Human Choice and Responsibility
Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human. Some of the factors that have been offered as distinguishing characteristics of humans include language, religion, and social laws. Evolutionists, such as Charles Darwin, believed that humans are similar to animals, although incrementally more intelligent due to their state of evolution. But claiming such incrementalism is not enough to prove it, and finding the genes responsible for language, art, music, politics, literature, economics, religion, taxation, and mathematics—just some of the things uniquely found among humans—will prove to be daunting. However, I will not make the question that complicated, because there are indeed humans who do not exhibit some or all of the above. Their language may be primitive, or they may not be even able to speak. They may not practice any religion or pay any taxes. Does that make them not human? There is also a sense among us that humans should be described not by what they are but what they should be. By that criterion we call some human actions “inhuman”.
In this post I will offer a simple definition of humanity, namely that a human is one who understands two ideas—choice and responsibility. Humans indeed have a greater symbolic ability relative to animals, but even if a machine existed that could process symbols like humans—as the contenders of strong AI believe—it would still not be human because the machine has no choice or responsibility.
Table of Contents
Choice and Responsibility in a Child
All children want many things during their childhood, but they don’t understand the concept of choice very well. A child, for instance, will ask for many toys in a toy shop, and a parent might tell them that they have to choose which toy to buy. Sometimes, the parent might tell them that since they got their toys, now they have to repay the debt by eating their food, sleeping, or doing their homework. In other words, parents teach children that they cannot get everything; they have to choose something. They also tell children about responsibility and accountability—if you take this, you have to give that.
Most children don’t like these two ideas. They resent the fact that they cannot get everything—”Why can’t I get all the toys I want?”—and they might throw tantrums in order to get what they want. They clearly don’t feel the necessity to work in order to get what they want. But most children also don’t understand that the consequences of their choice—whatever that may be—will be theirs alone. For instance, if they keep playing and disregard studying they might be poor later in life.
As a child grows up, he or she is expected to learn about choice and responsibility—you cannot get everything so you have to choose what you want to take, and once you have made that choice, you are fully accountable for the consequences of making that selection. The relation between choice and consequence—i.e. which choice leads to which consequences—constitutes science, which enables the child to make the right choices, after knowing their true consequences. If you don’t know the relation between choice and consequences, you are likely to make the wrong choice, and therefore everyone must be educated about the true relation between a choice and its consequences. Children must learn that they have the freedom to make choices, but that their choices are not totally free because they lead to consequences, and having made a choice, one has to bear the consequences.
The Genesis of a Man-Child
Many children grow up not understanding choice and responsibility. As adults, they still want everything but they are not prepared to work to get it. They are afraid of commitment, because they are unsure if they will truly want something once they see its full consequences. They love the freedom, but they don’t want to have to choose one among the many possibilities—as a result they remain indecisive and squander the opportunities presented to them. Even if a particular path is chosen, the indecision may cause the person to revisit their prior decision resulting in paralysis by analysis. When the consequences penalize them for their choices or the indecision, they tend to blame others for the problems caused by their choices. They like to live in a paradise in which they can get everything without working for it, and obtaining those things would not only be easy but it will also not reduce their options in the future—they hope that they can change their decision and course at any later time.
The man-child is one who hasn’t understood the nature of choice and responsibility, namely that you select from the available alternatives (and hence you cannot get everything), and once you have selected, you must be responsible for the outcomes. Just because there is a consequence to every choice you cannot avoid making those choices—you are compelled to choose something. But once you are compelled into a decision—and you make one—you are also responsible for it. In other words, indecision is not an alternative, and the consequences of a decision can’t be avoided.
The Role of Logic in Choice Making
These two ideas are called non-contradiction and mutual-exclusion in logic. If you have the alternatives of vanilla or chocolate ice creams, then non-contradiction means you must either eat vanilla or chocolate ice cream; you cannot eat both. Non-contradiction in this case is a denial of both. Similarly, because you are hungry, you must eat. You cannot say that because your preference is for mango ice cream (which is unavailable) you will remain indecisive about the available alternatives, and therefore die of hunger like Buridan’s Ass. Mutual-exclusion in this case is the denial of neither, because you are compelled to make a choice.
In one sense, growing up simply means being rational. You have to stop desiring both and neither. Growing up as an adult means you are forced to choose, and once you choose you preclude the other alternative, and thereby become irreversibly responsible for the decision you have made. You cannot remain indecisive because indecision is also a choice—with its own consequences. And whenever you make a choice—including that of being indecisive—you must bear the outcomes graciously: you cannot say that since I was forced into a situation where I had to make a decision in which all the alternatives afforded to me were undesirable, therefore I am not responsible for my previous decisions.
Denying the force that compels us into a a choice is denial of mutual-exclusion. This force puts us at a crossroads and mandates that a choice be made. Furthermore, the alternatives are contradictory, because one road goes to the East while the other goes to the West. You cannot—logically speaking—go both East and West. Hence, the idea that one could simultaneously walk on all the roads is the denial of non-contradiction. Getting contradictory things at once is not a valid choice.
Free Will is Free and Not Free
We are forced to make choices, and due to that force, choosing itself is not a choice. This force appears in our lives as limited and constrained situations in which we might not like any of the alternatives, and we might therefore wish that we did not have to choose. The force of the situation is simply that it affirms the necessity of choosing. And yet, because the alternatives are mutually contradictory, we cannot choose everything that the situation affords. Not choosing any alternative, or choosing mutually contradictory alternatives are both denials of choice. In that sense, even though a choice is forced when we don’t like the alternatives, it is not a denial but an affirmation of choice. Similarly, just because we cannot choose contradictory things simultaneously is not a denial but an affirmation of choice.
In a simple sense, our choice is constrained by logic. Mutual-exclusion means we must make a choice (we can’t use neither as the excuse for remaining indecisive), and non-contradiction means we must pick one of the contradictory options (we can’t use both as the excuse for wanting everything). Seen this way, logic can be derived from the nature of consciousness: we begin not in logic but in consciousness. We understand that consciousness makes choices, and the choice cannot be neither or both. Accepting neither or both is a denial of choice. Effectively, just because we are not allowed the neither and both options doesn’t mean we are denied choice; it rather affirms the existence of choice. Logic and choice are thus not contradictory notions; in fact, logic and choice are completely identical.
Guna and Karma
In Vedic philosophy, the force of circumstances due to which we are compelled to make a choice is due to karma—it puts us at a crossroads where we must pick an alternative and not choosing anything is not a valid option. Similarly, the alternative paths meeting at the crossroads are mutually contradictory due to guna—it creates a world of duality in which everything is defined through opposites. Thus, we are forced to make some choice due to our situation—karma—but we can choose something from the contradictory alternatives due to our personality—guna. Both guna and karma can act automatically because the situations are automatically created and the selection of the alternative can also be automatically determined by our personality. And yet, the soul has the free will to control his guna, and choose different alternatives, in the same given situations.
Vedic philosophy describes how guna creates karma and karma creates guna. When we make a choice by guna, we create a consequence called karma which puts us in a new situation that forces us to make a new choice by guna; although all alternatives might be undesirable, we still have to pick the best alternative out of the given undesirable situation. The choice of picking the desired alternative creates happiness, and the choice where we are forced into undesirable alternatives creates unhappiness. The soul is constrained by the cycle of guna and karma—forced to make a choice, desirable or undesirable, and then forced to enter the consequences of the previously made choices.
The idea of guna and karma is not esoteric philosophy. It is a very simple idea—our situation limits our alternatives and forces a choice, but depending on what we choose in the given situation, our further situations—as a consequence—can improve or worsen. We have no control over the situation, but we have control over what we choose in a given situation. It might not be exactly what we want, but we still make the best possible decision under the circumstances. That ability to choose the best of the available alternatives itself constitutes our duty or dharma. Our actions are therefore judged not in a universal manner, but only relative to the context of choice.
The Science of Choice
Guna and karma constitute the science of choice in which karma produces the circumstance, and hence constitutes the principle of mutual-exclusion (I have to choose, and the choice cannot be neither), whereas guna produces the actual selection and constitutes the principle of non-contradiction (I have to choose, but the choice cannot be both). The material world is logical, but logic is itself based upon the necessity of choice, and, therefore, there can be a science of choice and consciousness based on logic.
However, this science of logic only tells us that we cannot choose both and neither. It doesn’t tell us two things—(1) what we want to choose, and (2) which situations we will actually enter. The former is based on what we consider good—e.g. I want to eat a mango ice-cream because I like it. Similarly, the latter is based on what we consider right—i.e. the consequences of choices, based on what we consider right. The science of choice therefore necessitates two additional kinds of judgments—of good and right—in addition to the judgment of truth, which involves non-contradiction and mutual-exclusion.
Therefore, choice is not outside science. Rather, logic itself can be viewed as a consequence of choice. However, the logic that deals only in truth is incomplete; by this logic you can begin in assumptions and derive the outcomes, but you cannot decide which assumptions I must begin with. That determination is based on what I consider good. Then, when you make that decision, there is also a right decision simply because I cannot choose just what I consider good for myself, ignoring the obligations of my duty and role. Therefore, logic ends where assumptions begin. My desires choose these assumptions and constitute my definition of good, but my good is subordinated to the right.
Choice takes us from truth to good to right. Sāńkhya describes three ‘senses’ that deal with these judgments. The intellect is the instrument for judging the truth; the ego is the instrument for judging the good; the mahattattva is the sense used to judge the right. The ego (the judgment of good) is higher than the intellect (the judgment of truth), which means that I cannot judge the truth unless I define my assumptions, which have to be chosen by what I consider good—i.e. the ego. Similarly, my sense of goodness is based on what I consider right, because being wrong leads to consequences that don’t fulfill my desires. Therefore, before I can make assumptions, I must have a desire, and before I can desire I must have a moral law of action to result. Thus, morality or dharma is the first material element—the judgment of right. Then follow the sense of good (what I desire) and finally the truths of the world are created (the assumptions).
In a world that has a twisted morality–e.g. that pursuit of my happiness is the highest moral principle–all the desires are also twisted, which then lead to twisted assumptions, which are then used to judge the truth of all meanings. As a result, you may consider the falsities to be true, and the truths to be false. The problem begins not in that judgment, but in the desire that creates the assumptions, and the morality that creates desires.
In essence, truth is not ultimate. Truth is based on good, and good is based on right. In the quest for truth, we can only go so far—truth judgment is based on your assumptions. The path of truth—or jnana—leads us to many conflicting assumptions. To solve these conflicts, we have to choose which of the assumptions is good—i.e. that which makes us happy. But some assumptions might make us temporarily happy, and unhappy in the longer run. Therefore, we have to know how find that good which is also right, so that it can give us permanent happiness. This is, hopefully, an intuitive description of what I mean by the ‘science’ of choice—the judgment of truth, good, and right.
The Soul and the Science of Choice
The soul has three aspects—sat or eternity, chit or knowledge, and ananda or happiness. The chit or knowledge corresponds to all that is true; it is reflected in our material intelligence by which we judge the truth. The ananda is the pleasure-seeking tendency and corresponds to all that we consider good; it is reflected in the material ego by which we become selfish and desire different things in this world. The sat is the morality and corresponds to our sense of right; it is reflected in the mahattattva or chitta.
Below the moral sense, the ego, and the intellect, are senses called the mind and the indriya which comprehend meanings and sensations, respectively. The eye sees the shape and size, and the mind interprets it into a meaning—this shape means such and such. While reading this text, for example, your eyes are sensing the shapes of letters, and the mind is giving them meanings. Then the intellect will judge if what is written here is true, the ego will decide if you like it, and mahattattva will determine if such a post should have been written at all—i.e. whether it constitutes a moral activity. Thus, many senses are involved in just reading the text, finding its meaning, judging its truth, goodness, and rightness. But fundamentally, the truth, good, and right, are the properties of the soul, and the meanings on which we apply truth, right, and good, are different from the soul.
There is a distinction between puruṣa and prakriti. The puruṣa is the soul who judges—truth, right, and good. The prakriti is that which is judged—the text with meaning. The puruṣa is superior to the prakriti, because the puruṣa is identified as the one who judges using instruments (intellect, ego, and moral sense) while the prakriti is the objects and their meanings which are judged by the puruṣa. The soul is incapable of creating the judged objects and meanings, although the soul can judge them.
In that sense, puruṣa and prakriti have to combine. If they don’t combine, my capacity to judge truth, right, and good will be lying useless because there is nothing to judge. Similarly, what would be the point of having objects and meanings, if they can’t be judged to be right, good, and true? Thus, God is the Supreme Soul or the person with the absolute judgment of truth, right, and good. And His energy or śakti creates all the content—objects with meaning—which can be judged true, right, and good by God. God and His śakti combine—like male and female—to produce the content and its judgment.
The impersonalists contend that the soul is the capacity to judge (sat, chit, and ananda) but the material world (content) is false, painful, and wrong, and hence the soul divorces the world—the puruṣa separates from the prakriti. But the personalists tell us that there is another world in which the content is true, right, and good, and the soul—with his judgment—combines with it. In that unity, the body and mind are given by the prakriti but the judgment of truth, right, and good is the soul itself. This means that there is an individual constituted of the judgmental capacity, but the content—the body, the mind and the resulting sensations and meanings—is distinct. And yet, the soul combines with the body to create experience of truth, right, and good.
The Meaning of Human Being
Human life is for understanding that beyond the sensations are meanings, that beyond meanings are three kinds of judgments, which originate in the soul, and the soul combines with the śakti of God to create his experience. We can experience sensations and meanings, but the understanding of the soul begins with the intellect or the quest for truth. This search quickly leads into questioning our assumptions, and then asking: What are the best assumptions? The answer to that question lies in finding which assumption makes us happy, with that happiness obtained in a rightful manner. Finally, we must understand how the judgments and the content combine to create experience. Only humans are capable of this because animals cannot see the difference between content and judgment. To be a human, therefore, is to see oneself different from the mind and the body. It is to recognize that we are forced to make a choice, but we have a choice.
The mind makes the world a symbol with meanings. So, even before we can talk about judgments of truth, right, and good, we have to understand the mind. But what we call the ‘mind’ is only the meanings; it doesn’t include the judgments of truth, right, and good. In that sense, the study of the soul—as the quest for the truth, right, and good—goes beyond the study of the mind; in a preliminary sense, it involves the understanding of intellect, ego, and morality, but these three judgments are capacities of the soul itself, and in that sense, the soul has a personality by which it judges, and yet that personality is different from the body and mind which constitute the content being judged.
God is the supreme judge of truth, right, and good. The soul’s judgments are subordinate to that of God, and they become false, painful, and wrong if they conflict with God’s judgments. God’s śakti is also subordinate to God, because it is subject to God’s judgment. In that sense, sometimes, even the soul is considered prakriti because both are subordinate to God’s judgment: prakriti because it is content, and the soul because its judgments are not final. Since the soul can judge God’s śakti, he has a tendency to believe that he is a judge, and would like to choose the nature of truth, right, and good. But he forgets that he is not the final judge, and his judgments are liable to be judged—i.e. that he is responsible for his choices. God’s choice is without responsibility because His choice constitutes the very definition of truth, right, and good. It is not that God has to follow truth, right, and good; rather, whatever He chooses is truth, right, and good. The soul’s choice is not by default truth, right, and good, and therefore, choice brings responsibility.
Human life is the time when one can become liberated from this material world, which means recognizing that our choice is not supreme, although we do have a choice. By way of choice, we are different from that which is judged. But because our choice is not supreme, we are also different from the person Whose judgments are final. The distinction between the soul, matter, and God is the essence of Vedānta philosophy, and that essence can be grasped simply by understanding the distinction between the supreme judge, the individual judge, and the object of that judgment. The supreme judge can judge the individual judges, as well as the objects of their individual judgments.