Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Compassion of Subjectivism...

I just had an interesting conversation with a close friend, and probably much to her regret in retrospect, about evaluating people based on their religion/philosophy. Now, to put things in context, a reader would do well to know that my friend is an atheist and I'm somewhat agnostic. And interestingly enough, I think the way we each approached the conversation is probably fairly indicative of our similar, yet differing, views on religion.

The discussion came out of a story I was relating to her regarding a group of classmates from junior high who had decided to involve themselves in some self-made Wiccan/magic circle. I was having a good laugh about it, in part, because I believe a large part of it was directly due to them viewing "The Craft" (a movie that I actually somewhat like by the way), but also because I felt that it reflected a kind of special comparative ignorance to make a semi-religious move like that. Now, this point wasn't made in order to try to apply some interpersonal value on religion. I'm fairly respectful of all religions, even though I feel many followers of them are blindly led by their convictions. But given that both my friend and myself ascribe a kind of primitively mystic value to most religions, we were both approaching things from a point of view where both Wicca and Christianity are equally ridiculous from a religious perspective.

The conflict, if you can really call it that, arose when I made the assertion, upon being questioned, that I felt that rejecting the religion of your upbringing and replacing it with an equally ridiculous belief made those people even more silly than people who simply continue to accept the religion of their upbringing by default. She disagreed, making the claim that they were equally stupid feats. Now, I know it seems like we're being overly-critical of various religious beliefs here, but please know, at least on my part, my intentions were not to trample on the things other people hold sacred. Religion is a personal thing and I would never begrudge anyone for it. I'll admit that at first, I thought that her general disregard for religion as an atheist was causing her to mask her own view with personal prejudice. But when I started to think about what she was saying, I realized that what I was feeling and relating was actually a fairly new perspective for me...if you would have asked me five years ago, I probably would have agreed with her.

What's happened, over time, is that I've adopted a very Misesian view of human thought. And because of that, I think my approach to those kinds of judgement calls have been more subjectivist in nature. See, I think her view of those two different examples of people come from the belief that essentially a person believing in one form of mysticism equals a person believing in another form of mysticism...and this view is primarily anchored in the equating of the two religious beliefs. But what I think she was missing, and what really grabbed me right off the bat having been familiar with Mises' work, is that the adoption of religious beliefs does not have quantitatively equal value between two different people; that regarding the personal judgement of one's character or actions, they really aren't likely to be subjectively equal between two people because the people themselves aren't equal.

I know I'm probably doing a poor job of explaining this, but consider the following; Let's say you have a situation in which a mentally handicapped person is working as a janitor at a restaurant, and you also have a highly intelligent person who has graduated from MIT with a doctorate in Computer Science also working as a janitor. Now, we know that value is ultimately subjective, so there is no right or wrong, I believe, in this answer. But, in general, would we be more likely to criticize the mentally handicapped person for the position he's achieved or the MIT grad? I think we would mostly agree that the MIT grad is worthy of more general criticism because he's seemingly wasting a large degree of productive capacity, which may not be true of the handicapped person. In this instance, we can understand a subjectively ordinal view regarding the character of each person, even though ultimately they hold the same position.

Much in the same way, I think we can come to different conclusions regarding young people who cling to their beliefs by default and those who choose a new religion. I pointed out that I felt that anyone who is willing to rationally, in the Misesian sense, choose a new religion is at a very different place mentally than someone who never approaches such a point in their life. Without digging too deeply into it, I feel that being able to rationally decide that your previous beliefs were inadequate and to act insofar as to adopt new ones indicates a cognitive capacity for introspection and critical re-evaluation. On the other hand, and in a way I actually believe I'm the one being much more malicious here, I believe there are people that never reach the mental plateau where real philosophical re-evaluation is possible, and simply continue to live their lives with the religion, culture, and traditions that have been passed down to them by their family and society. Now, to be perfectly fair, there are obviously a good amount of people that do rationally re-evaluate their beliefs in a very real way and continue down the path they were on before regardless. But we must also remember, in this particular example, that we are talking about young teens who may not have hit such a point yet.

My general argument was that I feel I could be more highly critical of a person who I believe has a greater capacity to make correct choices and yet continues to make bad ones than someone who has a much more limited capacity and continues to make bad choices based on that circumstance. And so, given the views my friend and I have regarding most religions, I really felt that someone capable of re-evaluating their religious preference who simply chooses an equally silly religious preference is not on par with a person who may not really have the cognitive capacity to do either. My friend, having the black heart that she does, says that I was trying to be too empathetic.

Maybe there's compassion in subjectivism after all...

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