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Leaving the World a Better Place

David Cowles

Feb 22, 2024

“Wanting to leave the world a better place testifies to good intentions, but…it doesn’t cover the cost of a latte at Starbucks.”

Once upon a time, everyone knew exactly what to do. It was written out for you: in the Bible, on your family’s refrigerator door, and on the blackboard at school. Doing these things was good; not doing them was bad. Life was simple.

Then God died. (Or, same, same, you went off to college.) Suddenly, rules became suggestions and behavior became arbitrary. Without God, or an acceptable substitute, the world seems devoid of meaning, and actions apparently lack purpose. In haste to free ourselves from rigid, rule-based morality and, of course, from God, we have painted ourselves into a bit of a corner:

If nothing has any meaning, why do anything at all? Or, if we can’t ‘not do’ something, why choose to do one thing instead of another?

Purposeful action is intentional. Intention intends, selectively. The formation of intentions presupposes relevant values. Every intention, often unknowingly, embodies a complex of values. Intent begins with an assessment of ‘what is’ from the vantage point of ‘what ought’ to be (value); action is an attempt to move the ‘is’ closer to the ‘ought’ – i.e., to make the world a ‘better’ place (value).

But there is no more ‘ought’! If I choose to do X, knowing I could have done Y, I have made a decision. That decision could be unconscious and random, or conscious but random, or conscious and intentional. Intent implies goal, and goal implies value. 

Nietzsche laid the ground rules: No values, no right actions! Caught out, world-class philosophers began tripping over themselves to manufacture a secular ethics to deal with this hole in the soul of philosophy. How can I resolve the ‘value paradox’ (above) without letting anything transcendental, or ‘God’ forbid, supernatural into the tent?

To replace the ancient trifecta of divine values (Beauty, Truth & Justice), A.J. Ayer proposed kindness, Camus - variety, Marx - equality. All fail, not because there is anything wrong with these ‘values’ per se, but because they are in fact values and a ‘value’ can only be a normative if it is transcendent. But per Nietzsche, nothing transcends the world; therefore, there can be no ‘values’ worthy of the concept. 

The moral rigor of Nietzsche devolved into a century of ‘bad faith’ – a proliferation of subjective tastes intended to take the place of now forbidden, objective values. To state the challenge simply, now that there’s no God, and therefore no duty, how do I get myself out of bed in the morning?

Perhaps because “I want to leave the world better than I found it?” How laudable! And innocuous. Who could disagree? Who wouldn’t want a better world? But for that very reason, it’s a tautology. Wanting X and X being ‘better’ are synonymous. I designate X as ‘better’ by wanting it.

No one wants ‘what’s worse’. Worse, perhaps in some aspect or for some period of time, but not ‘net worse’ overall? No way! So ‘wanting to leave the world better than I found it’ is denotatively identical to ‘wanting to live in the world as long as possible’. 

But even so, there are problems:

  • How do we define ‘better’? What makes one world better than another? Will everyone agree that World A is ‘better’ than World B? Is 2024 ‘better’ than 1924?

  • How do we measure ‘better’? Immediately better or better long term? How long-term?  A day, a decade, a millennium, the cosmic lifespan? And how would we measure that?

  • And who qualifies as ‘everyone’? – white males, living in the US and owning real property there? Or every human being on the face of the earth? Or every human being who will ever live on Earth? All primates? All mammals? All organisms? 

  • What about ET, inorganic matter, and our silicon-based cousins, our Bots?

Not enough for you? Ok, then try this: how do you connect any given action with any desired result? I’d like to reduce my carbon footprint, so I facilitate the development of alternative energy sources, only to find out years later that these alternatives have consequences much more harmful than the greenhouse gasses they were intended to reduce.

Kierkegaard was right: every action is a leap in the dark! The world being how it is, and inertia being inertia, results often do seem to mirror intentions, even if imperfectly. But does this mean that the intentional acts caused those results? Correlation is not necessarily causation (Hume). 

In an earlier age, ‘doing the right thing’ was often incompatible with ‘living a long life’: Only the good die young. Consider the martyrs and the heroes. Consider those who ‘laid down their lives for a friend’. In that world, value might find itself in conflict with life itself, and sometimes value wins out.

Less so today! Without a robust notion of ‘value’, we are less inclined to self-sacrifice. The quantity of my life (longevity) has replaced the quality of all life (virtue) as the preferred measure of any action. 

‘Wanting to leave the world a better place’ testifies to good intentions, but only ‘good intentions’; it doesn’t cover the cost of a latte at Starbucks. It’s no guide to ‘right action’. Virtue may be found only in the act itself, including just its immediate, hardwired consequences – what Alfred North Whitehead called the event’s satisfaction, which in turn functions as the event’s objective immortality in the world. And beyond the event itself? “Here there be monsters!” 

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