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Posts Tagged ‘moral imagination’

Last time I described my quest to understand our penchant for evil acts, including what might help us get past this fatal flaw, and what drew me to buy and start reading Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life.

Before I begin to tackle his exact contribution to this quest, I need to summarise the key ideas I’ve gleaned from those who are his forerunners in my investigations. My right-brain has agreed to this because I can pull most of this in from previous posts so it won’t greatly delay its desperately needed return to poetry.

Our Moral Imagination

Robert Wright in his book The Evolution of God argues that in evolutionary terms we are being forced to expand our sense of common humanity ever wider if we are not to face destructive challenges.

He states (page 428):

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (page 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

He rescues this from cliché by pointing out that the idea of common humanity may be a self-evident point when we read or hear it, but it’s far from obvious if you look at the way we act. This is because we are under the illusion that we are special (page 429):

We all base our daily lives on this premise – that our welfare is more important than the welfare of pretty much anyone else, with the possible exception of close kin. . . . We see our own resentments as bona fide grievances and we see the grievances of others as mere resentments.

He links the progress of humanity with the application of the unifying insight in daily life (page 429):

. . . . the salvation of the global social system entails moral progress not just in the sense of human welfare; there has to be as a prerequisite for that growth, a closer encounter by individual human beings with moral truth.

At the end of this sequence I will be exploring more fully the implications of this with the help of the diagram on the left. For now all I will say is that it will take a long period of time before enough of us to make a real difference shift from the ‘me now’ position to expanding the compass of our compassionate understanding so that it embraces the whole of humanity.

Writght feels that it is inevitable that we will either move closer to moral truth or descend into chaos (we’ll be coming back to that word again in much more detail later). He feels that (ibid):

. . . history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth, and now our moving still closer to moral truth is the only path to salvation . . .

by which he means salvation of the social structure. He feels (page 430) that religions that have ‘failed to align individual salvation with social salvation have not, in the end, fared well.’

Jeremy Rifkin, in his thought-provoking book The Empathic Civilisation, articulates an important caveat to any assumption that an increasing global culture will inevitably move us onward and upward. He adduces evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start of the book (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

In terms of Wright’s position, entropy notwithstanding, what we need to understand is what is blocking the process he describes of expanding the scope and range of our ‘moral imagination,’ or in my terms the compass of our compassion.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Our Objects of Devotion

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his book, Is God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

In Wright’s terms, if the compass of our compassion is set too narrow, and we only identify with a subgroup of humanity rather than with humanity as a whole, we’re doomed.

Idealism, Ideology and Mistaking our Maps for Reality

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

McGilchrist’s contribution towards enriching my understanding of this issue is in his profound interrogation of the negative impact of the dominant left-hemisphere’s processing on our thinking. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is on pages 228-229:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Group Dynamics

There are also social facilitation, group difference and status differential effects. Take, for instance, Zimbardo’s perspective, which is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behaviour of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations that steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things, not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

The power of such influences is reinforced by Haidt’s idea of the hive effect.

Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.):

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

Being ‘part of a whole’ can have an unacceptable price, though, as I will explore next time.

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