Category Archives: Philosophy

Money and philosophy

There would be a simple way to have all non-essential workers stay home without over-burdening the companies they work for. That same method would enable self employed workers to stay home, too. It would make it reasonable to ask for rent holidays. It would put money into the economy where it would do most good. Small business people would have a chance to re-boot in the future. That solution, is universal basic income. Giving everyone a viable amount to live on is also the least bureaucratic way, and thus the quickest, of rolling out an intervention.

However, giving people money in this way challenges the capitalist philosophy of what money means. We are used to measuring human worth by income. Those who earn most are considered to be worth most. We are encouraged to look up to them respect them, see them as valuable. At the same time we’ve called low paid people unskilled and considered them as having little value. If you pay everyone the same, it’s like we’re all worth the same as human beings. It’s a radical shift in thinking.

As the virus impacts on us, we’ve gone from seeing many low paid jobs as low worth, to recognising that these people are the heart of our infrastructure and the backbone of our societies. Money, it turns out, was not a good measure of the value of people working in supply chains and retail, bin collectors, cleaners, carers… their worth to the rest of us is far higher than their paychecks suggest.

As isolation kicks in, we may be more in need of our entertainers and creators. Especially the ones willing to interact with us, teach us and support people in being creative to stay sane. In their absence, we might notice the things that were valuable to us – venues, gigs, events, festivals… Most of the people working in these industries are not wealthy.

What do we deserve? What resources should we have access to? When the not-so-free market dominates, our scope to access everything is based mostly on our buying power. Our buying power is based on what our work is worth to the market, not what it is worth to other humans. Unpaid domestic work is totally undervalued, but right now, people cleaning things are keeping their families safe and well. Such work has always been valuable, but the value has been invisible.

What if we deserve to have our basic needs met because we exist, not because a specific level of profit can be extracted from our labours? What if the people who make money out of money while doing no one any good are not entitled to more benefits than most other people? What if we deemed making profit by exploiting others to be a disgusting activity, not one that should bring benefits? What if worth was measured in terms of actual worth, not earning potential? Meanwhile, the massively affluent ditch their workers with no pay and demand government bailouts.

Universal basic income gives everyone the same fundamental worth and the same basic entitlement to have needs met. Practically speaking it could be a magic bullet for solving a great many of our problems right now. Philosophically speaking, it would radically change our cultures for the better.


Lessons from Old Cats

For a while now, I’ve been taking in old cats – one at a time. Old cats are not easily homed – they come with short life expectancies, likelihood of expensive vets bills, and distress. If your old cat has spent its life with one family or human, the loss of them will likely grieve them. An old cat who has been rescued will likely have been through some shit and may have issues. Old cats, much like old dogs are slow to learn new tricks.

There can be no messing about when taking in an old cat. You know they might only have a year or two with you. So you have to be willing to love them as wholeheartedly as you would a young cat who might be with you a decade or more. You have to love from a basis of knowing you will lose them and that the more you love them the more that will hurt. But, they need you, and they need to be cared for and they need it to be ok that they will shortly break your heart.

They teach patience and compassion. They teach it as their minds and bodies fail. They teach it with their incontinence, their deterioration, their fragility and vulnerability. They teach you to think about what your own body might be like as it ages, and they help you face up to that.

Old cats brings lessons in ruthless pragmatism. They are going to die, sooner rather than later. There is nowhere to hide from this. You will have to make decisions about when to go to the vet, and when to let go and have nature take its course. They cannot live forever. They cannot always be fixed. They teach a person how to examine their own selfish urges to hang on, and how to think better about suffering and quality of life.

They teach acceptance, and trust. They bring you their fragile bodies, and their purrs, and their need for care. The ones who have been mistreated may show you their fear and you get to work with that and maybe win them round and perhaps you can teach them that the world isn’t such a terrible place after all. And whatever life has done to this point, a few good years, or even just a few good days, are still well worth having.


Are we good?

One of the key underlying concepts in religion is the question of whether we are inherently good or not. There are of course various takes. Some religions or subsects of religions treat this world as inherently bad, with transcendence the only thing to aspire to. We have to overcome our sinful bodies and lives, chained to karma, or however else it’s framed, and transcend into pure spirit. We have to work at being good in order to do this.

Paganism tends not to judge us so harshly and is much more in favour of this world.

In Taoism I’ve run into the idea that humans are basically good, but that can be distorted. The aim is to get back to our natural state so that what we do is good without having it work hard at it. The person who is in tune with the Tao can just get on with things and it will all flow and work out. Effort can be the enemy of this process.

Whether we are innately good, or innately vile is a question that underpins our politics. Are we more interested in helping the needy, or stopping people abusing the system? Are we more afraid of corruption, or suffering?

It’s an interesting question to ask of yourself, as well. Do I think my nature is fundamentally good? Do I think the expression of my true nature would be the best that I could be? Do I feel tainted, fallen, sinful, loaded with karmic debt, and otherwise in need of redemption? And if I feel that way, why do I feel that way?

So often, taking pleasure in life is treated as sinful. How do we construct our ideas of good and evil in the first place? Why would joy be sinful? Why would pleasure be sinful? Why would relishing this one precious existence be some kind of moral failing? Who benefits from those ideas? What happens to us when we work very hard at denying ourselves the things our mammal bodies yearn for?

For me, being Pagan means a starting place that says we might be good. We’re probably ok. We may have the capacity for terrible things, but it’s not inevitable. There is no atonement required. We do not need saving. Wine and sex and laughter and dancing and all those things are good and to be relished, not feared. We may in fact do more good by seeking simple pleasures and joys that don’t diminish anyone or anything else, than by tying ourselves in knots trying to fight our fundamentally animal selves.


Trust and Joy

It occurred to me yesterday that the key to being able to find delight in life has everything to do with trust. It’s the willingness to suspend disbelief and invest in the idea of worth that brings a book or a novel to life. It’s what brings meaning to a football game or turns a board game into a good evening. We have to let go, invest, bring our willingness and trust that it is worthwhile. From that initial trust we are then able to create enjoyment.

I’ll freely admit that I can’t do this with team sports or most board games. There are enough things I can do it with that this is no great setback.

The problems start when people don’t in some way recognise this. On the one had we have people who take things so seriously that they knock all the joy out of it, and on the other, a total refusal to see any worth, expressed in ways that are designed to knock the joy out for other people. However passionately invested you are in your sports team, there’s never any justification for punching someone over a game. Joy does not live here. Equally, trying to shame someone for something you don’t enjoy and they do is an empty, tragic sort of way to carry on.

There are of course people who believe that the thing they are willing to trust and invest in has more inherent worth than the thing they mock. A fine example of this would be comics vs literature. Comics are infantile, trivial, low-brow and a waste of your time, they may tell you. This is an easy conclusion to come to if you don’t read comics and assume the form is a genre (it isn’t) and that it’s just superheroes and kids jokes (also not the case). It’s easy to devalue things we don’t understand. What can be missed out alongside this are the demands literary texts make of their readers to suspend disbelief. In older texts, it usually means accepting a large quantity of outrageous coincidence as plausible. Sometimes it means accepting that it being hard to make sense of a book is a good experience, or that it is ok that almost nothing happens. As someone who reads both comics and literary works, I can suspend my disbelief in both directions.

When you’re invested in something and have decided to trust it, you can easily forget that’s what you’ve done. Be it a computer game, a lifestyle choice, an aesthetic for your wardrobe… when we invest our belief, we often persuade ourselves we’ve done something else entirely. For anyone not invested in the same way, our choices may make no sense.

I have, repeatedly invested myself in organisations, only to come out of them and be amazed at how insignificant they seem from the outside. You can invest in something and make it your whole world, and step back from it and find it to be inconsequential. It is safer and healthier I think, to make the wholehearted dedication from a position of knowing you are choosing to do that. By all means, decide that your team is the best team in the world, your genre is the only one you want to read, or your religion is the one true way (for you). It helps to remember that this is a deliberate choice, and to leave room for people who choose otherwise. Life is richer when we invest our trust in it, but kinder when we remember other people are investing in different ways.


Building an Echo Chamber

If you’re a well-meaning person the odds are that you’ve wondered if an echo chamber is a problem. You may have felt obliged to make sure you’re hearing what the haters and fascists amongst us are saying. How can you be a good person if you aren’t open minded, aren’t listening to difference, aren’t open to other opinions?

This is something I’ve talked about before. It is possible to experience diversity and difference without engaging with hate. Exposure to diverse thinking is good for us. Hate isn’t.

We are all deeply affected by our environments. It’s a massive influence on our psychological development as we grow up. As adults we may think we’re immune to what’s around us, but this isn’t necessarily so. That which becomes normal to us will shape our choices and behaviour. Even if that means we come to feel that donating to foodbanks and seeing homeless people in the streets, is normal.

Human minds are quite fragile, easily influenced and easily damaged. We all have enough ego not to want to believe that. We all want to think we are strong, free-thinking individuals who would not be sucked in to something vile. The odds are, if you’re reading this then you’d picture yourself in Nazi Germany helping Jews escape and working with the resistance. You would not picture yourself at a rally screaming in ecstasy at Hitler. Environments can be intoxicating. From the playground onwards, our desire to belong and be part of something can distort our identities and shape our behaviour.

Having had my reality broken, I am uncomfortably aware of how fragile my mind is. My mind is desperately fragile.

It may be that exposure to hate and misery does not make us want to join up with the haters. It may instead grind us down, making us feel powerless and like there’s no point doing anything. We may be overwhelmed with grief, or rage, or frustration. We may turn on the haters and hate back with all the vitriol we can muster. All of these things mean that what we’ve been exposed to is impacting on us.

One of the ways in which you can protect your own mental health, is by making careful choices about what you expose yourself to. Most of the time, most of us do that. You may, for example, have already made the decision not to watch violent pornography. You may have chosen not to go to Trump rallies. I imagine you wouldn’t go to a bull fight, or an abattoir, or to take a holiday in a war zone or disaster area. When things are large scale and obvious, we are often better at recognising the threat and keeping away. It’s the smaller, everyday nasties that we can persuade ourselves we ought to engage with. We should be informed. Educated. Aware.

Turning away from everything is no kind of answer. Pick your fights and causes. Be prepared to know about and take on a few issues you can manage. Raise awareness without traumatising people. No one, for example, needs to see images of animal abuse in order to sign petitions. It is not your duty to know about every terrible thing going on in the world. It is not necessary to listen with compassion to every troll and every hater you encounter.

It is ok to choose to live in an echo chamber. It is ok to choose to protect your mental health so that you can continue to make your contributions. It is ok to choose not to know about everything. Often it is better to focus on taking care of what you love, rather than being paralysed by things you can do nothing about.


Uncovering the massive lies

I’ve had it happen twice on the kind of scale that rocked my sense of reality. Finding out you have been lied to in a way that undermines your sense of the other person, how the world works, maybe even your own sense of self is a distressing thing to go through.

Small lies are an everyday thing and no big deal usually. The lies of forgetfulness and omission, the lies that were meant to be a kindness to you, or that protect someone else. Inadvertently misleading each other because we use language differently, or understood something differently… There are also the small lies people tell to protect themselves – of course I remembered. Of course I was going to do that. In the grand scheme of things, they might not be ideal, but they can be lived with.

A big, deliberate lie or series of lies has serious consequences. It can leave you wondering what was real, and second guessing everything. You will likely feel betrayed, and your trust in other people can be compromised. You may feel like you should have seen through the lie, and be beating yourself up for being fooled, naive, optimistic, over-trusting or whatever it was. Worse still, there may be people on the sidelines ready with an ‘I told you so’. There may be humiliation to add to the misery of betrayal.

It’s hard stuff to deal with and will make you feel like shit. It can be more tempting as a consequence to go along with the lie rather than dealing with the truth. Sometimes the truth is bloody painful, and the lies are consoling. But no one feels good about having been misled, and the more you’ve done off the back of that, the worse it feels.

Dealing with this in your personal life is hard. Dealing with it at a political level is brutal. When people have lied to you to get your vote, and you’ve been persuaded to support something that isn’t in your interests, and the people on the other side are just waiting to crow and add insult to injury… it’s not a good place to be.

It’s tempting, when you are proved right, to want to draw attention to that and get back at the people who said you were wrong, or lying. It’s tempting to be angry with the people who were persuaded by lies into doing things that weren’t helpful. If the liar has a lot of power, it can be easier to vent frustration on their victims than go after them.

It’s hard to admit you’ve been duped. We can choose to make that easier for each other, and to handle it kindly. It is better to have people pull away from the lies than give them reason to double down, upholding the lie to protect their own fragile feelings.


What do you want?

It always bothered me that the bad guys in Babylon 5 always asked ‘what do you want?’ It’s one of the most useful questions to ask – of each other and of ourselves. In digging in to find out what we want, we can learn a lot about who we are, where we are going, what needs to change. Wanting should not automatically be associated with greed and selfishness. It’s a necessary, healthy and frequently good part of our humanity.

What do I want? I’ve been asking that question a lot lately, and digging in with the answers. It’s not an easy question and it’s shown me things that have been tough to square up to. In understanding what I want, I have to own the areas of my life that aren’t giving me what I want and need. I have to face the aches, absences and insufficiencies in order to know what I want to change. I have to face up to the things I do that don’t work, or haven’t gone the way I wanted them to. I’ve learned a lot, doing this. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve released a lot of anger and frustration I didn’t even know I was carrying before I started.

Of course what I want cannot be just about me. I have a son and a husband to consider, so I’ve been asking what they want, and we’ve started exploring those issues and dreams together. I’ve started talking to my closest friends as well. Seeing who has similar wants and issues and what we might co-dream from here.

The biggest issue for me in all of this is the day to day grief of not being able to do enough in face of climate chaos. We’re a low carbon household, but we aren’t restorative. I want to be restorative. I need to plant trees. I don’t even have a garden I could put a small fruit tree in. I’ve got small trees in buckets, it’s the best I can do where I live, but it has never been enough.

I need wildness.

I crave community. This has been a curious one, because where I’ve talked to various friends about this, it turns out the perception is that I’m deeply immersed in my local community. I’m not. I tend to feel peripheral at best. I’d assumed that was about me – that either I don’t know how to belong, or I don’t know how to do the right things to feel a sense of belonging. Now I’ve opened that can of worms, my perception of what’s going on has shifted dramatically. It may not be a failing on my part.

I’m asking what I can change in the short term. What can I do now that would improve things for me? What do I want that I can have? And what happens in the longer term? At this point, I think I know, but there are still some conversations I need to have privately before I start talking about it more publicly.

What do I want? To put down the idea that wanting itself is morally suspect. To make room for what desire, and longing can teach me. To act based on what I learn.


A Good Death

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been killing people on The Hopeless Maine blog as part of the kickstarter we’re doing. People who backed early get obituaries, as though they had been residents of the imaginary island, now deceased. It’s been an exercise in asking what would make for a good death. Most of us won’t read our obituaries in real life, so it’s interesting thinking about what a person might want from a fictional obituary. This may not be quite the same as what you’d want in a real one, but it does raise interesting questions.

Without a doubt, everyone wants to be remembered fondly and have some sense that someone, at least, is sorry they are gone. Whatever form a death takes, the feeling of a life lived well, and fully is important. That bit at least, we may get some kind of control over, whereas the time of our departure is beyond our control.

There’s a definite charm in dying as you lived, or in a way that has a poetic quality to it. This may well be more true of fictional deaths. A comedy death is more appealing in an imaginary setting perhaps, than a real one. There are no doubt people as well as me though, who get a kick out of uncomfortable humour and might enjoy the prospect of our final moments leaving people unsure whether to laugh or cry. I have a fondness for the preposterous, and departing in a way that would have people shaking their heads and laughing has definite appeal.

Good deaths are quick, and perhaps unexpected. I’m not going to write any scenarios in which people die slowly unless I can make that both painless and funny. Long, slow, painful deaths are awful, and take a toll on anyone who has to live through watching that. No one wants to watch someone they love suffering. Most of us don’t even want to watch people we despise suffering in that kind of way.

 


External authority and why I’m not a fan

One of the accusations levelled against Pagans and atheists alike is that we can’t have a moral compass because we don’t have a sacred text to refer back to.

In practice, the person without a sacred text can only use their reason and personal sense of fairness to make moral judgements. It means you know that you are responsible for what you do and say, what you think and how you come to conclusions. As far as I can see, this is the most honest and most responsible position to hold.

Of course a person can have a sacred book, use it for inspiration and take the same process of coming to reasoned positions. So long as the book isn’t considered the literal word of God and to be followed in all ways, a person can use it to help them navigate while still remaining consciously in charge of their own choices.

However, when a sacred book becomes a substitute for thinking, it becomes dangerous. Anything in a book is at risk of going out of date. What makes sense in one time and place may be far less sensible or fair in another. Dogmatic insistence on the primacy of an out of date book clearly isn’t going to work well.

I note that the people who seem most fanatical about sticking with the text are often the ones calling for the least kind outcomes. The sort of people who would make a child rape victim carry a baby to term, and oblige them to marry their attacker. The sort of people for whom being ‘immodest’ in dress (however they choose to measure that) is a greater spiritual offence than physically attacking someone. What I think happens here is that people outsource their morality so they don’t have to question the real implications of their apparently spiritual beliefs.

This kind of dogma is really convenient for anyone with a nasty agenda.

I don’t think the problem here is books – a decent human being can read a book and make informed decisions about what to work with and what to reject. We do this all the time with the stories of our Pagan ancestors. I’ve never seen a modern Pagan suggest that tricking someone into a bag and then beating them until they let you have things your way is a sensible way of getting things done, for example. If you know that a story is just a story, you can work with it in whatever way makes sense. It’s when you decide that the story has authority, and then, having given it authority, negate your own responsibility to be a decent person, that we get into trouble.

It’s not the presence or absence of a sacred book, or books, that gives people a moral compass. The morality does not lie in the book. It never has.


Getting back on the horse

My grandmother always said that if you fell off a horse, it was really important to get straight back on the horse as soon as possible or you’d lose your nerve.

(For anyone who read Family Traditions, this really is a thing she used to say and not something I have made up and attributed to her.)

It was an approach she applied to life in general. Fallen off something? Get back up and at it as quickly as you can. She was the sort of person who got things done by dint of sheer bloody-mindedness. She got back to things as fast as she could. When a stroke stopped her playing the piano, she got back to the piano. The falling off the horse thing wasn’t metaphorical for her either.

And she was right about the horse. The longer you leave it, the harder it becomes to get back on. The bigger a deal the fall becomes. The less time you give it, the less of an issue it is.

Next week, I am going back to Druid Camp. Just for the one day (Thursday). I’ll be doing a talk about Druidry and the Future, Tom will be doing a life drawing class. It is a large horse to get back on, and one I thought I’d accepted falling from. It was quite a nasty fall, with a lot of nasty fallout from said fall. I don’t know if I’m going to have to deal with any of that, but, only being there for a day, I can limit how much there is. It would be easier and more comfortable to just give up and stay away forever, but at the same time, I did nothing wrong and I paid heavily. I want to give things the chance to be different. I want to see the people I seldom see anywhere else. I have left it too long for this to be simple. And dammit, I do not want to be the sort of person who falls off a horse and loses their nerve and never does the things again.

Event details here – http://www.druidcamp.org.uk/