Why do we do the things we do?

If I had the ability I would draw a cartoon character with an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like upper torso supported on two thin, spindly, and varicose veined legs. This cartoon character would represent humanity as I visualize the human species.

The strong upper torso represents our strong aptitude for scientific achievement and the supporting legs represent our weak and wobbly moral rationality that is failing to provide the foundation needed by humanity.

Ernest Becker has woven a great tapestry, which represents his answer to the question ‘what are we humans doing, why are we doing it, and how can we do it better?’

Becker has written four books “Beyond Alienation”, “Escape from Evil”, “Denial of Death”, and “The Birth and Death of Meaning”; all of which are essential components of his tapestry. Ernest Becker (1924-1974), a distinguished social theorist, popular teacher of anthropology and sociology psychology, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for the “Denial of Death”.

Becker provides the reader with a broad and comprehensible synopsis of the accomplishments of the sciences of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and psychiatry. Knowledge of these accomplishments provides the modern reader with the means for the comprehension of why humans do as they do.

Becker declares that these sciences prove that humans are not genetically driven to be the evil creatures that the reader of history might conclude them to be. We humans are victims of the societies that we create in our effort to flee the anxiety of death. We have created artificial meanings that were designed to hide our anxieties from our self; in this effort we have managed to create an evil far surpassing any that our natural animal nature could cause.

Becker summarizes this synoptic journey of discovery with a suggested solution, which if we were to change the curriculums in our colleges and universities we could develop a citizenry with the necessary understanding to restructure our society in a manner less destructive and more in tune with our human nature.

The book “Beyond Alienation” by Ernest Becker attempts to clarify the nature of the human problem and to provide a solution for this problem. If humanity is to resolve this problem it must find a way to instruct itself wisely in the matter of social morality. Humanity must develop a synthesis of knowledge that can serve as a reasoned basis for constructing a moral rationality. We need to develop a means whereby secular moral philosophy becomes the central consideration for learning.

Moral philosophy teaches the hierarchy of values. The moral philosophy Becker speaks of recognizes that knowledge is never absolute and therefore must not remain static; it must be dynamic, reflecting the constant discovery initiated by science. Knowledge is that which helps to promote human welfare in the here and now.

Pragmatism is a self-consistent philosophy that honors the idea that humans value that which is relative to what is satisfying. This did not mean just the satisfaction of human appetite but there is recognition that humans are rational creatures; meaning that a value is judged so only when it is chosen in a critical mode of careful examination. “And it is the community of men, in free and open inquiry and exchange, who formulate the ideal values.”

Dewey’s pragmatism was dedicated to the task of social reconstruction. Education was considered to be “the supreme human interest” wherein all philosophical problems come to a head. Dewey’s pragmatism failed because it was a call to action without a standard for action. Education must be progressive and must have a strong critical content.

The big question then is what can philosophy tell education to do? “What truths is man to pursue for the sake of man? What should we learn about man and society, knowledge that would show us, by clear and compelling logic, how to act and how to choose in our person and social life?”

Becker thinks that we must transform the university from its present vocational education institution into one leading the transformation of society. It is in this solution that I differ with Becker. I do not think that higher education will ever change its role of preparing students to become productive workers and avid consumers—at least not until our society has developed a much greater degree of intellectual sophistication.

I think that in the United States there is a great intellectual asset that goes unused. Most adults engage in little or no critical intellectual efforts directed at self-actualizing self-learning after their schooling is finished. If a small percentage of our adults would focus some small part of their intellectual energies toward self-actualizing self-learning during the period between the end of their formal education and mid-life they could be prepared to focus serious time and intellectual focus upon creating an intellectual network that could make up a critical intellectual element dedicated toward the regeneration of our society.