A Call for Kindness: A Philosophy Essay
Negative self-talk can take many forms. Maybe we are too harsh on ourselves when we look back on our previous actions. Maybe we feel embarrassed or ashamed and cannot let the past go. This fixation can have serious repercussions on our mental health and self-confidence. Likewise, being harsh to others can produce a similar result. While how others react to our environment depends on them, does it justify being critical, particularly if they are a loved one? When we shoulder and/or demand unspoken expectations, it is not easy to forgive ourselves and others. Philosophers across the ages have pondered over the most fundamental questions of existence, two of them being “what is the nature of reality?” and “how is knowledge obtained?” Metaphysics and epistemology can help us understand that the ideas that we take for granted and make up our perceptions of the world and ourselves, may not have any basis at all. We should not punish people when social standards of behavior aren’t followed because socially acceptable behaviors are different between groups, social standards of behavior are ever-changing, and holding another being accountable for breaking social standards of behavior in the past is unjustifiable.
People’s ideas about how people should behave are too distinct from one another to agree on a social standard of behavior. As we interact with the world, we gather knowledge about it. Emmanuel Kant describes these judgments of experience as “synthetic” because they aren’t part of the object’s original definition (Kant 7). To illustrate, a rose is defined as “a bulbous and fragrant flower.” However, the phrase “a rose is red” does not include its definition. Instead, it gives the rose a particular quality, the color red. Roses can have many colors, but this rose “is red.” Synthetic judgments are thus not universally true. Another example is an honest person is “someone who is transparent about their thoughts and feelings.” In Western societies that value frankness, if this person vocalizes disagreement, they can be considered “direct”. On the other hand, in Asian countries where confrontation is discouraged, the person can come across as “rude.” Here, we have two distinct synthetic judgments: “An honest person is direct” and “an honest person is rude.” Synthetic judgments can be infinite and may even contradict each other. For example, some synthetic judgments may encourage certain actions while discouraging others, marking a clear boundary between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Behaviors then gain a moral quality where there are right and wrong ways to act. However, due to the infinity of synthetic judgments, a non-written consensus on the group level, a social standard of behavior, is unlikely because two people can have opposing views of what is right and wrong. Furthermore, ideas are ever-changing. Thus, judgments of “good” and “bad” behaviors eventually change.
Social standards are a social agreement that is ever-changing. From East to West, country to country, group to group, there is a culture. Culture is defined as the customary beliefs, social forms, attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize a racial, religious, or social group (Merriam-Webster). By its definition, a culture does not have the same social contract as another, and by extension, the group. The key is ignorance. Consequently, members outside of that culture are unaware of the social contract between the inside members. A person living in Europe does not live in the same culture that drives on the right side of the road as in Japan. Similarly, someone from America was not socialized to expect free healthcare. Aside from signers of written agreements, no one ought to expect an outsider to behave like an insider. For example, when a person joins a company, they are legally bound to the company’s laws. Likewise, schools have standards of conduct students must follow. Acknowledging our ignorance inside a foreign culture can help us take a step back and analyze our familiar, constructed reality with the assurance that the negative, as well as the positive, are not absolutes. By accepting that we are not bound to a constructed reality and self, we can begin to search for the strength to build a life that will help us grow and become someone we can be proud of.
Past social blunders are no longer our own. One of the questions in the realm of metaphysics is the debate of the existence of all things, including the individual. Philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes’s famous quote “I think, therefore I am” has greatly influenced Western countries. A person exists, and thus they are responsible for their actions. This idea of the existence of a self is also ingrained in legal systems where from a certain age, people are responsible for their actions and can be punished for breaking the written law. The self is also seen in Western religions like Christianity where the concept of an immaterial, individual soul is accepted. Christians fear the devil because it wants human souls. The soul is the individual’s immortal essence and thus must be protected at all costs. However, is a person truly, always, in complete control of their actions? There are many body processes and situations in which a so-called individual is not in control. People feel emotions and can suffer from a mental illness. People also fall ill and die. Alcohol and insomnia inhibit prefrontal cortex activity. Irish philosopher David Hume proposed that people are a bundle of impressions rather than personality. “Self or person is not a single impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are supposed to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. . . and never all exist at the same time. It cannot, therefore, be from any of these impressions. . . that the idea of self is derived; and consequently there is no such idea” (Hume 251–252). With this logic, one slip of the hand does not make “someone a monster”, a bad day does make “someone” a bad person. Moods and thoughts are ever-changing and “we” are not the same person as yesterday. Thus, it is a disservice to a human’s emotional and psychological development to hold “others” and “ourselves” accountable for past actions and yesterday’s misgivings. Letting go of those irrational standards, “we” can learn and grow without being held back by those negative thoughts. “We” can after accepting our previous “self’s” mistakes fully aware that at that moment, we already are a whole new being.
In conclusion, social expectations of behavior are countless, vague, and mostly unspoken. The origin of these social standards of behavior is the mind. Kant calls this type of knowledge “synthetic judgments” because they extend knowledge from its definitions. Synthetic judgments about the ideal human behavior are endless and contradictory. When given a moral quality, they are morphed to a social standard through social contracts. These become part of a culture and depend on the ignorance of other groups. At last but not least, Hume and Buddhism no self-concept challenges the Western world’s belief that the mind is in control of the body at all times. This concept of no-self assumes people and the world are in a constant state of flux and no mental state is superior or inferior to another. Under this belief system, standards of conduct do not exist. Negative actions do not express the doer’s essence because there is no essence. By accepting that our perceptions make up the synthetic framework that predetermines our actions, we can mold this framework to lead us towards opportunities for growth.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature: of An Attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning to Moral Subjects. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, vol. I of The Understanding, Macmillian and Co., 1739–1740. Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/4705/4705-h/4705-h.htm#link2H_4_0025. Accessed 22 February 2021.
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by J. M. D. Meiklejohn, 1781. Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/4280/4280-h/4280-h.htm#chap07. Accessed 21 December 2021.
Merriam-Webster. “Culture.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culture. Accessed 23 February 2021.
Read the original draft in Mary’s Mind Garden