, boredom, etc. still exist), though it may lead to increased well-being for others.
4.21 Frequently, such lifestyle changes make one self-righteous and introduce hatred (or a condescending attitude) for other human beings who do not follow the same lifestyle.
4.22 Such lifestyle changes are usually undertaken for exalting oneself.
4.3 A lessening of harm which results from a lifestyle change due to new information (fieldwork) is sensible and worthwhile.
4.31 There are many behavior patterns which are inadvertently harmful, and for which less harmful alternatives exist. For example, one may discover that defecation in the open is harmful and can cause disease, and that digging and using a hole for that purpose is healthier. As another example, one may discover that a predilection for rice depletes groundwater in one's region, and that it may lead to famine one day.
4.32 In such cases, a lifestyle change is an indication of openness. This openness is helped by an absence of sorrow, since sorrow and it cousin, boredom, lead to apathy and resistance to change.

5. The illusion of being a psychological "I" is sustained not by one's impact on the world, nor by the extent of harm one causes, but by the operation of one's instinctual passions which give rise to malice and sorrow.
5.1 The breaking of this illusion is the gateway to aware, intelligent living, which in the long term, is the only road to peace and a balanced, sustainable co-existence with other life forms.
5.2 This does not mean that one is free to harm others. Far from it. It means that one works at the foundations (one's instinctual passions) instead of merely addressing the symptoms. As one grows in intelligence and awareness, and as the illusion of "I" becomes weaker, one cannot but help being benign.

1 comment:

srid said...

This and other post on feelings about facts set me into thinking and then finally become aware of my feeling malicious every time I read/think about 1) spiritual people and 2) normal people who are not actualists.

Just for instance, I would argue assertively with spirutalists as how they are doing it "wrong" and how my group is doing it "right".. all of that of course started from my feeling malicious in first place, which I never took notice. Tribalism in action.

I guess it is all a matter of becoming aware of all those nuances of feelings in oneself so as to facilitate a rapid progress in becoming more and more felicitous.