On the human abacus

What would life be without “problems”? To my thinking this is an assertion (posing as a question) equivalent to, “What would life be without sin?” It would be unearthly. For “problems” are encountered the moment we decide to go against the grain of nature, of natural law, and of its clarification in divine law. To think through an apparently insoluble problem is to inquire into what we were doing wrong; where “we” of course includes other human beings: fellow members of the awkward squad.

The word is used so commonly and casually today, that almost anything can be described as “a problem,” or among the semi-literate, more pretentiously as “problematic.” It is asserted that there is no such category as “sin,” only problems. And yet, the moral basis is affirmed, often the more starkly as it is being denied, in the name of some primitive god, such as Science.

Rather than state a moral objection, a liberal will say, “I have a problem with that.” He has confessed at least to having a conscience — some interior sense of right and wrong — even if he cannot make a coherent case for either.

Ask him in reply, “What is your problem?” and he is likely to dissolve into what we now call “virtue signalling.” But the virtues he signals are themselves incoherent; and so, inevitably, their corresponding vices.

Ask him then to come back after he has identified his problem, and solved it to his own satisfaction, and feels able to describe it minus the cop-out of externalizing. Only at that point can he be helped, by priest or some reasonable psychologist. Meanwhile we have our own work to do.

One might encourage the fellow by assuring him that there are fewer sins than he has imagined, and that his dementias about e.g. racism, sexism, homo and other phobias may be safely dismissed, along with his political agenda. This will help him narrow his focus to something actually wrong.

Problems, and problem-solving, are the method of most practical use in the world of technology. From there, it seems to spread by analogy.

The problem, as my brilliant son once demonstrated, is that the little pins are crooked. The solution is to straighten them out. This will require patience and a steady hand, along with one’s smallest pair of pliers. Having identified that problem, one has identified the solution. It was that simple, and with patient concentration, it can be fixed. No emotional investment is required, and as this son once told me, to my shame (when he was twelve and I was forty-five), “It makes more sense to think about your problem, than how you feel about your problem.”

A real problem — as opposed to a rhetorical “problem” — has the ability to solve itself. From the moment it is properly understood, the solution is apparent. It is like an arithmetic puzzle. It is why an abacus works. Move the beads correctly, and the answer is correct. You have only to read the answer now before you. The one and only answer, if you wanted to know.

I think the same is true of almost any moral puzzle, when our brains are working. For the moral abacus works the same. Enter the elements and the solution appears. The difficulty is not in getting the answer; that is the straightforward part. The difficulty is in accepting, and acting upon it, when perchance you don’t like it.

By no coincidence, we live in a time when technical problems abound and multiply, until they become nearly insoluble by their vexing complexity; and in a time when emotional responses go unchecked. I think this has everything to do with our culture of disposal. Given money, or room on one’s credit cards, the solution to the “problem” is to get rid of the thing, and buy another. And similarly, with any other “problem.” The solution to an unanticipated pregnancy is to get rid of the thing. The solution to difficulties in marriage is divorce; to pain and hopelessness is euthanasia, &c.

These are merely variations on the universal landfill option, about which the environmentalists complain, in highly selective ways.

We declare moral bankruptcy and then, assisted by the latest laws of the democratic State, we start over, having learnt only that bankruptcy is relatively painless; that it requires little more than a thick skin. It is our Right, and only the people we owed get scrood. (Whether the debt be moral and grave, or only light and fiscal, when justice is foresworn.) And they are anyway likely to be large impersonal corporations; or small, defenceless entities, which we easily disregard. The former write off the loss and move on, having budgeted for a certain (gradually rising) proportion of customers who are shameless cheats. Only the latter, the small and defenceless, are likely to haunt us, as so many women, and men, have discovered after their quick fixes; their “procedures.”

Against which guilt there are specious arguments, and the twisted face. “How dare this non-entity question my prerogative” (not to hear the screaming of my victim). … How dare he rise from the dead.

Having reduced life to “problems,” we respond with “solutions.” Not abacus solutions, but those we have made up. There are other ways to think of life, and its little problems, but this one is currently preferred. Much can be enjoyed, we suppose, by “victimless crimes,” except — there are no victimless crimes. For even when it can be plausibly argued that the victim has no standing, or is consenting, or that no external victim exists, there remains the victim that was not counted. We have victimized ourselves.

This is a problem, the solution to which turns out to be the profound unhappiness one reads, less in the news media than upon the faces of the millions one passes in the streets — the victims of all those victimless crimes.