Paul Andersen: Fair Game
September 25, 2011
At a recent dinner party my liberal Democrat friends were bemoaning Republican conservatives for a broad range of ills. Bemoaning is an understatement. They were working themselves up into a lather against “those people.” Republicans do the same against liberal Democrats. Such is the national mood.
I no longer find it enjoyable or even entertaining to bash Republicans, because it gets me nowhere. Realizing the conversation was miring into grief and judgment, I suggested a different approach, one based on a philosophical nuance called “isness.”
“Isness” is an effective antidote to rage, frustration and, ultimately, helplessness. The idea is to accept whatever exists now – with all the warts and blemishes – as a kind of evolutionary justification. That which exists now does so by right of being.
We all judge certain contemporary beliefs, practices and conventions as immoral, unethical and unsustainable, but their existence proves irrefutably their momentary suitability. Their “isness” is a fact of their appropriateness.
For example, even though I find war to be destructive, horrific and archaic, war exists. The “isness” of war makes it both real and appropriate to the times. I don’t advocate war; just the opposite. But its “isness” trumps my moral outrage. “Isness” is nine-tenths of Natural Law, which is a way of coming to terms with a multitude of contradictions amid the spectrum of life.
If I can suspend my moral judgments over what exists, I can more easily come to terms with existence. I find peace in this because the lens of judgment is harsh and laden with emotion. Ruing the ills of the world without surcease is a lifetime sentence to suffering. The Germans have a word for it: “Weltschmerz,” or universal pain.
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After proffering the notion of “Isness” to my liberal friends, they lubricated their vocal cords with gulps of wine and launched into arguments supporting the vital role of moral judgment and criticism in the advance of human progress. They expressed moral indignation over a lack of moral indignation. The quagmire deepened.
“Isness,” they said, should not diminish denunciations against corruption, which they were quick to point out occurs regularly in the corporate world and in our duplicitous Congress. “Isness,” they argued, should not provide comfort and rationale for knee-jerk militarism, in which the U.S. often finds itself. “Isness,” they chorused, is a cop-out for moral outrage against an unjust society.
Now I took a gulp of wine and pointed out that moral indignation is what has broken the political debate in the U.S. If we are to emerge intact from a divided union, we must stop vilifying the “other.” Healing requires a certain level of acceptance, and a sense of “isness” is a first step to defusing ideological divisions and launching constructive dialogue.
It was about here that someone blurted out the quote by Bill Clinton from 1998 about his relations with Monica Lewinsky: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” This provoked laughter and could have propelled the conversation to more prurient topics, but I wasn’t done yet.
I suggested that no matter how corrupt and imperfect are the “system” and the people who run it, the system functions in dysfunction by providing goods and services for hundreds of millions of people. This doesn’t mean the system won’t fail or shouldn’t fail, but that, for now, it is justified. Empirically, our flawed system – despite poverty, hunger and suffering – is operationally justified.
This prompted another gulp or two of wine and some thoughtful head scratching. Tongues were soon wagging about identifying a higher standard of judgment than pure materialism. Barack Obama said the same in his Nobel acceptance speech: “I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present condition makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”
It was getting late. There were dishes to clean up, food to put away. So I raised a concluding toast: “Here’s to a suspension of judgments and to the embrace of ‘isness’ as a means of accepting our world with moral ambiguity.” I drank while others hesitated, their glasses held aloft.
An amendment was offered: “And here’s to the ‘oughtness’ afforded by moral judgments that will one day improve the ‘isness’ of our world.” We all drank to that.
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