I love looking at the moon and knowing that we’ve been there.
Archive for December 2004
I met Kenny on a lonely Tuesday afternoon. I had already checked all my favorite websites once…twice…three times. Business was slow in the Final Fantasy VII chatroom. It was so slow, in fact, that I was the only one there. I was experimenting with the limits of the digital world. I would scroll the chat window up and down and up and down and randomly highlight and un-highlight swaths of text. When I accidentally tried to highlight something that was already highlighted, the text would get discombobulated. Then, I would get discombobulated.
I was trying hard to remember what I had been too busy to do the month before when Kenny entered the room. His screen name was “Sephiroth,” FFVII’s arch-villain. He wanted to know if the secret ending rumor had been substantiated yet. I said it hadn’t, but given the luck of American fans, it probably wouldn’t make it to the American version even if it did exist. That disappointed him. “Oh, well,” he said. “At least it’ll be more mature than the previous versions. I’m getting older, and I want something edgier. I want to branch out, to get really emotionally involved in the story. I want some symbolism.”
Symbolism? I’d already liked him because he used correct grammar and didn’t have numbers trailing off his name, but now, he was awesome. I didn’t know what symbolism was at the time, but it sounded magical. It sounded like a train of Buddhist monks wandering through a misty jungle, singing hymns and probing the greatest mysteries of the universe. It sounded like the spire of a Gothic cathedral. It sounded like this wouldn’t be a lonely afternoon, after all.
Kenny told me that he was 16 years old. This made him incredibly mature in my mind. He lived in California, which meant he must spend all his time surfing. “Surfing the web,” he replied, which inspired an “LOL!” on my part. His favorite hobby was building up his characters in online role-playing games. He told me about the hundreds of hours he’d invested to make his characters truly powerful. One character could control the dead; another was a beefcake; a third was a merchant. I was jealous. It didn’t matter that he neglected his homework and rarely went outside because he had really made something of himself in the world. Clearly, his parents understood something which mine didn’t. I was honored that he would talk to me.
We talked a lot about our favorite games. We compared our favorite characters and regaled tales of building our heroes up to Level 99 just for the fun of it. We shared trivia. Where had Banon had gone in the second half of Final Fantasy VI? Why did both Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI have geographic regions called “Baron”? What about the Final Fantasies that hadn’t been released in America? How excellent must they be? What kind of maturity, what kind of symbolism were we losing when the games were translated from Japanese to English?
We talked about the outside world briefly. It didn’t have much importance for either of us. He wouldn’t know or care which girls I had crushes on, after all, and didn’t play for any sports teams. Whatever homework he was doing was far beyond me.
Eventually, I had to go upstairs to eat dinner. I gave him my ICQ number. (In those days, it was much more popular than AOL Instant Messenger). Then, I wished him well. I hoped that I would see him again.
And I most certainly did. He never seemed to go offline. I didn’t get to see my friends in real life very often, so it was very comforting to have someone around who never went away. He was always willing to listen to my problems, and he always cared about how I was doing.
He reminded me a lot of my previous best friend, Brian. Brian and I had been inseparable. We always played games together and slept over at each other’s houses. He was a lot cooler than I was. I wondered why he spent so much time with me, but I didn’t complain. He was just a great guy. I’ve always hoped his friends in Michigan appreciate him as much as I did.
When Brian and I got sick of playing pre-programmed games, we would create games of our own. We’d have the battles, the experience points, and the plot. (Well, the plots weren’t as good.) We had a great time. Brian was very loose with the conventions of the genre, and he loved his jokes. I was the straight man, always hoping to play by the rules. We were equally imaginative. Just like generations of boys before us, we were knights in shining armor, out slaying dragons. Unlike them, our heroes were pixelated.
Kenny and I made our own role-playing games, as well. Owing to his advanced age, however, my friend held the creative controls. He would always make the rules and create the plot. I was the hero who had to navigate the dungeons and slay the demons. He was the dungeons and the demons.
At first, it was exhilarating. The text-based nature of the Internet gave us a lot more freedom with descriptions and with remembering what had happened before. (Brian and I would sometimes go halfway through a dungeon and then forget why we were there, sending the plot flying off in another direction.) We could play for hours on end, and the setting of the sun didn’t stop us as it had stopped Brian and me.
Kenny had a great imagination. He was always imagining more grotesque demons and desperate situations. When we started, I was saving village girls from collapsing houses and fighting off headless horsemen. Then, I was saving the village girls from bloodthirsty dragons. Later, I found out that the dragons had already eaten the girls’ fathers. In fact, the horsemen had summoned the dragons because of a longstanding grudge against the other men of the village!
The farther I got into Kenny’s story, the more I wondered why I was saving the villagers at all. The girls were deceitful and vindictive. They’d pretend to love me and then toss me aside. The fathers were abusive drunkards. I’d walk into houses and see mothers who had lost their minds, who were rocking back and forth and staring at the fire because of a miscarriage they’d had some time ago.
The situations in which I found myself were more and more impossible. Kenny’s villains would break the laws of physics. They would teleport to avoid my hits, or they’d fly though they didn’t have wings. I started to actually lose battles. For the “Game Over” screen, I’d have to watch the town I was saving burn to the ground. The first time that happened, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about what I could have done differently and about the blood that was now on my hands.
Kenny said that I shouldn’t take it seriously. I could have screamed at him after that. How could he create these stories and then toss them off like they were nothing? In my reading for school, the death of the family dog was a tragedy. There weren’t any dogs in Kenny’s world except for the kind who had three heads and ate people’s hearts. I wanted to ask my friend to back off on the realism, but I didn’t want him to think I was a little kid. I also didn’t want to ruin the symbolism in his stories, as macabre as it was.
One day, his villain, Sephiroth, took a beautiful, long-haired girl hostage. I had to follow Sephiroth into his palace of ice deep below the earth. “I’ve done this one before,” I thought. It would be easy. I’d have to cut through Cerberus. He’d have some human organ hanging out of his mouth, I was sure. Next, I would contend with the nine Furies, who wielded vengeance and shed tears of blood. Finally, there would be a grotesque ogre with some combination of eyes and arms which added up to the number 16. After defeating these preliminary foes, I would have to contend with Sephiroth himself. Kenny’s incarnation of the character didn’t stray far from the game model. He had long, gray hair, sad eyes, and a sword that was bigger than my body. Near the end, he would break into angelic form and would smash a few planets while trying to bring about my doom.
The preliminary battles were much easier than I anticipated. Cerberus easily fell, and I dispatched the Furies two at a time. Kenny didn’t take much time for artistic flourishes, and he didn’t bend the rules as much. The ogre battle was the easiest of all. My opponent had sixteen eyes and no arms. I was happy for the break, but I was also suspicious.
The doors were open inside the ice palace. The place was eerily silent, and Kenny made sure I knew it. “Your footsteps carom through the chambers. You can hear your heart beating. Was that the motion of the earth that you just felt? …No, that can’t be…”
The description for the throne room was much different than what I remembered. Before, there had always been beautiful upholstery and sumptuous regal chairs. Now, there was nothing but a stone altar. Strapped to the altar was the girl I had to save. She was unconscious.
“Well, well, well,” said Sephiroth. “I’ve been waiting for you to come here. You think you’ll save her, do you?”
“Of course I will,” I replied. “I wouldn’t let a sick freak like you touch her. Prepare to feel the justice that flows from my sword!”
“Justice?” he replied. “But what is justice?”
“It’s…it’s…it’s getting your just rewards. When you do good, you receive good in return. When you do evil, evil happens to you.”
“Oh. I see how it is.” He strode around the altar. “I’m the bad guy, and you’re the good guy. You’re supposed to kill me and save this young, sweet, innocent, extremely beautiful girl who has been calling your name for the last couple days. That is justice? That is how it must be?”
“That’s right.” I walked towards the altar, my hand on the hilt of my sword. “I have to save her, and I will. If I don’t, I’ll have failed.”
“Oh! But…perhaps you were mistaken!” A raspy, ugly laugh came from Sephiroth. “Come on, let’s see you save her!”
The girl woke up and screamed for me. I dashed across the room towards the altar. Sephiroth tossed me aside with a shockwave. Then, he drew a stone knife from his belt and cut the girl’s throat.
Finally, I reached the altar. Sephiroth meant nothing to me now. I looked down into the girl’s eyes. I saw tears and an accusatory expression. I checked her for a pulse. There was none.
“You,..you…” By now, I was shaking with anger. I was even having trouble typing.
“What’s wrong?” said Sephiroth, who was now floating above me.
“YOU BROKE THE RULES, KENNY!!!11 I NEVER HAD A CHANCE! YOU JUST KILLED HER IN COLD BLOOD! THAT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HAPPEN!”
“Oh, no, it’s not me! You failed! You should have cut off my speech earlier or anticipated my blow! She died, and it’s your fault for not saving her! Where is your justice now?”
“WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM? IT’S ALWAYS DEATH WITH YOU!”
“And why not? …I’m not long for this world, Will. Don’t you realize that? No, no. You’re too far gone in your own life to realize it. You didn’t realize the symbolism. You didn’t care about it. Soon, I’m going to be dead. Not Sephiroth. Me.”
Kenny had already left the chat room. I was speaking to air. I never felt so shocked and guilty in my life.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around. My father was looking at me. His eyebrows were crinkled with concern.
“What’s the problem, Son? You didn’t even see me come down here.”
“It’s just…it’s Kenny,” I replied. I closed all my windows and stared at the wall. “We were, uh, playing this game, and he was cheating.”
“Well, that’s not fair. These games are built on trust. If one person pulls out, nothing else works.”
“I guess. I just hope that I didn’t cause it.”
“Well, did you cheat first?”
“No…I, uh…I can’t remember doing anything wrong.”
“If you can’t remember, then don’t think you did. And don’t be so quick to hold yourself responsible for what he does.”
“Uh…okay. Thanks Dad.”
“And you should get to bed now. It’s getting late.”
“Okay. I will.” I shut off the computer. “Thanks, Dad.”
“No problem, Son.” He gave me a hug. I still didn’t look at him. Good night to you.”
I wanted to talk to Kenny about what my Dad had said, but we never got the chance. After that, he wasn’t in the mood for any more games. He wasn’t in the mood for much at all. When I asked him what was wrong, he complained about his characters in his other RPGs and how they were falling behind. He also mentioned that his parents were gone, and he was lonely. “Well, at least we’ve got each other,” I replied. Ten minutes later, he responded. “…Yeah.”
The next day, I got the nerve to ask Kenny about why he was dying soon. At first, he told me had a disease, but his symptoms kept changing. Then, he said it was the recent death of his dog. Finally, when I was up past my bedtime because Dad hadn’t come home yet, Kenny admitted that everything he’d said before wasn’t true. The truth was that he was depressed, and he was thinking about suicide.
I’d thought about suicide before in brief moments. The concept would enter my head, and I’d say “No, no, no, no” and banish it lest the devil take over me. I never thought about actually doing it. It seemed horrible. It seemed incomprehensible.
Apparently, Kenny found it comprehensible. He really seemed to hate his life so much that he didn’t want it to continue. I desperately didn’t want it to happen. I thought that since we were so close, I could save him. I had to save him. It was my duty.
First, I asked him about psychological counseling. He said he couldn’t afford it. He had tried the school counselor, but she was a fool who didn’t understand at all. I asked if his parents could help, and he said they were too busy with work to do it. “What about your friends in real life?” “I don’t have any.”
I told him that life was beautiful and there were plenty of opportunities in it. He said there weren’t. I told him that a girl would fix the problem, and he said that one would, but none spoke to him. I asked him to open up, and he said it wasn’t in his character. I noted that suicide would hurt, and he replied that life hurt even more. The farther I dug into Kenny’s psyche, the more hopeless I became. Every night, my parents had to yell at me to get me off the computer. Every day at school, I was groggy and inattentive. I thought it was worth it as long as Kenny was still alive.
One day, he was particularly slow with his replies. He said that the rainstorm in his hometown was becoming a tempest. His town had been declared a disaster area. The roads were flooding, and families were leaving. He couldn’t leave because his parents were out of town. He wouldn’t leave because he wanted to stay close to his video games.
That night, I put off my homework until ten o’clock because I wanted so badly for Kenny to save himself. When I finally got to it, it was because Kenny had suddenly signed offline and hadn’t returned. I prayed that he hadn’t lost electricity to his house and that he would survive the night.
When he returned a week later, Kenny didn’t talk about the storm, but he still had plenty of problems. First, he overdosed on pills, and an ambulance came to pick him up. Another time, his father signed on and told me that Kenny was in the hospital recuperating from throwing himself off a building. And one night, while I was online, he’d finally decided (for the third time) that enough was enough. At 8:00 PM, he was going to stab himself to death.
I was frantic. I wrote paragraphs and paragraphs imploring him not to do it. I prayed and pasted poetry in my window. I frantically asked my other online friends to talk him out of it. They did their best, but they didn’t do well enough. At 7:50, he put up this away message:
R. I. P.
I stumbled upstairs, tears in my eyes. Dad saw me, got up from the couch, and took me in his arms.
“Kenny’s dead,” I bleated.
“What?! How do you know that?”
“It said so on his away message. He committed suicide.”
“Oh…uh huh…that’s odd.”
“It’s just that…that…I worked so hard.”
“To what, to keep him alive?”
“Yeah. And now, I feel like it’s…it’s my fault.”
“That’s bullshit.” I gasped. He grabbed my shoulders and jerked me backwards so he could look straight in his eyes. I couldn’t ignore him any longer. “I can’t believe that prick made you think that. Even after I said you shouldn’t let him. You didn’t have a damn thing to do with it. Who stuck the knife in his body?”
“Who decided to do that?”
“…he did!” I was starting to get the hang of it.
“That’s right. He decided to do it, and it’s his responsibility. And he’s taken you hostage. Have you heard of a hostage situation?”
“Yeah! It’s where you take someone, and you say they’re going to kill them unless someone else does what you want…”
“Right. And if you don’t do what they want, then somehow, and they kill the hostage, then it’s supposed to be your fault.”
“Wait, hold on, let me explain it. It is, but it isn’t. They want you to think that they died because of something you did. But they’re the ones who killed the hostage. The blood is on their hands.”
“…Oh…um…yeah…” At this point, my mind was working furiously. “Hm…thanks Dad…I’ll think about it…can I go to bed now?”
He smiled. “But it’s so early!”
“Oh…right…well, I’ll go get some ice cream, then.”
“Oh!” he seemed a bit disappointed. “Well, um. Okay. I’ll go get some from the fridge.”
Dad gave me a great speech, but I was still disconsolate. Perhaps, Kenny’s death wasn’t my fault, but he was still dead. Each night, I prayed for his soul up in heaven. Each day, I avoided the computer. I even unplugged it. I was too frightened. I didn’t want any of the evil to seep into me.
Eventually, I couldn’t put off my biology rough draft any longer. With a heavy heart, and with prickles all over my skin, I signed on. I turned my head away so the blood wouldn’t splash all over the screen.
Kenny was there. Was it a mistake? Was it a ghost? I stared at my buddy list for a long, long ten seconds. Then he sent me a message. I jumped.
“I was wondering where you were. I almost started to lose heart…”
“WHY AREN’T YOU DEAD?”
“Well, I tried…but I missed with the knife. It’s a lot harder than you’d think…”
From top to bottom of my buddy list, I sent the messages. “HE MISSED WITH THE KNIFE!!!” Within seconds, the replies came back. I was expecting fountains of joy and happiness. Instead, I drank from the bitter fountain of sarcasm. Apparently, missing yourself with your own knife is ridiculous. Only a fool would do it.
“In fact,” said one, “He probably never meant it at all.”
And then, I felt the earth moving under me.
Kenny sent reams of beautiful writing explaining his pain. They tasted like ashes in my mouth. It didn’t matter if he was serious or not. In my mind, he was a fraud. The flood? The ambulance? The fall? How could any of these be real? He had taken me hostage. He had nearly ruined my life for a game. He’d said he wouldn’t role-play any more, but he still was. This time, he was playing with people’s lives.
I spit in his face. I told him to go away and to never come back. I blocked him.
For a few days, I was afraid to open my mailbox because I expected desperate emails from him. They didn’t come. I kept staring at his name on the block list and wondering what he was doing.
It wasn’t all good news. The hole in my life which he had filled had only grown wider, and now it was infected. I still couldn’t make any friends at school. Laughing with my other online friends about how much Kenny sucked got old after a while. I had nightmares about the three-headed dogs and the stone altar.
Time flows like a river. A few months ago, I took Kenny off my block list because I figured he was gone forever. The other day, he messaged me. He wanted to know how things were going and whether I was keeping up with my homework. I was polite. I was distant. I had had a lot of questions for him before, but I couldn’t remember any now. I could only think about the altar and the away message, and I didn’t want to get into it that day. Nor did he. After a half dozen curt replies, he seemed to comprehend that he wasn’t wanted. He pretended that he had to go. Then, he was gone.
Who is Kenny? What is he? Before, he was everything to me. He helped to shape my life. I certainly couldn’t trust anyone as much after that. I never think about him, though. He’s just an interesting bit of trivia, like the Baron landmasses in the Final Fantasy games. Come to think of it, so is Brian. I suppose that’s the way it is with childhood friends. They’re everything, or they’re nothing, and there’s nowhere in between. We’re just wandering from village to village, saving people in one and then moving on to the next before we get too comfortable. And so it goes, and so it goes.
I always feel an uncomfortable twinge when people say my name, especially when they’re addressing me personally or calling out my name for some award. I’ve always thought that was strange since some people are so quick to plaster their names on buildings (Napoleon, Alexander the Great, etc.) Screen names might have something to do with it. I’ve spent a lot of my life as “JM Stalker” and “Rooks” and “Crono2134,” so “James” will never be the whole story. In the early days of the Internet, one’s real name was a deep, dark secret, a prized possession which could be ignored – or even forgotten.
That might not be it, however. Perhaps, there is something immortal and unfathomable about me which cannot I cannot communicate with any name, which must simply be felt. I think everyone wants to be understood in that way. We don’t want to be a set of adjectives – we want to be.
We want to be strong so that we will do well in this world. In our relationships, however, what we most secretly want is the freedom to be weak. We want a place to hang up the weapons of war and rest for a while.
When do we know that we have found a safe house, however? When do we know we can depend on someone? We often err in this department. Either we wear too much armor or too little. The results can be tragic. Sometimes, our hearts die from lack of love; sometimes, they die because the ones we loved weren’t true.
What is the answer to this troubling problem? Well, there is certainly no vaccine for it. We can always be hurt, and we can always hurt others. It’s part of being human. I have found, however, that the greatest resource we have is God. He is indestructible, and He always loves us. We may be untrue, but God is not. I have not yet known Him to abandon me or anyone else. We may have to wait a long time, but eventually, He comes. Indeed, He seems more real during a catastrophe than ever before.
Really, it makes perfect sense. God, after all, knew us completely before our earthly parents called us Joe or Amy. He understands us better than we understand ourselves, which is comforting because I don’t know myself very well. Before Him, we are naked and nameless, yet we are loved more than ever. It’s counterintuitive. It’s difficult to accept. But it’s beautiful.
Humility is not a peripheral issue. It is not a social balancing act. Being humble is not about telling your admirers that you really aren’t that awesome, and it’s not about calling your performances “OK” instead of “great” when they really were great. It’s not external; it’s internal. It’s a way of life.
I was once very confused about humility. I didn’t understand how a humble person could be confident in his abilities and proud of his work. I would catch myself thinking I was the most intelligent person in the room and compensate by then thinking of myself as the least intelligent. Little did I realize that I shouldn’t have compared myself to the others at all.
Carmel High School is all about the numbers: student body, class rank, GPA, SATs, test scores, student ID number. To me, each person was not just a name but a series of numbers which I compared to my own. I loved all my friends, certainly. The more I got to know them, the less the numbers mattered. (The less competitive we were, the less the numbers mattered, as well.) Yet, there was always another battle to fight.
At Duke, I realized that the numbers didn’t apply anymore. We all had different GPAs and test scores, but most importantly, we’d all gotten there. I knew that every single person in my classes was intelligent, and they proved it whenever they spoke. We all had different majors, and we were all going different places, so there was nothing for which we had to compete.
Most importantly, I realized that my fellow classmates and professors, regardless of their opinions, were not my rivals; rather, they were my friends and fellow travelers on the road to truth. It didn’t matter if my beliefs were “right” if I couldn’t support them, and furthermore, if they weren’t right, I would be a fool to continue believing in them. Also, I noted that intelligent disagreement is possible. I couldn’t prove that God existed or that capitalism is the best economic system. Furthermore, when discussing opposing viewpoints, I had to give fair and accurate portrayals of both, or I would look like a fool.
My first semester was very humbling. At the same time, it was liberating. I discovered that I don’t have all the answers and that I never will. My knowledge of the truth proportionate to the truth itself is like a molecule of rubber on the top of the RCA Dome. It is pointless to base my self-worth on comparisons to others because I am different from everyone else. I don’t know how to fix a car. I feel inadequate whenever I walk into an auto shop. So, why should I think I’m a better person than a car mechanic?
I’m never going to be perfect. There will always be ugly parts of me. When people point out these errors, I’ll try not to be offended, though; instead, I’ll try to change. A criticism of one of my papers or stories is not an attack on me. Even editing a paper requires humility, for we must truly believe that not everything that comes from our pens is infallible. (That’s why I’ve turned in many rough drafts before.) Finding the truth is more important than being right.
We Christians that all the time that we aren’t deserving of everlasting life. Do we really believe it? I do. I sin, and that is enough. There is nothing I can do to obligate God to give me eternal happiness. I live on this earth at his leisure. I have no entitlements. This is not an expression of guilt but an objective appraisal of my imperfection and how infinitely far it is from perfection.
If we hope to contribute to this world at all, we must be humble. It touches every part of our lives: learning, work, relationships, religion. We won’t always get it right. I’ll probably make another dumb, presumptuous post some time in the next month. Once in a while, though, the sun breaks through. When it does, it is sublime. One minute of goodness lives longer in our memories than do a thousand hours of evil.
Whenever summer or winter get serious, I start thinking about whether I would rather burn to death or freeze to death. I always pick the one I’m not experiencing at the time.
In 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted that population growth in England would soon outstrip natural resources. Widespread famine would result, and hundreds of thousands would die until resources exceeded the population again. Malthus was wrong, of course, but according to some scholars, the “population bomb” is still ticking. The people of the Third World, they say, don’t know what they’re doing. They keep on having children when they clearly can’t afford them. In the poorest countries in the world, birthrates are the highest.
Scholars suggest that we solve this problem by promoting abortion and contraception in Third World cultures. Some nations had condom Christmas trees. The UN and EU strongly promote “humanitarian” population control policies, as well. Communist China provides the most extreme example of all. In the 1990s, the government had vans which traveled the countryside, aborting second and third children against the mothers’ wills.
In my opinion, such programs are costly, ineffective, and morally wrong. Never fear, however! There is a much simpler and more elegant way to defuse “the population bomb.” It might take some time, but it cannot fail. So, without further ado, I present to you the Richie Rich Population Principle:
The richer you get, the less children you can afford.
Richie Rich is the wealthiest child in the world. Yet, he does not have any brothers and sisters. There are two possible explanations for this: (1) Richie’s mother was too busy pursuing her career to have any more children; (2) putting Richie in the best schools and fulfilling his every desire has been so costly that Richie’s parents don’t want to do it again.
Solution (1) is feasible. There are many couples who do not have children for this reason. We must remember, however, that mothers with many children also work hard, whether it is in the home or in the marketplace. In agrarian societies, farmers’ wives had many children while also working in the fields. The same was true during the Industrial Revolution.
I think that Solution (2) is much more common, however. People in the West think that raising a child is such a big time commitment that they can’t handle more than two. Often, the wife does not work, but she still has only one or two children. In magazine articles and in my own experience, I’m always hearing middle- and upper-class families proclaim that they can’t afford another child, but they can afford another Lexus.
We live in curious times. The people who “can’t” afford to reproduce do. The ones who “can” don’t. Consequently, when the baby boomer generation retires, there will not be enough new workers to replace them. Less people working means less tax revenue. The welfare states (social security, Medicare, etc.) in the U. S. and Europe may not be able to handle the strain. That is the real “population bomb.” I don’t know how we can solve it.
Arguments About Transcendent Moral Principles, Free Will and the Power of Ideas, and Conceptions of SelfDecember 9, 2004
Prompt: Preparation for Final Exam, an open-notes essay test about these three questions.
1. (1) What is the good society? (2) How would we know if one society is better than another? (3) Is there a valid standard of “good” that involves a higher, universal moral principle, or is the only valid standard the subjective welfare of the people in that society? Using specific examples from the reading in the course, make two arguments for, and two arguments against, the existence of transcendant moral principles as standards of the good.
2. (1) How important are ideas, and specific individuals, in explaining long term historical change in human societies? (2) Do ideas matter at all, or are large-scale changes over time simply a consequence of combinations of material forces matched with accident and chance? (3) Is there any such thing as free will? Using specific examples of readings from the class, describe at least four perspectives on this question.
3. (1) Is the highest obligation of the person to him/herself? Or is the highest obligation to the society? If the answer is “it depends,” then on what does it depend? (2) What conception of the “self” is the right one? (3) Can someone be true to oneself, and at the same time be dedicated to serving others? Give at least four different conceptions of the self, and describe the origins of these ideas in the readings for this semester.
I. Transcendent Moral Principles
a. Argument #1 in Favor – Theistic
i. God has made a transcendent moral code. Because God is eternal and unchanging, morality is eternal and unchanging, as well. It transcends all times and cultures.
iv. St. Augustine
v. The Founding Fathers
b. Argument #2 in Favor – Self-Evident Rights
i. Ayn Rand – Infringing upon someone’s rights is always wrong.
iii. Founding Fathers – Unalienable rights endowed by creator.
iv. A law of Nature can be found using Reason. That which is good for human life is good. That which is bad for human life is bad.
c. Argument #1 Against – Materialist
i. Karl Marx. Religion is the opiate of the masses. Communism turns down all truths and all morality and constructs a new order in its place. What is good for a society varies from one stage to another.
ii. Thomas Hobbes. Truth is a social construction. We must agree on our definitions and our first principles and deduct from there on. We cannot derive first principles from nature or from God because we do not have the capacity. Also, the observation of nature is always affected by the character of the observer. Deliberation about good and evil is purely subjective. The kingdom of God is not on this earth and never will be; the sovereign must be the head of religion so that religion and the state will not disagree. Mold theology to fit natural science. Hobbes claims that we can discern God’s will through natural reason, but this contradicts with his claim earlier in Book I of Leviathan that individual perspectives make objective judgment impossible. He has much more evidence for subjective truth than for objective truth.
d. Argument #2 Against – Utilitarian
i. John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham. SATISFACTILES. The right thing to do is whatever procures the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
ii. What makes us happy now? What will make us happy later? Length, breadth, depth. Some pleasures
iii. Your happiness is as good as anyone else’s.
iv. What if God’s will is happiness for everyone?
v. Mankind has gone two thousand years without establishing a set of standards to determine right from wrong. There has been an implicit standard which men have always followed – and that standard is utility.
vi. People like to think that morality is objective fact, but they actually always act on subjective feeling.
vii. Machiavelli – There are objective standards of right and wrong, but the prince must ignore them for the good of the people, damning his own soul to hell. By separating morality and expediency, Machiavelli cripples morality. Your moral code is what you should do. If the prince should ignore transcendent morality for the subjective welfare of the people, isn’t Machiavelli constructing a new, subjective morality?
II. The Power of Ideas/Free Will
a. Argument #1 – Theological Perspective
i. The best ideas have been revealed to us by God. God has given us free will. He knows what we are going to do. He knows what we should do. We can choose to do his will or not. In doing God’s will, we flourish. These ideas do matter. They are life-changing. They are world-changing. Look at Christianity and the effect it has had on the world.
ii. The Second Foundation
v. Augustine – The excellence of the Christian empire.
b. Argument #2 – The Amazing Power of Mankind
i. The Mule and Hari Seldon.
ii. Ayn Rand – Individuals are really cool. An amazing man with amazing talents and amazing ideas can completely alter the course of history.
iii. Niccolo Machiavelli – Humans have robust free will. They can make or break their own destinies. God is not going to come down and save us – we must do the work ourselves.
c. Argument #3 – Materialist
i. Salvor Hardin waited for material forces to win the battle for him.
ii. Man is a billiard ball. It’s cause and effect – everything he does is the result of the things which happened to him before. Therefore, we should pity criminals and put them in hospitals so that they will get better. They say that free will is a total abstraction, and if it were true, chaos would reign. But chaos does not. Free will also causes us shame and guilt because we do wrong. We should not have these feelings. Therefore, ideas have no power. If it wasn’t you, it would have been someone else.
iii. Karl Marx – the dialectic. A thesis squares off with its antithesis, after which a new thesis is created. This new thesis then has to contend with its antithesis, on and on. The sum of appetites and aversions determines human behavior.
iv. Thomas Hobbes – Our ideas and thoughts and so forth are merely the result of the atoms bouncing around in our heads. There are no unmoved movers. Appetite for power, aversion for fear, you name it.
v. Thrasymachus – We cannot say whether any idea is better than any other idea. Justice is completely subjective. History is written by the winners. Justice is whatever is in the interest of the strongest.
d. Argument #4 – Ideas are Viral
i. Religion of Science
ii. Neal Stephenson – Ideas are like viruses. They move from one host to the next very quickly and can successfully disable a society. People have free will, but they do not like to use it. They prefer to do what everyone else is doing. There can only be real change, however, when people break free from their codes and show real personality. Oddly enough, some social institutions safeguard the individual and free will.
2. Hiro Protagonist
3. Y. T.
4. The Snow Crash Virus and Glossolalia
5. Interpretation of Christ’s Teachings
III. Conceptions of Self – Everyone agrees that man must fulfill his nature. But what IS his nature? Dualist perspective VS. Monist perspective.
a. Argument #1 – Ayn Rand
i. Rational Self-Interest
ii. Rejection of Dualism. Galt VS Stadler.
iii. What improves life is good. What is opposed to ife is bad.
iv. Man has no responsibility for others.
v. Man cannot give up his rights. Any infringement upon a person’s rights is morally wrong. In trying to take another person’s rights, you give up your own.
vi. Eudemonia – Every person is made for something.
vii. Mind, not labor, is most important.
viii. I would rather destroy something than let someone else steal it from me.
b. Argument #2 – Hobbes. Human nature is the sum total of appetites and aversions. Man will always do what is best for himself. People construct governments so that they will be able to survive – prudential self-interest. Because the citizens forged the chains, they still have absolute freedom. Same as Rousseau. (No death penalty.)
c. Argument #3 – Aristotle. Man is a rational animal. The right thing to do is the just mean between two extremes. Man should attain wisdom and do what is rational. The family is natural to man, and property is necessary for the family. The state must get the individual things he cannot procure for himself, but above all, it must educate. It can be any form.
d. Argument #4 – Rousseau and Lenin. Mankind would not be fully human without the social contract. Civic involvement is awesome, and people only fulfill their true natures in a state. An individual has NO rights that are above the state. But because everyone has the same status of rights, no one is giving up his freedom. The lawgiver. Monarchy/aristocracy/democracy for day-to-day concerns. Monthly meetings of the whole population. There are no property rights. Since you are a part of the sovereign, you are not giving up your rights. Our freedom in nature is the freedom of animals. Our freedom in the state is the freedom to think rationally. General will VS will of all. From each, to each.
i. Plato also says people need each other.
ii. Some people do not have the capacity for goodness
iii. Abolish private property and family for spiritual good – Plato
iv. Abolish private property and family for material good – Marx
e. Argument #5 – Theological. Man is made to serve the Good. No one is worthy of redemption – no, not one – but by the mercy of God, we can be redeemed. There is a selfish part of our nature, but we can overcome it. (Reason VS Appetite and Temperament). You can be true to yourself while serving others. The strong should carry the weak. The good state is the one in which people are morally virtuous.
f. Argument #6 – Happiness is the basis for man’s actions. People always act on subjective feeling, not objective fact. They try to do what will make them and others happiest. Man is a social being, so people will internalize this standard. This is the philosophy of JS Mill. Adam Smith’s moral philosophy is quite like it, also. He says that people have an impartial spectator which they do not want to disappoint. Mankind has gone two thousand years without establishing a set of standards to determine right from wrong. There has been an implicit standard which men have always followed – and that standard is utility. Human pleasure is much higher than animal pleasure. The function of government is to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Therefore, social welfare programs are encouraged. Your duty is NOT to yourself – your duty is to society. It’s greatest-good for greatest-number, not greatest-good for you. Utilitarians disagree about the question of individual rights. Rights exist for the sake of utility.
g. Argument #7 – People sometimes follow the herd and sometimes think for themselves. They are much better off thinking for themselves. The function of government is to quarantine its people from viruses so that they can function normally. People can choose whichever society they like. Act for yourself, not for others.
Prompt: If an English-speaking person from Mars visited the monuments in Washington, D.C., what would he think of our country?
An English-speaking person from Mars who visited Washington, D. C. to see the monuments would get an intriguing view of America. He would hear nothing about capitalism, democracy, great technological advancements, or the frontier. He would not know that America had a western European cultural base. He would not know that America has a long history of impressive military victories. Nevertheless, he would get a positive, if occasionally confused, picture of the country and its values. He would believe that America was founded on the ideas of enduring greatness, unity within diversity, the value of the individual, freedom, altruism, and reluctance to war.
After seeing the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the World War II Memorial, the alien would note that America wants to be remembered forever for its power. The Washington Monument, an obelisk which towers several hundred feet in the air and which is visible from anywhere in the Mall, is simple, yet stunning. It is an expression of power which is instantly recognizable and not easily forgotten. It needs no excuse for being; it simply is. The enormous replication of President Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial makes him the largest person in all of Washington. The alien would note that Lincoln is neither well-fed nor beautiful; he is a slim, stern man who must have been the most important president in American history. The World War II memorial is sprawling, round, and symmetrical. It would give the alien a sense of peace. He would note that because this memorial is so large, this war must have been pivotal in world history.
We do not know if the alien is coming from a homogeneous or a heterogeneous society. Regardless, he would note from the Lincoln, World War II, Vietnam Women’s, and Korean memorials that this society values both unity and diversity. The Lincoln, Vietnam Women’s, and Korean memorials all feature people of many different races and of both genders. This would show that American citizenship goes beyond race or sex, and that society values all kinds of people equally. The Lincoln and World War II memorials would also emphasize diversity in a different way: they both have engravings around the memorials celebrating different states. In the World War II memorial, even the territories of the United States are honored for their contributions. The alien would realize that America is a federalized nation, a combination of many different land masses under one flag. He would think of America as a place where many diverse people can work together to make the nation better.
Indeed, the United States does not just honor separate races and groups; it honors individuals. The Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt memorials are all built to honor great individual leaders. The alien would note that dynamic individuals can become greatly honored in America. He would get a much different, yet equally poignant reminder of the value of the individual from the Vietnam Women’s and the Vietnam memorials. In the Women’s memorial, three female aid workers crouch around a dying man, and all four people have looks of horror on their face. The alien infers that in America, the death of even one person is at tragic event. Even more powerful is the Vietnam memorial. This one features the name of every soldier who died or went missing in action during the war. The names start as a trickle; the alien sees the individuals and thinks of each one of them, of the lives they led and the families they had. As he walks down the corridor, the memorial and the list of names widen and widen and widen into a massive burst of emotion swallowing everything else. The alien looks backs back at the beginning of the memorial, seeing ten to twelve names on a tablet, and then turns to where he is now standing and sees hundreds and hundreds of people at a time, each one with intrinsic value, each one’s death as tragic as the one portrayed at the Vietnam Women’s memorial. He realizes the massive destructive power of war and the way it alters the lives of an entire people, one by one. He realizes that in this nation, when one person dies, the bell tolls for us all.
Freedom is an essential part of the American story, as well, and the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials show the alien their value to Americans. The Jefferson memorial honors a man who said that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Lincoln memorial tells the story of freedom in the text of Lincoln’s famous speeches, the Gettysburg and Second Inaugural Addresses. The alien learns from Lincoln’s words that the American people will fight for freedom as long as is necessary, and they would rather die than live as slaves. The alien would see that these people’s religion does not enslave them; it sets them free and exhorts them to fight for others’ freedom.
Those others and their importance is what the alien would discern from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. The moment he steps in this memorial, he realizes it is much different from all the others. In this memorial, the people in the sculptures are smaller, not larger, than the average human being. The alien gets a sense of the poor and downtrodden people of the land as represented by their protector, the tiny, crippled Franklin Roosevelt. As he walks through this memorial, he hears Roosevelt exhorting the people to give and to care about each other. He sees the old, poor farmers who have equal stature with the president. He notes the many governmental programs Roosevelt established to help the poor. He sees Roosevelt’s homely wife, and at the end of the long, long walk through this memorial, he sees Roosevelt again, close to death, a tiny dog at his side. The presence of the dog makes Roosevelt even more frail and human. The alien reads Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” and notes the man’s constant devotion to freeing his people from want and from ignorance. This is a monument to altruism and compassion. He remembers the epitaph of the Korean War: it was a war which Americans fought in a country they’d never seen for people they didn’t know. He remembers Lincoln’s exhortation to Americans to forgive the South but to fight tirelessly for the freedom of the slaves. He notes that altruism is more important and more integral to the American experience than he had previously thought.
What might interest the alien most about American monuments are their many, not necessarily positive messages about war. Clearly, the society thinks that war is important; there are four war monuments: World War II, Korea, and two for Vietnam, and Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt were all wartime leaders. Yet, besides Washington’s enduring power, the monuments provide a neutral or negative perspective of war. There are no images of victorious soldiers, mounted horsemen, or glorious commanders. Instead, there is a leader who says that the people have a solemn duty to fight for freedom and a leader who screams that he hates war. The World War II monument is large and enduring but is a memorial, not a celebration, of battle. The Vietnam memorial emphasizes the enormous human costs of war. The Vietnam Women’s memorial shows that the death of even one soldier is a tragedy. The Korean War Memorial goes beyond even this: it depicts a retreat. The soldiers are hardened, frightened, and frightening. They seem unreal, and if the alien views the memorial at night, he sees that the environment from which they are running is hellish and intimidating. From viewing these monuments, the alien would never know of the military excellence of the U. S. He would predict that this nation hates war and does not want to see another one.
Greatness, unity within diversity, the value of the individual, freedom, altruism, reluctance for war: these are the values which the alien would discern from his visit to Washington. He would see that the country is as colorful and complex as it looked from the telescope in his Martian home. He would see an America whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It values the individuals and groups which live in it, and it continually strives to make life better for them. It seeks to take its freedom around the world so that everyone might have it. The nation hates war, but if there is a battle to fight, America will fight it. By doing what is right, this nation hopes to live forever. This is a holistic, powerful, and sobering vision. The alien hopes that the nation is true to these ideals, and that it always will be. So do I.