December shows us what we value

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December’s experienced backpack sits on top of a pile of junk mail, circulars and printable coupon offers for discounts on a host of stuff. Promising great value, the marketing ploys entice us into believing we are going to get something for nothing, or at least next to nothing, or perhaps just severely discounted — if we hurry in now, while supplies last. We have inboxes teeming with unread spam suggesting that everything we could ever possibly want is only a click away. A buzzing smartphone reminds us of our December activities and obligations, meetings, parties and celebrations.

Tempted, by the contrast of its empirical nobility sitting among its temporal trash, we decide, naively, to peek inside the backpack. Perhaps we will find a planning app and a file folder inside the backpack to organize this mess? Well, as always, philosophy never disappoints in its ability to propose the reverse of whatever it is we think will be helpful.

December’s backpack offers us insight into what we value, what we consider “worthy,” rather than teaching us how to prioritize our existing resources. If we were looking for uncomplicated holiday cheer, December’s pack isn’t the place to find it. Instead, the satchel of the 12th month contains the Skeptic Scotsman, the great empiricist, David Hume, and all of his big December questions. This month, we focus on Hume’s discussion about the heavy epistemological problems: Why do we value what we do? Where does our knowledge come from? And why do we consider some concepts more worthy of our acceptance than others? Why do we believe what we do? Hume’s line of questioning encourages us to evaluate what really matters in our own existence, even if the process makes us royally uncomfortable.

It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security with December’s discourse. December charismatically encourages us to sit in front of a warm winter fire to enjoy its comforts. While doing so, it is easy to admit we value refuge. It is easy to consent that we clearly appreciate shelter. We are grateful and civil and amiable — even generous — when our needs are met and our bellies are full. We readily agree that December’s sense of time, tradition and sanctified stories command our respect and can reflect our individual ideals and represent those of our community.

Then, a question is nobly, civilly and just slightly sneakily posed: Do we value our own refuge over the refuge of others? How do we justify our morality of worth? December’s Socratic questioning begins and Hume’s line of inquiry becomes hauntingly unnerving. Do we really comprehend what we say we value? Do we arbitrarily attribute worth based upon a misunderstanding of our impressions?

December and Hume do not skirt the difficult topics, they do not indulge our request just to pretend we care. We are denied our polite hope to avoid confrontation in order to escape awkward discourse. Rightfully associated with winter’s wrath, December’s questions determinedly and doggedly, if not charmingly, demand acknowledgment and relentlessly pursue answers. The snow is beautiful but the cold is terribly uncomfortable when inductive reasoning, according to Hume, is inherently flawed. The laws of nature are not going to cooperate with our manipulations, our invalid deductions.

Empiricism argues that experience is the source of all knowledge.

According to Douglas Soccio in “Archetypes of Wisdom,” Hume differentiated “between two kinds of perceptions: ideas and impressions. All ideas can be traced to the impressions on which they are based. All ideas are derived from experience.” This means, according to Hume, we run the risk of becoming creatures of habit, in a detrimental sense, when adopting systems of value.

In other words, as Jostein Gaarder’s character explains in “Sophie’s World,” “Hume wanted people to sharpen their awareness.” He goes on to say that he “would have added that the child has not yet become a slave of the expectations of habit: he is thus the more open-minded of you two. I wonder if the child is not also the greater philosopher? He comes utterly without preconceived opinions ... the philosopher’s most distinguishing virtue. The child perceives the world as it is, without putting more into things than he experiences.” Justifying prejudice and entitlement are examples of erroneously attributing value based upon misinterpretations of what was reasoned to be from, or deemed part of, the laws of nature.

As Dr. Gordon Marino opines in his book “Ethics,” “Though Hume maintained that reason is required to develop general systems of ethics, he believed that the brick and mortar of a moral life was not our ability to reason but instead our ability to empathize.” Isn’t that, after all, what so many of December’s powerful stories are trying to tell us? An interesting inversion of power from the great agnostic. Ironically, isn’t the paradoxical nature of value, power and worth the focus of December’s profound stories?

Perhaps this is why Hume reminded us while we can be many things — play many roles — we should remember that being human is what gives us our ability to experience what really matters. When we find the human experience valuable, we will understand more clearly what we find significant, what is possible, and simply put, what we find worthy. Hume’s evaluation is not about faster, better, efficient or less expensive. It is about what we value.

Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at jennifer.baynelemma@wwcc.edu.

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