One thing that philosophy can do, that science cannot do, is reflect on the lives we live and the lives we choose to live. Some say this is not necessary; some claim that the principles of a good life can be found in science, if we simply generalize its theories properly. But that it is necessary to engage some generally philosophic reflection to consider human life in all its possible particularities, seems fairly obvious; while to generalize our lives by way of scientific theories is hardly convincing.
Consider the current controversy over climate change, and what we might do about it. By now, almost all scientists familiar with the facts seem to agree that some sort of major change to our environment is taking place, largely thanks to human excess. It would seem that we ought to be able to generalize from this, that are certain things we ought to be doing. But why? Because, after all, we wish the human species to survive and flourish – some say. Some argue that this fulfills our ‘evolutionary imperative;’ forgetting that evolution has has no imperative, it is simply a process, and doesn’t care whether we survive or not.
There are of course theistic arguments against doing anything about climate change at all. Those offering these arguments assure us that their sacred text has promised the earth to them, to do with it as they will. They also promise us that control of the climate is, after all, in god’s hands, and surely he will not bring suffering to his created worshipers.
Still other theists seem convinced that survival is not that big a deal, if martyrdom can get them to heaven; and they believe that Armageddon is imminent anyway, so what’s to worry?
Even among non-theists, even among those who abide by science, we find those not terribly concerned about climate change. Hard-nosed empirical optimists are comfortable with the reassurance that any problems with the environment can be corrected technologically – in the future. Haven’t we already invented alternative, limited-pollutant sources of energy, for instance?
Yes, we have. And that indirectly rings alarms concerning politics and economics. There are undoubtedly non-theistic, scientifically minded executives of major oil companies deeply invested in preventing us from doing anything about climate change. Universal deployment of alternative energy production would collapse their markets. And, of course, they have the money to pay for the elections of politicians favorable to their cause.
One of the things about living in such an environment that science cannot teach us is how to live with it. To be sure, engaging in scientific and technological activity can provide distraction from it; and one can persuade one’s self that the activity engage will somehow contribute to a better world – and it could, supposing that we want a better world strongly enough to engage the politics necessary to bring it about. But this does not seem to be the case. I suspect the polls would show that most people would want the world to be a better place; but elections indicate that they are not very committed to doing anything to bring about such change.
As a secular Buddhist, I find this philosophy sometimes condemned for offering a path of acceptance, that effectively dis-empowers practitioners from active involvement in political causes. We are, it is said, ‘fatalistic,’ i.e., we’ve somehow surrendered to the world’s injustice.
Well, the world happens to be filled with injustice, by anybody’s standards; but learning to live with it does not necessitate surrender.
Buddhism is not the only philosophy that teaches acceptance. Taoism does to some extent; there are certain Christian and Hindu philosophies that do; Epicureanism and Stoicism did.
All philosophies that teach a way of acceptance are assailed with the charge of fatalism, but the charge itself does not adequately address reality.
The charge has two components, the local and the political. The local charge is that if you are undergoing rough times, you should not submit fatalistically, but do something to change your situation.
But no philosophy teaching acceptance denies this. The question is, what is to be done?
If the company I work for goes bankrupt, I’m out of a job; it is clear that I’ll need to find new means of support. It would make no sense to petition my former employers to re-open their company just to provide me with a job. Useless to cry over spilled milk. So there is a fact I am stuck with and must accept and move beyond.
The political component of the ‘fatalism’ charge appears to be much stronger. If we just accept a social situation, then aren’t we surrendering both our right to demand change and our power of bringing change about? In a society with democratic aspirations, the charge seems damning.
But the very notion that there can be ‘grass-roots’ efforts at political change, reaching out to, and finally involving, the majority of the polis, is actually quite new. Nobody before the later Renaissance would have had much understanding of what we are talking about here. So the idea has a history. Much of the past five centuries can be read as a series of attempts to vindicate this idea.
But, we now live in an age when the idea seems to be exhausting itself, as various centers of power and interest coalesce and maneuver to fragment and dis-empower the popular will. We know that America’s disastrous foreign policy is decided by members of the military and the government safe from the vagaries of election. We know that America’s economy is decided by parties of the wealthy with little interest in ‘the greatest good for the greatest number.’ And should admit that oil companies, and other interests, have resources for control of the debate concerning climate change, far beyond those available to opposing dissidents. So we protest; but we have the growing awareness that our protests will prove ineffectual at producing change. (This doesn’t even address the problem of the cultural chaos I’ve noted elsewhere, that frequently leaves people of good will unable to communicate with each other effectively on politics.)
So: why do we even bother to protest? Because, accepting the situation, we have an ethical demand to respond to it. Ethical action is not determined by the possibility of its success, but by the presumed justice of its cause. I provide charity to the poor, not because I believe this will end the misery of their condition (although hopefully this may alleviate it somewhat), and it certainly won’t end their poverty. I do so because compassion for others demands it of me. In like ways, I work for social change that could end the poverty of the poor, if it were to be realized. But I don’t do because I think that such change will be realized, only believing it is incumbent upon me to work for it.
In order for Americans to live with some sense of relative calm in the present political situation, acceptance is necessary. That doesn’t necessitate inactivity. We develop any ethic, precisely because, despite occasionally dreadful political and social realities, we still need to live together, and find some way to better our collective situation.
An ethic not teaching a way of acceptance is unrealistic. The way of acceptance, far from being ‘fatalistic,’ helps form a ground for social action.