How to live (I)

As an atheist of the militant persuasion, it’s somewhat odd that in the past two weeks I’ve spent significant time in deep conversation with a preacherman. Sometimes you need to call in the specialists, and the situation demanded a specialist of his description.

The strangest part of the experience, however, was finding that the urge to label myself inconsistent in having this interaction was insignificantly weak, and in the end rested on something linguistic rather than principled. And I mention this because it’s immensely liberating to realise that one can be as principled as always, without those principles trumping all other interests.

On reflection, I suspect that the mistake I’d always made was in imagining that human interaction was often a zero-sum game. It sometimes is, to be sure, but far less often than I once believed. Any principles worth holding dear are presumably only valuable because of the utility they generate for you (I’m excluding fundamentalist epistemologies here) and others (assuming we should factor others in at this fundamental level).

My primary utility function rested in first doing no harm, which I interpreted as being as irreproachable as possible. This meant that while people may or may not have enjoyed interacting with me, they could at least not accuse me of deceiving them.

But it’s not surprising that interaction often ends up being a zero-sum game with this outlook, as my primary engagement with others was largely inward-looking, as a result of the fear of betraying the demands of that utility-function.

And being inward-looking, it’s likewise unsurprising that I was often more concerned with my own utility than with that of others – even though I’ve always argued for a contractarian account of morality, whereby what satisfies others may well satisfy me in the end also. A sizeable contradiction was staring at me all along, and it’s unfortunately taken me quite long to spot it.

Avoiding this contradiction was partly a factor of complacence and partly a factor of the support system I embraced, which involved people like-minded enough that the irrationality of my position never had to be exposed.

But in being forced to observe the destructive nature of the selfishness that exists at the thin end of this mindedness, I was lucky enough to start being able to observe the alternatives – which, at the end of a very long story for another day – led me to the preacherman mentioned above. There is still much to figure out, but more importantly, there is much that can’t be figured out – and that’s quite alright.

More on this another day – a cocktail, followed by some molecular gastronomy, awaits.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.