ONCE upon a time, the word “moral” simply meant acting in “customary” ways, as opposed to ways that were “just” (which meant ‘lawful”)… or “legal” (which meant “laid down”: compelled or prescribed by the ruler).
The terms drew contrasts between what everybody does, what’s okay to do and what the state insists that you to do. In terms a medieval peasant could understand, these contrasts told you how to keep your nose clean and stay out of trouble.
“Morality” particularly involved community consensus; in a community where there was no consensus, there could really be no “morality”: merely choices between conflict or mutual toleration. And, for centuries, tolerance was not an option… and we still wage wars for want of it.
Historically, consensus has usually been enforced by the ruthless and the powerful. They were the architects and enforcers of moral codes: codes that justified heresy trials, the “divine right” of kings and privileges of class, military conscription, gibbets, firing squads, dungeons, exiles and appropriations, harassments and marginalisation. Husbands owned their wives… it was in keeping with the moral order. Masters could flog their slaves… it was in keeping with the moral order.
In our own culture, in the shamefully recent past, moral codes based on “consensus” have favoured slavery and abusive labour practices, racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism, imperialism, witch burnings and the persecution, even genocide and the murder, of various “undesirables” …in Canada and other former colonial regions, for example, it drove energetic programmes of ethnocide against native peoples. We look back and are appalled, but are tempted to complacency about our “new, improved”, more “liberal” moral principals despite the presence of more injustice-inflicted misery in the world that we dare to imagine. Consensus doesn’t guarantee great ways to live. Morals can suck.
There are biologists who locate the origins of altruistic behaviour and, by implication, the antecedents of morality, in the evolutionary narrative by demonstrating that other species are not slaves to immediate, apparent self-interest.
There’s something a bit anthropomorphic in this view, especially when it’s taken out of the context of the wide ranging interdependencies that characterise all forms of life — a truth that’s often under-recognised. It’s at least “species-ist”: the idea that somehow we humans have, by virtue of our genes, regularised monkey survival tactics into the higher accomplishment of formalised ethical systems. In purely behavioural terms there are fascinating and informative similarities, but the contexts are too different for direct parallels to hold. Social behaviour among members of various species is not uncommon and, in each, it has its own parameters.
As Karl von Frisch showed us, honeybees communicate symbolically, co-operate compulsively and even act self-sacrificially. If we cast what we know of them in human terms, they look the very models of consensus morality and altruism. But there is no evidence that their communications are debates about the ethics of their situation. As a more loosely socialised species with divergent and sometimes contradictory needs for different co-operative strategies, we should not be amazed that the forms of co-operation we practise are more varied and, from the perspective of a bee, would look shamefully haphazard… more like monkeys, responding to “unfairness” with sulks or aggression. In fact, of course, we all do our own thing, and “altruism” is not necessarily indicative of nobility of spirit. It is as much an indication of our readiness to add value to a collective survival strategy by talking it up… medals to soldiers comes to mind. It helps us to prime others to act in similar ways on our behalf.
If, as some say, morality’s source is necessarily religious, one might expect the American Christian right to be calling for the forgiveness of terrorists, clamouring to restrain us from judging others, and urging greater outpourings of largesse as international aid. It would disdain war and militarism. Rather, I suspect the strength of movements like these derives from unsophisticated desires to draw clearer boundaries between “right” and “wrong”, “us” and “them”, “good” and “evil”… a cry for consensus with all of its simplicities… hunger for set of values that are perceived to be empowering.
The idea that anyone is privy to a universal or superior, god-gifted morality is naïve: it really shouldn’t takes the Ten Commandments to persuade us that there’s no good to be had from go around killing people, stealing from them, slandering them, seducing their partners and coveting their asses, slaves, oxen and houses. That was divine advice to a rough bunch of brutalised, wandering troublemakers who seem to have been remarkably reticent when it came to bonhomie. And, sure, some of that advice works for us because we’re people too, and not always that bright either.
Waving these insights about as having special significance on the grounds that god said so, masks some very selective thinking about god’s instructions as they’re spelled out on nearby pages of the Old Testament. It’s bad, god said, to vex strangers or curse deaf people, and you mustn’t gossip. A lot of those who say they take god’s word at face value seem to have got slack with the burnt offerings, “marring the corners” of men’ beards, having the local priest check out skin blemishes and running sores, or leaving a part of the harvest lying about for the poor to glean. God “said” you’re not supposed to wear wool and linen together, and you’re supposed to put fringes on your clothes. Then there are matters like having insubordinate sons stoned to death. Nowadays, the best we seem able to do in the West is try to get the car keys off them. There’s morality on the skids for you.
At some level, asserting the universality of even the best-intended moral principle is, by virtue of that claim, an expression of intolerance that’s bound to lead to conflict in a pluralistic community that has no consensus. And pluralism pretty much characterises modern societies… pluralism, and its lack of consensus. So, for peaceability’s sake, tolerance tends to be preached even where it’s not necessarily practised but that, undoubtedly, is better than a forced consensus.
I’ve often heard professions of attachment to the “Golden Rule” — treat others as you’d want them to treat you — as a foundation for possible consensus. It’s rather speciously claimed that the “Golden Rule” synchronises, harmonises and summarises the ethical teachings of all the great religions. But, as well as failing to understand what religions are about, this little rule of thumb assumes that everyone wants to be treated similarly… and that’s simply not the case, nor is it the case that many proselytisers of the “Golden Rule” spend vast amounts of their time in detailed studies of human social, cultural and political diversity to find out how others would like to be treated; cross-culturally it has been found that even evaluations of “fairness” vary.
The communications revolution (particularly if we date it from the launching of the printing press) has been responsible for a still-limited and widely resisted but naggingly persistent and growing awareness of global diversity. For many, this carries with it with a fear of moral dissolution. What it has in fact done is that it’s stretched illusions of intimacy beyond the reasonable boundaries of consensus, leaving us with much stronger perceptions of morality as a personal responsibility.
Instead of proclaiming consensus, we’re inclined to declare an attitude of broad relativism — “everyone has a right to his or her own opinion” (which we then studiously try to ignore) — whilst reserving for ourselves a place of personally satisfying of moral superiority. Without consensus to affirm us, we’re inclined to draw affirmation from the apparent chaos around us. And that too easily becomes the smugness of the “moral high ground”, every bit as dangerous in its own way as the clamour for consensus.
The hope, as I see it, lies in a fostering the emergence of a kind of social, philosophical and moral environmentalism that accepts the rootedness of humanity in biology but its beauty and worth in expressions of diversity and creativity: it is “human” to seek and establish harmonies because harmonies are sustaining; it is human to develop cultures that feed hearts, minds and spirits as well as bellies; it is human to express insights, excitements, dismays and anxieties in language and in art; it is human to wonder, to laugh and to weep. It is human to produce an array of knowledge systems. It is not necessary to uphold any one way, any one particular path of awareness, as the only possible way. In fact, it is almost certainly impossible to sustain one single way of being human. Humanity is far greater than any one person’s or culture’s repertoire of thoughts, meanings, intentions or actions.
Exploring an ethos centred on harmonies could certainly take us into new dimensions of sustainability, beyond naked competition or coerced centralisation. We’d need to find and practice a morality that recognises preconceptions as misconceptions, and is expressed in efforts to contain enmities and conflicts in ways that cushion and check their capacities to inflect fear, devastation and violence on bystanders.
Somehow, we need to find security and peace of mind in knowing that there is enough to go around if we set our hearts on it; if we’re willing to curb waste, find ceilings to greed and surrender to compassion, we could do it. There’s room on the planet for us all to discover who we are and find ways of becoming fully ourselves. There is enough love in the world for everyone to be cherished. Humanity is enormously varied, brimming with far greater treasuries of insight and expression than any of us can hope to glimpse, even in the most experiences-rich lifetime. That we do not devote ourselves to appreciating so much as a glimmer of this wealth is our own failing. That we too readily allow it to be suppressed, broken or obliterated is far worse than failure: in its vandalising of human hope it’s on a par with handing over an insubordinate son for stoning.
All of this is, of course, expecting a lot. But there are signs that it’s already on the way. There are places of growing dialog. There are movements, minority movements to be sure, to protect minority cultures, languages and livelihoods; to press for peace; to relieve poverty; to stop torture and capital punishment; to control disease; to feed and clothe the destitute; to provide clean water where water is absent or contaminated; to protect the environment; to live more simply; to prevent extinctions; to free and intervene on behalf of political prisoners; to combat racism, homophobia, sexism and ageism; to promote freedoms and discourage unfettered consumption; to widen the distribution of life-saving vaccines. There are dialogues between East and West, between the great faiths, between science and art and religion. More and more, academic work has become interdisciplinary; experiences of diversity are, for many, closer to hand. There are thousands upon thousands of small group initiatives and, together, they are heading towards a sort of consensus that could usher in a morality worthy of humanity, one capable of supporting humanity’s survival. It could happen… it really could.
I believe it will.