The Unexamined Lives

We are all free to choose our own purpose, our own values and to make our lives our own projects. In a world without godly codes, everything is permitted and it is up to us both as individuals and as members of the greater mankind to decide what is good and just. Our own choices and actions demonstrate what we see as good, and our society’s conception of ‘good’ is the sum of our individual choices. So far, so Jean-Paul Sartre. But most of the folks who make up our society don’t ever actually consider their values or examine their lives the way a bourgeois philosopher might. How many amongst us have ever really considered the meaning of their lives beyond simple surface level goals?


For most of us, our values aren’t defined by a heady contemplation of ethics – we muddle along and try to make the best of the limited information which is readily available. At best, our ethics are informed by looking at parents and role models, at worst by simple osmosis from the society in which we are immersed and only in the case of rare individuals through active contemplation. So if, as Sartre asserts, “everything happens to every man as if the entire human race was staring at him and measuring itself by what he does”, what happens when the bulk of people are not actively choosing, but merely being swept along in their unexamined lives?


Once upon a time, values were set steadfastly by the church, which acted as judge, jury and atemporal executioner. Disagreements between churches led to some problems, but their local anchoring presence meant we did not have to contemplate the absurdity of our freedom. Then God died. Without the chains of the church, we were free to define our own rules and purpose, so philosophers and academics set about renewing their vision of the world. But for all the weighty texts produced, most folks weren’t listening. They had more pressing concerns. At the top of the Amazon charts for philosophy at present is a self-help book promising to “unblock your life in 30 minutes a day with the power of unconditional love”. So without the church or philosophy to guide him, where does the regular Joe get his values?


Much of our sense of self is defined through our childhood, with parents or other role models acting as guides. But where do those parents get their own values? Unless they are part of that ivory tower dwelling group who have contemplated these things, their own influence can be collapsed down to a function of the other factors along with some residual traditional values.


Chief among those other factors is schooling. Not only will a child’s schooling provide a source of role models, but it is also the prime source of learning for most folks. However, school is far from a neutral source – it is no coincidence that nationalist movements sprung up in the wake of elementary education in the 1800s. A school’s curriculum is determined by those who hold local power, whether they be aristocrats, governments or corporations. As such, schools teach the status quo, with obedience and deference to power deeply embedded within the structure. A child who deigns to select their own values is brought under control by peer pressure and discipline, to be moulded into a docile worker-drone.


With the ubiquitousness of the internet, many young folks are now finding unconventional role models online. The reactive nature of the internet means that these new role models aren’t generally thoughtful folks on journeys of discovery, but instead hatemongers seeking to exploit outrage for clicks. There is plenty of potential for the internet to aid kids as an educational supplement, but the nature of our society and the online ecosystem tends towards anger rather than discussion, clickbait rather than nuance.


Both during our childhood and later in life, our values are also moulded by our social environment. We look to role models as guides to emulate and inform our own values. But who does our society elevate? Not the scientists, artists or thinkers, but instead the marketers and celebrities, folks whose values are attuned to the tacky wasteland which is our shared culture. We see example after example demonstrating the worship of mammon, of flash over substance and greed over solidarity. These values are both the cause and result of our ignorance. Our values are informed by the society of the spectacle and those self-same values reinforce the building blocks upon which the spectacle relies.


So as we fail to examine our lives, we sleepwalk into values we inherit from the society around us. As our education teaches us to defer to power, so it is thus in our society. As we are surrounded by greed and consumption, we too come to value those things. In societies built upon sexism and xenophobia, we inherit those attitudes.


On an individual level, this is actually a reasonably easy problem to solve. Do some thinking, read some books, contemplate what is actually good – decide for yourself. Don’t let me or anyone else tell you what that should be (though as always, considering dissenting opinions can help to refine your ideas). Whether you can then live in harmony with both your values and those of the society you are embedded in (or maybe they are the same?) is a question for another day, but by considering and then living in accordance with your values you are helping to make the world a better place. Unless your core values are dreadful, in which case – why are you even here?