On the Value-Neutral Character of Life

On the Value-Neutral Character of Life (life is neither fair nor unfair)

            There are a number of commonplace errors involved in what passes for the ethical evaluation of life. Some are products of laziness, such as phrases like ‘life isn’t fair’ – levelled at our children in lieu of an authentic argument or analysis or as a salve for our own bad consciences – and ‘its just human nature’ – casually cast off between adults who have given up trying to puzzle their way through a life that has gotten away from them. In fact, life is neither fair nor unfair, and human nature is not a singular thing. ‘Fairness’ is contextual, and hence its ethical overtones, and it is culture, not nature, that animates all humans and distinguishes us from the wider nature. Both change over time and across place, and though not immediately connected to one another, our concepts of what is fair or reasonable, ethical judgments, are at length revealing of more abstract ideas such as ‘nature’ or the human condition, which are ontological constructs. From the outset, ethics sought to distance itself from metaphysics, but their affinal relationship remains intact.

            Life by itself has no value. This is because it lacks both meaning and meaningfulness. The one is inherited by us from the tradition, which we the living must confront even as we are confronted by it. The other is made by us through living-on. The ‘adventurous’ timbre to be found in Erlebnis is a casual hint that the one who seeks to live and believes that ‘life is for the living’ is on the right path regarding the hermeneutic ideal of having a new experience. The newness of any experience, one that I have never had before this moment, is what gives it its authenticity. The genuine character of lived-experience, at first as Erlebnis in the sense of it being exciting or at the least, interesting, due to its very novelty, is, after a fashion, transmuted into Erfahrung, an experience through which one has gained something. It is also instructive that in the German a distinction is made between experience in the shorter and longer terms, through the use of the same two terms. The immediacy of Erlebnis, ‘lived experience’, connotes the very living of it. ‘Gained experience’, built into Erfahrung, is suggestive of something that has been digested. This internalization of one’s experience occurs through the second phase of the hermeneutic encounter, that of interpretation. How does this new experience jibe with what I thought I already knew about her, about them, about it, about the world?

            When we ‘process’ an experience, we do so after the fact, as it were. We are now no longer in the very midst of living it but rather on the way to having it, not that it will ever constitute a possession in the usual sense. Erfahrung once had does change us, but it itself will also be changed by yet further Erlebnis over time. Meaningfulness is the result of the duet of lived and possessed experience. In this, living-on presents the most authentic contrast with the tradition, something each of us is born into and over which none of us has control. ‘The tradition’, whatever cultural druthers we quite by happenstance find ourselves swaddled in, can of course take us only so far, especially in a world moved along by accelerated paces of change and an ever-more cosmopolitan social reality. But it is not merely the sometimes abrasive and abrupt contact amongst differing cultures that promotes a sense that what I have learned as a child is not the entire story. Indeed, the majority of the tradition does not seek to cast aspersion on other cultures so much as it limits the experience of our own.

            The apical metaphor is clear enough. There are other gods after all, but they are for the others, perhaps lesser or at least, less sophisticated than we. We shalt not worship these gods as it would be tantamount to betraying our own culture. Render unto the others what is other. Today, we tend not to publicly or officially state our own cultural superiority – though privately one must wonder; such a study awaits its student, perhaps – but rather act as if we are minding our own cultural business and thus expect others to do the same. The window-dressing mosaic of borrowing one another’s food, music and clothing, or even, and more seriously, converting to another’s belief system, is not the same as becoming other from oneself. The world tends to intervene, and even in extreme cases – as when anachronistic evangelicals in Alberta kidnapped their neighbors to save them from the immanent apocalypse, stuffing them in the back of their BMW SUV only to have the RCMP ‘demons’ rescue the unwitting elect – symbolic beliefs hailing from previous ages are made both maudlin and absurd by the wider forces of modernity. I am an anti-science creationist who drives a car. I am a woman-hating rapist who is happily married. I am a Christian who helps only those in my church. I am a fascist but I control my children out of love.

            Such common contradictions cannot be put down solely to role stress. Over time, we learn to choose amongst ideals. The febrile choose only those which support their basest desires. More courageously, others confront their self-made contradictions, though many succumb to the unethical passion of choosing only in self-interest. For all these, the supposed ‘unfairness’ of life is such simply because it has gotten in their way. They thence sow their faux cynic all round their person, muting youth’s magic horn and reaping a bitter harvest late in their own paltry lives. Here, both conceptions of experience are absent. No Erlebnis is possible in such an existence because the new in principle is shunned. Hence no Erfahrung can result. Meaning has stopped at the point at which the tradition has run itself out. It is fair to mark such a moment at perhaps twelve years of age, when ideally one would encourage the nascent youth to begin her own questioning of all things. It is also reasonable to suggest that those who have received the tradition but have never, through their own experience, gone beyond it, are stuck at age eleven or so. Given the sub-cultures that alone celebrate tradition and how they do so, identifying this age seems apt.

            Of course, Erlebnis is itself a value-neutral conception. There is no guarantee that a child might not experience ‘too much too soon’, to use a conservative turn of phrase. But what constitutes both the ‘much’ and the ‘soon’ can be overdone. The very vagueness of the framing can lend itself to manipulation. The playground conflicts – speaking of eleven-year-olds – between groups of parents apparently espousing contrary ‘values’ is an ongoing example of the unthought that any cultural tradition, when taken in a vacuum, must promote. And yet the specific content of Erlebnis is not ultimately at issue. Rather it is how one interprets these experiences, what one ‘gets’ out of them in the sense of Erfahrung that will shape our character over the longer term. So, the neo-fascist of all stripes seeks to control what kind of experience is made available, to youth in particular but in their own imagination, to all of us. You must see the drag queen; no, you must not see the drag queen, and so on. In reframing specific types of potential experience, we in fact lose the quality of experience itself. All institutions seek to do this through policy, curricula, dogma and doxa, or ritual. It is fair to suggest that experiencing any of these for the first time preserves some element of the hermeneutic ongoingness of life. But institutionalized experiences are constructed to mimic their once precedent-setting content with an exactitude that takes them outside of lived time. They present to us moral spaces instead of ethical places. Only within the latter do we have consistently new experiences and thus can undertake to change or improve ourselves instead of becoming stagnant, static, staid and stiff. But confronting the tradition by taking ourselves outside of what is comfortable and convenient for us takes both courage and nerve.

            We do have solid, if naïve, role models for both in the presence of our adolescents. Courage occurs when I am faced with an unknown outcome and have time to consider an array of consequences. Perhaps in some few cases, discretion really is the better part of valor, but mostly, I must match the courage I have shown in taking on this or that confrontation with a simple nerve that tells me ‘I can do this and I’ll show you!’. To say that we have seemingly lost our nerve when it comes to confronting warmed-over traditions, most of which have little relevance to present-day life, is to say we have in the process also become cowardly. The essence of our attempts to control young people lies in snuffing out both courage and nerve; the one associated with Erfahrung and the other with Erlebnis. For we who have forsaken both, youth represent not themselves but rather a way of being; that which progresses human ‘nature’ while at once revealing the polyglot ethical stations of human life. Our collective avoidance of the value-neutral character of life can only dehumanize us, for it takes away our ability to make life meaningful. Instead, we are left with the meanings of others and of history. Though these must be the starting point for any human life, they alone cannot provide for any human future. Instead, we should work to revivify opportunities for lived experience as widely as possible, taking the risk of the self to be our guide but without assuming that all potential risks are equal. Just as wonder is the essential principle of the child that the adult needs access, nerve is the basic tenet of youth which the adult must also regain. The mature being adds a third principle, that of Phronesis, or practical wisdom. Each phase of life has something to teach the others, to remind them that a human life is at once disparate but is also one thing. In doing this, the conception of a future can once again take hold.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, health, aesthetic and social theory, as well as adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.