This book is radioactive and painful – it is only incidentally the kind of radiation and pain that will cure you.
There are really only three kinds of relationships in the world. The first kind is the one we all dream of – joyous, mutually beneficial, deep, meaningful, fun, a real pleasure to have and to hold.
This kind of relationship is extraordinarily rare. If this kind of relationship were an animal, it would not even be on the endangered list. It would be by many considered extinct.
The second kind of relationship is mutually beneficial, but not joyous, deep, or meaningful. This is the kind of relationship you have with your grocer, your banker, and perhaps your boss. It is voluntary, defined by an implicit or explicit contract, and can usually be broken or allowed to lapse without guilt, regret or remorse.
This kind of relationship is not uncommon, but also not very important. We do not lose our lives, our happiness or our very souls in the pits of these kinds of relationships. They are, as the saying goes, “dry calculations of mutual utility.” We are not obligated to go to the deathbeds of our bankers; our grocers do not force us to attend church when we do not believe; we rarely get into fights with our bosses about whether or not we should baptize our children.
No, it is the third kind of relationship that we are most concerned with in our lives. It is the third kind of relationship that so often tortures us. It is the third kind of relationship that undermines our joy, integrity and independence.
The first kind of relationship does not involve obligation, but pleasure. There is no need for guilt or manipulation, bullying or control, demands, tears or passive-aggression. We do not need obligation to draw us to that which gives us pleasure, any more than a child needs to be cajoled into eating his candy.
The second kind of relationship does involve obligation, but it is voluntarily chosen, for mutual advantage. We pay our mortgage; the bank gives us a house. The relationship is contractual, and thus does not need guilt or manipulation.
It is the third kind of relationship that this book will focus on.
It is the third kind of relationship that is eating us alive.
The Third Kind
The third kind of relationship has three main components. The first is that it is not chosen; the second is that it involves obligations, and the third is that it is considered moral.
The first and most important aspect of these kinds of relationships is that they are not entered into voluntarily. You are born into them. You do not choose your parents. You do not choose your siblings. You do not choose your extended family. You do not choose your country. You do not choose your culture. You do not choose your government. You do not choose your religion. You do not choose your school. You do not choose your teachers.
Sadly, when you are a child, the list is nearly endless.
You are born into this world without choice, into a familial, social, educational, political and geographical environment that is merely accidental. And for the rest of your life, everyone will try to convince you that you are responsible for this accident.
Your parents decided to have a child – you were in no way involved in the choice, since you did not as yet exist when the decision was made. Even if you were conceived by accident, or adopted, your parents decided to keep you.
Thus your parents’ relationship with you when you were a child was essentially contractual, in the same way that when you buy a dog, you’re obligated to feed it. Naturally, it is preferable – and certainly possible – for your relationship with your parents to be loving, mutually enjoyable, respectful and great fun all around.
But as I said before, this kind of relationship is, sadly, all too rare.
Entire generations of children have grown up with the idea that the act of being born creates an obligation.
This is entirely false, and one of the most destructive myths of mankind.
First, I will tell you what is true. Then I will tell you why it is true. Then I will tell you how to change.
What Is True
It is true that your parents chose to have you. It is true that by making that choice, your parents assumed a voluntary obligation towards you. That obligation consisted of two main parts: the first was physical, the second was moral.
The physical part of that obligation was clothing, food, medical attention, shelter and so on – the base physical requirements. I am not going to spend much time on that in this book, since the vast majority of parents succeed in providing food and shelter for their children – and those who fail in this regard are so obviously deficient that a philosophical book is scarcely required to illuminate their shortcomings.
The moral obligations that your parents assumed by having you were twofold. The first part is more or less understood in society, and consists of all the standard virtues such as educating you, keeping you safe, refraining from physical or emotional abuse and so on.
The second part of your parents’ moral obligation towards you is much more subtle and corrosive. This is the realm of integrity, and it is a great challenge for societies throughout the world.
The greatest failings of parents are in the realms of integrity. Integrity can be defined as consistency between reality, ideas and behaviour. Consistency with reality is not telling a child that daddy is “sick” when he is in fact drunk. Consistency with behaviour is not slapping a child for hitting another child. The value of this kind of integrity is also well understood by many, even if imperfectly practiced, and we will not deal with it much here either.
It is consistency with ideas that causes the most problems for families – and the most long-term suffering for children throughout their lives.
When you were a child, you were told over and over that certain actions were either good or bad. Telling the truth was good; stealing was bad. Hitting your brother was bad; helping your grandmother was good. Being on time was good; failing to complete chores was bad.
Implicit in all these instructions – moral instructions – was the premise that your parents knew what was right and what was wrong; what was good, and what was bad.
Do you think that was really true? Do you think that your parents knew what was right and wrong when you were a child?
When we tell a child that something is wrong – not just incorrect, but morally wrong – there are really only two possibilities. The first is that we actually know what is right and wrong in general, and we are applying our universal knowledge of right and wrong to a specific action committed by the child.
This is how it is always portrayed to the child. It is almost always the most dangerous lie in the world.
The second possibility is that we are telling our child that his actions are “wrong” for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with morality whatsoever.
For instance, we might tell a child that stealing is wrong because:
- We are embarrassed at our child’s actions.
- We are afraid of being judged a poor parent.
- We are afraid that our child’s theft will be discovered.
- We are simply repeating what was told to us.
- We enjoy humiliating our child.
- Correcting our child on “ethics” makes us feel morally superior.
- We want our child to avoid behaviour that we were punished for as children.
... and so on
Assuming they are not terrified, most children, on first receiving moral instructions, will generally respond by asking “why?” Why is stealing wrong? Why is lying wrong? Why is bullying wrong? Why is hitting wrong?
These are all perfectly valid questions, akin to asking why the sky is blue. The problem arises in the fact that parents have no rational answers, but endlessly pretend that they do.
When a child asks us why something is wrong, we are put in a terrible bind. If we say that we do not know why lying is universally wrong, we believe we will lose our moral authority in the eyes of our children. If we say that we do know why lying is wrong, then we retain our moral authority, but only by lying to our children.
Since the fall of religion, we have lost our way in terms of ethics. As an atheist, I do not mourn the loss of the illusions of gods and devils, but I am alarmed at the fact that we have not yet admitted that the fall of religion has not provided us an objective and rational moral compass. By failing to admit to the fact that we do not know what we are doing ethically, we are perpetrating a grave moral error on our children.
Basically, we are lying to them about being good.
We tell them that certain things they do are right or wrong – yet we do not tell them that we do not know why those things are right or wrong. If our child asks us why lying is wrong, we can say that it causes people pain – but so does dentistry – or we can say “you don’t like it when someone lies to you” – which would be an incentive to not get caught, not to refrain from lying – and so on. Every answer we come up with leads to more questions and inconsistencies. What do we do then?
Why, then, we must bully them.
This does not mean hitting them or yelling at them – though sadly all too often this is the case – because as parents we have a near-infinity of passive-aggressive tactics such as sighing, acting exasperated, changing the subject, offering them a cookie, taking them for a walk, claiming to be “too busy,” distracting or rejecting them in a million and one ways.
These kinds of innocent questions about morality represent a kind of horror for parents. As parents, we must retain our moral authority over our children – but as citizens of modernity, we have no rational basis for that moral authority. Thus we are forced to lie to our children about being good, and about our knowledge of goodness, which transforms virtue from a rational discipline into a fearful fairy tale.
In the past, when religious mythology was dominant, when children asked “Where does the world come from?” parents could reply that God made it. Despite the superstitious ignorance of those who even now make the same claim, most modern parents provide the scientific and rational explanation of where the world came from, or at least send their children to the Web, an encyclopaedia, or the library.
There was a time, though, when the question of where the world came from was very difficult to answer. When religious explanations were becoming less and less credible, but scientific explanations had not become completely established, parents had to say – if they wanted to speak with integrity – “I don’t know where the world came from.”
By openly expressing their lack of certainty, parents not only acted with honesty and integrity, but also stimulated their children to pursue a truth that was admittedly absent from their world.
Alas, we suffer similar difficulties today, but about a far more important topic. The religious basis for ethics has fallen away from us, and we lack any credible or accepted theory to replace it. For a time, patriotism and allegiance to culture had some power to convince children that their elders knew something objective about ethics, but as government and military corruption have become increasingly evident, allegiance to a country, a state or a military ethos has become an increasingly fragile basis for ethical absolutes. Even our cherished theories about the virtues of democracy have come under increasing pressure, as gargantuan governments continue to separate themselves from the wishes of their citizens and act in a virtual “state of nature.”
Religious explanations of virtue have failed not just because we no longer believe in God, but also because it is now completely self-evident that when most people refer to “truth,” they are really referring to culture.
Think about a father in a Muslim country. When his child asks him: “Daddy, what is goodness?” he will generally answer: “To obey Allah, and obey His Prophet.” Why is that his answer? Is it because he has had direct experience with the Prophet, wrote the holy books himself, and has a deep understanding of morality direct from the original creator? If he had grown up alone on a desert island, would his answer be the same?
Of course not. He is merely repeating what was told to him as a child.
However, there is much more to it than that.
This Muslim father knows that his child is going to have to survive – and hopefully flourish – in a Muslim society. If he tells his child that he does not know what is right and wrong, not only will he lose his moral authority in the eyes of his child, but he will also be setting his child up for endless conflicts with everyone else in his society.
In other words, if everyone else lies to their children, what are the costs – social, romantic, economic and so on – of telling your children the truth?
My neighbour has four lovely children – the other day, his son came and showed me a drawing he’d made, a decent representation of Jesus Christ sitting on a rock and praying to the heavens. In all innocence, he asked me what I thought of the picture. Naturally, I knew that his father had told him that Jesus Christ was a real and living man-god who came back from the dead, floated up to heaven, and will free him of sin if he telepathically communicates his love to this ghost. This is no more or less horrifying than any other cult of guilt and control.But – what could I say to this child? Could I say that this was a very good drawing of a fictional character? Could I tell him that it was an excellent representation of a fairy tale? Could I see the pain and surprise in his eyes? Could I imagine the conversation that he would later have with his father, asking why the nice man next door told him that Jesus Christ was a fictional character? Could I imagine the coldness that would then descend upon the cordial relations between our two houses? Could I imagine his father telling all of his children to stay away from the nice man next door, who wants to take God away from them? Could I stomach the chilled looks that I would receive every time I saw his family for the next few decades..?
On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion
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