A young musician friend sat down at my table at the coffee shop with a request for some advice. It always releases happy chemicals in me when I’m able to generate a little extra benefit from my years of experience finding my own path as both an artist and a human being — it feels like a free bonus for work I’ve already done.
His question was about motivation. More specifically, the how of actually getting a project finished. I took in a breath to answer, but found myself stumped for a few moments, as the “archivist” in my brain rapidly pulled up all of the potentially-related truths and beliefs and bits of advice that I had relied on during different epochs of my life: the pronouncements of a psychic figured heavily, as well as past beliefs about the value of personal authenticity and notions of a pre-ordained “purpose” to each life.
The interesting (if not unsettling) thing about this was that I no longer believed any of that stuff. So the first thing out of my mouth was: “I don’t know anything anymore”.
Of course that’s not true. I know a lot about a lot of things, but when it came to the specific mental trigger of “meaning” or “purpose” that my young friend’s question tickled in my brain case, I was at a loss. It was only when I switched from the existential to my experience as a productive working artist that the fog of phantom belief began to lift, and I was able (finally) to use my brain (more effectively) to move back in time and begin comparing and contrasting the experiences, feelings and outcomes of the 20-year old Bob with the 51-year old Bob.
In the end, I was able to be of help, and seemed to hit upon a bit of perspective that produced that satisfying light in my young friend’s eyes that told me I’d done a bit of good.
Reflecting on the experience today, I’m reminded of an idea I wrote about in recent weeks: that our “wondrous” brain actually has a filing system that responds reflexively to incoming stimuli by pulling out of memory anything that seems remotely related to the current pressing need. What our frontal lobes (or whatever part of the brain is active in the “meaning” realm) do with that data is try to make sense of the memories that are tossed up like mad from our archives.
(It is the existence of this mental process that has birthed an entire self-help guru industry that will help us interpret our dreams, old memories and what-have-you. But I am more and more convinced that what is dredged up by our mental archivist — or archivists, not to slight however many neurons are assigned this duty — from our day to day experiences has no “meaning” beyond sharing a subject heading with whatever we are experiencing in the moment.)
This makes perfect sense when we step back and look at ourselves as part of the continuum of the animal kingdom. (Though I now wonder if “kingdom” isn’t another of those terms that just feeds our natural tendency to think of ourselves as animal “royalty”, if we think of ourselves as animals at all!) Big chunks of our brain energy are dedicated to doing what every brain in every animal does: sense danger and escape it. The rest is what we do between death scares. (And we civilized humans, at least in the nicer parts of the world, have a LOT of time fill between moments of fearing for our lives!).
Which brings me to morality and ethics.
It’s become clear to me that even the most dogmatic religious believers (those that hold that there is only a single, clear, unequivocal and eternal moral code established by an omnipotent and unchanging deity) actually operate, daily, on an entire suite of moral codes, picking and choosing depending upon the context (be it social cost, danger to health or income, or whether someone is watching us at the time).
For an easy example, take Sarah Palin and her “Dancing With The Stars” daughter Bristol: As avowed (and fully-credentialed) Evangelical Christians (mother and — presumably — daughter), their moral code clearly states that sex before marriage is a sin. Yet once the fact of pregnancy confirms the sin, a second code kicks in, and justice takes a back seat to a stern mercy, wherein (of certain second-tier behaviors are followed) the code is considered to retain the power of it’s inviolability. In this case, Bristol chose NOT to abort (Ding! Ding! goes the tote-board). Add to this her mother’s social standing in the Evangelical community (Ding! Ding!). Add in that Bristol and the baby’s father are going to get married to have the baby (Ding! Ding! Ding!), and all was suddenly (and with barely a ripple) forgiven.
I expect some to argue that this is not an example of the swapping of one moral code for another, but more an expression of a universal understanding of “If A occurs, follow steps 1-5. If problem is not resolved, move on to plan B”. And I agree. Any one who’s ever served on a jury understands (or so I’d like to believe) the difference between cold-blooded murder and killing in self-defense. Yet religious codes are famous for saying “Thou Shalt Not Kill” without mentioning the contextual niceties that we naturally bring to each actual case. One of my big problems with the overtly religious is the cognitive split they maintain between what they say they believe and what they actually do. Ah, but that has been annoying ethical humans forever, so we’ll let that pass for now.
Ethical humans. Hmm. We give ourselves a lot of credit for our sense of morality and ethics, and this has become one of the battlegrounds of late between those that accept the reality of evolution and those that cling to a creationist view: the former citing that our morality is a naturally-evolved capacity that makes sense for the social primates that we are; the latter determined that we wouldn’t know right from wrong if a god in the sky hadn’t pointed out the difference to us through the teachable moment of Eve and the apple.
But I’m taking a step back from even that argument as I consider that our sense of morality and ethics isn’t really any more highly developed (or any more reliable) than anything else in our animal lives. Having unhitched my moral wagon from any external belief system, it’s been interesting to watch it in action. For one thing, my actions have not taken a turn one way or the other. I am, after all, still a very social animal who has to live and work in a complex community of social animals: if I suddenly took to acting like a complete ass, the quality of my life would plummet in a very short time. It is in my interest to behave morally.
So what I am left, then, to contemplate is the stripping away of my posturing about morality and ethics. With no super-natural force compelling me to behave morally, what am I about when I express my disapproval of another human’s behavior?
Morality is, and has always been, a social code. The only leverage we have on another human’s behavior is their own innate social sense that tells them that acting like an ass will get them beat up, or not get them a mating opportunity, or get them shut out of a social group. And it is highly unsettling for us social animals to run across another of our kind that just doesn’t give a shit what we think, or seems completely comfortable just taking things, running red lights, cutting in line, murdering other humans, etc.
So when I write about what I think people ought to be doing, I’m carrying out my cooperative, instructive role in creating and maintaining a moral society, which is, in effect, a cooperative society. Why? So that I can get what I want!
We know now (or we should) that even our altruism is just a way of building social capital that happens to take a longer view of things. Almost every nicety we express could be thought of as social “grooming” behavior.
The religious purist would balk (or barf) at such an idea as just the kind of relativistic evil that must be resisted in order to maintain any sense of human beings special status in The Creation.
Well, we’re special enough without that claptrap. I like humans a lot. I like being with them, grooming with them, sharing meals, making up entertainments with talented others, having sex with them. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Yet I can’t help but see that we are a voracious species that has achieved such a level of success that we are very likely to eat our way right out of our place on this planet. (If you are aware of just a handful of the facts on fuel use, food-species depletion and the like, the writing on the wall ain’t good for our continued global-level success).
So where does that leave our morality? Our ethics?
We are the ape that can reflect and notice that we’re over-doing things and try to convince our fellow apes that we should back off a bit. We are the only animal that would attempt this. Alaskan Orcas ran out of whales to eat (thanks to us), and then moved on to seals. But after they ate their way through the seals, they had to move on to smaller game, and are now gobbling up sea otters. So no other creature on earth would stop to think about what lesser food species it’s eating into oblivion, not even as it lay dying of starvation when it ran out of things to eat.
We think about it, but I don’t know what we can really do about it. For whatever we say about our morality and ethics, we are animals born with a drive to live (like any other organism on this planet). I think the only rational appeal, then, is one toward moderation of consumption. But such moderation is only going to make sense if humans understand their actual place in the natural world, which brings us back to the idea of morality as a form of social capital: where it is in our animal self-interest to behave cooperatively in a way that may diminish our immediate wealth yet increase our chances at living longer — albeit more modest — lives.
But we are also sneaky primates, and no-one wants to be made the fool for giving up something when others are just going to keep on taking. Everyone has an intuitive grasp on this idea.
You see, we really do all understand our in-born animal instincts. And stripping away a bit of the hyperbole about our nobility doesn’t change the issues of survival we all face.
We may not have much control over the future, really. We may end up done in by our own success. The earth (and life, to be sure) will go on until our sun finally explodes or the next great extinction event re-shuffles the deck. But in the meantime, I’d sure like it if more of us could see things as they are and make the best practical decisions for all concerned. That seems like (dare I say it?) the right thing to do.