It’s all very well to enunciate lovely-sounding values like Joy, Growth and Choice ... but in real life we’re faced with difficult decisions. We’re faced with choosing one being’s joy over another’s, or choosing joy versus growth in a given situation, and so forth.
There’s no perfect, one-size-fits-all solution to such dilemmas.
But Cosmism does provide one valuable principle, that is very frequently appropriate for beings in the phase of evolution that humans currently occupy.
This is the principle of obsoleting the dilemma.
Rather than trying to resolve the dilemma, use a change in technology or perspective to redefine the reality within which the dilemma exists.
This may of course lead to new and different dilemmas—which is a natural aspect of the universe’s growth process.
This approach has tremendous power and we’ll revisit it frequently in upcoming articles.
To make the idea clear, first of all I’ll explore it in the context of a couple simple, everyday issues that—in the human world right now—seem to have a tremendous power to divide thoughtful, compassionate people.
Cosmism doesn’t solve these issues—but it does advocate a systematic route to resolving them ... not by solving them but rather by obsoleting them.
The Dilemma of Abortion
Abortion is perhaps the most obvious case of a divisive ethical dilemma, in modern society.
Even among individuals who reject traditional religious notions of the human soul and the special sacredness of human life, it poses a huge ethical challenge.
On the one hand, compassion dictates that killing babies is wrong ... and the fact is that we don’t really know when a fetus develops enough “reflective awareness” that killing it becomes more like killing a person than like killing a sheep, or more like killing a sheep than like killing a fish, etc.
On the other hand, forcing an adult human woman to create an infant when they don’t wish to, is a clearly uncompassionate violation of that woman’s personal choice and happiness, of her ability to grow in the directions she chooses.
So, there is a balance to be struck, and different caring, thoughtful people want to strike it in different ways.
The Dilemma of Vegetarianism
Vegetarianism presents a similar dilemma to abortion, though one that the mainstream of modern society seems less concerned about (due to its species-centrism).
Clearly, killing animals to eat them is uncompassionate and, in itself, “wrong” according to principles of joy, growth and choice. Cows, pigs and chickens may not be as smart as we humans are, but they have their own experiences, emotions and wills, and we’re pretty damn nasty to abort these so we can have a tastier dinner.
Yes, nature is bloody and violent ... animals kill each other ... but we have the capability to much more fully understand what we’re doing and to make a more considered choice….
Yet there are plenty of borderline cases. It’s not clear, for instance, whether fish experience pain in the same way that birds and mammals do. It’s not clear in what sense a fish has a theater of reflective consciousness. Personally, I don’t feel confident that killing a fish is cutting off tremendous joy and experience, any more so than cutting down a tree or picking a carrot out of the ground.
One argument against vegetarianism is that we’re evolved to be omnivores and some level of meat consumption is necessary for us to feel “natural.” I personally do feel that way: in the past when I’ve eaten a vegetarian diet for a while, I have felt a certain disturbing lack of energy and aggressive initiative. Eating fish cures that for me just as well as eating other meat ... but without some fish or other meat intake, I really don’t feel like “myself.” So the question becomes: how much cruelty to fish would I incur to gain a certain amount of personal energy?
Obsoleting the Dilemmas
What does Cosmism have to contribute to these familiar dilemmas?
It doesn’t provide any trick for drawing the line between right and wrong in these tricky situations. The principles of joy, growth and choice are all very well; but these are cases where two or more different options exist, each bringing joy/growth/choice to some minds at the cost of others ... and so there’s a difficult judgment to be made.
What Cosmism suggests is an alternate path: obsolete the dilemma.
This is already happening, to some extent. We should try to make it happen far more as the future unfolds.
Birth control largely obsoletes the dilemma of abortion, though it doesn’t quite work well enough yet. The ability to remove an embryo from the mother without pain or danger, and incubate it in a lab from a very early stage, would obsolete the abortion dilemma in a different way.
The capability to grow cloned steaks, fish cutlets and chicken breasts and such in the lab would obsolete the dilemma of vegetarianism ... as would advances in synthetic food technology; or pharmacology that conferred the recreational, physiological and neurochemical benefits of various forms of food without requiring actual food ingestion.
There is a powerful general principle here. Ethical dilemmas are never going to be completely avoidable, but the advance of technology can blunt them pretty thoroughly, if it’s done with a specific eye toward obsoleting the dilemmas.
The Dilemma of Poverty and Charity
The issue of poverty and charity can be perceived in much the same way as abortion and vegetarianism.. The ethical dilemma of whether to send 80% of my income to help starving children in Africa (I never do so, but feel some guilt over this), will be neatly obsoleted by advanced technology that eliminates material scarcity.
Why don’t I send 80% of my income to help starving children in Africa (nor even 10%, for that matter)? Due to the usual mixed motivations. Part of it is surely plain old selfishness; I don’t claim to be a wholly altruistic individual. And part of it is a sense that the world as a whole would not be better off if those of us fortunate enough to live in wealthy nations (or the upper classes of poorer nations) were to revert to the economic mean.
If I sent most of my income to help starving children I would not only be less happy on a day by day basis—I would also be in much less of a mental and practical position to create new technologies, literary works and so forth ... things that I value a great deal. My own children would be in a much worse position to create such things as well, if I were to deprive them of books, computers and education so as to feed the starving kids in Africa. And yet, I’m never quite sure it’s right to value these creations over peoples’ lives.
What I’m quite sure of, is that it’s right to obsolete the dilemma.
If you’ve had some contact with Marxist or Hegelian philosophy you may find something familiar in the “obsolete the dilemma” notion.
Hegel, as a key point of his philosophy, described how thesis and antithesis lead to synthesis via the “dialectical” process. The synthesis obsoletes the dilemma between the thesis and antithesis. The dilemma between Being and Nothingness is resolved to yield Becoming. The dilemma between lords and vassals is resolved to yield new social classes emerging due to the advance of industrial technology. Marx saw the advance of society as a result of a series of dialectical dilemma-resolutions.
In Hegelian dialectics, dilemmas are obsoleted by redefining realities so that previously oppositional realities become unified in a new set of structures and dynamics. This is indeed closely related to the Cosmist notion of obsoleting the dilemma (and arguing the precise relationship would be a task of technical philosophy that I won’t undertake here!).
However, the big difference between the Hegelian/Marxist perspective and the Cosmist perspective is the amount of determinism that the former perceived to exist in the world. The notion of a precise, orderly series of dilemmas, getting obsoleted and then leading to new dilemmas in a predictable fashion—this is anathema to the Cosmist perspective, which is all about embracing the unknown and growing oneself to as to understand and become new things that previously would have been wholly incomprehensible to oneself. Often, once a previous dilemma has become obsoleted, the world looks like a totally new place ... and the path forward is one that you never could have imagined to exist before.
Society of course has not evolved according to anything like the particular path that Marx and Hegel foresaw. It has evolved according to a “quasi-dialectical” process of iterative dilemma-obsoletion, though ... and will continue to do so ... so they did get some things fundamentally right.
Figuring out how to obsolete the dilemmas facing us is an ongoing intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual challenge—not at all matter of following some predetermined path.
This brief article is part of the overall Cosmist Manifesto.