March 2nd, 2021

📝 Varieties of Teleological Experience

Am I ethical and upright or aesthetic and horizontal?

The past few posts have been implicitly oriented around an ethical question. To what extent does a good life require long-term commitments and serious projects? And how does that relate to enjoying the present moment?

In 📙 After Virtue, this question is most clearly presented in the discussion of Kierkegaard's book Either/Or, which sketches two opposite attitudes to life, labelled the Aesthetic and the Ethical.

At the heart of the aesthetic way of life, as Kierkegaard characterizes it, is the attempt to lose the self in the immediacy of present experience. The paradigm of aesthetic expression is the romantic lover who is immersed in his own passion. By contrast the paradigm of the ethical is marriage, a state of commitment and obligation through time, in which the present is bound by the past and to the future. Each of the two ways of life is informed by different concepts, incompatible attitudes, rival premises. *

The interesting thing for MacIntyre is that Kierkegaard's book doesn't try to argue rationally for the superiority of the ethical mode, but instead invokes the necessity of a Radical Choice, the Leap of Faith. It's not that the two modes are actually equally good, but there's no way of justifying the ethical mode that isn't circular.

You could try to argue that the ethical mode will lead towards a more pleasant experience, or a more sustainable and healthy pleasure, like a parent saying "if you'll go to sleep now, you'll have more fun tomorrow." But these arguments are quite specious; you'll always have to make these uncertain claims about the future.

To a person who only values the "immediacy of present experience," it's pointless to argue for the superiority of the ethical mode. This kind of moralism is a perennial source of bitterness, especially between generations, when parents nag their children about renouncing their shallow, fleeting, pleasurable lifestyles and getting serious about work, about politics, about marriage.

If "the paradigm of the ethical is marriage" then of course the Main Quest of marriage is raising children. Parents are kind of biased, then, towards the ethical mode, and it would be an understatement to say that this has evolutionary implications.

I've been a parent for nearly two years, and my own ethical orientation is a bit shaky, but I still find myself inhabiting the mindset where my own life is a serious and sacred struggle. I can work myself up to a shaking annoyed frustration just by thinking about the frivolous enjoyment of my childless friends.

It becomes offensive to me that my brother can just be "immersed in his own passion" all day, especially when he shows less than zero interest in children and views the whole idea of raising a child as a painful lunacy. Formerly interesting friends turn into boring moralizers, withdraw into nuclear Family fortresses, and start to insinuate that their lives are more important, more ethical, more real.

So that becomes the background mood when I cite paragraphs like this:

A self that does not live into the future, that moves around in a merely playful way in the here and now, and, at best, still lives only from the past, is but momentarily ‘attuned’, not steadily advancing, developing or maturing, is not to borrow a word, an existential self. *

But that's not from a book about ethics, it's from 📙 Experiences of Depression, and I'm interested in it because I'm trying to understand my own life. I've always felt both an urge to engage in projects and a chronic failure to pursue them.

It's like I can't sit still, even though my projects mostly involve sitting still, and maybe that's one reason why it's only last year that I started considering the possibility that I have ADHD. My hyperactivity has never been visible externally, other than in some tics like restless legs, and maybe the fact that when I and my brother started a company we named it Restless.

This restlessness kind of feels like an intense inner conflict between the Aesthetic and the Ethical, or in the terms of 📝 Life as Adventure Game a conflict between the Horizontal and the Vertical, which then is like a tension between Phenomenology and Teleology.

Such a conflict is implied in this description from Gabor Maté's book 📙 Scattered Minds:

The adult with ADD is buried under a mound of yeses, many of which are not true yeses at all, only no’s he dared not say. Life is one long exercise in trying to tunnel out from under them, a frustrating task since one keeps adding to the stack faster than one can take away from it. *

In 📝 Losing the Plot — Ethics and The Big Lebowski, there is the question of the heroism of "the Dude," what makes him such an archetypal character. Remember how he's introduced in the voiceover:

I won't say a hero, 'cause, what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a man. And I'm talkin' about the Dude here. Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude, in Los Angeles. And even if he's a lazy man—and the Dude was most certainly that, quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide. But sometimes there's a man, sometimes, there's a man. Aw. I lost my train of thought here. But... aw, hell. I've done introduced him enough.

I feel like his Stoner Noir heroism lies in the way he approaches the tasks and plots in which he finds himself entangled. They aren't his projects, and he doesn't imbue them with the kind of ethical seriousness that would look down on the lifestyles of others, but he also doesn't "tunnel out from under them."

It may be that his focus depends on the stern fatherly attunement provided by his veteran friend Walter, whose pathological devotion to the Ethical manifests in hilarious obsession with the Sabbath, bowling tournament rules, and revenge. Nevertheless, the Dude abides and keeps his mind limber with a "strict drug regimen" to pursue the "very complicated case." And he seems to enjoy it all.

Kierkegaard did not actually view the ethical mode as superior, but as a desperate stage that one clings to after being disillusioned with the aesthetical mode. Real maturity is another mode: the Religious mode.

And religion is quite strange.

One can easily expect religion to be an even stricter, more serious version of the ethical, where projects and striving are even more rigidly elevated over the frivolous present.

But you just have to look at Ecclesiastes.

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Yesterday my brother reminded me of when my friend Ragnar, smoking a cigarette, described his ideal lifestyle as "partying and waiting for the singularity." What kind of Teleology is that, I wonder?

Incoming Links