Universal Ethics > Thought of the Month > August 2022

The shortest answer to "Why?"

Perhaps it is a rumour, or an urban legend, that long ago a university philosophy professor gave his students a final exam with just one question: "Why?"

"Why" by itself isn't about any specific action, so it's implied that it's a question of why to do anything at all. Students might assume that in order to answer, they must explain the purpose of life. For a typical final exam, students are given 3 hours to answer, and no doubt many of the students wrote long essays.

However, favoring a simple answer to a simple question, the professor awarded 100% to the answer that contained only two words:

"Why not?"

That's a very succinct answer. It's a retort that a person doesn't need a purpose assigned to them. The person's own purpose of life comes from within so it doesn't need to be justified to anyone.

One might dig a bit deeper to ask where that purpose came from, that is within. We can fill in a bit more to put on our answer sheet, still without spending 3 hours...

Purpose for our lives

If we go back in time, it appears that life first appeared in very primitive single-celled creatures, and evolved over millions of years to more complex ones, leaving the fossil record as evidence. Humans are the most complex we know of so far, who have developed the ability to communicate and learn. Learned behavior is not totally built-in nor predictable, but it does require motivations that guide the learner, and those motivations are built in. Satisfying the motivations over time produces happiness. One might say that that nature itself has put purpose into each person as a desire for happiness.

For simpler animals, the built-in purpose involves only a few motivators: a desire to breath, drink, eat, sleep, and at times to reproduce. For example, a lion may sleep up to 20 hours per day. Except in mating season, when they're awake longer, there's not much to do except kill some prey for a meal, eat it, lie about for a while and go back to sleep.

Humans, however, have a very notable difference. They like to discover, learn, create, and invent. We appreciate the value of that, because it opens up many capabilities beyond what we have received from the evolution of our bodies.

Goals beyond survival and learning

Although those desires are significant, by themselves they are still rather limited. Suppose the curiosity to discover, create, and invent was the only differentiator between a human and a lion. In that case, humans would spend their spare time discovering and inventing rather than sleeping most of the day. But human inventions would be only theoretical curiosities, that people invent solely out of a desire to invent; they would not be things that people would put to use. Unless the invention is itself a tool for more research, it would not be mass produced.

For example, if a musical instrument, or a means of producing paint, or a building construction method was invented, people would appreciate they are amazing discoveries, but they may have no desire to actually use any of them. Accordingly, they would not be mass produced. The capabilities available to each person in society would not be expanded much.

But real humans have many more desires beyond that. People also enjoy music, dance, humour, beauty, architecture, friendship, and sports, among other things, and they spend time on those things merely because they want to. So, if they have an instrument to make music better, they will want it and mass produce it. It's likewise for the paint to beautify things and the construction methods for improving architecture.

Taken alone, those desires may seem to have no purpose. Music, for example, may have evolved from mating songs, such as birds use. Humans no longer need it for that purpose, but they still enjoy music regardless. You could say it is an anomaly.

Some of our other desires are like that too. They serve no purpose in support of survival. Does that mean we should stop "wasting our time" with them? Why not sleep most of the day, like a lion, and lie about doing nothing except when we want to eat or mate?

But wait, isn't even a lion wasting his time to eat? Plants survive without eating, just by absorbing sunlight. Life on earth could continue just fine without lions or humans or any other animal.

But wait again, because a human is not a lion nor a plant. It seems that evolution creates a variety of increasingly complex creatures, with increasingly miscellaneous and complex desires. It is those desires that cause the creatures not only to invent, but to put inventions to use, thereby increasing their capabilities.

Universal Purposes

It's a huge universe we live in, of a size beyond imagination, with other worlds. It's a reasonable guess that likely life evolves on some of those worlds, giving rise to increasingly complex living things, with desires to discover and invent, supported by their own "anomalies" of things they want to do, so that they will make use of their inventions. They wouldn't necessarily want all the same things that humans enjoy, but there would be some similarities. It seems to be the nature of things for this to happen.

So, if there are things you want to do, based on motives built-into you as a human, you don't need to explain why you want it while a lion or a plant might not. It is your nature to want those things, and collectively you and other people discover, invent, and produce things that increase your capability of what you can do.

So, for the question "Why?" we can answer in the form of a question, responding with "why not?" If there is no reason not to, then it it is sufficient to do what you want merely because you want to.

When there is an answer to "why not"

Occasionally, however, there may be something you might want to do, where there is an answer to "why not?" There are two typical cases to consider: conflicting motives within one person, and conflicting motives between people.

In the internal conflict, the person might be considering a course of action that satisfies one motive (producing pleasure), but which also is a dissatisfier to another motive. To solve this, the person either needs to find a creative solution that avoids the adverse consequence, or to apply discipline to accurately weigh the pleasure against the displeasure. Humans often have a weakness of weighing an earlier pleasure more heavily, but then regretting it later. This is called temptation. To cure this, people need to develop the skill I call "time-independent judgement."

In the external conflict, both individuals "get in each other's way" so that one person's strategy for satisfaction is counter-productive to the other person's satisfaction. Again they might seek a creative solution, or simply "get out of each other's way" via separation.

How to achieve those solutions is what ethics is about, and to keep this answer short I won't add more to this answer now. Moreover, beyond avoiding conflict, people want that others should help them when they need it. This is often part of the "why" rather than the "why not." People tend to naturally care about each other, and that works to their mutual benefit. They also care about the future, including the people and ecology of the future.

This all depends on a person's mind functioning in a normal fashion, without any significant defect such as what one might find in a psychopath. (A psychopathic personality is "cold-blooded", with no care for other people, and the person might even despise themselves.)

Normal isn't necessarily quite perfect either, because evolution is an ongoing process, and there is always room for improvement. When a person recognizes his (or her) own weaknesses, he can imagine himself the way he wishes he would be, and treat that as an aspiration. Doing the things that his ideal person would want to do will give him an extra boost of satisfaction. Avoiding the things his ideal person would not do will give him extra protection from regret.

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