Friday, November 23, 2007

applied morality

(Note: I have to credit the inspiration for this piece to some extent on the article "The Cellular Church" by Malcom Gladwell, which I highly recommend.)

Somewhere along the line I became a highly moralled person. Despite a previously held position of moral relativism I've found that I have very clear ideas about right and wrong, good and bad, even if those ideas are firmly rooted in meta-ethical questions and value pluralism (I love wikipedia). I'm still trying to understand how this happened.

I had a relatively counter-culture upbringing with parents who were both psychologists. I think this fostered in me a relatively high level of self-awareness and emotional sensitivity. I was also instilled with a belief in impending doom regarding the state of civilization, and a strong sense of responsibility and obligation to "save the world." Growing up, I experienced a strong feeling of alienation and isolation, and a predominant experience of ridicule and ostracization

I identified my unhappiness and discontent with myself and life early on. I have maintained an intensive focus on personal growth since I was a teenager. Parallel to this has been a near constant evaluation of "what I'm doing with me life" to see if I am making the world a better place as efficiently and effectively as possible. However, I consider any pretense of selflessness or altruism therein to be highly dubious. I believe it is crucial to accept of my own selfishness as a, if not the primary motivator in my life if I am to make any kind of meaningful attempt to act beyond it.

I was about 20 years old when Paxus introduced to the concept enlightened self-interest. This lead my thought-process down the path of considering my own happiness and well-being to be inextricably linked with that of others and the world as a whole. As a child of behaviorism my psyche has been well trained to make deals. So, I say to my selfishness, I'll indulge you as long as the choices I make are also good for others. Deal.

But if there's one thing I've learned in the exploration of the psycho-somatic phenomenon it is to never underestimate the capacity of the mind to deceive itself. I've often pondered the irony that it is incredibly difficult for most of us to do what is good for ourselves, let alone good for others. This has called me to focus on practices that promote my ability to both observe myself as objectively as possible and accept with love and compassion whatever it is I see. Again, I have found that it is this process of accepting-what-is to be crucial in any meaningful attempt to act outside of behavior patterns that are destructive to myself and/or others.

Now, allow me to explicitly illuminate the basics of my morality. Much of what I am about to write has been borrowed heavily or outright stolen from what I have read and heard from others. I believe good and bad are ways of describing actions rather than inherent qualities. Good and bad exist in the realm of "doing" not "being." Of course, it is our actions, or our doing, that defines us, but given the passing of time and the evolving nature of reality that definition is constantly subject to change.

What is good and bad? I want to live a happy and peaceful life. I want to do things that make me happy, and I want others to do things that make me happy. I don't want people to do things that make me unhappy. I don't think I'm alone in this. So, if there's something I want/don't want done to me, then I should/shouldn't do that to others. It follows thus that a good action is one that helps or supports others, while a bad action is one that hurts or harms others.

This view sees our interactions with each other at the core of our experience of being human. It holds our actions as infinitely inter-related, taking seriously the expression "what goes around, comes around." It is core to our self-interest to do good for others. It also holds morality as meaningful only to the extent that it has practical application to one's lifestyle choices.

Of course, the devil is in the details. How do we know what is really good for others? Given the deviousness nature of our minds, how can we be sure that we are not acting in purely self-serving and self-destructive ways? I have come to firmly believe in the necessity of practices of contemplation and self-observation. It is in being with ourselves in stillness and silence that we have any hope of being able to see the truth within ourselves and how that truth manifests in the world around us.

Any of us are just taking baby-steps in this process, so guidelines that have been established by cultural traditions can be useful. The 8 fold path described by Buddhism works well for me. The Ten Commandments may work well for others. Ultimately I think any of these systems of morality need to be checked against each other to discover a universal or pan-secular definition. And, ultimately, I believe the purpose of these systems, and of morality itself, is to have the motivation for one's actions based more and more on making the world a better place to live for all.

I've met few individuals who have seriously explored these issues outside of the context of organized religion. But really, I've met few individuals who have seriously explored these issues inside the context of organized religion as well. This baffles me. I have found few people who seem to think that society is on the right track. It would seem that as civilization delves further and further into crisis more and more people would be thrown into their own moral and existential crisis'. I know I'm impatient. I believe the faster we wake up and face the misery and destruction we're creating, for ourselves and others, the quicker we will be able to turn things around, averting even more suffering. I want more allies in pushing this process forward.

In my travels lately, as I ponder the potential activities of the next phase of my life, the phrase "for the good of others" constantly bounces around my head. It has pushed my thinking towards the consideration of basic human needs, including food, clothing, shelter, and health. And it has pushed my thinking further and further away from institutional organization and theoretical ideology, except to the extent that it has pragmatic application to serving the good of others. Organizational structures, theories and ideologies, should only exist to the extent that they improve people's lives, and must be constantly subject to re-evaluation, change, and dissolution. If this not the case it is an invitation to oppression an unsustainable forms of human society. The benefits of any social system must be obvious. One should not have to understand the system to see the benefit. Nor should one should not have to buy in to any belief system other then that of making the world a better place for all and in acting for the good of others. But the system should also be easy to replicate or emulate, making it easier and easier for more and more people to make the world a better place.

I'm making a big leap of faith here. I believe that people have an inherent desire to improve the conditions of their lives. The reason people are so apathetic, complacent and lazy is because of how controlled they are by the current institutional structure of society, a structure that fosters isolation and alienation on all levels for the benefit of few over many. My hope is that the opportunity to meet basic needs and improve the conditions of one's life outside of this system of control and inequity is the spark that will ignite people's passion to make the world a better place for all.

Manifesting this vision, or something along these lines, is what I'm ready to give myself over to, in the way it seems people talk about giving themselves over to god or a higher spiritual purpose. I can only conceive of it in concrete, worldly concepts, but I increasingly feel a fervent sense of urgency that reminds me of religious fanatics.

This is my understanding of applied morality. Every day I recognize the ways in which I am living an unmoral life, every time I use nonrenewable sources of energy, every time I take in food or drink that is unhealthy for my body, every time I treat another person with negativity, every time I waste time on computer games or other escapism, every time I allow fear to inhibit my self-expression. So I keep facing this, the impacts, physically and emotionally, on myself and on others. I keep meditating, facing the pain and suffering inside myself. I keep developing my understanding of what the right thing to do is. I keep developing my will to do what I believe is right. And, the nice thing is that the further down this path I go I am finding that I have no choice but to keep going.

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