It is a good idea to read my post on Being Material before reading this post, though hopefully it still makes some sense if you don’t.
My position on materialism is not ‘show me what is not material’, but ‘show me what is’. The validity of material objects and facts stands to be proven as such. So this then brings us to a common argument used by material realists to validate their position, and this is about progress. Without some of the things which I am arguing do not materially exist, material progress (it is argued) would be invalidated, and with it would disappear all those material comforts and benefits which we covet and on which we depend. Are we really prepared to abandon all of these and adopt what might easily become a monk like existence in the name of compassionate idealism?
The important point to make here is that I am not suggesting that we give up anything, or stop doing anything, provided that we can show that it does indeed benefit other living things and is being pursued with a compassionate purpose. In fact, compassionate purpose endorses and validates material progress. It is not an argument against medicine or the development of technology, although it may well be an argument against single minded or unconsidered belief in those things, and it may well, too, affect the way we pursue them.
The notion of progress is a complex and often a problematic one. There are convincing pragmatic arguments that some forms of potentially beneficial progress are more harmful than helpful. Research into smallpox, for instance, could equally produce an effective antidote or a weapon of mass destruction. It is almost impossible to open up one possibility without opening up the other. My approach is, I think, more useful than a pragmatic approach which judges on outcomes in this instance, because it allows us to evaluate the nature and intent of human engagement. However it is impossible to consider a subject like this without taking pragmatic considerations into account. It is at least arguable, on both this basis and using the principle of care, that it is reasonable to anticipate the malevolent development of this and other viral weapons, and therefore necessary and beneficial to develop effective antidotes.
A similar if more difficult argument could be applied to the defensive development of weapons. It is clearly sometimes necessary to be realistic, however compassionately. Tibet arguably faces annihilation because of the admirable but idealistic (and therefore pacifist) world view of its people. Action to defend compassionate existence and indeed to prevent others acting with an overt lack of compassion is clearly sometimes justifiable if morally difficult. Action was necessary to oppose and defeat Hitler whose lack of human compassion threatened the Jewish race with extinction. Whether the bombing of Dresden could be defended is another matter entirely. However the complexity and difficulty of decision making under the pressure of existential threat is obviously unimaginable to anyone who has not been placed in such an unenviable position. What I think is reasonable to say is that in these cases the compassionate criteria is more useful than judgment by outcome because it allows us to evaluate our actions as we take them. And it is fair to speculate that this approach might have avoided the carpet bombing of German civilians during WW2.
In order to judge actions on the basis of compassion it is necessary to be clear and courageous about our purpose. If we accept the idea that truth is determined by the degree to which thought or action reflects compassion it follows that the purpose of human life is to care for all livings things, to borrow from another ancient religion. To care for all living things is to strive to create a network of compassion. ‘All’ means humans as well as all organic life, so that self interest is bound up in care for all things. A living thing is also a passing, dying thing, so there is no object or objectification. Most importantly by this truth we address external existence and transform it only through the medium of care. Compassion replaces observation and identification. It is a self evident truth but it is not a material fact. And critically it is only provable through experience. It describes the way that human existence touches the existence of other things. We should then seek to create space for ourselves to live compassionately, and to practice compassion whatever we do, and to avoid and ameliorate suffering. This can lead us to do and rightly to justify many activities which are not compassionate in themselves, simply because the world is not perfect and they are the best we can do to achieve our purpose.
Immaterial judgement works both ways. We are talking about a transformation of mind, not necessarily a transformation of material existence, which would often be futile and negative.