On Hubris

About the rationalisation of instances of human cockiness in the present era

Table of Contents

  1. Scope and purpose of this book
  2. Dogmatism
  3. Scientism
  4. Anthropocentrism and individualism
  5. Impossible morality

Scope and purpose of this book

With this publication I want to provide insight into some of the main assumptions that underpin much of humanity’s thinking about its place in the world. This unfolds as a critique of the patterns of behaviour or underlying value systems that are made manifest in modern society’s quotidian life.

While I generalise about humanity at-large, I understand that my inquiry’s point of reference is the Western society. My working hypothesis is that despite differences between cultures, Western lifestyle and the concomitant world-view have become the norm across the planet, at least insofar as the topics of this book are concerned.

Despite this prior belief, I do not maintain a strong opinion about it: there may indeed be cultures whose midpoint differs fundamentally from that of the typical Western society. As such, I trust the reader to recognise any discernible differences of principle and exercise judgement on where exactly my arguments may apply and to what degree. Furthermore, I expect them to press on with their research programme to critically assess whether the use of the very concept of hubris, as documented herein, can be interesting and fecund when referring to those circumstances.

The book is limited in scope, in that it only covers the general themes of the topic at hand. This is not a comprehensive diatribe on every instance of hubris in the human lifeworld. The task of philosophy is to make observations about the abstract structure of phenomena and to provide a vector into further scientific endeavours. It falls upon the practical student to recognise the relevant patterns in the constitution of each case that lies before them.

With regard to the concept of “hubris”, it is pertinent to offer some background information. Here is Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry:

hubris noun \ ˈhyü-brəs \

:exaggerated pride or self-confidence

Hubris Comes From Ancient Greece

English picked up both the concept of hubris and the term for that particular brand of cockiness from the ancient Greeks, who considered hubris a dangerous character flaw capable of provoking the wrath of the gods. In classical Greek tragedy, hubris was often a fatal shortcoming that brought about the fall of the tragic hero. Typically, overconfidence led the hero to attempt to overstep the boundaries of human limitations and assume a godlike status, and the gods inevitably humbled the offender with a sharp reminder of his or her mortality.

The background information offers greater insight than the actual definition in that it defines said cockiness in terms of one’s inability to recognise their limits and those of their nature. It is this particular quality that interests us the most, with the understanding that it can be detached from the religious underpinnings of Greek polytheism.

Our approach is not limited to individuals and their behaviour. Hubris applies to collective actions as well as systems of thinking that span generations. One’s emotions or disposition need not be involved directly.

As such, the book tackles ideologies that fall squarely within the definition of hubris furnished above. The subsequent chapters can for the most part be read as standalone entries on the topic, though it is best to read them in their established sequence.

The canonical web page of On Hubris, by Protesilaos Stavrou, is https://protesilaos.com/hubris, while it is published under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, version 4.0 International.

For questions, comments, observations, refer to the contact page.


Dogmatism consists in the attitude to present one’s opinion as the universal, undisputed source of truth on the matter. It is the act of touting an actually subjective interpretation of events as an inherently objective constant.

While it is possible for a dogma to be based exclusively on one’s peculiar beliefs and be expressed as a personal opinion, the most persistent and apparent dogmas justify themselves by alluding to an external source, a perceived authority: the person merely echoes the authority. This may be an historical figure whose work has been sanctified or exalted to the status of legend. It might be a document or corpus of texts that makes claims which are believed to be true because of centuries of tradition, perhaps combined with references to these persons of lore. Or it might just be the prevailing consensus about a set of principles, which itself might trace its origin, in one way or another to some other such tutelary figure.

Sanctification or the elevation to authority is, in this regard, the withdrawal of an item from the domain of the disputable. It is the act of agreeing to render something truthful in itself—and to fight anyone who dares voice an opinion to the contrary.

The function of the authoritative source is that of validating in advance everything that may be based on it. It delineates the boundaries of its derivatives, while they inherit its putative quality of prior truthfulness by logical necessity. If p is necessarily true and q follows from p, then q is also true.

While such reasoning may be internally consistent, it is its framing that is suspect. It posits p as a constant and then proceeds to develop its postulates from there on. There is no sense of doubt that the original proposition is true or anyhow subject to review. More importantly, it does not envisage an objective, verifiable methodology for scrutinising p in an effort to assess its truthfulness without having to succumb to oppression. As such, the original proposition, or set thereof, is treated as a constant in advance of any and all research programmes.

The dogmatist does not listen, else they would admit that their prior truth may not constitute a cogent argument. All they can do is preach. What grants plausibility to their message is the power of numbers: the higher the count of followers, the greater the confirmation of their shared biases. This goes along the lines of “see, everyone says so and agrees with me in such and such”. Faith is required, in the sense that some claim is believed to be valid despite insufficient supporting evidence; where “evidence” is independently verifiable.

Subjectivist claims cannot ever form a reliable basis for grounding a statement, unless they may somehow be generalised into an objective phenomenon that does not involve brainwashing. The idea that one may go through an experience out of sheer belief in it cannot, in itself, ever make for conclusive evidence. Similarly, to talk about private ‘facts’ that are supposed to be ineffable involves the contradiction of describing the indescribable or, rather, claiming something to be beyond reasoning, thinking, speaking, in an attempt to elevate it to some authoritative source.

Taking offence is also a form of dogmatic behaviour. It is a way of killing the debate, of turning the argument from a matter of principles to a squabble. If a statement is objectively verifiable, then the person making it does not need to ever resort to using peer pressure and sheer violence to provide credence to it. Those who need to employ such techniques are there to enforce a belief, not forward the cause of genuine research. They do not listen to anything that does not confirm their bias.

For example, in politics this behaviour is the single most important difference between democracy and its decadent variant of ochlocracy (democracy should not be confused with the de facto oligarchy of the present world). The former is meant to cherish pluralism and to offer a secure public space for voicing opinions. It is tacitly understood that those involved in the democratic process are making arguments that are based on incomplete information and may, therefore, be proven wrong at some later point. The member of the body politic is thus allowed to review their position. They are not expected to show unflinching devotion to an ideology or party line, despite compelling evidence against it. Hence the capacity for collective self-institution, else autonomy, that can, for instance, be expressed in the rewrite of a law. Whereas ochlocracy, the rule of the mob, uses the power of numbers to impose some pseudo-morality that is shared by those engaging in the act of bullying a public target. The specious “right to be offended” or “right to feel betrayed” is key in the process of cancelling a debate, attacking a person, and not offering a chance to other takes on the matter.

Not listening implies an inability to engage in honest research in pursuit of revealing the mechanics of the topic in question. There is no scope for dialectic, as the underlying principles are incompatible. The dogmatist sees every argument as a challenge to fight. Their approach is polemical, indeed eristic. Whereas the dialectician uses argumentation as a means of cancelling out all falsehoods held by the sides involved. To put it crudely, dialectic is a way of (a) conducting research and (b) doing ‘group therapy’; therapy from the pernicious effects of invalid beliefs and the passions they engender.

Dialectic may not necessarily surface the truth, but it will at least shed light on inconsistencies, while stressing the need for further research. Without pretences, the dialectician approaches an argument with the anticipation of being proven wrong: it is understood that the process of revealing one’s false beliefs will help them escape from their control.

Dialectic is the method by which all sides to the argument share the common objective of collaboratively finding or approximating the truth of the subject at hand. What unites them is the honesty and humility to recognise the flaws in their views and to admit that the antithesis to them is indeed more cogent, should that be the case.

Parrhesia, the honest and unencumbered expression of one’s thoughts, is the dialectician’s greatest virtue. Whereas the dogmatist relies on hypocrisy, in that they are not willing to recognise any fault in their established views and would go to great length to achieve that goal.

Dialectic does not always resolve in a synthesis that represents the truth. It might merely have the cathartic effect of eliminating all spurious beliefs that were exposed through its workings. This also stands as an approximation of the truth, in the sense of better appreciating one’s limits—distancing oneself from hubris.

There is no persuasion involved, at least not in the sense of fighting for either side’s case as an end in itself. The dialectician does not treat the argument as a contest where the winner takes it all. The usual connotations of the win-lose binary do not apply in this context. ‘Losing’ an argument while engaging in dialectic, in the sense of being proven wrong or at least being forced to reconsider the initial thesis is, in fact, a form of ‘winning’: the emancipation from falsehood.

Whereas the dogmatist sees every argument that affects their dogma as a zero-sum game. Every deviation as a threat to their position. They cannot engage in dialectic because they do not even recognise the possibility of them being wrong—their beliefs are treated as true in advance.

Here the hubris is discernible in human’s self-deception: to think that they have discovered the single, undisputed truth that overrides all other views; and to consequently err on the side of presumption. The dogmatist presses their views without caution or hesitation. The belief in the prior validity of their claims makes them reckless.

Recklessness of this sort can have devastating effects. For it engenders a self-righteous expansionist tendency: to spread ‘the truth’ no matter the cost and, in the process, to eliminate or marginalise every dissenting voice. This leads to practices of proselytism, homogenisation, monoculture, where any future divergence from the dogma is combatted with extreme prejudice. Recklessness in research methods begets fanaticism.

Once dogma embeds itself in the human collective’s system of values it has the potential for every possible destructive mania, depending on its scope, ranging from war abroad to segregation at home, the erosion of ecosystems and the extinction of wildlife, vast disparities in the distribution of wealth and resources among members of a society, and so on.

There are, however, more subtle expressions of dogmatism. For while it is common for a dogma to be discernible in controversial issues, where one or more sides to the argument is engaging for the sole purpose of defending their prior belief and of opposing all others, there are cases where a dogma is concealed in—or manifests as—a consensus that is built on the internalisation of a universalised subjectivity; what some might call “conventional wisdom”.

The specifics may vary. What underlies them all is a spurious theory, or collection thereof, that masquerades as a universal constant. The dogmatism of conventional wisdom can be just as pernicious as its less pretentious sibling. It offers the impression of certainty that is supposed to be derived from independently verifiable means, but is, in fact, largely dependent on accompaniments to the main corpus of argumentation that are not strictly confined to research methodology, such as social influence, peer pressure, and economic factors.


Perhaps the most cunning enemy of free thinking is arrogance. To boast about one’s intellectual prowess and to assume that the instruments of one’s programme are immune to criticism. Even a seemingly sceptical enterprise, one that prides itself on cautiousness and hesitation to jump to early conclusions, can fall victim of this peculiar brand of hubris. It is how scientism can derive from genuine science.

Scientism is the ideology that treats science as necessarily truthful and proceeds to formulate every argument in the image of scientific inquiry. The result is not science, but dogma that consists in the internalisation of some subjectivity or unverifiable claim, while appearing to be the product of rigorous, objectively testable research.

It is how a scientist can make far-reaching speculations about things that do not conform with the standards of their own methodology. This is the scientist who uses their social status qua scientist to forward an agenda in the political domain, to pursue some other end, or just satisfy their vanity.

The fault does not fall squarely on the scientist who overreaches. Everyone is fallible, even those who can reveal a certain truth in a given area of research. Rather the root of the misunderstanding of the scientific enterprise is to be found in a certain metanarrative: science is believed to yield only the truth, while the misunderstanding is that it yields only the ultimate truth.

The distinction between intermediate and ultimate objectivity is in order. The former is aware of the limits or possible shortcomings of the methodology that delivers its results. Whereas the latter has blind faith in the universal application of their method.

Intermediate objectivity is what we normally understand as objective by applying the most refined research techniques we have at our disposal. We understand that these techniques have a certain history to them. That they reached their present state by evolving from their more primitive and error-prone approaches. In this realisation lies implicit the recognition that our means may also be subject to further refinements at some future point. The researcher of the future might just as well consider our state-of-the-art to be primitive by comparison.

As such, it is important to append to every scientific finding a disclaimer to the effect that it couches the results in terms of the distinction between intermediate and ultimate objectivity. Some statement along the lines of “to the best of our knowledge”. This is honest and inherently dialectical. Its objective is the approximation of the truth, not the validation of some school of thought in the spirit of “us versus them”.

In contradistinction, the scientist who posits their findings as the delineation of ultimate objectivity does not recognise the historicity of thought and research methods in general. They believe that what we have now is not only the best we have ever had, but the best there can ever be. It is speculation about the future, namely that no other human will ever find some fault in the current body of work and, as such, turns into a dogma by internalising said subjectivity and elevating it to the status of the universal, single source of truth.

This arrogance expresses a bias towards the historical aspects of science. It is assumed that the present state of science already incorporates all the positives of previous eras and has successfully discarded all the illusory ones. Against this backdrop, it becomes impossible to recognise the discrepancies that arise from non-scientific factors that affect scientists such as the distribution of power among them; power that derives from access to funding, social standing and prestige, and the like. In other words, arrogance of this sort promotes an orthodoxy, even if tacitly or unwillingly.

An orthodoxy is the prevalence of a mainstream over alternatives; of one subjectivity over all the rest; of monologue over dialogue. The presence of subjective evaluations is not suspect per se. It actually is an intermediate state of dialectic where multiple theses are collaboratively pitted against each other in an attempt to arrive at some more cogent synthesis. The synthesised statement, or the conclusion that the original theses are to be discarded, is neither the definitive truth nor an objective assessment of the state of affairs. It might be one, but not solely by virtue of being the product of joint investigation between people with originally diverging opinions. Otherwise dialectic would be a one-off event that would then spawn dogmatism.

Dialectic is a process and a mode of thinking.

The scientist who thinks that the mainstream is inherently correct in its every aspect, by means of having incorporated all the positives of previous eras, is already oblivious to heretodox beliefs of yore. The future scientist who blithely commits to the orthodoxy will repeat this error by disregarding the alternative views of the present.

To equate the orthodoxy with the peak of research is to discriminate against all other interpretations. Without understanding the history of ideas and the politics that ramify to every aspect of the scientific enterprise—indeed the industry of science, in the common economic sense—one can only claim to know more than they actually do. Hubris that calcifies as the dogma of scientism.

Such are the trappings of a metanarrative, in this case the set of claims that science is always true and that what scientists know right now is all that can be known. The metanarrative functions as an authority. A body of work that typically consists of one or more unverifiable claims that are not meant to be discussed in themselves, since they are believed to be truthful or self-evident in prior.

It thus is to no one’s surprise that scientists all too often present themselves as the equivalent of secular theologians. They claim to know everything, as ‘science’ has an answer to it. The nuances are lost. No reference is ever made to the fact that some findings are not the same as an ultimate truth, or that some evidence might have been omitted in advanced due to the power of conventional wisdom or mere ignorance and oversight.

The worst of the bunch are those who interweave their political ideology with scientific jargon to offer the impression of science, i.e. to draw from the aforementioned metanarrative. It is those who will assiduously mask their bias in carefully selected statistics and the usual geometric portrayals of simplistic ideas that scream ‘science’ to the inattentive audience. Scientism is about the looks, the formalities, and so every absurdity has the chance to appear as the distillation of objective wisdom, provided its proponents are scrupulous or ignorant and gullible enough.

Then there is the other sort of scienticism, one that is seemingly innocuous. It is the insistence that technical fields of endeavour, such as science and technology are not political at all. This is the reductionist narrative by which there exist clear delineations between a person’s agency as a scientist, technologist, etc. and that of their agency as a human being in a political whole that is subject to social and economic phenomena.

To claim that science is not political because scientists only care about their specific area of inquiry is to conveniently disregard the forces at play that allow the given scientists to focus on that particular topic. Put differently, it makes the baseless assumption that whatever happens inside of science, or any technical field for that matter, is in no way determined by exogenous factors or by prejudices that prevail inside of it.

For as long as there is an orthodoxy, any allusion to prior neutrality is supportive of the establishment, even if inadvertently so. It is an extension of scientism.

This is not as naive as the argument that everything humans do is political because they are political animals or whatnot. It rather is the more nuanced proposition that a consensus, the impression of objectivity, may be the result of an internalised subjectivity. The process by which an opinion is elevated to the status of conventional wisdom can involve means that are exterior, in the narrow sense, to the field of endeavour, such as social influence, economic power, the presence of big egos, and the simple possibility that researchers are wedded to their own projects (for any or all of the preceding reasons).

To pretend that there are no politics involved in the distribution of funding, the attribution of titles of prestige and the like, is to suggest that the status quo is inherently truthful and fair, without sufficient supporting evidence. It is to assume that money and power are not serving any kind of agenda and that those making the relevant judgement calls are necessarily unbiased and have access to perfect information in order to consistently serve the objective interests of science.

Technical fields of endeavour exist in a broader political whole. To insist that they are merely technical, once accounting for the factors that contribute to their internal affairs is a reductionist fallacy. Again an instance of hubris where humans pretend to be humble and dispassionate—“we are just doing a job”—while being anything but.

Anthropocentrism and individualism

The attachment of ontological importance to oneself is a sign of overcoming one’s real boundaries. Two closely-related ideologies conform with this pattern: anthropocentrism and individualism. They have a common midpoint but differ in their scope of application. Their core claim is that the human self, the collective or individual self respectively, has a somewhat special place in the world due to some innate properties that are unique to it.

The self is not perceived as yet another factor in the multitude of {sub-,super-}systems that compromise all that is, the cosmos. It rather is treated as an exception, as having a special telos in the grand scheme of things, or as possessing a unique ability that renders it immune to the evolving spectra of causal possibilities that inform each discernible pattern in the world: and that special power is free will.

The tenet of the freedom of volition basically stipulates that humans, individually and collectively, are the masters of their own being. They are allowed to make choices and to forge their destiny out of them. There are differences of degree, depending on the specific theory at hand. Yet the fundamental assumption is that the self operates independently of its environment. This is the figment of the decontextualised human, a being as such.

Decontextualisation means that one’s volition remains unencumbered by any and all other forces that operate in both the supersystems in which a human is immersed in—their environment—as well as the subsystems that, in their joint operation, comprise the emergent life form, else system of systems, called “human”. Free will is touted as a mystical quality that defies all those mechanisms. As it is commonly claimed by those who believe in the myth of the ‘rugged individual’, you can aim for something, whatever that may be, and “just do it”.

We can attempt to dismiss the absurdity of this approach by considering one’s genetics. You cannot be an elite athlete if you were not born with the requisite physical qualities and the built-in drive or dedication that is peculiar to the mindset of a champion. You may not become a competent accountant if your character, and the way your mind works, is singularly inclined to forms of artistic expression. And so on.

While they have their merits, arguments along those lines would miss the point, for you can always try to do whatever you want. That is the impression we get from our own experience in the world. It is inherent to our consciousness.

Which leads to a pair of interlinked questions:

  1. Is the self a singular entity that is controlled centrally?
  2. Does such control extend to the entirety of the self?

We can agree that the idea we have is that there is a clear chain of causation from a decision to act to the eventual realisation of the action. Forethought and planning of every detail may be involved. As such, it appears that there is indeed an authority that controls this conscious entity we identify as our self. We may call it “mind” or “soul”. Whatever label we choose, the core tenet is that it exercises full control over our being. Hence the belief in human’s free will.

While it would be hard to argue against the very notion of choosing among possible outcomes, it remains to be seen whether this kind of power extends to every aspect of our being or to parts of it. Can the central command instruct a molecule to behave in a manner that is not already determined by its nature, its own means? To use a crude example, can this exalted “mind” or “soul” tell the liver to operate as an extra lung?

The conscious, else logical, self does not have sovereignty over the entirety of its ontic presence. What we understand as a human being—an entity as such—is, in fact, a supersystem that consists of subsystems, which themselves interact in various ways and are ordered in strata that delimit their scope and the precise local rules they are subject to. The “mind” or “soul” does not control the molecule, while the latter has a relatively minor impact on its immediate milieu, let alone the strata that are emergent from its stratum. Whatever happens to the body is the result of chains of reactions where multiple factors are involved. Each of them has its own discreteness, yet they are all very much interlinked, for there is no subsystem without the environment that nourishes, empowers, or renders it possible.

If the control centre’s sovereignty does not extend to every aspect of one’s being, it might then be the case that it is not sovereign at all, or that its power is constrained by powers counter to it and outside its purview. It is not the locus of this superpower called “free will”. Rather it operates as yet another specialised subsystem within its broader whole, whose presence is very much contingent on the supersystem that envelops it, the other systems it interacts with at the same order of stratification as well as the subsystems that comprise each stratum.

Phenomena that are inherent to a system as such are emergent, in the sense that they are the outcome of the joint operation of the factors that constitute the case. The phenomenon in question cannot be identified in each and every factor when examined in isolation—it can only be revealed through their interplay at the system-wide level.

What follows is that whatever presence exists at the stratum at which the emergent phenomenon is made manifest cannot directly alter its microfoundations, for that would be tantamount to altering itself from the top by somehow detaching from the subsystems that comprise it. To put it in human terms, the brain cannot modify the makeup of the molecules it consists of because in the process it would inevitably be modifying “itself”, thus it would not be able to remain constant. For it to be unaffected while such a change is underway, it would have to sever its ties from its very constitution, be a non-molecular brain, at least for some intermediate phase, and then attach back to the molecular stratum, becoming corporeal again.

The counter argument may then be that the locus of free will is a different entity altogether that is somehow linked to the body but is not influenced by it. What might be the nature of such a link? And what it means to have a link without any kind of feedback loop? How does one come to know about it and verify their findings in a manner that is objective and reproducible?

This is where scepticism must comes to the fore. We can speculate at length about this exalted “mind” or “soul” as a fundamentally other presence even though we have no objective means of ever verifying those claims and despite the evidence we already have on the limits of “free will” to control every aspect of our being, our agency. Or we might just be honest and admit our limits: we cannot ground such views in anything but dogma.

The impression of free will as an overarching capacity of complete self-sovereignty is mostly, though perhaps not entirely, misleading. There is likely some discretion involved, a faculty that can dynamically evaluate information and make choices, but it is framed, influenced, conditioned by forces beyond its control; forces that trace their source to the very body that is supposed to be just a vessel.

Couched in terms of systems, such faculty is but a subsystem that interfaces with other such systems at the same stratum of emergence. It can, thus, have an effect on them. However a factor of a case cannot control other factors at another field of application, as was already discussed about a system that cannot modify its microfoundations without also somehow altering its own presence. And the same for the macroscopic phenomena that unfold at strata that are higher than it.

Factoring in the supersystem that encompasses humanity, itself a system of systems, would only further contribute to the sceptic stance we must hold towards the traditions that are fastened upon the construct of the decontextualised human.

Free will scepticism can only inform further questioning of the derivative ideologies, anthropocentrism and individualism in our case. For if human has no special powers of the sort here considered, then it follows that every belief that hinges on that assumption is false a priori. The human person, humanity at-large, is but a factor of a system that extends far beyond the power of the “mind” or “soul” we have considered thus far.

Anthropocentrism’s hubris consists in the arbitrary value that humans attach to their own kind and to the concomitant devaluation they make of everything non-human. Furthermore, it lies in the baseless claim that human is an entity as such rather than a system of systems, with all the relevant mechanics that were mentioned above.

Individualism shares the same principles, only its tenets apply to relations between humans. Here the hubris extends to the falsehood that there exists an individual as such; an individual that can stand without their cultural, social, natural surroundings; a decontextualised human. Who has ever witnessed such a specimen? A being that can bend the world to their will by just putting their mind to it.

Besides, the idea of a decontextualised human fails to recognise phenomena that are inherently intersubjective, like language. An individual in abstract cannot have a private language, as the notion of a code of communication becomes meaningless. A being in isolation does not communicate. Same case for private ethics where a singular person cannot possibly implement any set of rules that regulate intersubjective relations, for there are none.

The thinking of free will as an absolute has far-reaching consequences in the way humans see themselves vis-à-vis each other and with respect to the rest of their immediate ecosystem. In particular, it informs the binary of reward and punishment. If the freedom of volition is absolute, then everything that defines your state of living is necessarily of your own doing, because it is claimed that you have the freedom to “just do something” about it. If, however, free will is nothing of the sort, then such set of values is baseless, indeed odious.

The hubris of both anthropocentrism and individualism is harmful for humanity and all the species affected by its deeds. Because of anthropocentrism, the rest of the planet is seen as a mere resource waiting to be exploited, rather than the complex cobweb of life it actually is and which, inter alia, enables the subsistence of humans. A code of morality derives therefrom to the effect that the self is allowed to justifiably pursue ends that no other life form has a right to.

On the political front, individualism underpins systems of organisation or governance that favour some groups at the expense of others. Such inequality reflects the binary of security and precarity that extends the simplistic values about reward and punishment. The entirely baseless narrative is that it is not corruption that allows some groups to exist in a symbiotic relationship with the state apparatus, to enjoy disproportionate benefits and to use their power against others. The thinking goes that your precarity is of your own doing, of your sheer “laziness” or “unwillingness” to also become a billionaire or a tyrant and to set up a state-sanctioned oligopoly. You can “just do it” but you choose not to, so you must live with the consequences.

Such hubris!

Once we align our expectations with reality, once we critically assess the belief in free will, we will come to the realisation that baseless claims can have deleterious consequences. In doing so, we will have to let go of our egoism, of the disproportionate value we attach to ourselves. We will then recognise our role for what it is: a part of the greater whole, a mere factor in a universal system of interconnectedness. Our life is not more important than the life of every other being.

This is neither good nor bad. Evaluations concern mind-dependent products, such as institutions or habits or the cost of a good in terms of money. These items are a function of the human experience, of human convention: they are chrēmata (of use by humans), not pragmata (of objective presence).

Chrēmatic concepts, such as good versus bad, do not apply to a description of an objective state of affairs. Reality just is.

Impossible morality

It is not uncommon for humans to develop notions of superiority towards other life forms or even among themselves by alluding to some lofty moral standard. To think that they are more important than all the rest. Anthropocentrism and individualism are just two types of such arrogance, but there can be other ones as well, including those that seem innocuous at first sight.

Take the concept of universal love as a case in point. It is said that humans have the capacity to love their enemies and, by extension, the best humans do so. Indiscriminate love is considered the epitome of moral agency, the greatest height one can achieve in their path to enlightenment, spiritual ascendance, or whatnot.

Just as with the notion of free will, universal love is employed as a tacit supremacist theory against all other life forms. Humans think of themselves as having something special that no other being exhibits. They must therefore be destined for some greater cause, their telos cannot possibly be the same as that of a rodent, an insect, a plant. Such is the rationalisation, the meta-narrative that underpins the exhortations of those who believe in the uniqueness of the human kind.

While it is true that love can empower humans to do certain things, it is not the only emotion they have, not the sole motivator and, more importantly, it is not superior to other emotions or other functions in general. To treat it as such is to introduce an arbitrary hierarchy, while disregarding the supersystem in which the human species developed all of its characteristics.

Arbitrariness on matters that are beyond human’s control, in that they are not part of our nature because of our own planning, is a sign of exceeding our limits. To develop rationalisations therefrom is a case of compounding the problem.

In your little world you may think you are important. But this self-evaluation does not correspond to reality. In the grand scheme of things, you are not any more significant than the worm, the grass, the mycelial networks in the soil you walk on.

The lion does not express love towards its enemy the jailer. It instead is fully prepared to exterminate the threat once the opportunity arises. If we look at the animals that are closest to the human species, we see similar patterns of behaviour. Wolves are territorial and engage in the equivalent of warfare for gaining access to resources.

Humans are pack animals that behave in strikingly similar ways. Yet some will insist that we are at our best when we are not aligned with our nature. To think, for instance, you are a decontextualised human while you were raised in a social milieu and exist in the ecosystem of this planet.

Individualism once combined with the idea of universal love can only create the perfect submissive being. It does not matter how dystopian the world around you. Just focus on your self and love your tyrants. The establishment would be elated if you were docile and numb in the face of oppression. In such cases, hatred and the eagerness to resort to violence is a great asset for the enslaved.

If a lion could be brainwashed the same way, then it would very likely adore its jailer. If wolves could somehow believe that the opposite of their nature is what they should strive for, they would all happily starve to death instead of fighting for resources.

A broad generalisation of life may be that life forms that cannot or are not willing to impose themselves are eventually replaced by those that can and do.

Pseudo-morality is only plausible in the safety of an establishment that is not actually defined by it, formalities and virtue signalling to the contrary notwithstanding. Absurd conclusions follow when we are made to think that morality can be implemented in a vacuum and that it has no connection whatsoever to politics.

Inter-personal relations involve politics either directly or indirectly. The human experience does not unfold in nothing, but always in circumstances that have certain factors whose value is human in origin, chrēmatic as per the previous chapter about anthropocentrism and individualism.

By “politics” we do not refer to the much-maligned signification of “bickering in the workplace” or the name-calling that is common in partisan controversies. We are interested in the process by which humans assign value to sets of beliefs, institute them as pillars of their collective life, and assign to them the role of the benchmark against which every relevant action or event is to be judged. For instance, property rights are sometimes claimed to have a sanctity about them. This is not an objective reality but a human convention. An instituted state of affairs.

Morality involves an agent and a patient of a certain action. It examines emergent phenomena, in that they do not exist absent the action. Action does not occur in a vacuum. The factors of the case need to be accounted for. The emergent phenomenon is, therefore, revealed by the action while being a function of all contributing factors to the case.

In abstract, action has immediate and potential consequences in certain circumstances. Private ethics, such as those that would be held by a decontextualised human, is immaterial. Action entails context in which the agent is present and involves an immediate or potential patient. It is intersubjective.

In matters of morality, the concept of intersubjectivity does not carry the same connotations as “interpersonal”, in the sense of denoting human beings. It rather refers more broadly to the subjects of the emergent phenomenon, the agent and the patient of the action. These can be persons, but not always. This is why a moral agent can be impersonal, such as when assessing society’s collective behaviour towards other species, or how the cumulative effect of the decisions of one generation frames, determines, preempts the choices of the next one.

To fully appreciate an action we must account for the constitution of the case, in order to understand the interplay of all contributing factors. Moral judgements that are derived from such a holistic method must thus go well beyond the study of the behavioural patterns or outcomes thereof of an individual. Else we remain trapped in the hubris of an impossible morality.

As noted in Prolegomena to a Study of Metaethics (2017-08-11):

Metaethics can bring attention to hitherto understudied or altogether ignored and presumed as self-evident issues. From the emergent nature of ethics, to the need for overcoming the chimera of the decontextualised human who exercises absolute free will, to the broadening of moral reasoning beyond the narrow confines of the individual, to the expanded understanding of temporality whereby the outcomes of certain actions may only be truly felt by potential patients, to a point where the binary of reward-punishment gives way to a spectrum of possible states of affairs that are either enabled or disabled in various combinations, and to a new ethics where the role of the contextualised agent is paramount in appreciating both the scale of the action as well as the ramifications of any possible outcomes.

In practice, every comprehensive code of conduct is impossible to ever be implemented in its fullest, over the long term by a diverse group of people, and without the involvement of those already indoctrinated, when it actively dismisses politics. It is as much because it ignores a key aspect of human nature, the instituted organisation of collective experience (politics), while it inevitably perpetuates concepts with no direct correspondence to facts, such as the decontextualised human.

Bad ethics, those that involve some impossibility of this sort, can only lead to bad politics; politics whose underlying values are not aligned with principles that are based on objectively verifiable constants. About two thousand years of experience filled with egregious injustices suggest as much.