DETERMINING OUR DESTINY
Every action is a contributing cause of future events; but it is often difficult to determine the amount of influence a particular cause will have, or the magnitude of the effect. During World War 2, a great deal of propaganda was disseminated concerning letters written to servicemen from family members. Military Intelligence was worried about the chance of useful information falling into the hands of enemy agents. An individual could write to a relative in the navy and comment on the arrival time of their warship in a certain port. One possible effect of this action is that the sailor would experience a feeling of happiness, because someone is expressing an interest in his life. Another possibility is that the letter is intercepted by the enemy, the location of the ship is revealed, and it is destroyed; changing the outcome of the battle, and perhaps the war. A person sending such a letter is intending to cause the first effect; yet they may unwittingly bring about the second. Although governments expended a great deal of effort in order to make the public aware of this principle, military censors were kept busy intercepting mail which would have placed the recipients at risk: this is because the majority of people put very little thought into the potential effects their actions might cause.
The influence an individual has on the future has been mentioned previously in this work, but it warrants further discussion due to its significance. Many people feel powerless in the overall scheme of things, and use this attitude to justify a self-centered existence; as well as a convenient excuse for inaction in the face of injustice. An example of this feeling of impotence is demonstrated by voter apathy in Western elections: millions of people insist that their ballot is meaningless, and use the concept to excuse their failure to vote.
First of all, a winning result is the sum of the individual ballots; and the total of the people who did not participate generally exceeds the margin of victory. Although success or failure is rarely determined by a single vote, it does happen; in addition, it may be the difference in someone’s decision to try again, or quit. The actual action of submitting your ballot at the polling station is only a part of your potential effect upon election results. Your expressed political interest and intent to vote influences people you encounter: I am sure you can recall instances where people you know decided to do something because you were doing it, and vice versa. Your contribution toward the future actions of others may not lead to an immediate effect, but may be a contributing cause of something which eventually changes their behaviour; and ultimately, is as important as all other causes involved. This does not end here, because individuals that you have affected go on to sway others. Behavioural changes your influence has caused can be permanent, and therefore, these people will affect any number of persons they encounter throughout life; especially their own children. In other words, your actions do not result in one seemingly minor event; they potentially alter the lives of generations of individuals.
Although voting often comes down to the choice of the “lesser of two evils”; failure to make the effort to contribute toward the outcome is giving tacit approval to whatever others decide, and diminishes your right to criticize the results of your actions. To make the decision not to cast a ballot is still a contributing cause of a future event; and therefore, your action (or inaction, if you wish) leads to a result for which you are partially responsible.
No person is meaningless to humanity. Every individual affects the future simply by existing. Even an infant that dies during childbirth has had a profound influence upon the people involved in the delivery; during its brief moment of physical existence, it has altered destiny. The psychological impact upon the parents is obvious, and permanent. Their family and friends are changed by the experience; as are the nurses and doctors. You may say that it is the death of the baby, and not its life, that produces the effect; but death does not exist without life: it is the consequence of all life. We all die, and the longer each of us exists prior to death, the more people we will affect upon our demise. Our birth, life, and death all contribute toward the flow of human existence through the way they affect others.
The fact that your every action has some level of influence upon the future means that you are accountable for the effects you indirectly cause. This, of course, applies to eventualities that you could reasonably be expected to foresee. For example: you pull into the closest available parking stall at the store, so the next vehicle to come along has to park considerably further away. Now if the occupant of that automobile is on crutches, you have unwittingly inflicted a hardship upon them by your actions: but you cannot be expected to anticipate that the next vehicle will contain a handicapped individual. If the parking stall you chose was a spot reserved for the handicapped, then you are aware that you are potentially inflicting hardship upon someone else, and are therefore responsible for your actions (personally, I normally park far away; and am rewarded with additional exercise, easy parking, and the knowledge that I may have inadvertently improved someone’s day). This scenario is only a demonstration of the short term consequences of your decisions; yet many people fail to put even this much consideration into their activities.
Foresight has more to do with common sense than intelligence. A fine example of this is the campaign against child labour practices, specifically involving the production of carpets in India. Halting this practice is a noble goal in principle, and the media hype surrounding Craig Kielburger’s crusade drew the attention of many high profile, and presumably intelligent, individuals; who quickly called for a boycott of Indian rugs. Would a successful boycott have led to the elimination of child labour? It is highly unlikely: these children work out of necessity, and are usually supporting their entire family. Let us say that this campaign had succeeded in driving the carpet manufacturers out of business, and somehow, respectable businessmen eventually established new companies that would only hire adults: what becomes of the children and their families? The probable alternative for these members of the Untouchable caste, is to live in the garbage dumps, where the children spend their days rummaging for items they can sell, and to find food for the family. Competition is fierce, and life expectancy is short. Introducing a large number of previously employed individuals into this situation would place severe demands upon the limited resources. In other words, a successful boycott would lead, not only to the premature deaths of many of the children and their families, but to the demise of many of the people already living in the refuse. The intent is to save children from having to work, but such shortsightedness is likely to make their lives far worse; and quite possibly kill them.
Why did this boycott fail to cause any tangible effect? Organizers did not invest enough thought into the situation. Most people already “boycott” hand-woven Indian carpets simply because they are expensive, and it is impossible to justify such extravagance. The individuals who do purchase the product are wealthy and materialistic; and consequently self-serving by nature: they don’t care how the carpet is produced, only that it symbolizes material superiority over others. The solution to the child labour problem is far more complex than first appears, and is a topic too lengthy to cover here. This example was to demonstrate that long-term consequences must be considered before an action is taken; no matter how correct it may seem at first glance.
A question that occasionally arises when discussing determinism is: if everything is cause and effect, and all my future actions are predetermined, why put any effort into changing things that cannot be changed? A simple illustration can provide an answer. A determinist is standing on the sidewalk when a car veers out of traffic and heads directly towards him; his first thought is: “oh well, I am certainly destined to be killed, I may as well stand here.” Yet at the last moment, he jumps out of the way. The first point made here is that anyone using the argument for inaction is trying to avoid their moral obligation to others: when circumstances threaten them personally, they are quite eager to alter their perceived destiny. The fact of the matter is that our subject was predestined to move out of the way, because all causes (primarily instinctive, in this case) led to the result; it could be no other way.
You will react in a given way to stimuli because you must react: since you are unaware of the ultimate effect of the causes, you have no choice but to function with the perception of free will. If you were an observer in the example scenario, and saw the vehicle veer toward our subject, you might call out to warn him, or do nothing. Your decision is predetermined by your experiences and genetics; and the contributing causes culminate at the moment you act, or fail to act. Everything in the past that has brought you to this moment has established you as the type of person who would either care, or not care, about protecting a stranger from harm. The fact that you were predestined to “affect the future” is inconsequential: you act with “free will”, because past events have determined that you see your actions as such.
The most important aspect of determinism, when applied to the individual, is that we must concentrate on what our present actions will lead to, rather than what past influences have led to. You can never comprehend all the causes that have shaped you into the person you are at this moment; but you can reason toward what your present actions may cause. People often use cause and effect to excuse their present behaviour. Criminals will justify their antisocial activities by blaming childhood abuse. Individuals with phobias attribute their condition to past events. Promiscuous and adulterous persons use parental role models, and peer pressure, as their psychological justification. These excuses are valid only in principle. People who use the past to legitimize their shortcomings have a deeper disorder than the one they acknowledge.
The core problem is that individuals permit events outside of their own psyche to control their behaviour. No external psychological influence can affect you unless you permit it to do so. Parents who physically abuse their offspring are usually perpetuating a trend; because they themselves were once victims of child abuse. They model themselves after their parents, yet are aware that such conduct is wrong. The inability to change is rooted in the conformist nature of humans: the “herd instinct” of gregarious creatures. Although individual humans are capable of independent reasoning, most are far more likely to follow the conditioning they have received in life, behaving as simple animals. People instinctively fear being different from the group and will repress any thoughts that deviate from what they have been conditioned to think. It should be apparent that this human trait is not necessarily a negative one; for positive social values can be instilled into people as well.
If you are one of the persons who can rationalize independently, then you are capable of realizing that the actions of others do not reflect upon you, but upon them. If individuals in your past inflicted suffering upon you, it is they who are evil, and you only assimilate their conditioning by choice: the past causes of your behaviour have only led to an effect because you chose to allow the problems of these people to become your own. This awareness places a moral obligation upon you; for you must subsequently realize that your actions can have a permanent influence upon others. You are the cause of innumerable future effects, whether positive or negative, and your legacy will be determined by the consideration you put into your actions. You can exert a level of control over both the causes in your past, and the future events you may cause, through reasoning. It is not logical to allow the earlier harmful actions of people to dictate your self-image, but it is logical to prevent yourself from doing the same to others.
You contribute to the causes that determine the destiny of mankind through the actions and decisions that you perceive as free: to all intents and purposes, they are unquestionably free because there are limits to human comprehension which cannot be surpassed. To choose to do what is morally right is to fulfill your role as a component of humanity; as a part of the flow of cause and effect within our species, and ultimately, to fulfill a role that transcends death.