Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

16 April 2013

New Series on Morality


[For an annotated index of previous posts on this subject, with links, click here.]

Over a month ago, it dawned on me that our entire species—all of us, everywhere—is undergoing a moral crisis.

The old moral order is dying under the impact of new thinking and instantaneous worldwide communication. Organized religion, authoritarian government, authoritarian learn-by-rote education, and oppressive, father-knows-best upbringing are all in decline, if not under siege. The recent upsurge in fundamentalist Christianity and Islam is like a last frost before summer, a false and transient deviation before our moral climate improves for good.

Ideology has always been a weak and unsatisfying substitute for religion. But it is dying, too. China and Russia have abandoned their Communist ideology of their own free will, although China retains it in name only. We Yanks and our fellow travelers are doing the same (belatedly) with our post-Cold-War triumphalism over the success of capitalism and free markets. Slowly but surely, we are coming to understand that capitalism, free markets and profit are only tools. They can take us efficiently where we want to go, but they can’t show us the right direction.

Only moral philosophy can. We’ve got a good car with a powerful economic engine, but we still need a driver and a good road map.

Along with these revelations came a personal one, too. Many of the 660-plus essays on this blog are really about morality. I just didn’t recognize that fact when I first wrote them; their titles don’t always reveal their essence.

So just as I did not long ago with energy, I’m starting a new series on morality with this post. Like the series on energy, it begins with a listing and index to previous posts on that general subject.

The theme of this series is quite simple. Morality is not “given” to us. We must invent it for ourselves. Or if you prefer, we must discover it. The task is a collective and perpetual one, with which we all must struggle, worldwide, for as long as our species survives.

Plato, Socrates and the other old Greek philosophers started the project over 2,300 years ago. So did the Chinese scholar Confucius, centuries earlier and on the other side of the world. But in the West the project got interrupted by organized monotheistic religion. The muscular, proselytizing religions—principally Christianity, Islam and certain aspects of Judaism—stole the show for a long, long time.

Now change is in the air. You can see it in the slow decline of organized congregations and decreasing regular attendance at churches, synagogues and even mosques (outside of major religious holidays).

You can see it even better in the blockbuster movie Life of Pi. While a tour de force in video, the film is really about human morality. It explores the stories we tell ourselves to make a hard life easier and closer to our hearts’ desire.

I won’t spoil the film for those few who haven’t yet seen it by writing more. I’ll just note that it is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and it’s still early days. In my view, scholars will one day cite this film for the start of an era when we, as a species, began to grow up.

In some respects, Life of Pi resembles Harriet Beecher Stowe’s immortal novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When Lincoln first met Stowe, he wryly remarked that her book had sparked our Civil War. It lit the flame that began our nation’s cataclysmic transition from slavery to freedom, and from a country by, for and of propertied white men to the most diverse and ethnically open society since ancient Rome. The transition that Uncle Tom’s Cabin sparked is still ongoing after over 150 years.

Stowe used an age-old medium, written literature. In contrast, Life of Pi’s director Ang Lee used the visual impact of transcendently beautiful photography, enhanced or generated by computers. His technologies of communication were, in historical terms, brand new.

The film shows what those technologies can do in skilled hands. They can drive important messages right past our reasoning centers and into our most primitive forebrains. Life of Pi does that. It’s a seminal work that every serious moral thinker should see, maybe more than once, on a big screen and in 3D.

So now, after a hiatus of over two millennia, we humans can get back to one of the most important projects in our collective history. Consciously and deliberately, we can resume devising (or, if you prefer, discovering) a morality that suits us, makes us happy, and best realizes our collective potential as a species.

To work well for us, any new morality must come from deep, clear and bold understanding of who and what we really are. Science will have a big role to play.

Why? Not because science tells us what we should do. That is not a scientific question. But science can tell us who and what we are more accurately—and more honestly—than anything else in our history. More important, science can tell us the practical consequences of various moral choices, such as overusing coal.

As “masters” of our dominion (Earth) we can overgraze our land and overfish our seas. We will have an abundance of food for a while, but then we may suffer and starve. Science can tell us how and when this might happen and help us avoid the moral sin of arrogance and the practical sin of improvidence.

“The wages of sin,” the Bible tells us, “are death.” In the ancient world, that advice could be taken literally. The sin of murder, for example, could spark revenge and retaliation, even war.

But today ever more pallid sins may have global effect. Pollution could cause widespread famine or disease. Global warming could cause the premature deaths of billions, far more quickly than most of us now expect.

Take coal, for example. We can overexploit it and have plentiful energy, perhaps for as long as another human lifetime. But, if we do, we will leave our children and grandchildren with a blasted and polluted planet and an infrastructure incapable of supporting anything like our comfortable lifestyle as fossil fuels run out. In the meantime, global warming might impair our habitat and destroy large parts of it, leading to the suffering and premature deaths of billions of us, give or take a few hundred million.

Our modern human “footprint” is infinitely larger today than it was in the pristine and innocent days of Cain and Abel. Today the human tragedies we can cause (or fail to avoid) can be global and catastrophic. Just remember October 1962. Science can teach us how to avoid darkening our own fate.

Science can also teach us to avoid the moral sin of arrogance and its own wages, which can be equally disastrous. From our very first philosophical speculation—that the Sun revolves around the Earth because it seems to—we have always tended to aggrandize ourselves and our place in the Universe. The more we study science, the more we understand that we are just parts of an incomprehensibly complex and intricate web of life on our small planet, which lies adrift in an incomprehensibly huge void. The resulting humility and realism can increase our odds of surviving with anything approaching collective happiness.

As we look at ourselves and attempt to determine who we are, where we live, what we can become, and what courses of action will both keep us alive and make us happy, modern branches of science will be especially important. They include evolution, biology, psychology, child development and economics. Studying them will help us devise a morality that will maximize our collective happiness, minimize our collective and individual pain, and realize our potential as a species. Knowing, for example, how fragile and how precious our brains are might help us avoid the sad fates of many football stars and Mohammed Ali.

But science is not all we will need for a new, more practical morality independent of myth. History will be a close second. Knowing our checkered past will help us appreciate our mistakes and avoid repeating them. At very least, we should shun another bloody century like the last one, with its near-brush with species self-extinction in October 1962.

Religion will play a lesser role, as we will see. It has been important, sometimes vital, in developing and maintaining individual morality, i.e., the morality of interpersonal relations. There its most important products have been the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, which have echoes in every organized religion. On an analogy to economics, we might call these rules “micromorality.”

But on a morality for our whole species—what we might call “macromorality”—religion has been lamentably weak. It has done little, for example, to curb the insanity of war, or even to advance the difficult inquiry into what wars (if any) are “just.”

Often religions have helped justify wars or cheer them on. Lawyers have done far more than clerics to advance this realm of human morality, whether by Magna Carta, the Trials at Nuremberg, or today’s International Criminal Court.

The same is true for economic equality. Every major religion tells us to pity the poor, not despise them. Most urge us to help them and give them charity, at least on religious holidays.

But no religion tells us whether we should reform or re-organize our society in order to drastically reduce or eliminate poverty, or, if so, how. They all implicitly assume that poverty and squalor are inevitable parts of the human condition, just as women’s economic and physical subjugation, slavery, universal military service, near-universal wars, and widespread racial intolerance (often condoned or even supported by clerics) once were. That perspective does little to realize our species’ potential.

Organized religion has failed for two reasons. First, it has always had to coexist and cooperate with secular authority: governments, financial and commercial powers, and the military. In some cases it has conspired with secular authority to maintain its leaders’ power and privileges. Too much independence (let alone opposition) would have risked losing those gorgeous, opulent churches and mosques (usually on the best high ground in town), and the comfortable and secure life styles of the folks who run them. This is what Jesus had in mind when he kicked the money-changers out of the temple.

Second, for long periods of history organized religion was (and still is) part or all of government itself. Just think of the Holy Roman Empire, the Ayatollahs today in Iran and Iraq, or even the Vatican. Today the Vatican is but a weak vestige of its former self. Yet it has been capable of hiding pedophiles, for decades, from the knowledge and wrath of secular society and the justice of secular courts, even in the world’s most powerful nation.

To do their jobs well, moral philosophers must not fall into this dependency trap. They must be wholly free of government, secular and organized religious authority. They must be ready, willing and able to criticize, even condemn. They must be free from ties of loyalty, salary or sustenance to the powers that shape our world. In short, they must be truly independent thinkers, able to speak nasty truth always.

The founders of our great Western monotheistic religions were all like that. Moses, Jesus and Mohammed were original thinkers and moral leaders. Jesus, in particular, was one of the greatest political minds that ever lived.

But the human institutions that grew out of their prophetic leadership have become followers of the prevailing political winds. They have become coddlers of pedophiles and terrorists. In modern terms, they are “co-opted.”

Jesus would not recognize the Catholic Church today—from its magnificent palaces (aka “cathedrals”) to the worldwide business interests that sustain its wealth and power. He would think the money-changers had won.

Two things in our modern era hold better promise. The first is our universities. Venerable innovations of the Renaissance, they have plenty of warts and administrative barnacles of their own. Chief among these are the silos of separate departments and the obstacles that examinations, diplomas and degrees put in the path of the rare genius.

But, at their best, universities are refuges for free thinkers. This is so even in societies whose tolerance of free speech is far less absolute than ours under our First Amendment. And here, where good ideas often get lost under an avalanche of self-serving nonsense, including advertising, propaganda and “spin”, a great moral philosopher like the late John Rawls could find safe harbor in a university.

The other refuge is quite new: cyberspace. This revolutionary medium offers a safe harbor—even limited anonymity—for free thinkers. It also offers them an audience far wider and more immediate that any ancient Greek philosopher ever enjoyed. Plato and Socrates could only have dreamed of having a truly global audience, which could read their works, in an instant, without regard to distance in space or time.

This post is just prologue. Suffice it to say here that conscious, deliberate and systematic development of human morality by our best minds is still a work in progress. It is still in its earliest stages—a global project held in abeyance for millennia while the fire of institutionalized religion burned itself out.

Now, with the decline of organized religion, the demise of Communism, and the belated recognition that capitalism, free markets, and profit are tools, not religions or moral plans, it can begin anew.

“This above all,” Shakespeare wrote: “to thine own self be true.” Science and the clear thinking it encourages are helping us discover who we really are, how we came to be, how we develop and age as individuals, and how we are evolving socially. History helps us know what we have been and the terrible mistakes we have made. With that self-knowledge—more accurate and detailed than ever before—we can begin to develop a morality based not on the conveyed Word of unseen deities, but on the essence of Shakespeare’s sound advice.

What follows is an index of previous posts on (or touching) the subject of human morality. Where titles under a topic are out of alphabetical order, the order reflects my judgment of importance and general interest.

Topics

Authoritarian Government
Character and Morality
Culture and Morality
A Culture of Self-Promotion
Difficult Moral Issues [including abortion]
The Environment and Morality
Evolution, Survival and Morality
Facts and Morality
Gay Marriage and Morality
Genocide and Other Atrocities
Government and Morality
Individual Responsibility: Where Micro- and Macro-Morality Meet
Law and Morality
Liberation and Morality
Markets and Morality
The Media and Morality
Minor Moral Atrocities [Destructive Politics and Tobacco]
Ninjas, Drones and Torture
Nuclear Weapons and Morality
Prejudice and Morality
Religion and Morality
Technology and Morality
War, Peace and Morality



Authoritarian Government

What is “Nazism”?

Father Knows Best, or Does He? [An inquiry into the causes and effects of authoritarian government]

Should Russia Invade Syria?


Character and Morality

Our Species: Which Leaders? (A Visual Essay)

Mandela’s “Miracle”: Empathy and Perseverance

Nelson “Madiba” Mandela [Eulogy]

Selfishness is Not a Plan

Proving Dratler’s Law

A Papal Lesson in Humility

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Lloyd Blankfein, Bashar Al-Assad, and the Pope

The Marathon Bombers: Alpha Males Lost in Modern Civilization?

Arrogance and Humility [and their practical, political effects]

Stiff-Necked Diplomacy [Arrogance and Mideast deadlock]

“I Don’t Want to Think About It!” [Willful ignorance and moral consequences]

Fear and Age [The moral consequences of deliberate demagoguery]

Can Justice do justice [in holding bankers accountable]?

Bye, bye Boomers [The Baby Boomers’ Moral Legacy]

Senator Clinton’s Political Epitaph [Morality and political calculation]

Learning to Love Logic [Spock the Vulcan and President Obama]

The Gang’s New Capo [Political parties and gang behavior]

Sarah and Sonia: A post-fourth note [on character and conservatism]

Lieutenant Ehren Watada [Moral courage and its consequences]

The Sizzle and the Steak [A 2008 comparison between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama]

Perseverance

Virtue [in the ancient world and America today]

Steve Jobs, an American Original, R.I.P.

Michelle [Obama]’s American Story


Culture and Morality

Proving Dratler’s Law

What is “Nazism”?

Tribalism

The Explainers

Tea-Party Culture: A Moral Anachronism

A Christmas Message of Love

Alsace, Avatar of Peace and Joy

Cheap Culture [The evolutionary perils of short-term thinking]

Strange Sympathies [for Islamists in Egypt]

Whence Morality?

Should Russia Invade Syria?

The Marathon Bombers: Alpha Males Lost in Modern Civilization?

Rotten Business [The decline of morality in American business]

Nuclear Corruption [The practical consequences of corruption]

Mortgages, Law and Culture, or Why Plato Still Matters [Some surprising facts about our mortgage crisis, and what they say about American morality]

Rick Wagoner and Our Culture of Incompetence

Immigrants, Alpha Males, and America’s Three Cultures [The moral codes of America’s three dominant cultures]

“Old Europe” [and its Enlightenment culture]

The Real Antichrists

Ordinary People Matter [in Egypt as here]

“I’ve Got Mine, Jack!”: The American Recipe for Dystopia

Islamophobia: Three Lies


A Culture of Self-Promotion

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Killed for a Photo Op [Death and self-promotion]

Tired of Lies [Self-promotion and “spin” in politics]

“Our gall is not like your gall.” [Intel’s transparent PR campaign]


Difficult Moral Issues

Abortion


The Environment and Morality

Coal: Faust’s Fate Come to Life [The moral consequences of energy policy I]

Irony to the Max [The moral consequences of energy policy II]

A New Environmental Vision [the moral and economic effects of foreign cane ethanol]


Evolution, Survival and Morality

Of Apes and Men [A discussion of social evolution away from alpha-male leadership]

What is “Nazism”?

Tribalism

Build or Bomb?

A Papal Lesson in Humility

Whence Morality?

The Marathon Bombers: Alpha Males Lost in Modern Civilization?

Innumeracy, Economics and the Great Accommodation [The practical and moral consequences of overpopulation]

That Old Alpha Thing, or Why Obama Might Lose [A 2009 inquiry into alpha-male leadership]


Facts and Morality

“Intelligent Design” and Engineering: A Tale of Orwellian Word Theft [Engineering, both human and divine]

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

P.S. Propaganda, Argument and Fact

Inaccurate [A riff on factual accuracy and morality]


Gay Marriage and Morality

A Papal Lesson in Humility

Why the “Defense of Marriage” Act is Inhuman, not Just Inhumane

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Bans on Gay Marriage: A Question of Values


Genocide and Other Atrocities

Individual Responsibility: the Salvation of Our Species?

What is “Nazism”?

Our Species: Which Leaders? (A Visual Essay)

Germany and America II: Could it Happen Here?

Mandela’s “Miracle”: Empathy and Perseverance

A Christmas Message of Love

Strange Sympathies [for Islamists in Egypt]

Lloyd Blankfein, Bashar Al-Assad, and the Pope

Rx for Syria: Stopping Air Attacks on Civilians and Cities

Genocide in Arabia

The Banality of Evil

What If We Are Wrong? [The Holocaust and Arab liberation]

Darfur


Government and Morality

Proving Dratler’s Law

What is “Nazism”?

A Moral Equivalent of War, or Why Oil Prices Dropped so Rapidly

And you thought government was bad! [A practical and moral comparison of government and big business]

Strange Sympathies [for Islamists in Egypt]

Putting a Price on Obstructionism [The price of obstructionism in government]

How the Bankers Got Away, and How to Stop Them Next Time

Lloyd Blankfein, Bashar Al-Assad, and the Pope

Can Justice do justice [in holding bankers accountable]?

Holder’s Decision [The moral value of public trials]

Ecclesiastes and the EU

Reds on the Right [in our American government]


Individual Responsibility: Where Micro- and Macro-Morality Meet

Individual Responsibility: the Salvation of Our Species?

Our Species: Which Leaders? (A Visual Essay)

The Korean Philosopher’s Dilemma [North Korea and moral responsibility]

Holder’s Decision [The moral value of public trials]

Lloyd Blankfein, Bashar Al-Assad, and the Pope

Bankers’ Chutzpah [Capitalism and individual responsibility]

The Protestant Ethic and Germany’s Contrition for Wartime Atrocities

Financial Judgement at Nuremberg

France and Germany versus the Psychopaths

Germany and America I

Confessions of a Cockeyed Optimist


Law and Morality

Law and Justice

How the Bankers Got Away, and How to Stop Them Next Time

Can Justice do justice [in holding bankers accountable]?

Whence Morality?

Judge Sotomayor and “Identity Politics”


Liberation and Morality

Mandela’s “Miracle”: Empathy and Perseverance

Nelson “Madiba” Mandela [Eulogy]

Strange Sympathies [for Islamists in Egypt]

The Arab Spring, Ten Months In [A comparison of indigenous liberation and foreign intervention]

Futurophobia [America’s response to Egypt’s Tahrir Square Revolt]

Arab Liberation: Which Side Are We On?


Markets and Morality

Our Global Moral Crisis [Why capitalism is not a religion or moral code]

A Moral Equivalent of War, or Why Oil Prices Dropped so Rapidly

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Trade, Economics, and Ancient Rome [Trade and social equality]

A Season for Workers? [loss of American jobs and industrial leadership]


The Media and Morality

Proving Dratler’s Law

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Gossip and Policy

How Rick Santelli Killed the Housing Rescue

What Broke Our Democracy

Signs of a Sick Democracy: the First [2012] New Hampshire “Debate” [ABC’s moral abdication and journalistic malpractice]

He [Tim Russert] Did His Homework

Outrage! (The Shirley Sherrod Story)


Minor Moral Atrocities

How Karl Rove and Frank Luntz Destroyed the Republican Party

Big Tobacco’s Just Deserts


Ninjas, Drones and Torture

Our Modern Ninjas and their Role in Human History

Childish Things [American attitudes toward torture]


Nuclear Weapons and Morality

The Case for Nuclear Proliferation [How nuclear weapons have, so far, avoided war among major powers]

Why Do We Need Armed Forces? [The changing role of the military in a world of nuclear deterrence and more rational, collective government]


Prejudice and Morality

Tribalism

Mandela’s “Miracle”: Empathy and Perseverance

A Papal Lesson in Humility

One of Us [A brief history of the political tarring of Barack Obama]


Religion and Morality

Coda: the Divinity that Hinders [of Jesus]

The Explainers

A Christmas Message of Love

Tribalism

Build or Bomb?

Strange Sympathies [for Islamists in Egypt]

China Rising I [The advantages of politics free from religion and ideology]

Should Russia Invade Syria?

A Papal Lesson in Humility

The Protestant Ethic and Germany’s Contrition for Wartime Atrocities

Whence Morality?

The Marathon Bombers: Alpha Males Lost in Modern Civilization?

Why an American Jew Supports Palestinian Statehood [The moral consequences of religion in politics]

Carter and Hamas [The consequences of religious intransigence]

Can Markets Be Wrong? [Capitalism as a new religion]

“Intelligent Design” and Engineering: A Tale of Orwellian Word Theft [Engineering, both human and divine]

Islamophobia: Three Lies [The morality of religious scapegoating]

A Time of Reverence and Awe [A note on some very good clerics]

True Believers and The Power of Nations [The consequences of strong religion for national power]

Looking for God in a Godless World [God, morality, and organized religion]

Germany and America III: Following Jesus’ Advice [Jesus as human history’s greatest pol]

It’s the Bystanders, Stupid! [why turning the other cheek really works]


Technology and Morality

A Moral Equivalent of War, or Why Oil Prices Dropped so Rapidly

Proving Dratler’s Law

Revolt of the Experts [in American politics]

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Lack of Imagination IV: Technologies of Freedom [Liberation technology]

Is Facebook Doing Us In?

Redundancy [Of components and systems to avoid disaster]

The “Second-Amendment Solution” [A comment on firearm regulation and modern technology]

Search-and-Seizure Heresy [A comment on government searches and modern technology]


War, Peace and Morality

Build or Bomb?

A Christmas Message of Love

What is “Nazism”?

A Moral Equivalent of War, or Why Oil Prices Dropped so Rapidly

Our Species: Which Leaders? (A Visual Essay)

Our Big Foreign-Policy Blunders, and our New Opportunities

Our Species: Which Leaders? (A Visual Essay)

Mandela’s “Miracle”: Empathy and Perseverance

Alsace, Avatar of Peace and Joy

Just War [When, if ever, war is justified, and how far we are from a moral consensus]

Nelson “Madiba” Mandela [Eulogy]

Should Russia Invade Syria?

The Marathon Bombers: Alpha Males Lost in Modern Civilization?

Trade [As an alternative to and preventive for war]

Rx for Syria: Stopping Air Attacks on Civilians and Cities

Breaking the Nuclear Taboo: Another Risk of Iran Going Nuclear [Political-military restraint and morality]

Versailles or the Marshall Plan: China’s Choice [Shaping the moral and practical consequences of victory]

Why Our Pentagon Must Slim Down [The dangers of an outsized military, or why Ike was right]

Mirror of Tragedy [In the USA and Russia after the Cold War]

Ideological Mirror Images and Olympic Lessons [Who really lost the Cold War?]

Thanksgiving Message [2007, on why it’s our real national holiday]


permalink

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home