The Virtue of Dissent: a New Concept of Moralism
“Disobedience, the rarest and most courageous of the virtues, is seldom distinguished from neglect, the laziest and commonest of the vices.” –George Bernard Shaw
“At this point in history the capacity to doubt, to criticize and to disobey may be all that stands between a future for mankind and the end of civilization.” -Erich Fromm
The basic structure of the universe is simple: existence or nonexistence. This structure has “meaning” only in regard to living organisms. And only living organisms even need take into account the concept of existence or nonexistence, life or death. Governing this precept, it stands to reason that, really, only living organisms need to distinguish between anything. Further governing this precept, it stands to reason that only a living organism that’s aware of itself as a thing that’s alive, and will someday die, need attribute value to anything. The value attributed to things is therefore directly related to what keeps that organism alive, as opposed to dead. That which sustains an organism and keeps it alive is healthy for that organism. That which makes an organism ill, or kills it, is unhealthy for that organism. So long as an organism is alive it stands to reason that it ought to attempt to remain alive. Life is a goal in and of itself. All ascending values begin at this fundamental goal of existence: to survive. And the best way to survive is to remain healthy. Like the famous Lakota, Russell Means said, "It is the role of all natural beings to survive. A part of our survival is to resist. We resist not to overthrow a government or to take political power, but because it is natural to resist extermination, to survive.”
The challenge for humans is in regard to consciousness. Human consciousness distinguishes itself from other animals in that it is volitional. That is to say, we can “choose” to be healthy or “choose” to be unhealthy. Volition is the trump card of humanity. Reason is the faculty we acquire to make decisions. A completely unreasonable person chooses to kill themselves. A reasonable person chooses to live. This makes Mankind more responsible for his actions than any other animal. A human animal, unlike other animals, has to discover what is true or false, what is right and wrong, and how to correct for errors in reasoning. “The difference between rats and people," wrote BF Skinner, "is that when a rat gets shocked at one end of the maze, he never goes there again." Consciousness, for a human, is therefore as much a burden as it is a gift. The gift is reason, the burden is volition. Through the faculty of reason we distinguish between that which kills us and that which makes us stronger, and everything in between. But it is our responsibility alone to figure this out. We “figure it out” through our ability to reason. We act it out through volition. The goal is to somehow get our volitional autonomy in line with moral action. If we can do this then we can begin to build a code of ethics.
Being healthy, or not, is always in regard to environment. One’s environment is the stage, or backdrop, in which all acts of reason, or ill-reason, are played out. Nothing lives in a vacuum. If we live in a desert then we will need more water to survive. If we live in a universe where gravity is law, then we survive by avoiding cliffs. If we are social creatures living in a community, then we survive by not killing other social creatures. One could be “of the opinion” that gravity doesn’t exist, or that killing others is “good,” but one would nonetheless be wrong, as dictated by the environment. One could be “of the opinion” that smoking crack is healthy, but one would still be wrong, as dictated by the environment: crack destroys the body. One could even be “of the opinion” that being healthy is bad, or that being unhealthy is good, but one would nonetheless still be wrong, as dictated by the environment: the fundamental nature of the cosmos.
Cosmically speaking, we are governed by laws. And when these laws are violated there are consequences. Some of these consequences are unhealthy. The more fundamental laws violated, the more unhealthy consequences there will be. It is our responsibility as consciously aware organisms to figure this out. Our ability to reason is not a given. Our ability to reason must first be taught and then practiced, throughout our lifetime. And when our ability to reason fails we must be made accountable by those whose ability to reason has not failed. When too many people are “of the opinion” that having more than they need is okay, or that destroying the environment is a necessary evil toward the development of natural resources, or that money is more important than life, or that war is the only way to maintain peace, then reason has been abandoned and the consequences will be unhealthy. The consequence of eating too much: obesity. The consequence of drinking too much alcohol: liver damage. The consequence of smoking too much: lung cancer. These are not matters of opinion. These are consequences dictated by nature. If you drink too little water, you die. If you drink too much water, you die. The only way to survive is to find a balance, to discover moderation, to listen to what nature is trying to tell us. In other words: the only way to survive is to remain healthy. It just so happens that healthiness is synonymous with moderation.
Remaining healthy is difficult only insofar as an environment is unhealthy. Otherwise, remaining healthy is the most natural state. If one’s environment is unhealthy then remaining healthy is a great challenge. If you were suddenly transported to Mars you would die, as the Martian environment is not conducive to human health. As it stands, our environment, both physical and mental, is unhealthy. The fundamental problem is that too many people are basing right & wrong upon human opinion, and not enough people are basing right & wrong upon health. And so we are left with yet another decision. Our ability to reason is being summoned once again. We must decide to either base our notions of right & wrong upon the rigid human opinion of good & evil, or upon the natural dictation of health. Remember: anybody can be “of the opinion,” because volition is the human trump card. It trumps even reason. But, and here’s the rub, only a person whose opinion is in accord with their environment (that is, with nature and the cosmos) will be correct and thereby justified in their opinion. Like Carl Jung wrote, “The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” It is our responsibility to make the right decision. And the “right decision” is dictated by nature at some level. We just have to pinpoint this “level” and then use the faculty of reason to make sense out of it.
The problem we face as a species (and as a world) is simple: not enough healthy, reasonable people, and too many unhealthy, unreasonable people. It really is that simple, albeit deceivingly so. Like Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” And here we are. But just because we are surrounded by unhealthy idiots doesn’t get us off the hook. We are still responsible for our reason and our health. We are still responsible for our power. And just because we are outnumbered by people who are choosing to be unhealthy rather than healthy, choosing to be unreasonable rather than reasonable, it does not get us off the hook for doing what is right: which is being reasonable and healthy.
I paraphrase Camus here, “The only way to deal with an unhealthy world is to become so absolutely healthy that your very existence is an act of rebellion (I replaced the word ‘unfree’ with ‘unhealthy’ and ‘free’ with ‘healthy,’ but you get the gist).” Now enter the Virtue of Dissent. When one’s environment is unhealthy, as ours has become, dissent becomes a virtue. Both our physical environment (cosmos) and our mental environment (psyche) have become extremely unhealthy. Indeed, they have become battlefields of armored egoism. We are literally tripping over our weaponry. We are running on dead blueprints. The propped-up gods of Money and Greed are fat and bloated with affluence. The earth lies ruined and toxic all around us because of shortsightedness and narrow-mindedness. We have alienated ourselves from the vitality of nature. The primordial umbilical cord has been severed, and globalization has produced a cancerous homogenizing effect. Diversity, once a praised aspect of the interconnectedness of nature, has become blasphemy according to those of unhealthy and ill-reason. The muck and mire in which we are immersed is akin to slow-boiled water, and we’re the frogs. What’s the solution? How do we get out without drowning, or worse, being slowly cooked to death? Arundhati Roy said it best, “The only thing worth globalizing is dissent.”
It’s not that we need be rebellious just for the principle of the thing; it’s that we need to be rebellious in order to evolve as a species. It really is that critical. As I’ve mentioned before, we'll reap no evolution if we can't sow a little revolution. There has never been a greater need for whistle-blowers than right now. There has never been a greater need for people whose faculty of reason has not failed them to step up. Indeed, in an unreasonable world the reasonable person becomes a dissenter by default. And when the person of reason is courageous enough to call-out people of ill-reason, that person becomes a whistle-blower by default. Like John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
If a governing institution becomes corrupt, as powerful institutions are prone, then the highest calling for a person of reason, thereby governed, is to act as dissenter and whistle-blower. No amount of power can defeat truth. If an entity of power claims that collateral damage (otherwise known as innocent civilians) is a necessary evil of war, then that unreasonable entity must be called out by people of reason, by people who will be considered whistle-blowers. Sure, it’s risky. But acts of courage always are. The virtue of dissent is not for the meek and mild. The capacity needed to burden the vicissitudes and handle the heat, is great. But never has there been a greater need for people of this particular capacity. “In order to disobey one must have the courage to be alone, to err and to sin” wrote Erich Fromm. “But courage is not enough. The capacity for courage depends on a person's state of development. Only if a person has emerged from mother's lap and father's commands, only if he has emerged as a fully developed individual and thus has acquired the ability to think and feel for himself, only then can he have the courage to say “no” to power, to disobey.”
A healthy world is not an unreachable utopia. Don’t allow the unreasonable, unhealthy naysayers dissuade you. A healthy world is very possible. For millions of years our species lived in healthy accord with nature (Daniel Quinn’s Beyond Civilization). For millions of years our psyche was linked with cosmos. We’ve spent the last two-thousand years in the abyss, severed from the cosmic source. But there are ladders to freedom, built and propped up by healthy, reasonable people, the world over. It is our responsibility as reasonable, healthy people to re-discover these ladders and climb out of the abyss. It’s not too late. We are never more authentically ourselves than when we are healthy. If we are unhealthy, then in order to become more authentically ourselves, we must heal ourselves. “To be ourselves may cause us to be exiled by many others” wrote Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “and yet to comply with what others want causes us to be exiled from ourselves.”
One of the big problems is people tend to think that we have only two options regarding outlook: hope or despair. But neither one is healthy and leads to inertia. Hope without despair leads to moral complacency. Despair without hope leads to moral abdication. Between the two, there is a third option: moral integrity. It is founded upon living reasonable, healthy lifestyles with fear-transformed-into-courage as fuel. Moral integrity subsumes both hope and despair and produces balance and moderation through courageous action. We are living in a world that is pulling us between the two extremes of hope and despair. We balance it out through dissent, by pulling back, by centering and moderating our lifestyles. It’s a re-discovery of the Golden Mean: the desirable middle between two extremes of excess and deficiency. Dissent becomes paramount when a given environment is ravaged by excess and deficiency. Indeed, our moral integrity thereby necessitates dissent.
Another big problem is people tend to think that we have only two options regarding knowledge: certainty and uncertainty. But neither one gets us anywhere and leads to cognitive complacency. Certainty without uncertainty leads to cognitive stagnation. Uncertainty without certainty leads to cognitive trepidation. Between the two, there is a third option: cognitive integrity. It is founded upon implementing the philosophical tool of fallibilism: the principle that human beings could be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or their understanding of the world. A fallibilistic approach is an act of dissent in the face of certainty and uncertainty, for it consists in being open to new evidence that would disprove some previously held position or belief. Like Carl Sagan said, “I don’t want to believe, I want to know.” Remember: nothing lives in a vacuum. In a universe whose fundamental nature is change, the fallibilistic method is the healthier, more reasonable, scientific approach toward acquiring knowledge. And fallibilism is itself a return to the Golden Mean.
Fixing our broken society - not simply assuaging symptoms - must be a priority for us all. But first it needs to be understood that there is a broken society. As it stands, the majority of people live comfortable, passively-unhealthy, inert lifestyles, with no intention of disturbing those comforts, being proactive about healthy change, or transforming their inertia into courageous intent. People prefer the ignorance of bliss over the pain of knowledge. And anybody who goes against the grain and rebels will be seen as attacking those cherished comforts and indulgent luxuries, no matter how unsustainable those luxuries may be, or how unhealthy those creature comforts are to the environment. “We have an organizational system that works wonderfully well for products” wrote Daniel Quinn. “But we don’t have a system that works wonderfully well for people.”
Understand: until we begin to proactively heal ourselves, there can be no “fixing” our broken society. A society is the sum of its parts, and its parts are people. If the majority of those people are healthy and reasonable then the society will be prosperous, constructive, and sustainable. If the majority of those people are unhealthy and unreasonable then the society will be dangerous, destructive, and unsustainable. And when the latter is the case, the catalyzing effect of the few who courageously dissent will be the deciding factor on whether or not a future generation will be healthy and reasonable. If those who dissent, in the face of the unhealthy, unreasonable majority, should fail, then society as a whole fails. But, if they should succeed, then society succeeds by transforming itself back into a prosperous, constructive, sustainable society. The place is here. The time is now. The way, is through dissent.
“I’ve often lost myself, in order to find the burn that keeps everything awake.” -Federico García Lorca