Religions as Communal Ulysses Contracts

Steve Jobs famously offered this advice in his 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.”

On one hand he very aptly summarized American expressive individualism. On the other it is a curiously self-referentially challenged statement. What he himself is offering here is dogma so if you were to apply his advice you’d be obliged to reject it.

In the book Incognito the author does a nice job talking about what philosophers call “A Ulysses Contract” Here’s the definition from Wikipedia

A Ulysses pact or Ulysses contract is a freely made decision that is designed and intended to bind oneself in the future. The term is used in medicine, especially in reference to advance directives (also known as living wills), where there is some controversy over whether a decision made by a person in one state of health should be considered binding upon that person when he or she is in a markedly different, usually worse, state of health.

Here’s the example offered in Incognito

These situations arise commonly in hospitals, when a patient, having just experienced a traumatic life change, such as losing a limb or a spouse, declares that she wants to die. She may demand, for example, that her doctors stop her dialysis or give her an overdose of morphine. Such cases typically go before ethics boards, and the boards usually decide the same thing: don’t let the patient die, because the future patient will eventually find a way to regain her emotional footing and reclaim happiness. The ethics board here acts simply as an advocate for the rational, long-term system, recognizing that the present context allows the intellect little voice against the emotions. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (David Eagleman) – Highlight Loc. 2084-89

He then adds his own bit of advice, one that should be used to balance Steve Job’s

The rule of thumb is this: when you cannot rely on your own rational systems, borrow someone else’s. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (David Eagleman) – Highlight Loc. 2091-93

A Ulysses contract limits a present self for the gamble of a benefit for a future self. Many religious and moral systems are in fact communal Ulysses systems. One of the things we pass down to children, or share with friends are broadly subscribed to Ulysses systems. We say “no” to something today in order to afford a potentially greater benefit in the future. We are stewarding our future selves.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in philosophical reflection and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Religions as Communal Ulysses Contracts

  1. Pingback: Beginning to Suspect the Bubble |

  2. Pingback: Do Atheists “Evolve” Their Communal Ideas More Quickly than Religious People? Is that a good thing? |

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