Many of the problems of what we call Civilization are based on philosophical errors. Philosophy in my usage includes religion, science, and personal beliefs.
Why should we care about such a seeming theoretical concept? Because inward to each individual is a set of beliefs or convictions that compose a personal philosophy, whether or not he or she understands it as such. There is something that philosophers and sociologists call “the spirit of the times”, by which a myriad of listenings, watchings, discussions, parental instructions, readings cause certain larger philosophical beliefs to enter into an individual’s core beliefs. Unfortunately most people do not subject these beliefs to critical examination.
I am going to make the case that it is crucial, at this stage of human history, to go beyond narrow beliefs into a condition of love, kindness, compassion, and respect for all humanity. To do this I wish to examine what I call philosophical errors that impede our efforts to accomplish this global mind change.
The overriding error is the very basis of what we call Civilization: Patriarchy. For 5000 years the patriarchal way of conducting society has taken over most of the human world. People are so used to it that many apologists claim it is natural to humanity. In fact, patriarchy is a constructed system and not natural to us. Patriarchy is characterized by domination, hierarchy, and power. We humans need to go beyond patriarchy and adopt a more natural system that is the opposite: characterized by partnership, egalitarianism, and no power over others. This latter social system was common in human communities prior to civilization and is still practiced by many surviving indigenous peoples.
It will be very helpful, in fact I believe essential, that to move beyond patriarchy we need to clear away the numerous philosophical errors that have been created by it, such as the following.
Humanity Apart from Nature
Early humans understood that they live within and subject to the natural world. At some point in the early development of civilization (I don’t know when or how), there arose the view that humanity has a special relationship with the Gods or God. This led to a sense of hubris, overuse of resources, and separation from nature that over and over has led to collapses in empires. In the United States, the European settlers had the view that nature is a “howling wilderness” and must be tamed.
Patriarchy by its very name assumes …. men over women. Much talk and writing has been wasted trying to show that this is a natural way of human affairs. It’s only within our lifetime that women have been enabled to show their equal competence in all areas. This can be viewed graphically in photographs of the United Nations General Assembly. Photographs from the 1940s show rows of men in business suits while Eleanor Roosevelt was almost the only woman present. Today, the General Assembly is filled with a robust number of women including some up front as leaders of their countries.
Racism and tribal prejudice is very old and predates civilization. I’m speculating that since many tribes have distinct origin stories they may have used these stories to show inherent differences and by implication that some tribes are superior to others. Under civilization, again much writing has been wasted trying to show certain “races” are superior to others, for example that African slaves were inferior or even not human. In fact, all humans are virtually identical having the same DNA with trivial exceptions. Variation in capabilities and interests among humans is very large, and is much greater than differences between any defined groups such as gender, “race”, or nationality.
Unfortunately, as Cornel West has said, “Race Matters.” In the United States, disaffected White people, seeing themselves in a hierarchical society, try to scapegoat Black people, other nonwhite people, and recent immigrants as “others” who are causing their problems. Demagogues seize on this sentiment to achieve destructive power.
Something has happened recently, only in my lifetime – people have news and connections all around the world. The Internet has helped us to talk and see others everywhere in real time.
I think humanity is maturing enough as a result of these connections so that we increasingly understand and feel that we are all one people.
The major religions were created during our patriarchal civilizations in order to push back against the tyrannical rule of monarchs. The religions created some space around subject peoples by asserting the equal worth of all individuals, and developing ethical codes that were broadly applicable to all persons wherever they were in the hierarchy. These rules for living are a precious legacy within the persistent tyranny of patriarchy. However, organized religions have often taken on the same hierarchical trappings in an imitation of the secular political systems. This has led to conflicts among religions for two reasons: the belief that my religion is right and yours is wrong, and the use of religion as a tool of power by one group over another.
Christianity and Islam are religions most prone to the first conflict. Fortunately, the greatest damage created by religious wars and persecution based on the conviction of righteousness is now past. Most religious leaders are enlightened enough to respect the beliefs of others in the name of pluralism. However, active conversion attempts are still being conducted by more fundamentalist groups. These conversions can channel people’s spiritual yearnings into a particular path that may not fit them, leaving them confused and resentful.
The misuse of religion as a wedge to divide groups and gain power remains a major problem. In Northern Ireland the majority Protestant population discriminated against the minority Catholics, a long-standing relationship that went back centuries to the English conquest of Ireland. This only ended recently with a power-sharing agreement that is the foundation for the new government of Northern Ireland. In Sri Lanka the minority Hindus, the Tamils, fought a decades-long war against repression by the dominant Buddhists. Those are two religions that used to have traditions of tolerance of other faiths. In Sudan the Islamic central government of the North fought brutally against the Christian populations of the South. And the current Indian leader is passing laws that will place Muslims in second-class status to Hindus.
These conflicts based on religious affiliation are examples of blaming “the other” for their troubles, as we discussed earlier. Jews have for a couple of millennia served as an easy target for blame, due to their small numbers. Demagogues also use this handle to gain destructive power.
Sexual and Gender Preference
All humans have both male and female characteristics. It is psychologically damaging to try to make oneself as wholly male or wholly female. Many religions, and secular societies as well, make the error of rejecting homosexual, lesbian, or transgender identity.
The libertarian view is extensively argued by its proponents. Libertarians advocate maximum individual rights, private property rights, and free markets. According to them, government activities should be limited to protecting civil liberties and free markets through use of police and military forces, and the courts. Charity, education, and other social measures are best left to private individuals and philanthropic groups of citizens such as churches. Libertarian philosophy is not widely held since most people understand that it is an intellectual construct that does not correspond to the real situations of individuals and families living in a society. However, libertarian rhetoric is often used by politicians and elites to beat back government social welfare.
Marxism has inflicted great suffering on the world. At its core there is a truth, namely that capitalism has an inherent drive to create a “race to the bottom”, with workers competing with each other for the lowest income work in the desperate struggle to survive, while the oligarchs enrich themselves with the surplus that the workers created. This situation continues to exist in many underdeveloped countries, and has come back in the United States with stagnant and declining real incomes for middle-income families along with increasing riches of the top 1%.
However, Lenin and his followers have seen the potential of Marxism as a philosophical screen behind which to seize power and exercise unchecked and absolute power. They have called it Communism, and the power they have wielded has caused the deaths of tens of millions in the former Soviet Union, China and elsewhere. The rule of Stalin, Mao, and the Khmer Rouge demonstrate the extreme hardship caused when a command economy enables political leaders to make all economic decisions by whim.
Marxism should not be confused with what is now called “socialism”, used in a pejorative way by American reactionaries to describe capitalist countries such as Canada and many in Europe that provide significant social welfare support for their citizens.
Free enterprise at the individual and small business level seems to correspond with basic human motivations; this has been called “natural capitalism.” However, when taken as an ideology, capitalism is increasingly dangerous to the world. There is a perception problem since the practice of capitalism has, after a long period of evolution, provided material benefits to “developed” societies which compose the First World. It is therefore natural that many first-world ideologues have closed their minds to capitalism’s errors.
There are three kinds of errors. The first occurs in developed and underdeveloped economies alike, namely the lack of opportunity for and engagement of poor and disadvantaged citizens. This results from the inherently hierarchical nature of big capitalism. To provide a minimally adequate standard of living for those citizens requires government assistance in the form of taxation providing public services to all, and income transfers or special assistance from upper-income people to the poor. Such payments are not made in many capitalist nations, leaving a permanent underclass whose members lack basic necessities and may commit crimes in an attempt to even the balance.
The second error occurs in countries without a well-established legal framework and capitalist customs. In this situation the introduction of capitalism can result in two types of ill effects. One is the creation of a “robber baron” society as happened in Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union, duplicating England and the United States in the 19th century. The tragic result was that the barons have made off with pieces of the Russian economy and impoverished most of the citizens. The second, occurring now in the Third World, is the penetration by giant international corporations causing disruption of local small-scale enterprises such as farming and its supporting activities. Third World countries are being forced to become appendages to First World economies, living on their leavings and subject to the shifting fortunes of First World business practices. There are so many recent examples in the news, such as the outsourcing of “help desk” activities and the establishment of sweatshops in China.
The third error is more subtle and perhaps the most damaging. This is the assumption in economic theory that we act as individuals for individual advantage and to maximize individual satisfaction. This goes against our biological heritage as primates designed to live in communities and take care of each other, as do most indigenous peoples around the world. But economic organizations in the corporate world force people to act for individual advantage against their inherent need for cooperation, causing psychological and family problems.
Materialism is an insidious and debilitating ideology that is closely associated with most economic regimes including both Marxism and capitalism. The materialist ideology claims that the measure of success for a human being is one’s income, wealth and possessions; and in parallel fashion, the measure of success for a nation is the collective “standard of living” and gross product. Corporate advertising abets this ideology. Advertising has been called “the manufacture of desire”. It cleverly first makes a person want something she does not have, then tells her that corporation X is ready to supply this product or service.
It is difficult to resist materialism in a society awash with material goods and attitudes. As a result people feel the hollowness of their lives and search for spiritual guidance. People are often prey to religious ideologies and, swinging back and forth between materialism and an imposed religious belief system, lose the independent judgment that we all need to become self-actualizing individuals.
Closely allied to materialism is an ideology that some are calling scientism. This is not science but a view promoted by many, not all, scientists and philosophers that everything real must be measurable or empirically verifiable. These people claim that what they call scientific knowledge is the foundation of all wisdom, even that it is the only valid representation of truth. In this view, knowledge is developed only through a scientific method that is materialist and reductionist.
Going back to the Greeks, there is a view that mind, body, and spirit are separate in a person. This is a very damaging philosophical error, leading materialists to believe that the mind is in the brain which controls the body. In fact, mind and body are one – the nerves and their impulses travel between the brain and the spine and other areas of the body; so do the various fluids. The spirit is perfectly integrated with the mind and the body.
Scientism is often used to define individual persons as separate from others. This denies the fact that relationships are the basis of everything. The philosopher Hegel showed that your self-consciousness is strongly influenced by the consciousness that other persons have of you, something that one commenter calls “the sociality of reason.” In fact you, in your own person, influence everyone around you, and your love, compassion, and good deeds positively influence the fabric of society in ways that no one can understand or predict.
The concept of progress grew up in the 19th century with the massive increase in industrial activity in the developed world. Some call it a “myth”, some a natural belief. Progress generally means more material goods, ever-expanding corporations, increasing GDP, increasing “humaniforming” of our world. Since we have exceeded the physical and biological limits of the Earth, this is leading our civilization into disaster.
A Lot of Baggage
I believe we must discard the philosophical errors discussed above in order to move away from patriarchy and into a more healthy and sustainable human society. Local independent businesses, local economies, political freedom, and vital community life play essential roles in creating that kind of society, since they correspond to the fundamental desires and aspirations of humanity.
It is important to maintain a childlike amazement and joy for the wonder of life and of the universe in which we live. It is important to continue to ask, without preconceptions, the large questions about who we are, where we are going, and how can we build a just society. We need new stories of origins and possible futures to replace the failed stories of patriarchal civilizations.
In his essay Nature, Emerson said: “The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself.” The human being is a remarkable organism, and we humans need to unite mind, body, heart, and spirit to reach our full potential, for ourselves and for repairing the world.