Sunday, 1 May 2011

Yousef learns Desirism

Yousef is a ten year old boy living in a small tribal community in the mountains of Afghanistan. Now that he's ten, it's time for him to stop being raised by the women in his family and start working with the men. At his age, that means looking after the goats. It's not very exciting work, but every time he tries to sneak back into the house to talk to his mother and siblings, and maybe grab a snack, his father gets angry with him and tells him to he's not a child any more, and that it's time to grow up and learn to be a man. If he complains to his mother that he doesn't want to tramp around after some smelly goats then she tells him, he must learn to grow up and be a strong man like his father.

Yousef thinks this sucks. The men don't spend all their time herding goats. They sit around a lot with rifles and talk about raiding the village over the mountains because one of the men from that village shot one of Yousef's cousins a few years ago. Yousef doesn't like the idea of shooting people, but all the men say that it is a matter of honor, and that if they didn't shoot someone from the other village then they would look weak and the enemy might decide they could carry on shooting them and stealing their goats. They tell the boy that it is very important for the family to protect its honor, otherwise neighboring tribes will take their land and their women. That's why the women wear the burka, so that men from other tribes won't want to carry them away.

As Yousef absorbs the stories that the men tell him about how to be a man, and what great deeds men of the village have done in the past, he is torn between a longing to live the gentle sociable life he had before the men started taking over his education and training and the growing desire to join the company of the men. Just as Yousef is wrestling with this problem a strange thing happens. An airplane passes low over the village leaving a trail across the sky. As Yousef watches he realizes that the trail is hundreds of bits of paper raining down on the village. He stares, stunned at the American plane as it disappears over the hills. Suddenly he notices the noise of all the small children running out of the houses to catch the pieces of paper. Soon the men and women join them, picking up the sheets that are now blowing around the houses. The women don't know what to make of them, because they can't read, but the men have dark looks on their faces. Yousef grabs one as it flutters by and looks at it.


The Way to a Better World

1. All value exists in terms of the fulfillment of desires.

2. Desires are the only reasons for actions that exist

3. Morality is the practice of using social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote in society those desires that tend to fulfill other desires (because those are the ones people generally have reason to promote), and to inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires (because those are the desires that people generally have reason to inhibit.

Yousef is lucky. Because he is a boy, he has been taught to read. The Americans have translated this text on Desirism into Arabic so he can tell what the words are. Even so, it is difficult for him to understand what they mean. The first bit not to difficult to work out. He values his supper because he is hungry and after he's eaten it his hunger goes away because he is full. The second bit, though, doesn't sound right. He does lots of things that he doesn't want to do - like looking after the goats. This bit is trying to tell him that he's looking after the goats because he wants to, and that just doesn't make sense. That evening, Yousef reads the words to his mother and asks her why they say he wants to look after the goats when he knows he doesn't want to. She asks him what would happen if he didn't look after the goats, and he says, Father would beat me. That's right she agrees, so what do you desire more: to look after the goats and not be beaten, or abandon the goats on the hill and be beaten? Ah, he says, I understand now, and goes off to contemplate the third piece of text on the Desirism leaflet.

This one is a doozy.

3. Morality is the practice of using social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote in society those desires that tend to fulfill other desires (because those are the ones people generally have reason to promote), and to inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires (because those are the desires that people generally have reason to inhibit.

Desires are desired if desired by desires? Desires go around in circles in Yousef's head and he can't understand where they come from if they come from themselves. How do they start in the first place? And what do they have to do with morality, with doing the right thing? Yosef doesn't understand the idea of recursion, and so he struggles with morality and desires, until one day his cousin Osama returns to the village.

Osama is the second son of Yousef's uncle Mohammed. Three years ago it was decided that Osama would go to a Madras to study the teachings of the Prophet and return to instruct the village in the ways of Islam. They sent Osama because he was devout and clever - too clever to be a goat herder.

Yousef takes the Desirism leaflet to his cousin Osama and asks him what the third part means. Osama looks at it and smiles. "Why do you want to know what this means, Yousef?"

"Well, I am learning to herd goats so that I can become a man. But I miss playing with my friends like I did when I was still a child. I don't feel like a goat herder and this bothers me. I want to know what the right thing to do is: become a goat herder, or do something else that is not so lonely and boring."

Osama laughs a big belly laugh. "Oh Yousef, there is much more to being a man than herding goats. You have only just started on the journey to manhood and you will not herd goats forever. Come let us look at these words and see what they tell us."

Yousef and Osama sit down and look at the leaflet.

Osama says, "What do you understand 'morality' to mean, Yousef?"

"It means knowing what is right and doing the right thing."

"That is good, Yousef. And what do you understand desires to be?"

"These are things that people want."

"Yes, it is so. Now you know that there are good desires and bad desires, don't you?"


"So what are some good desires?"

"Wanting to eat when you are hungry. Obeying your parents and elders. Protecting the goats and the village. Studying the Koran."

"Very good, Yousef. What about some bad desires?"

"Lying. Cheating. Hurting people. Not looking after the goats."

"Yes, see it is easy to tell what is good or bad. Now what do we do to people who do good things."

"We thank them."

"That's right. If, say, one of your goats wandered off and a neighbor found it and returned it to you, then you'd thank them, wouldn't you?"

"Yes, I would, and I would hope that he wouldn't tell my father that I had let the goat wander off."

"Because if your father found out that you had lost a goat he would...?"

"He would beat me."

"That's right. Looking after the goats is a good thing, and not looking after the goats properly is a bad thing. You may not get much praise for looking after the goats properly, because it is expected of you, but you will certainly get a beating if you don't. Praise and punishment are used to teach you what is right and wrong. Now, why is looking after the goats the right thing to do?"

"Because the family depend on the goats for milk and meat?"

"Yes, and why are you looking after the goats."

"Because my father tells me to."

"Yes. So your father desires you to look after the goats and your whole family desires the goats to be looked after. So what these words are saying is that you should desire the things that your father and family desire so much so that they will praise you if you desire the same things and punish you if you don't desire them."

"So I should want to look after the goats because that's what everyone wants me to want. And they'll beat me if I don't want to do it."

"Yes. You should want to look after the goats because that is what your family want and you must not thwart their desires."

"But I don't want to look after the goats!"

"And what happens if you don't look after them?"

"My father will beat me."

"Because you will have thwarted his desires. So what kind of a desire is 'not looking after the goats'?"

"A bad desire."

"That's right."

"Does that make me bad?"

"No, Yousef. You would only be bad if you acted on a bad desire."

"But you don't herd goats. Does that make you bad?"

"No. The village wanted me to become a scholar of Islam and that is what I have become and it has made the whole village proud of me. Your family want you to become a traditional man of the village. That starts with herding goats, but in time you will learn to use a rifle and fight with the other men to defend our honor. In time you will take a wife, too. Perhaps you will prove to be a great warrior by stealing a woman from one of the other villages. Your mother and father would be very proud of you then, and if you prove to be a great warrior then you won't have to herd goats any more, eh?"

Yousef jumps up and grins. "Yes, this Desirism has shown me what I should do. I shall become a great warrior. I shall fight the men of the other villages and take their women and goats. Then I will be a hero to my mother and father, and bring honor to our village (and never have to herd goats again)."

Osama smiles. "That's right, Yousef. What this piece of paper is saying is that the right thing to do is what we are already doing."

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