Aleister Crowley, an early 20th century occultist, asserted that “Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law.” (Crowley 1978). Crowley’s statement is the closest maxim I have found to be representative of human ethical theory. By acting upon this maxim, each individual is forwarding the well being of all humanity. This is because through the process of competing forces the most useful for that specific set of circumstances will arise as the victorious force. However, this does not mean that any issue contains any inherent ethical meaning, rather in the context of the specific “game” that is being played pragmatic value can be assigned.
Eastern philosophical theories highlight the illusory nature of human existence. For instance, if we look at early Indian traditions, we inevitably recognize that the world has no logical basis for being “real.” Early Hindu thought had various different darsanas, which ranged in thought on a variety of issues. However, conserved across all these different schools of thought is the idea that the world is logically paradoxical. One of the most elementary versions of this paradox is very closely related to Zeno’s paradox of motion. In this thought experiment, the great Achilles is in a race against the lowly Tortoise. Since Achilles is a far superior runner, the tortoise is allowed to start running one hundred meters ahead of Achilles. As the race starts, Achilles quickly reaches the point at which the tortoise has started. However, by this point the Tortoise has progressed another ten meters. Again, Achilles reaches the point where the Tortoise was when Achilles was at the one hundred meter mark, but the tortoise has progressed one meter. This process continues ad infinitum with Achilles arriving at the point where the Tortoise last was, but the Tortoise having progressed a given amount. From this paradox, Zeno draws the conclusion that Achilles will never pass the Tortoise, thus inevitably losing the race (Cohen 2005). This argument at first look appears to be airtight, but also fly in the face of all experience. It is important to notice that within this mental experiment there is an assumption that this pattern, Achilles reaching the point where the Tortoise just was, can continue indefinitely. In essence, this experiment elucidates that it is impossible to come to a certainty about the reality of motion (Cohen 2005).
Still other Eastern philosophies reflect this trend, too. The Buddha’s teaching embodied the illusory nature of everyday religion, and these ideas were developed even more in-depth by later Buddhist schools of thought namely Yogacara and Madhayamika. The main philosophical school, which was in dialogue with the Yogacarins, was the representationalist realists (Siderits 2005). They believe that there is an outside environment, but it is mediated by our inability to directly contact it; rather we always see representations of what occurs in the outside world (Siderits 2005). For instance, while I may see a white sea shell, an individual with jaundice would see a yellow shell (Siderits 2005). The Yogacarins, on the other hand, believe there is no external reality, just internal impressions (Siderits 2005). The representationalist realists created four objections to this idea, which Vashudanhu then refuted (Siderits2005). Their first and second objections are based on the correlation between an event and space-time. However, Vashubandhu answers this objection with an analogy: in a dream there is also spatial and temporal correspondence. In a dream, if one walks into a kitchen where bread is baked, at a time bread is being baked, they will experience the smell of bread. In this situation, reality in the sense of spatio-temporal correspondence is equivalent to dreaming (Siderits 2005). The representationalist realists ask about another discrepancy: if dreams and reality are on the same ultimate level of existence, why is it that dreams do not affect the physical body in the same manner that awake experiences do? Vasubandhu replies that there is a correlation between dream experiences and the body, he says that “wet dreams” are an example of this correlation (Siderits 2005). The last objection to Vasubandhu’s standpoint relies on the agreement between different people on their experiential surroundings. Vasubandhu denies this by claiming that karma creates these inter-personal agreements. Since all beings that come in contact with each other on the same karmic level, their experiences (dharmas) are the same because it reflects their karma (Siderits 2005). The essential nature of Yogacarin Buddhism arises from this discourse between Vashudanhu and the representationalist realists.
Another derivative of Mahayana Buddhism is the Madhyamaka school, whose main proponent was Nagarjuna (Siderits 2005). Nagarjuna developed the idea of emptiness (sunyata) within his writings. He did this by using a combination of the reductio ad absurdum method, along with the concept of dependent origination (Siderits 2005). Reductio ad absurdum involves taking an assumption to a logical end in which it is paradoxical and rejecting the validity of the assumption based on this (Siderits 2005). The theory of dependent origination relies on the concept that everything is a product of cause and effect, in other words, something must arise from something (Siderits 2005). Nagarjuna uses these two tools to show that everything is empty. Due to the fact that origination results from an effect being inherent in a cause, there can be no true reality because if something is to be ultimately real it must only have one property (Siderits 2005). Through this method, Nagarjuna disproves the ultimate reality of movement and also proves the eye cannot see. (Siderits 2005) The end product of Nagarjuna’s logic is ultimate reality not falling into any of the categories of, is, is not, is and is not, or neither is nor is not. The Madhyamaka school’s main goal is for its disciples to recognize the ultimate emptiness of everything and, in doing so, achieve enlightenment.
Lastly one of the main eastern philosophical schools that questioned the inherent essence of positive or negative ethical attributes was Daoism. Daoism is considered a very naturalistic philosophy that disapproves of a large dialectic. In Daoism, the Dao (the path) is viewed as a lifestyle, something that should structure one’s life. There is a very large emphasis on the concept of wu-wei, not doing (Slingerland 2003). Through not doing, one is supposed to be emptying oneself of artificial constructions and letting the essential self emerge (Slingerland 2003). To do this seems obviously paradoxical, but it is based more on a mental level than on a literal level. The important emphasis of wu-wei is not regarding. Regarding in this situation refers to assigning values to things (Slingerland 2003). When one assigns value, it is necessary that an opposite thing arise to define the first value (Slingerland 2003). For instance, without any bad there is no good, without rich there is no poor, and so on. So by doing wu-wei, one is to completely emerge as a natural entity that is able to act in harmony with the will of the cosmos.
While these philosophical theories all suggest that any inherent meaning is absurd, it does not mean that if we take the world we live in as an assumed axiom we cannot create meaning within it using our own selves. For instance, consider a game of Risk, the strategic war game. Outside of the game there are no effects of playing the game, aside from the banter of the players. However, within the game, different strategies and group movements result in varying successes within the game. The success of a strategy is dependent on the rules of the game and the various ways the players respond to them. Thus, while our lives are meaningless outside the context of our lives, we still are within the game and thus must respond to how the game works (rules) and how others strategize. As another example take for instance a fictional game in a scene in David Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Eschaton is a fictional game much akin to Risk, played on a tennis court representing the surface of the planet Earth. The game becomes chaotic when it begins to snow. The snow is outside the scope of the game but this is confusing to those playing the game. Some players do not comprehend this difference and claim that the snow changes the dynamics of the game. An individual then launches an attack and punches another player instead of affecting the map. An authority on the game becomes quite livid and exclaims, “Players themselves can’t be valid targets. Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory…. You can only launch against the territory. Not against the map. It’s like the one ground-rule boundary that keeps Eschaton from degenerating into chaos. Eschaton, gentlemen, is about logic and axiom and mathematical probity and discipline and verity and order. You do not get points for hitting anybody real. Only the gear that maps what’s real.” This once again represents the important difference between the relative meaning within the game as opposed to the ultimate meaning outside of the game itself (Wallace 1998).
Many existentialists have also made this point. In the work Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, he fictionally develops his existentialist theory. Within the book, the protagonist, Roquentin, finds himself in existential horror because he realizes that the world itself is indifferent to him. Rather, he sees that his very apprehension is inherent in all that he sees around him. The world itself has no meaning aside from what he gives to it. This idea can be summated as, “existence precedes essence.” Alfred Camus also touches on this issue in The Stranger. The protagonist Mersault is able to live with dualities such as happiness and sadness because he realizes each is fleeting. However, he cannot live with the duality that his life is meaningless while also recognizing that he thinks there is great value in his life (Camus 1982). He decides that this is absurd, but this is because he is taking to different types of truths and assuming that they are equivalent. The truth that he assumes his life is of great importance is relative to the “game” of life. The absolute meaninglessness of it is only applicable outside of the game, while Mersault is actually within the game. Between the two realizations, indeed, there is no real meaning to reality, but that there is in fact meaning within the context of life, we find a grounding of moral meaning. However, this does not give us any reason for assuming different moral precepts.
Another important point is that free will and consciousness are also products of the “game of life.” We must act as if we have free will and consciousness in order to function and even if these things are not real they are convenient fictions. If one were to understand how physical processes determine the future, the individual would need to have knowledge of every particle in the universe. However to do this, an individual would have to recreate the universe because as Alfred Korzybski said, “the map is not the territory.” (Korzybski 1994).There could be no generalizations about the particles in the universe only knowledge of every particle if one were to determine any exact results. Thus, even though these two things are not absolutely true, within the game they are necessary to functioning, and irreducible to their basal elements.
When we consider human ethics, we often think in the terms of a specific spatio-temporal slice. This slice is representative of a certain point of time and also a certain limit of space which our focus bounds. However, this view is flawed. Ethics has continually changed throughout the course of human history. This phenomenon has been noticed by Karl Marx. His analyses of class structure as a commonality among human society clearly elucidates the ever-changing nature of human ethical theory (Guignon 1995). While the recognition of this phenomenon shows a great deal of mental acumen, how Marx applied this observation to the generation of his own ethical theory is problematic. Marx claims that through an empirical analysis of the changing ethical theories throughout history, he can extrapolate how future ethics will come about, and in what form they will appear. However, by making this statement he is creating a self-reflexive loop that is irresolvable by logic. For instance, the Russian Revolution was influenced by Marx’s writing, and because of this, whether or not history would have taken this course without Marx’s theories having been known is an unsolvable issue. Thus, when Marx makes a claim about the future of ethical and societal trends, he is affecting them by the very fact of claiming them as eventualities. The self-reflexivity of predictive claims makes them almost improvable and thus inconsequential. This means that to generate a framework for ethical theory, which can be used to understand ethics, it must not make any predictive claims, as this causes a self-reflexive logical loop. Instead, ethical theory should be examined in hindsight to attempt and recognize the conserved patterns across all historical timelines.
If we stop to remember Crowley’s assertion that, “Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law” we can see that this is not a predictive statement but rather a maxim by which individual’s live. To update the assertion, it should be put into the form: by doing what one thinks is best and trying to craft the world in this manner, an individual is fulfilling their ethical obligation.
John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism relies on the idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of principle. Essentially, the central maxim is the greatest happiness principle claims that one should act for the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people (Mill 2005). However, because we have previously come to conclusion that meaning is not an inherent thing, we must realize that the definition of what causes happiness is malleable and relies on a specific set of circumstances. From a purely biological point of view, happiness can be defined as reproductive success and continued existence. From a societal point of view happiness can be defined as trying to reach the ideal of the views that a society holds relative. Thus the sum of these two types of happiness would be biological viability along with the capability of achieving what society has deemed to be happiness. So, one should act to promote the most biological viability along with what society deems to be happiness.
The question then is, how can this idea be reconciled with Crowley’s statement? The response is found in the field of memetics and genetic evolution. The term meme arose from Richard Dawkins’ work with genetics, and it is generally accepted to mean a basal unit of an idea that can be transferred from person to person. These memes are posited to act as mental analogues to genetic material. Assuming that this is correct, ideas can replicate throughout a culture and also be eliminated by the culture in the same manner that poor genes are removed from the gene pool. In this situation, natural selection would be analogous to the sum total of individuals who reject a meme, meaning that the most prominent meme has the widest appeal and the most socially transferable nature. Thus, when every individual decides to act as they want and try to impose their preferences upon others, their actions come in to tension. One of two things can happen at this point: first, an individual can change their behavior to preserve themselves, and second, they can try to force this viewpoint onto the other. This can obviously come to physical harm or just a change of opinion and action. However, through this process we see an analogue of evolution. If we view each interaction as an example of memetic change, and the meme that is most fit will always be adopted because it is the most useful for the specific set of circumstances, then gradually the population will come to be dominated by this viewpoint, just as an unfit mutation will result in the selection against the unfit organism. Then, if circumstances change and there is a shift in the usefulness of one meme, gradually another will arise to assume its niche. As such through acting as one wants, the net result is a societal trend towards the most happiness for the most individuals.
Crowley’s statement very closely mirrors Nietzsche’s assertion of the will to power. Nietzsche focused in Thus Spake Zarathustra on the idea of the ubermensch, an individual who crafts their own goals and does not obey the morals of others (Guignon 1995). This suggests that because the ubermensch creates their own morals they should be able to do what they will themselves to do in all situations. By doing this, they are crafting their own existence and forcing themselves upon the world (Guignon 1995). What Nietzsche fails to realize, however, is that the ubermensch/man dichotomy is a false one. All individuals craft their own life and force themselves upon the world by the very act of passing moral judgment. Just because an individual may share the views of others does not mean that he is wrong, just that at that point in time a greater number of people are being served usefully by a certain ethical paradigm, and that is why it is so widespread. Thus, if we remove the distinction between these two types of men, we end up with Crowley’s initial statement that, “Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law.”
In conclusion, although life is inherently meaningless outside of itself, since all human beings are within the system, meaning can be ascribed. Also, because any predictive ethical theory is self-reflexive, it is incapable of ever making claims about the future that are verifiably true or false. Finally, through the process of memetic and genetic evolution, if every individual was to follow Crowley’s maxim, the net result would be a greater happiness for the most individuals.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger, trans. Joseph Laredo, 1982.
Carruth, Hayden (1964). Jean-Paul Sartre. ed. Nausea. New York: New Directions.
Cohen, Mark. (2005) Readings In Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales To Aristotle. Indianapolis.
Crowley, Aleister (1978). The Book of Lies. New York: Samuel Weiser.
Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism, ed. George Sher (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979). IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2005.
Science and Sanity An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski, Preface by Robert P. Pula, Institute of General Semantics, 1994, hardcover, 5th edition
Siderits, Mark. “Buddhist Reductionism and the Structure of Buddhist Ethics.” Indian Ethics: Classical and Contemporary Challenges. Edited by P. Bilimoria, J. Prabhu and R. Sharma. Abingdon, UK: Ashgate, 2005.
Slingerland, Edward Gilman. Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China (Oxford University Press, 2003).
The Good Life, edited by Charles Guignon (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999).
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. 1st. ed. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. 1996
Joe Chiarenzelli is the editor of The Gadfly Press. He has degrees in biology and philosophy from Saint Lawrence University. His honors thesis was on the subject of Cosmetic Psychopharmacology. Joe graduated in 2011. He now lives in Potsdam, New York, and frequents bars in order to goad people into arguments. The Gadfly Press endeavors to publish articles, stories, poems, and sayings which will provoke, intrigue, and most importantly, cause people to stop and think.