This morning I observed another typical asshat on the freeway nearly kill himself and two other vehicles pulling some kind of “I must get in front of you at all costs” maneuver. Normally I don’t think about these incidents too much beyond cringing, but this one turned on the Philosophy cells in my brain.

As individuals going about our daily lives, we have thousands of moments every day where the actions of another person make an imprint on our consciousness. An instant of gratitude in a motorcyclist’s handwave, the tacky bumper sticker on the car in front of us, the person who holds the elevator door at work. Even more subliminal things, such as the name some company has chosen to give to its newest perfume, the additional millimeter by which the length of a shirt has changed, the sight of wild hawks in suburbs.

These perceptions, these fragments of information that get scattered out from other people’s lives, all collectively have an influence on us, however minor. In fact, it’s the minor nature of them that is important, as an aggregate. We may recall such powerful incidents such as the car accident we got in once, the cruelty of a friend, the pleasure of a lover who discovered a particularly nice technique. But for each of those are countless others we have forgotten in our conscious minds.

Perhaps the car accident was caused by someone yakking on the phone (as happened to me last year). I found the man to be self-absorbed, and he had a history of wrecking cars this way (according to a friend of mind who, through a wild coincidence, used to work with the guy).

Perhaps the lover’s skill was the result of conscious attentiveness, and a desire to please his or her partner. Wild hawks may still exist here partially as a result of human endeavors to preserve their habitat. The tacky bumper sticker is a reflection of the owner’s attitude toward not only the subject of the sticker, but toward the people who will read it.

It is these things which make up culture and civilization, the moral nature of us as individuals with free will. This is what culture is — this aggregate of tiny moments, some far removed from their original causal implementation, spreading out and intermingling with vast others.

This is why ideas are important. They are the genesis, the seed from which these moments come. We are bombarded with this information all the time, but we choose how to respond to it based on our personal values. We also choose the nature and character of our own actions, which go out and affect others in immeasurable ways.

This is why principles are important. They are the rules that guide the actions we express, the way in which ideas are promulgated. Whether in kindness or cruelty, or simple indifference, this is what shapes our species.

So the next time someone says that ideology and principles aren’t really relevant to ordinary, everyday life, you’ll know what to tell them.

Leave a Reply