On Human Self Worth - Book index

Just to err on the side of caution, let me preface this with a “Not Safe For Work” notice. Do not start reading out loud. Doubly so if your colleagues are people of esteem, with high moral values.

You were hesitant at first, thinking about the longer term implications. But now that you had sex are expecting a wedding ring. Okay, it may be a bit too early for marriage, but you are already looking for some definitive proof of commitment to the relationship. You muse about true love, “now and ever after”, summer wine, the aroma of roses, the sunset’s reflections in the water, and all the other tropes of tradition and romantic poetry.

I have some bad news for you. Love is not transcendent. It lasts for as long as it does. It might be for a night, a month, a few years, or a lifetime. That is dependent on circumstances, ultimately tracing their cause to biology. You see, physical attraction is the epiphenomenon. What is actually set in motion is a series of events that change the degrees of certain substances in the body in relation to learned patterns of social interaction. I defer to chemists and psychologists for the details. What basically appears to be the case is that we experience a change in our body’s equilibrium, which throws us off balance, as it were, and we start perceiving things in a distorted way; seeing the other with rose-tainted glasses.

You know that feeling when you first think of someone as beautiful, kind-hearted, sweet, and the like. There are no flaws. Love at first sight is the equivalent of poor eyesight. It is akin to feeling angry: you do not think clearly, your perception is twisted. The beautified view changes after a while, once the inner equilibrium is restored. Prima facie you were attractive. Now that normality has returned other fields of endeavour demand attention.

Love is typically thought of as a permanent feeling. Whereas love at first sight is considered a passion. To its credit, this distinction recognises the physical impulse that is a passion. Perhaps, then, permanent love is a learned passion. An adaptation to what once was the abnormal and has now become the new normal.

At any rate, these things happen outside our control. Do not fool yourself. Your mood is contingent on your chemistry. You cannot just fall in love if there is no underlying reaction that triggers the concatenation of events we understand as, or associate with, affection.

It is pointless to speak of the natural condition in terms of good or bad. It is. The normative value we attach to it does not affect it. A society may unanimously decide to banish breathing, out of concern for the carbon it emits or the oxygen it consumes. Good for them to care about such things. The only problem is that nature is mind-independent. We can only influence those items that are contingent on human thought and action; on human institution. The rest is outside the reach of our conventions.

Back to love and its meta-narratives. We have forced ourselves into this social mould where we pretend to love once. Similar to the futile task of prohibiting the respiratory system, our pretenses about love’s pureness will eventually be confronted with reality. At which point we call the lawyer to prepare the paperwork for the divorce.

If a great number of marriages break up, and if those who remain in tact are for reasons other than pure love, then we might as well not exert this immense pressure on ourselves. Yes, I am talking about taking love at face value. Living the moment.

Of course, there are good reasons not to be frivolous and to have checks in place; reasons that relate to social organisation, public health and welfare, or else politics. For instance, it would be irresponsible to impregnate women and let them face motherhood on their own. They would suffer. The children would have a hard time. Society would struggle to cope with the likely surplus of orphans, and so on.

But that is not the point here. I am referring to the pretenses we maintain about an element of human relationships that is presumed as eternal. If it really is, then it does not need to be instituted as such. So it is not. And we tacitly acknowledge that. For while we preach the ostensible transcendence of true love we also meticulously take all necessary measures to treat it just like any other possession: subject to constraints that create scarcity, or else exclusivity.

Striped of its theological underpinnings, marriage is an institution that entails rights and obligations. It is a cultural-legal instrument that works just like property rights. At best, a mutual claim of ownership. At worst, guarantees for sex on demand by the dominant party to the relationship.

Then there is the dishonesty towards ourselves, which we consider part of our moral code. When you are not in a relationship it is permissible to follow your biology. You feel attraction and act accordingly, perhaps within the confines of what is socially permissible, though such constraints can be defied with ease. But here is the catch: nature does not care about social norms. You will continue to feel attraction even after you engage in a relationship. Maybe to a lesser degree because you feel more attracted to your original/current love. Yet the point stands. Your body did not change all of a sudden, just because you adopted this misbegotten notion that love falls within the domain of private property.

You know what else is outside our control, just because nature does not care about our vanity? Findings ways to satisfy the instincts, such as by conforming to the role of the romantic lover until you get laid. For that is what happens all the time. Do you really believe that you dinned together out of a common gastronomical interest that is an end in itself? Or that you spent half an hour looking at the swans in the pond due to an inclination for ornithology or something? How about those sudden shifts in music preferences and the newfound interests in literature and cinematography? Yes, you guessed it.

Now let me generalise a bit, as this article is actually not about your sexual adventures. I do not care about you, nor will I come to your party. Where I am going with this is at the tendency human has to consistently entertain false beliefs, despite piles of evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, it is baffling how we find it desirable to maintain moral rules that directly contradict our nature.

Love is not the only area where we prefer to remain delusional. Think about the “true patriot” who dies on the battlefield to protect the establishment, expecting the afterlife as a reward as well as post-death recognition of their heroism. How convenient it must be for the extractive classes to perpetuate this idea that it is desirable to disregard present injustices for a vastly superior life after life—and heroes reserve a special spot there. What? You say it is an unverifiable promise? An expedient lie just to get things done and move on? Of course it is. Like claiming that you will 100% love someone for eternity and you will have eyes for no other. Which is true until the day it is not.

I would speculate that the fundamental reason for maintaining this stance is our commitment to a rather strong version of free will. You act out of your own volition and must assume responsibility for the consequences of your actions. The stronger the type of free will a society believes in, the greater the responsibility each choice carries. Absolute freedom entails absolute responsibility; the reverse of which is absolute punishment. The reason I make this connection is because we insist on preserving the perverse elements of our moral code. The belief is that we can defy nature exactly because of our free will and, therefore, there can be no constraints on what our morality may demand.

Free will is perceived as this bastion of true self that kind of toils against the forces of the natural order, the temptations, the instincts, to maintain its truthfulness. Which is to say that free will is considered transcendent and that you are your true self regardless of the world around you. Variants of this worldview are the theories about the body-soul divide, the eternity of the soul, reincarnation, the afterlife, and so on.

Yet there is no indication whatsoever that there is a kernel of true self that is immune to the forces of probabilistic cause and effect. This is just whimsy perpetuated through the centuries.

Let’s get naive determinism out of the way: the inattentive observer thinks that lighting a match and throwing it in a hay stack is the cause of the resulting fire. In fact, there is a whole host of factors at play, such as the level of humidity in the local atmosphere, the speed of the wind, the condition of the hay and of the match so that both are good fire conductors (e.g. they are not wet), and so on.

Complex systems cannot be understood in simplistic linear terms of A causes B. Same with humans. We are a function of internal processes and external stimuli. The internal/external divide is conceptual, for the system of interlinked factors we conceive as human organism is but a set of emergent subsystems within the broader ecosystem, and so on. We may not be able to draw a straight line from the original cause to the epiphenomenon, say, the feeling of love. But we can study these interconnected variables to discern patterns and draw further conclusions. They are there, not in some spurious ‘domain’ of the transcendent.

What we perceive as free will, the ability to choose and plan ahead, might just as well be a dynamic function of feedback loops with possible outcomes traced to said subsystems, which is not unique to humans as it is found in animals and even plants. At any rate, that is a matter of objective research, not mystical mumbo jumbo.

I call this bundle of beliefs on the ostensible transcendence of self, the “decontextualised human”. Conceived as a being as such, perhaps trapped within an ephemeral vessel, but an absolute self nonetheless that is not decisively influenced, indeed moulded and determined, by their environment. In this case, the environment also includes human relations, for they too present external stimuli. The decontextualised human is one of our society’s most deep seated convictions, underpinning everything from social policy, to the content of laws, the way courts deliver justice, and prisons are organised.

Reconsidering our values would do us good. Reduce the disconnect between who we are and who we think we are. No more stressing about our inability to control forces that exist outside the purview of our “free will” or social order in general. No need to maintain this facade of righteousness, the underlying hypocrisy of much of our moral code and values.

Oh, you think you committed the same sin again. You must be admonished for your immorality! But what if the very notion of considering a natural condition sinful is the problem in the first place?

Nature is. There is no good-bad divide therein. A realignment of priorities and beliefs is in order.