Sunday, March 24, 2013


In case you think that God is dead and the new Pope is not infallible after all, so therefore anything goes because morality is a matter of some “parent” force imposing rules, here are three alternative concepts for building a personal -- or even cultural --  morality.

1.  You are a butterfly.
2.  Even a monkey has a sense of equity.
3.  What goes around, comes around.  The world echoes.

The butterfly effect is that every event, no matter how small, is so interconnected with everything else that its every flutter changes everything else.  Even the smallest gesture sends out waves of impact.  You pause on the sidewalk to pick up a discarded gum wrapper and toss it into the trash.  A couple of other people see you do that, register that it’s a good thing to do, and from then on begin to do the same.  The sidewalk is clearer.  People stop throwing trash down and put it into the baskets.  This is evidently a good place, worth respecting.  Because of that, a shop owner invests in a new coat of paint for the front door.  More customers stop.  Etc.

But the small gesture might not cause good changes or changes that could be defined as either good or bad.  This principle only means that what you do matters, and therefore you matter, and that means it’s worth reflection and effort for you to be careful.   This is an element of self-esteem and a source of dignity, which will cause you to reflect on whether an act might be undignified, beneath you.  Even traditional morality doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good outcome.  Good people who do generous things sometimes end up hurt by them.  At some level, being a moral person doesn’t guarantee the outcome, no matter how carefully considered the intention.  

Accepting this is part of being a mature person.  Knowing that you are a butterfly with impact means knowing there is no way to opt out, no way to achieve complete control, and no way to make sure that you yourself can be exempted.  Even refusing to flap will have consequences. This is a source of humility and humility will make you a better butterfly -- if not more effective, at least a more beautiful person, which is how morality and aesthetics intertwine.

Because the butterfly principle is about zillions of small moves, it doesn’t matter so much whether any one flutter is “good” or “bad” -- assuming it’s possible to find out until after -- maybe LONG after -- the move is made.  The effort should be to create moves with happy consequences more often than any others.  So this is one of those cases which (always happy to quote St. Francis these days) “faithfulness in a lot of little things is a big thing.”  

The second principle is more of a blunt instrument: a inner sense of equity, a wish to help those to whom one feels belonging.  These are deep enough to be detected in mammals like monkeys and dogs (who get upset if the other animal present gets better food rewards than they do for the same behavior) and rats (who will share food and also free another rat if it’s trapped).  Here’s an article on the subject.  

Most of us assume that being human means a more refined sense of justice, a higher order of conscience, but on many occasions it seems that the “culture,” the ability of humans to create behavior memes, is a matter of suppressing one’s natural sense of justice and relationship.  If you’ve been sad, you may remember when a dog, not necessarily your own, came to put its head on your lap and express sympathy -- while all the time humans, even family members, went on their preoccupied way or left you alone “for your own good” because you “only want attention.”  

Therefore the moral person will remain in touch with the most basic elements of empathy, feeling “with” others whether responding to distress or joy.  Maybe you’ve witnessed a small child wanting to help someone, maybe a bum, and the child’s parent forcing the little one to come away.  All mammals can witness and “feel with,” but only human beings are capable of then testifying about it in the interest of justice.  Even if they feel limited in their ability to intervene or provide what is needed, they can still witness and testify.  This is the underlying morality of Wikileaks and comparable whistleblowing.  Part of this is the human ability to predict a penalty for testifying and accept that penalty, even if remaining silent will mean no pain for them -- only unjust penalties for others.  

But along with that goes the human ability to rationalize that getting involved will do no good, that someone else can take responsibility, that the “system is broken” and can’t be fixed.  What that boils down to is separating oneself from one’s group, disowning them in the same way that a family might throw out a family member who embarrasses them.  The penalty, according to the butterfly effect, may be displaced into the future when the disowned person or family may have the potential to save the very persons who rejected them.

Which brings us to the third moral principle:  what goes around comes around.  If enough people act selfishly and with punishment of others, soon or later they will find themselves living in a whole society based on greed and penalties -- which we are.  But that means that it could be turned around if enough people revised their assumptions about kinds of success and the consequences of compassion.  This is what many stories are meant to do.  I suspect that the loaves and fishes story was not originally meant to illustrate a miracle by a powerful person, but rather the power of sharing.  Many revisionist versions have been written to bring it into line with the “stone soup” principle in which the pot is generously augmented with what people have, even though the first person only had a stone to put in.  (Reverse versions of the story have also been written in which the result was only wet gravel.)

The principle of fractals is that small patterns repeat themselves, eventually in very similar large patterns.  Again, as in the first two principles, to live is to make the world.  Every small gesture adds up and meshes into a personal way of life that touches and inspires others in the surroundings.  If you’re really aware of this, do you have to recite the Golden Rule to yourself?  Do you have to study a law book?  Does an enforcer have to punish you?

The system whereby books and laws impose a grid of standards over the reality of moral relationships is always a little out-of-sync because of the subtlety and complexity of the three moral principles above, which are far more related to justice than law.  This means that laws must constantly be rewritten, constitutions must be constantly updated, no judge is ever inerrant whether that entity is the Pope or Scalia.  Laws only create social order.  Justice creates human beings, sometimes human beings who stand against the social order.  This is a key source of stories, including those in religious books.

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