As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the conventional route to value is some combination of believing what you are told and going with what you feel. However, if either of these routes has let you down (made you feel bad or confused about what to do) you may be motivated to search for an alternative. The stronger your investment with a community (and associated lifestyle) the more you have to lose by challenging it, in reality this means that these problems are mostly important to those who are excluded from their communities. In addition, for many, there is no strong link between what they reason and how they feel, other than a kind of intellectual satisfaction. For others, however, (possibly for genetic reasons) ideas themselves are enough to strongly shape their behaviour. This marks a clear difference between those who contemplate these ideas for entertainment and those who feel compelled to find answers. Unfortunately I suspect this final group is a small one.
But if you are one of those people what tools are available to you?
First and foremost, are our feelings and experiences. Most theories of value are concerned with something other than this. They form a carefully constructed maze of reasoning that so often leads to conclusions that, while clever (and often beautiful) may none the less be just as misguided as our own internal instincts.
In my experience, one of the most important feelings is fear. Whenever I think about ideas, particularly with others, it is fear that prevents us making progress and that leads us astray. The fear is a rational one, for those that feel strongly morally motivated, the fear is that we have done something wrong, that we are bad. More importantly we feel we should not even think about certain things. This feeling is not unreasonable, if our minds our shaped by the thoughts we have then we should be careful what we think. A closely related fear is the fear of being worthless, the fear that what we do and how we think is not important. This is less reasonable, it feels more like sticking your head in the sand. What if you find out that what you’re doing isn’t valuable, what if there was something else you could be doing that is, in some sense, better, even the ‘right’ thing to do? Wouldn’t this be the ultimate defence against feelings of worthlessness? But what if these thoughts undermine the few pleasures you have, that the occasional twinge of doubt is worth preserving this happy delusion? These views are reasonable but they are also paralysing. From the perspective of a person trying to understand the world, they lead to absurdities where each person tiptoes around one another’s values and where passion is directed anywhere else.
On the whole, fear is not a problem for me. I like to dwell on frightening thoughts and enjoy controlling my feelings over them. I enjoy lingering on the edge of the flight response until I’m comfortable with it. Being courageous (in that way) is a source of pride. That’s not to say that I don’t avoid practical fears like everyone else, I’m not an entrepreneur and I rarely go into bars on my own (because of the discomfort of being alone in a social setting, rather than any threat of violence). I’m certainly not fearless. But when it comes to ideas, I’m fascinated by fear. My fears are a valuable source of information, a key to what I truly care about and what my sense of self worth (and thus value) is actually built on. It leads to an interest in taboos and a tendency to see darker motives than others would be willing to contemplate. To others, this can make me a bit of an asshole sometimes, but if you’ve read this far you’re probably ok with that :) .