Category Archives: Philosophy

Honour and dishonesty

Being honest is really important to me as a matter of honour. However, it’s not always possible, and in this post I want to flag up some of the situations in which people who want to be truthful have to be dishonest, and how we might think about that collectively.

There are many people who lie by omission because it isn’t safe for them to speak truthfully about who they are. Too many LGBTQA folk have to hide for their own safety. Anyone whose sex life and sexual identity sets them apart can feel obliged to hide parts of who they are. In some countries it isn’t safe to be honest, you can end up in prison. Society can judge harshly people who are plural and/or promiscuous. Speaking up to support people is important. Whatever consenting adults get up to should be fine. We should think carefully about the aspects of other people we demand to have hidden from us and what that might do to people obliged to lie by omission about who they are.

Disability and long term illness can lead to a lot of lying by omission. The main one is saying ‘I’m ok’ when really you aren’t, because you can’t face the hassles, positivity talks, and other expensive, useless things that follow if you admit to not being ok. Ill people do a lot of faking wellness. Depressed and anxious people do a lot of pretending, out of necessity and to avoid what happens when you are misunderstood or treated unkindly if you admit how things really are. We need to think about how our responses can add pressure in the lives of people who are already suffering. Reacting as though that suffering is laziness, lack of willingness to try, poor attitude or some other failure, adds layers of shame to already unhappy lives. We could stop doing that.

There are all kinds of things people are routinely mocked and punished for. That includes making mistakes, not knowing things, being anxious, how we look, how we dress, our body shapes, how we smile, even. It can be relentless. The experience of being knocked down, silenced, disrespected and disregarded has a lot of people hiding parts of themselves. How many people out there are afraid to show up as themselves for fear of how some other human is going to knock them down for it? How many people knock others down even as they dread being treated that way themselves?

Honesty is really hard when you’re in situations where you can’t count on basic decency from other people, much less compassion. There’s nothing especially honourable about being honest in situations where that might invite more harm than you can bear. If we want to move honourably through the world, then making sure other people can be honest, authentic and truthful needs to be part of that.

Changing your mind

It is incredibly disorientating when something happens to make you realise that your understanding of the world may be desperately wrong. This is often an issue for trauma survivors. People who have faced a traumatic experience may need support in rebooting their reality and going back to feeling safe. It’s also an issue when you’re emerging from abuse – especially gaslighting – and realise that you’ve had your reality damaged. When you’ve been lied to a lot, finding out about it can leave you unsure of what can now be trusted.

Then there are the people emerging from belief systems – that might mean cults, or family stories, religious belief, political affiliations or anything else that dominates a person’s world view. If something happens to make us doubt our world view, that can be a real blow. At the same time, if we’ve been persuaded by something inaccurate, toxic or controlling, then recovering from that is in our best interests.

When the reality you encounter doesn’t fit with the reality you think you know, what do you do? Who can you safely talk to? How do you ascertain which version is real? How do you decide what to trust?

I’ve been here a couple of times, and I can’t say it gets easier with practice. As a very young adult I was drawn into a web of lies, which enabled someone else to commit fraud, and sexually abuse others. I was used as a decoy duck to make the situation look valid, which was a tough thing to have to square up to. Once I started unpicking what was going on, there was a long period where I felt totally lost and bewildered. All I could do was look for the solid, objective evidence. When it’s personal, this is a lot more feasible than when you’ve had your reality broken by something that has more power over you. If your entire culture has told you that you’re evil because of who you are attracted to, finding a space where you can challenge that idea is much harder.

Trust makes us vulnerable. Trust the wrong person, or the wrong news outlet, or the wrong politician and you can leave yourself open to considerable harm. But without trust, we have no points of reference to build our sense of reality on. Deciding who and what to trust is such a huge issue, and yet most of us make the choice unconsciously, assuming that whatever we grow up with is normal. If we find that we’ve misplaced our trust, especially if that’s around things we’ve trusted since childhood, then rebuilding is really hard.

It is possible, though. I’ve done it twice now in a substantial way. If you are short of useful points of reference, focus on whatever is least subjective. A few pieces of evidence about what’s real and what isn’t can help you unpick the rest. (Choose your sources carefully and consider the qualifications of any expert you turn to. Youtube conspiracy theorists will not help you.) 

If you’re obliged to question your reality, or re-build it, one of the most useful questions to ask is what it’s going to allow you to do. There is no single objective truth about existence, or how to live, or what to feel. When you’re building your reality from scratch, you actually get to pick how you want to think about life, the world, people, yourself. You can do that in a deliberate way and it is entirely reasonable to pick based on what you think would most help you. Start by considering how you might be kind to yourself. If you pick kindness, things tend to go better than not from there. It’s a better basis for making mistakes. Better to be too kind, too patient, too good, than to choose a path of anger and wounding.

Willingness to hurt

It’s a bit of a romance novel cliche – the person who has been hurt and thinks they cannot open their heart or love again. In romance novels that tends to resolve, but in real life often it doesn’t. 

No one wants to suffer (well, aside from masochists but that’s another story). Some of us are perhaps too open to being hurt – family patterns can have us expecting love to be painful and thus not holding good boundaries. However, trying to protect yourself from pain can all too easily mean missing out on a lot of life.

To care is to be open to being hurt. Care invites empathy, and no one and nothing in this world will continue forever in some pristine, untroubled, healthy, happy state. To love someone is to be open to being hurt by whatever hurts them, at the very least. It means loving people, cats, trees etc even though you know that when they die it’s going to hurt unbearably. And yet you choose to bear it.

Sometimes the people you love will let you down. Maybe by accident. Maybe because their needs don’t align with yours. Maybe deliberately. If you aren’t prepared to risk some of that, you can’t have trust, or any kind of depth, or any scope for natural human error.

If you are determined to avoid hurt, you might not be willing to deal with the discomfort of having got something wrong. That shuts down opportunities to learn, and to improve things. It means as soon as something goes wrong, the entire relationship is in trouble. The more set you are on avoiding pain, the more likely it is that you are demanding impossible levels of perfection from everything and everyone around you. That in turn means you’re setting everyone up to fail because you won’t be perfect and neither will they. Pain avoidance becomes, perversely, something entirely likely to get you hurt.

Beyond our human relationships, we need to be willing to get hurt over what is happening with the climate crisis. If we try to insulate ourselves from that, we’re simply going to add to the problem. If we’re willing to be uncomfortable, we can change things. The more we push to try and stay comfortable, the more likely we are to destroy the very things we depend on for that comfort.

If we want what is good in our lives, then we have to be willing to care enough about it that we give it the power to hurt us.

Picking an honourable path

What do you do in face of laws that are abusive or cruel? What do you do when upholding one ethical thing conflicts with some other demand for compassion or protection? Most of the time, the good and ethical choice is fairly obvious. What do we do when nothing is simple?

Picking an honourable path is to a large extent something you have to figure out on your own. Doing that requires having a system of priorities. I would, for example, lie to keep someone alive because I think protecting life is more important than being honest. I might however decide that it is more important to be honest than to maintain a relationship that depends on me lying. 

There’s a lot of room for personal choice here. How we relate to laws is an interesting case in point for thinking about how our honour systems work. On what terms are we willing to break the law? What do we do when the laws themselves are not just? Laws are often made by people with power and may be in place to protect power and financial interests. How far is it honourable to go in order to tackle an unjust system? I’m not personally inclined towards violence, but I do think there are times when it is an appropriate response.

When faced with complicated situations, I’m interested in what would cause least harm and do most good. When those two things align it can be easy to make decisions even if the price-tag on a choice is still high. However, it often isn’t that clear cut because there’s usually an element of guesswork involved. I don’t know how everything is going to play out. I have to acknowledge my own biases and preferences. Like most people, I am inclined to value the good outcomes for people I care about over harm caused to people who mean nothing to me. It is harder to place a value on what would be good when I’m thinking about people I actively don’t like.

I’m not the sort of person who believes that the ends justify the means. I don’t believe in winning at any cost. I try not to see life as inherently competitive and I don’t believe that for some people to ‘win’ and have success other people must lose. 

Every now and then a situation comes along where it’s hard to see what to do for the best and I have no idea what the possible outcomes are. Which leads me to a question I struggle with – to what degree should I be willing to treat good outcomes for me as the least important thing? To what degree should I treat my own good outcomes as important? It’s not as though a good outcome for me is something that only impacts on me. Usually if I’m winning at something that benefits other people in all kinds of ways. There are people who will suffer if I suffer. 

Generally speaking I believe in behaving honestly and with compassion. However, none of us can see the future, we only guess at where our choices might take us. I’m increasingly interested by the way in which a person’s scope to act honourably depends on both their ability to understand the complexities of situations they are in, and their ability to predict outcomes. An apparently kind choice based on profound misunderstanding can cause a lot of harm. What scope do we have to make honourable choices if we don’t understand what’s happening and what the implications are? This in turn suggests that attempting to make sense of things might be a critically important moral choice, on which all scope for acting honourably must depend.

Then they fired the writers

It comes as no shock to me to learn that people who used to be paid to write content are now being replaced with AIs. I know people whose working lives are already being affected by this. No doubt there’s more of it to come.

I’m not personally likely to be much affected because the people who like what I do aren’t looking for cheaper alternatives. My weird imagination, my odd humour and my inclination to write things that don’t fit expected story shapes are not things an AI can replace. All our current AIs can do is cobble together pastiches of existing material – they aren’t really creating and they aren’t really intelligent, although that could eventually change. People who want to consume material from predictable franchises maybe won’t suffer much if the humans are replaced with machines. 

Writing AIs aren’t accurate. They can sound plausible and persuasive, but we’re already seeing in Pagan circles that they can’t quality-assess the information they take in. Uncritically pulling together content from any and all sources is going to cause issues for humans in all kinds of ways. After years of struggling with propaganda, fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories we’re unleashing a technology that can’t think critically about these things and has no morals. If writing AIs are designed to encourage anything, it will be getting hits and generating revenue. We can’t expect them to be truthful or responsible.

This in turn raises a lot of questions about how any of us might source information in the future. Questions of trust and value will be part of this. There’s scope for deepening cultural divides – if on one hand there are people willing to uncritically consume whatever is cheap and easily available. I suspect the kind of content I want will not be replaced by writing AIs, but it may be a lot harder for human creators to keep going when machines will be so much cheaper and able to churn out any number of words day and night.

I suspect there are serious choices ahead of us all about the kind of world we want to live in and whether we are willing, or able, to pay for things made by people rather than having cheap rehashes made by machines.

The need for meaning

I don’t personally think the universe offers us absolute meaning beyond the remarkable fact of our own existence. However, meaning is something that humans crave, and often need. Having an understanding of what’s meaningful helps us navigate choices. A sense of meaning and significance puts our lives into helpful perspective and can inform our sense of self worth.

I think it’s down to each of us, individually, to find and create meaning in our lives. This is an existential perspective and I find it comforting. I know that for some people the idea that there is no external source of ultimate meaning can seem threatening. This is no doubt why so many humans – historical and contemporary – have been drawn to religions that offer clear explanations about what the point of life is and therefore how you should live. We don’t have that kind of authority in Druidry and people are free to approach the issue of meaning on their own terms.

When we know what we find meaningful, we have something to hold at the centre of our lives. Community spaces that enable people to flourish have always been really important to me. I’m here for the love of wild things, for creativity, inspiration and beauty. I believe in restorative justice. This leads me to a sense of personal honour that involves how I take care of the people in my life, what I can do for the wild world, and how to act justly and with compassion. On the days when I struggle to get out of bed in the morning, knowing that I might be able to do some small thing on these terms helps me get moving.

Existence offers innumerable opportunities for meaning on a personal scale. Just not ultimate definite meaning. We don’t have to wait until we find meaning, we can set out to choose it and create it. We don’t have to wait for some external source – be that a deity, a book or an institution – to hand us meanings or validate the ones we have. We can simply decide what’s meaningful and choose to live accordingly.

It doesn’t fix everything. Having a sense of meaning doesn’t magically cure depression or stave off anxiety. But it does give you something to hang on to. It means there are stars in your night sky you can use to plot your course, and often, that’s enough.

Imagination as virtue

“Reality can be beaten with enough imagination” Mark Twain

To change anything, we have to be able to imagine that it could be different. One of the biggest problems with this planet destroying late stage capitalism is what a good job has been done persuading us that no other ways exist. We’re sold the market as a natural, inevitable force people are powerless to resist. We’re sold consumption as the peak of human progress. We’re told there’s no way to stop and that it would be pointless to try.

One of the things imaginative experiences can give us is the simple idea that alternatives exist. If our sense of alternatives first looks like a fantasy world, or Star Trek, or even a horror scenario, it’s still an alternative. If we can imagine the derranged outpourings of an ancient, mad god (with all due reference to Lovecraft) we can also imagine that the outpourings of our irresponsible politicians might also be deranged, and not representative of our only real choice.

People who benefit from us believing in their way of doing things will try to persuade us that no options even exist. People don’t fight back against things that seem inevitable. There is, after all, wisdom in not trying to fight things that cannot be changed. Except that anything humans have made can be changed, wasn’t inevitable and isn’t the only option.

So, while it calls for imagination to make change, any kind of imaginative thing we might share contributes to that. Being able to imagine is a necessary precursor for imagining the things that will make good change possible. To begin to imagine, it helps if we are exposed to imaginative things and if our minds are encouraged to imagine things that are beyond our experiences. 

I think there’s a case to be made that art is a moral necessity – more so than ever at the moment. All art, and all art forms, simply by existing, show us that possibility exists. Alternatives exist. Without culture, without creativity, we are more easily persuaded that what we have is all there is. Arguably, the less realistic, more speculative and outlandish things are, the more they do to open us up to possibility. If we can imagine vampires in outer space, we might better be able to imagine being ok with human diversity. If we can imagine aliens with radically different ways of living, we might be able to imagine changing our own lives.

It’s not enough to beat the reality we have, when it doesn’t work for us, we have to be able to imagine something better.

The Circle of Life is Broken – a review

My only complaint about this book is that the title suggests a far more depressing read than is actually the case. I should have known better – Brendan Myers isn’t the kind of philosopher to succumb to despair. It is of course a challenging and sometimes uncomfortable book, but there is also lyrical writing driven by a passion for life and existence, a book written to try and express possible ways forward.

For anyone looking for ways to think about the climate crisis, and to think about what they personally might be able to do, this is a good book to read. There are no glib answers here, there’s no sure fire quick fix and there is a lot of analysis of things that have already been tried and that failed. There’s also an enlightening history of ecological science which will help anyone not experienced in that field to better understand the ways in which we talk about the world and how that impacts on our responses to the crisis. Brendan also explores the kinds of psychological factors and human-created pressures acting on us to keep us where we are, with all the disastrous implications.

I particularly appreciated the way Brendan has tackled both the history and current manifestations of eco-fascism. Hate, as he points out, is not going to save anything or anyone. However, there is a lot of eco-fascism out there and like most kinds of fascism, it often seems persuasive to people at a surface level. The classist, racist, eugenics-oriented aspects don’t reveal themselves at first glance. Any argument that involves blaming poor people for existing will lead us into this territory and it is so important to be alert to where that thinking goes and how harmful it is.

For anyone into philosophy, and anyone who wants material to reflect on, this book has a great deal to offer. It is an invitation to engage, to contemplate, and ultimately, to act. Heartily recommended.

More on the publisher’s website

Justice on the Druid path

It is important to think about what we do in the name of justice and not to assume that the desire for justice of itself guarentees anything about our actions or the impact they have.

There’s nothing like righteous indignation for making a person feel powerful and important as they lash out. That can be alluring and addictive. It’s important to be sure at the very least that you’re lashing out at the right person – someone who has the scope to fix a problem. All too often the person who gets lashed out at is the one who happens to be nearest and easiest to hit. Shouting at a low paid employee over decisions other people have made regarding the company they work for, is not a just action.

The internet gives us a steady supply of opportunities to lash out at other people in the name of justice. Online it’s easy to hit people who are vulnerable. It’s also easy to pick on people who are actually doing good work and care about getting things right but do not meet your standards in every imaginable way. By this means we can end up knocking down the people who were genuinely trying to fix and improve things while ignoring the people who are causing the actual problems.

If you’re in a fight and enjoying it, there’s a lot to be said for pausing to look at that. Are you really helping anything or anyone, or are you just enjoying your own feelings of power? Might you be playing at being a white knight? Are you making yourself feel good and important at someone else’s expense? Who are you talking over? Is there anything important you might have overlooked? What’s the real power balance between you and the person you’re fighting? 

People are seldom persuaded by aggression. There are times when a show of force gets things done and there are times when that may well be the right choice, but it shouldn’t be our first port of call. People are depressingly averse to reasoned arguments and evidence when that goes against beliefs they have invested in. Getting angry with them doesn’t turn them into better people, usually. 

If you can’t fix a problem, or challenge someone who can then often the best choice is example, not engagement. Put your truth into the world. Show your values through your actions. Do something restorative, because that’s often the best form justice can take anyway. If you can’t fix a problem, draw attention to it, try to offset it in some way. Anger is not a direct path to justice. We have to take our anger and turn it into something useful that helps people, otherwise we’re just being self indulgent.

Attraction, bodies and culture

Human bodies are such interesting things. We’re a diverse sort of species. We come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, colours and builds. Some of us are naturally quite furry and some of us are skinless landsharks and all places in between.

The bodies we have are affected by our health and our ancestry. What we eat and how we spend our time will all have their impact. Most cultures have standards for what counts as especially attractive and that’s diverse too.

To what degree is our capacity for attraction informed by our cultures? What happens when our desires don’t neatly match what we’ve been told to want? Or when our bodies aren’t considered socially acceptable? One obvious case in point here would be the obsession some cultures have with youth being the standard for beauty. We all get older, and fighting that process is pointless – but it does make a lot of money for beauty industries.

For me, attraction doesn’t begin with a body. I can find people aesthetically pleasing without feeling any urge at all to follow through on it. If I connect with someone emotionally, then I will find them attractive. I don’t have a type exactly, I’m not much affected by gender or gender presentation. I tend to go for high cheekbones, but that’s about it, and it’s certainly not a deal breaker.

How someone’s voice sounds is a bigger factor in attraction for me, than what they look like. I assume it wouldn’t be a dealbreaker but at the same time I’ve never been attracted to someone I didn’t think had a gorgeous speaking voice. I’m also really affected by how people smell, although that’s not easy to spot when it’s happening. We can unconsciously gather a lot of information about each other from smells, so for me it’s only been when people’s smells have changed that it’s registered with me.

I’m very much attracted to creativity, imagination and unusual minds. I like interacting with people who think deeply, and who are interested in things, and excited about things. What exactly they are into turns out to be less important. I like spending time with people who have passions and wild enthusiasms. 

Who we find appealing informs so many aspects of our lives. It’s not just about romance and sexual partners. It’s there in how we pick our friends and our social spaces. It can inform who we vote for and who we hire. There’s a lot of privilege that comes with conforming to certain kinds of beauty standards and lots of scope for abuse, shaming, disrespect and disadvantage the less you conform to those standards.