(Do good work, earn respect. - The Analects)
Let's start with the “self-premise" – that all human activity are self-interested. This presents an interesting puzzle, doesn't it? How would you reconcile the self-interest with collective drive towards sustainability? How would you set the proverbial Wittgensteinian fly out of the bottle? It is a game we play after all; what are the rules?
There are a few philosophical premises that can serve as a starting point. For example, some believe it is possible to connect passion with work; and from here we begin a pursuit in the self-interested sustainability: that we are happy doing what we do and therefore we are willing to grind the labor for the results. For this premise to work properly on a collective human level, we'd have to ignore human nature such as greed. Our world becomes an endless moment of now perfectly distilled to the best of possible. Greed is irrelevant because all things are simply preordained. This is something Leibniz has well established as a theory long ago and one that a self-disrespecting religious person would gladly accept. The cliché goes, ignorance is bliss after all.
But given the deteriorating political climates around the world these days, it is at least questionable if we are indeed living in the best of all possible worlds. Could this really be the best we must suffer? If not, however, how would we reconcile with the paradoxes of time's arrow?
An imagination unconstrained is an unreliable guide. Leaving theoretical physics (time's arrow quandaries) aside as a constraint (as you are welcome to dispense of the time's arrow arguments at your own pleasure), for the moment let's put some societal constraints around our imagination to the act of “doing good work”—put a context around it so to speak:
What does “doing good work mean?” A notable western legal scholar, Robert M. Cover, once pondered this constrained premise and wrote:
“The rules and principles of justice, the formal institutions of the law, and the conventions of a social order are, indeed, important to that world; they are, however, but a small part of the normative universe that ought to claim our attention. No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning.
For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture. Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live.”
The normative world, to Cover, is something that enriches the self-interested world through the rule of law as its means to an end in a better world. In this regard, we are not predestined but we chose to practice civil society, with rules and laws and all that good stuff to ensure the self-premise fits properly into the collective experience. Here, we are able to intelligibly talk about how to connect passion to our work, and we find meaning in the phrase “doing good work.”
Yet, appearance of simplicity can be deceiving. Connecting passion to good work is tremendously difficult. Passions are often abundant and talents can be trained. But translating passion and talent into productive work towards a sustainable end requires a certain guidance of wisdom that comes only from the deep introspections into experiences. Experiences are trials and tribulations, and introspection almost certainly requires patience and fearlessness. Trials and tribulations, well those are the things one must tolerate in life. But more often than not, we have little patience for their introspections in the modern productive public life. The seeds have already been planted. Nothing is left to be grown, and all must be simply tended to as they are required to produce. The agrarian way of life has ended and the industrial and information age has begun. But without the outwardly projected introspection (yes an irony, I know) of the self-premise in growing something, we would not be able to frame the context around the meaning of “doing good work.” Without a context, we cannot conduct and direct our collective discourse. Only a directed collective human experience can help us move towards a sustainable future. We are just not going to stumble on it by accident by ourselves.
But politicians and magicians, corporations alike, are able to manipulate our attention spans into fractions, incoherent, and demand that we be productive and not attempt to grow. We are distracted, by the glitters and glory, by the busyness of life. While connecting passion to work is tremendously difficult and unavoidable, it has become more or less meaningless. Our discourse becomes irrelevant because someone else is setting the rules. We are merely here paying to play. The pursuit of life, liberty, and property carefully disguised as pursuit of happiness. A miserable life it becomes as we assume something else as the normative universe, someone else's normative universe. Where is the liberty in that? How would you explain freewill?
Freewill in society is extrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation is something money can buy and over which power can be exercised. Upon this theory we confer citizenship, credit, and all the other modernly things we come to know as law. There lay the answer to the paradox: in the ages we struggle to find freewill we have completely turned freewill into a right and privilege, not an obligation and responsibility. Duty and loyalty gradually lost their own respective context amongst the heroes of history. Freedom fighters are equivalent to terrorists in the modern sense and it is a dangerous thing. It divides our collective human experience into parts unknown. Terrorist, after all, are cowards. Freedom fighters are heroes and they stand for better things.
As I invoke the ancient Confucius saying in the beginning of this essay:
I mean to point out: freedom is the self-recognition earned through one's own responsibility to doing good work in a context of what good work means for others—a unattainable goal but forever perpetuating a harmonious and sustainable society moving forward in time, or so I hope.
If you must have liberty, then take the duty to defend it.