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The Phenomenon of Existence (part2)

By Will Baker


The Paradox of Collective Existentialism

Based upon the manner in which we humans seem to be compelled to organize ourselves into political divisions, it seems to me that one could argue that perhaps we have an underlying need to do so. I believe there is probably a correlation between this need to organize ourselves thusly and the basic need we have for interaction. For instance, with the rare exception of folks who choose to exist as hermits, most individuals do not do well in isolation-- which is why solitary confinement is usually looked upon as a form of punishment.

So we individual and distinct beings seem to have a need to live collectively. What then do we do with this living situation? Well, based upon the historical record we create societies, which then transform themselves over time, relative to the period in which they exist. And it seems to me that one could argue that convenience and morality drives this societal transformation.

It is a commonly held belief that prior to the Agrarian Revolution, our descendents were organized into tribal units that subsisted by hunting and gathering. In addition, it is thought that the tribal morality of the day presumed that murder outside of one’s tribal unit was not a big deal. In fact, it is not hard for me to imagine that in some cases it was encouraged, as these tribes were no doubt competing for limited resources. However killing within the tribal unit was thought to be taboo. However, early on, it is believed that the reason why killing within the tribal unit was taboo had nothing to do with what we would refer to as "morality." No, this prohibition was thought to be out of convenience. For example, in order for the hunt to be successful, the tribe needed to be able to field able-bodied hunters. Therefore, if there were no taboo against killing a member of one’s tribe, the tribe would eventually be unable to sustain itself. Now lets look to a modern day example. Many societies in the western world are organized in a highly mobile manner where personally owned automobile use is the norm. I would argue that there is no moral basis for the manner in which most motorists tend to obey traffic signaling devices. When we stop our cars at a red light or stop sign, we do not do so out of a compelling moral imperative. No, we do so for societal convenience. Without this type of cooperation the society’s "desire" to become more mobile could not be realized, just as in the case above, where, without the cooperation necessary to refrain from killing the members of one’s tribe, the tribal society’s desire to sustain itself could not be fulfilled.

The examples above demonstrate societal transformation driven by convenience, but what of transformation driven by morality? As I previously mentioned, among all living things man is a sentient being, and therefore has the ability to think in the abstract, which in turn allows him to develop his essence. It seems to me that this capacity lends itself to the capability to feel empathy and compassion for other beings, and when this sympathy is directed towards other sentient individuals it becomes Existential Empathy. From an existential point of view we exist as free-standing solitary beings, each on a distinctive journey towards the development of our unique essences, but with the ability to project Existential Empathy towards those other solitary beings journeying on different yet similar paths. It seems to me that over time, the ability to project this Existential Empathy has led to the establishment of ethical systems that effect the direction of a given society’s developing morality.

And as sentient beings who can think in the abstract, we have the ability to question the nature of our existences, to ask the "big" questions. This ability has directly resulted in the development of philosophical and theological theories about the nature of reality. Now there is clearly a difference between a notion such as Existential Empathy and the idea that a God may exist, however the behavioral results associated with each way of thinking are often very similar. For example, one might believe that it is wrong to steal from a person, because one can imagine how that would make the individual feel, and one might believe it is wrong to steal because "God" does not wish one to steal. In this example the reasons why one would chose not to steal are very different, however in both cases, the choice not to steal is the same. Yet whether the choices are made out of a sense of Existential Empathy or of an obligation to some religion’s code is irrelevant. And when these type of choices are made en masse, both can provide the basis for societal transformation that is morally driven.

Now bear in mind that societal transformation (the development of the Essence of the Collective) is a fluid thing and whether the transformation is driven by convenience or morality it is relative in nature. For example, not too long ago slavery was a widespread acceptable practice. However, now, in most circles this is no longer the case. A similar example would be the employment of children in sweatshops and coalmines. In each case an argument could be made that the reasons why these practices were allowed to occur were out of convenience (a source of cheap labor to help fuel the economic expansion of society). However as society’s morality shifted, relative to the times, these practices were no longer seen as acceptable, not to mention the fact that, with technological advancements, the labor required to raise and harvest cotton, manufacture textiles and extract coal were greatly reduced.

As I indicated before, as sentient beings, it can be argued that, existentially speaking, we have the ability to define our essences, to transform ourselves and to change. Given the above, it is my belief that the same can be said of a society or collectively speaking, of our race. And when one sets our individual realities, as expressed by our existences against our need to collectively organize ourselves, it seems to me that when we set about the task of developing our essences within the context of Collective Existentialism it represents a fascinating paradox.

Part 3: Duality and the Paradox



 (Essay Collection)