Saintly Thoughts

To Live Without the Ought?

[I sense that there is a fatal flaw in this argument--can you find it?]

I find that I am very concerned with the question of what I "ought" to do.  Sometimes I do what I perceive that I ought to do, sometimes I do what I perceive I oughtn't to do, and oftentimes I am completely confused by what I ought or ought not to do.  In fact, I find myself most often in the latter category, and in looking back upon my life, I find that often when I thought that I knew what I ought or ought not to do, I actually didn't.  I suppose that it is possible that I might come to the end of my life and conclude that the very conditions of ought and oughtn't are themselves mere illusions.  It is furthermore possible that the self is itself an illusion and that all that exists is the perception of self--without any real self to do the perceiving.  In this state of affairs, the only existent thing is the "want" and the "want not".  That is, the perception that some thing or outcome is desirable to the self (for purposes of pleasure or what have you) and the perception that other things are not desirable.  This position is sometimes associated with certain eastern philosophies, though it is by no means unknown in the western tradition, especially when one considers the Post-Enlightenment era.

I must admit that this is a very attractive idea (at least sometimes).  No more agonizing over the perceived moral categories of an action.  No more striving after any abstract principles or ideals, only a life lived in pursuit of the constructed self's bliss--though, perhaps ideally, I would transcend the idea of the constructed self all-together.  Granted, whether the self is or is not a chimera, there is still some thing responding to these perceptions, and it is necessary to the continued existence of this thing that it pay heed to the sense stimuli that will keep it alive and healthy rather than to the sense stimuli that will lead to its destruction.  But with that caveat aside (without worrying about it too much for this thing is ideally more concerned with its sense state than with its bodily continuation), so long as I am able to materially effectuate my bliss and not go too far in inconveniencing the bliss of others, I may slip into those cool waters whereby I get past the ghost of the self and accept the transcendent principle of pure and unadulterated experience.

Now I'm sure that you perceive that there is a caveat coming, but please don't think that I create some straw-man of preposterous enlightenment only to tear it down.  There is a good bit of wisdom in this methodology, especially as it concerns our contemplation of our base-level animal needs.  For one can almost imagine that such a state of freedom from the perception of the self represents that blissful state of being that is the existence of all or most of the animals with which human beings share this planet earth.  Whenever we perform those basic individual functions necessary to physical and sensible bodies, perhaps we would do well to imitate this base wisdom rather than imbuing these things with pretensions of culture.  A person living alone by themselves would do well to imitate such sanguine habits (and lest we forget, the ideal of much eastern mysticism is not the bustle of the polis but the isolation of the mountainside).  

But most of us do not live in such isolation, nor could we.  For, whether we "ought" or "oughn't" human persons are drawn together in communities.  Lacking a sense or perception of self, what is to prevent this sensible thing from spilling out into the marketplace and determining that there is no sensible difference between the sensing of one or the other of these beings?  For if there is no "self" there are no "selves", but only sensible's (my new word for persons who do not perceive a core self).  While this broad pantheism may seem the joyous end result of such enlightened deconstruction of the self, remember that there is in this system no ought.  And there being no ought, there is no means of judging the relative morality of any sensible's sensings.  While we may count on the relative moderation of most under such a regime, there will always be those whose sensings turn to a more destructive end (destructive here being an extension of a sense-impression, not a moral claim).  The sense that pleases them most is destruction, and since there is in this conceptualization no means of judging thee and thine (the self being an illusion) whether the sensible effectively harms (for harm still exists) himself or others is no real difference--for both he and others are illusions of sensible's.  And since there is no ought or oughtn't, then there is no right or wrong.  And since there is no right or wrong, there is no means whereby a sensible may judge which is better--in the end, the sensible who destroys millions is the same as the sensible who saves millions.  That is the inexorable logical result. 

Now I don't mean to say that this state of affairs would have any real effect either positively or negatively on the day-to-day functioning of society.  Those conservative naysayers who see in each spiritual Brahmanism the immediate seeds of society's destruction are surely incorrect, at least in the short term--and it is an odd feature of human society that most trends are not allowed to carry to their logical ends whatsoever they may be.  What can be said is that once the sensible's have freed themselves (illusory) from the ought/oughtn't paradigm, if they maintain enough sense of self within their society to prefer the chimera of existence over the chimera of non-existence in absolute terms, the only thing left to prevent those sensible's who would act in a violent way is raw power.  Any society will act with this power and in fact, it is the action of this power which more or less governs the lives of any persons, whether they perceive themselves as such or not.  But is raw power truly all that there is?  Let it not be so.  For to perceive such power is to escape the clutches of the anxiety of oughtness for a much deeper anxiety.  For even if it is "true" (as it surely is) that this power is the true arbiter underlying all that we selves/sensible's perceive of this world, is there not some merit in fighting against it rather than in surrendering to it?