Hello friends. Today I would like to discuss a long-established feature of ethics as understood in modern culture which is fallacious and flawed to its core, and that is the ancient practice of virtuous restraint. Virtuous restraint is the decision by an individual to refrain from pursuing a course of thought or action which he desires to pursue in order to achieve a greater level of virtue, which is a kind of ethical construct of purity of soul. Common examples include sexual abstinence and avoidance of consuming certain foods. In many cases, the actual action of abstaining may be a rational choice, but at the heart of the principal of virtuous restraint lies the assumption that rationality is not to be considered – that self-denial is a virtue in its own right.
There are less discussed, perhaps less mainstream instances of virtuous restraint which even more poignantly illustrate the concept, and the fallacy within, than the examples above. Consider the bizarre ritual of religious fasting, where a person chooses to abandon food for a certain portion of the day, to purportedly demonstrate his faith and achieve spiritual discipline. If this counter-natural behavior were only practiced by theists, I would not comment on its ludicrous nature because it is common knowledge that a belief in God drives people to do strange things. Unfortunately, being an academic, I have found myself repeatedly in communities of young intellectuals with Liberalism and non-theistic religion on their minds. In these circles, I have witnessed on many occasions people performing ritual fasting (primarily in accordance with Muslim faith) while actively professing to be without religion. When inquired, these misguided individuals will vaguely insist that what they are doing is ‘good’ because it involves ‘personal restraint’ and helps them ‘feel pure and connected’. Any logical person must be wondering what exactly that means
When broken down to the most basic level, what it actually means is this: These people believe that by depriving themselves of something that they rationally desire, they are committing an act of ethical righteousness. They reject the notion that a man exists for the sake of living his life to its fullest potential, in exchange for a limited and mystical kind of morality in which deprivation and smallness of experience are laudable traits. Why would it be morally righteous for a man to deprive himself of a life experience which he rationally desires? This can be true if and only if a man’s life is not his own to control and enjoy as he pleases. Thus, the fallacy of virtuous restraint, like all ethical fallacies, derives from the notion that a man is not entitled to pursue his ambitions and live his life.
Perhaps some protest that fasting is just silly, but that restraint from some other desire, such as sexual behavior, is in fact a legitimate case of virtuous restraint. But I challenge virtuous restraint not in one or two cases, but in principal. Sexual behavior is no exception. While there are many rational reasons to choose not to act on a sexual impulse, such as the potential consequences of illness, pregnancy, or social stigma, as well as that the individual performing the act may discover later that he was not actually wise in doing so, particularly if the sexual partnership proves to be short-lived and emotionally trivial, there is no virtuous justification for abstinence. What is the distinction? Simply this: A rational decision to suppress a sexual desire is one which avoids negative consequences. A virtuous decision to do so is one which is based solely on an attempt to achieve positive consequence of the restraint.
The naive teenager who is offered sex by her boyfriend of a week but rejects it is making a rational choice to avoid sacrificing her will and her emotional security to an individual who may or may not be morally worthy of her. She needs to be certain that she approves of this man and his life before she surrenders control of her feelings to him. But the grown woman who tells her serious partner, “I know I love you, but I want to wait anyway,” has no justification and no sense to her religious self-denial. Exercising self-control for the betterment of one’s life is a skill people must learn. But exercising self-control simply for its own sake is closely analogous to other kinds of control, like collectivist politics and religious indoctrination. It serves to satisfy a misguided, anti-human drive to have one’s life dictated by an arbitrary outside source. Arbitrary, because only an individual’s rational decisions have a distinct motive to them – the motive of self-preservation and self-satisfaction – while all other decisions are inherently without focus, without intent, because a decision that isn’t in one’s own best interest is a meaningless one.
The tragedy of the misconception of virtuous restraint is threefold. Firstly, and most perhaps superficially, it restricts people from enjoying their lives in a way which they rationally desire to do. Secondly, it taints the name of ethics, crippling a vastly important study whose results should be organized around critical theorems such as ‘Initiate no violence against others’ and replacing it with arbitrary, trivial stigma such as ‘Don’t eat pork’ and ‘Don’t have sex until the government gives you a slip of paper that says you can do so’. Thirdly, and most cruelly, it numbs the mind to the distinction between individualism and oppression, since it frequently manifests in so-called virtues taught to young children, who learn from a very manipulable age that they are to follow strange rules against their rational interest. Children, and all people, should be taught to pursue their goals and ambitions with wise caution, not self-restraining regret.
“No pleasure is a bad thing in itself” – Epicurus.
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It is Friday, July Seventeenth, and it is snowing. Can you see the snow? It is not snowing in Raleigh. Today, it is snowing in Hell.
They say that at the end of time, when sinners have paid their dues to the world and life on Earth has ended, God will open his kingdom to all people, and after eons of trial, punishment, and trial again, all will be forgiven, and humans will sin no more. The fires of Hell will freeze over, and the Earth will be consumed in a series of massive quakes and storms, and eventually the old lands of pain and suffering will be abandoned, forgotten, replaced by a new system, a new world order in which all life is holy and good.
In fact, they say that even legendary fiends like Vlad the Impaler, Ghengis Khan, and Adolf Hitler will, after enduring unfathomable suffering to pay for their crimes, eventually learn to love and cherish their lives and the lives of others. They say that no sin is truly ultimate; that all people will learn, though some learn faster than others.
I wonder which is harder – for Hitler to make up for his crimes, or for us to learn to forgive him? I have never met a person who loves all life. I have known many to try, myself certainly included. But I have never met a person who could summon the courage to forgive the harshest crimes.
My strong belief in criminal justice prompts me to add the disclaimer that I am not promoting setting murderers free from prison. Rather, I am declaring the importance of purging our minds and hearts of resentful thoughts. No sensible person would suggest that crimes should go unpunished. But perhaps thoughts should go untainted, love should persist without hatred.
I have heard many people say that love cannot exist without hatred and good cannot exist without evil. But in the nicest way possible, these people are full of shit.
What is the purpose of feeling anger towards a person who harms me? It does not undo the harm that has been done. It does not justify the wrong actions taken against me. It does not make me more resilient to harm. All it does is make me more likely to be harmed again.
Ayn Rand said that when a man criminally violates your rights, you are justified in hating him for it. Maybe you are justified. But you’re certainly not wise.
I wonder how this comes across to people who were brought up around hatred. I wonder how a person who has been pushed around by bitter parents from a very young age takes to hearing that resentment is a useless waste of one’s life.
I know some people whose parents are never proud of them, no matter what they do. I know a few people whose parents intentionally seem to be proud of them or to care for them when the moment is right, only to smash their hopes into the ground all the harder the next time. The art of manipulation is easy enough to learn if you are quick-witted and able to detect others’ feelings. It’s easy enough to continue if you are totally heartless and numb to the pain you inflict on the people you break.
But is there really such a thing as a heartless person? Can anyone be numb to pain? Or was Rand correct, that destructive people are caught in a confused and backwards sort of existence where they think pain is the goal? Maybe if someone else feels more miserable than I do, it will make my life justified.
When God comes for his people, all monuments and memories of civilization on Earth will collapse into rubble as the continents rupture and convulse. Giant skyscrapers and mighty bridges will fall, and the intense effort put into constructing them will only serve to punctuate the irony of their inevitable demise.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
What does it mean for the mighty to fall? Why do people fixate on this phrase? Might and power, when exercised properly and justly, bring about great good. Surely we do not want goodness to end.
But goodness ends whether we wish it to or not. For as long as we are here on this Earth, a parasitic cancer creeps up around us at all times, looking for openings to attack and tear down the bravest and most beautiful of the human race. What is the nature of this cancer? What is its intention? Death and destruction are its goals. Doubt and fear are its methods. Guns and viruses are but superficial masks of the real enemy that captures good people, dragging them down and encouraging them to drag others as well. Cynicism is the cancer that kills great men, and self-doubt is the first symptom.
Good people start out with the premise, “I should do the right thing.” But if they follow up with the conjecture, “I cannot always be expected to do the right thing,” then they have swiftly excused any evils they may do as somehow inevitable. This oppressive self-doubt that says, “I’m not good enough to be beautiful,” and “I’m not capable of greatness,” not only serves to plunge the lives of potentially great ones into misery, but also permits them the leisure of dealing damage to those around them with a get-out-of-jail-free card, a slip that reads, “Please excuse me for my evils; I do not have enough confidence to do any better.”
Their next step is to declare that even if they COULD do better, it is not worth it, because life is miserable and people suck. Of course they do not see that life does not have to be miserable – seeing that would require courage and love, which they have already forgone.
Who is they? Do I refer to some outcast, some former friend who has changed and is not the great guy he once was?
No, I refer to all of us. We are all susceptible to cowardice, doubt, and immaturity. These seemingly forgivable traits are the direct cause of hatred, resentment, and pain. How does the cynicism take over?
There is an old saying that all men fear time, but time fears only the pyramids. For five thousand years, the desert winds have blown sands across the walls of the pyramids at tremendous speeds, battering the rocks with blinding, stormy weather that kills animals who stay exposed to it for more than a few minutes. If left out in the desert you and I would surely be scarab food the first time the going got rough, but there the pyramids stand nonetheless, immovable by time and nature.
I would like to be immovable. Imagine a person with ideals and values so firmly set in place that no matter the weather, if it rains and pours, if sand blows a hundred miles an hour, if the sun blazes down without a cloud for years at a time, this person can be relied upon to still be kind, fair, respectful, just. Imagine a person who never makes a mistake. A person who cannot be corrupted by stress, drama, circumstance.
And yet whenever I have thought I have seen this person, I have always been disappointed. Neither I nor anyone I’ve met stands up to this test of time. Eventually, people give in to the temptation to be cynical. Eventually, even the most loving of people choose to take resentment over forgiveness and bitterness over complacency.
What’s interesting to note here is that this doesn’t necessarily have any correlation to the difficulties that people experience in life. You might think that a person who has repeatedly stood up to temptation and maintained a calm and level head and a pure and loving heart would continue to do so unless the circumstances somehow got significantly harsher. But this is not always the case. Frequently, people with a good ‘track record’ somehow manage to make severe mistakes and fail themselves in the face of what are comparatively small challenges.
And this is when the mighty fall. When good people with strong wills are tempted by things they ought to be able to over-come, but do not. I won’t say ‘cannot’ – I will not grant that permission slip. We all have it within us to make the right choice, and yet we simply often do not.
And so I challenge all of us, and all people, to assume a greater responsibility for our actions, and a greater awareness of their consequences. Too often do we seek to give in to our anger and bitterness at the expense of our well-being and our friends’, and then purport that we were simply ignorant of the consequences of our decisions.
Why do we avoid saying ‘I love you’ to those we love when we are angry? Is it because anger over-rides love? Is this acceptable? Is this really how we want to be?
Why do we hold friends’ mistakes against them when we know they have tried their best for us? Is this really how we want to be?
For that matter, why do we hold anyone’s mistakes against them? Why can we not let it roll off our shoulders as the sand rolls off the immovable pyramids? Why do we let the shortcomings of others slow down our progression in life and weigh us down with distractions like rage and revenge? Is this really how we want to be?
Are we so bored that we have time to sit around and be mad at people who harm us instead of taking the appropriate measures to protect ourselves and then moving on? Do we have so little ambition and so little self-respect that we expend irretrievable time and brainspace on what cannot be fixed? Is this really how we want to be?
What causes a person to lose his way? What makes a boy born optimistic, proud, ambitious, turn spiteful, cynical, and destructive? What makes a girl born loving, kind, gentle, turn violent, bitter, and self-denying? I promise you that we are not immune to this cancer. I have seen the most beautiful people I have known crash and burn in a sudden and largely inexplicable reversal, a U-turn in life that marks the end of that person’s progression and the beginning of a new foothold for the infectious desire to drive backwards.
You’ve only got one life. Spend as much of it as you can appreciating what you’ve got. If you find yourself unable to appreciate, then at least stay calm and quiet until you can again delight in the joys that life can bring. Complaining solves little and hating solves nothing. Anger at the mistakes your friends make will only increase the chances that they make more and help slowly convert them into pessimists as well.
Above all else, keep your chin up and facing the winds that blow your way. If sand gets in your eyes, don’t curse at it, and don’t shut it out, because then you will not see the sun when it returns. Blink away the pain and stand strong against the storm; the desert will reward those who are consistently kind at the end of time.