Posts Tagged ‘human morality’

SERMON: “The Law of the Lord” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

A Family Portrait...

“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.”  (Psalm 19:7, King James Version)

In the argument from belief, the subject of morality inevitably arises.  It is usually framed as a question about the validity of any morality that is subjectively formed (as human morality is theorized to have evolved — through natural means — as part of a suite of human social behaviors).  From the religious believer’s point of view, such an “earth-based” morality has no valid claim on any individual because that morality is relative and subject to change over time.  In contrast, a universal morality that is believed to exist beyond human consciousness and held to be eternal and unchanging can, in contrast, claim a certain ultimate authority over human behavior.  Of course, the creator of this law is God himself and, as the bumper sticker says “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.”

The problems with this second view are numerous.  For one it fails to answer the question it claims to: is the law the law because God created it, or does God endorse the law because it is (and has always been) the law?  (This is similar to the problem with claiming that God is the answer to the question of eternity, which inevitably leads to the old “What existed before God?” or “Where, then, did God come from?”   questions.  God, it turns out, gets us no closer to penetrating the depths of time than anything else).

But the major problem with the idea of an unchanging morality is that it cannot be shown to exist in reality.  There do appear to be some fairly universal features to human morality, and from this apologists for the divine draw confirmation of the Creator’s hand in human existence.  On the other hand, however, is the ever-growing body of evidence that morality is not exclusively the domain of us humans, but exists on a graduated scale across a wide spectrum of biological life.  And within that spectrum, not all that we would call “morality” requires any great level of animal consciousness for it to be useful in organism-to-organism interactions (cooperation, sacrifice, defense of blood kin, etc.).  But among social primates (as well as the higher mammals) the roots of our human morality are clearly on display.  This can mean that either God has given some sort of moral sense to soul-less animals, or that our morality is as naturally-derived as that of our ape cousins.  The evidence speaks pretty clearly, I think, in support of the latter.

But the larger problem with claiming that one is an adherent to an eternal, ultimate morality is that there is no way around the reality that all morality is understood and applied in a relativistic manner: Exceptions are always made even for the harshest of laws.  Therefore morality is never applied (nor employed) evenly.

The believer would argue that this is simply due to the weakness of humans as compared to the purity of God.  Be that as it may, the upshot of this is that even the law of God, it turns out, is — in practice — relative.

Of course this makes complete sense if you take the more realistic (or materialistic) view that morality is a part of our suite of evolved human behaviors.  Morality is, and always has been, part and parcel of the way in which profoundly social animals define both themselves and others within a group (be it a family, a town or a nation).  Morality (and it’s relative, ethics) consists of certain innate (and learned) rules that are necessarily flexible.  Tests have clearly shown that we apply rules more strictly to a stranger or someone outside of our own political or social group, and give those we know the benefit of the doubt.  Our system of jury trials recognizes this, and therefore trusts a smaller (enforced) social unit (the jury) to speak for the larger community.

Why not simply pick one person to judge all of the cases all of the time?  The answer to that question, I think, points to the recognition (by the wiser among us) of the flexibility of morality as practiced in our daily lives, as well as the danger of having a justice system that sees everything in an unreal “black and white” way.  Of course, many people believe in their hearts that this is precisely how a righteous God wants us to see transgressions!  And yet even within such rigid belief systems, there is (in the Christian tradition) Jesus, the Son of God who intercedes on behalf of us sinners, as well as the Holy Spirit that can enter into our sinful soul and guide us to a life more pleasing to God. (And we haven’t even touched upon the Angels that protect us and the saints that incline their ears toward our prayers).

The good news in all of this religious mythology is that the essence of humanity is still expressed, even as religion claims to be unsullied by such earthly influences.

One of my favorite examples is from the last presidential election.  When Sarah Palin, a conservative with genuine evangelical street cred, revealed that her daughter Bristol was pregnant (and not married) Sarah was not taken to task by her religious brethren.  Why not?  This was sexual sin, pure and simple.  But wait: the boy was going to marry the young pregnant girl (do the right thing), and mom Palin stood by her wayward daughter (which was instantly held to be an example of her own expression of God’s mercy).  Because Sarah Palin was unquestionably part of the family of God, God’s family stood by her and her daughter and, hence, no impartial, unequivocal justice was demanded.

“Black and white” morality was, in this case, flexible.

Yet I somehow doubt that such understanding would have been granted to the opposing side had one of the Obama girls turned up pregnant.

Why not?  Because morality is relative.

On one level, this event speaks to our enduring tribal nature (of which religion is a rather more expansive expression).  But on another level, it reveals that even among the believers in Absolute Truth and God’s Avenging Justice, a basic humanity persists: exceptions were made for another member of the tribe, a member of the family.  Mercy trumped Law.

I suppose one could argue that the process I’ve alluded to is not proof of the relativity of morality, but an affirmation of the strength of it.  But let us look at one more thing.

We have a sliding (read: relative) social standard for what we call “generosity”.  We expect those with more to be more generous.  This is part of our unwritten social contract.  But since generosity is not always universal, we have formed governments with tax structures and bureaucracies that enforce a sort of State generosity on both the willing and the unwilling alike.  As Americans this social welfare system causes us to struggle with our Puritan impulse to be generous only with those that are worthy of our labors.  Yet Jesus’ definition of generosity was not similarly proscribed.  According to his aspirational vision, if you have a coat and see someone who doesn’t, you are supposed to give away your coat.  No questions asked.  That’s the deal.  (Of course that now puts the other person in the position you were just in, so I suppose she should give the coat back, and you can keep trading it back and forth until Christ comes back).

For if we really took a view of generosity anything like Jesus, none of us would be driving cars and living in big houses.  We’d be giving it all away so some naked, sick and sunburned soul in sub-Saharan Africa could have a sheet of tin over his head and a scrap of meat for dinner.  But we don’t do that.

The reality of it is that we see to our own needs first, and define both those needs (and the need for expressions of generosity) within our immediate social situation.  So a Hollywood star can spend an hour making a public service commercial and call it “giving back” for the millions they spend on their own lifestyle each year.  But this is just an extreme example.  We each navigate these tricky waters every day of our lives.  Perhaps that is why part of the appeal of religious belief is the baldly impossible moral standard it sets for us money-earning apes.

And that is why it makes so much more sense to see ourselves as the selfish-yet-social evolved primates that we are.  It is about the only way that our behavior (both good and bad) makes sense.  I have long held that it is never God (nor the fear of God) that truly makes man moral, it is the practical need to get along with our tribe, our community, that exerts the most powerful influence on personal behavior.  Compared to that pressure, the law — the morality — of God ranks as a far-distant second.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Great Cosmic Elephant” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

There is the old saw about two blind men trying to describe an elephant by feeling it with their hands — one standing in the front, the other at the rear end —  and how by their descriptions both would think they were examining a completely different animal!  To stretch that analogy, I think that each of us, in a very real way, are only able to describe the part of the “elephant” of life that we are touching, in that each of our lives is so very specific in circumstance, opportunity, and geography that our perception of reality is destined to be incomplete: we can never hope to have the complete picture, as it were.  And yet the blind men at different ends of the elephant — though one may be feeling a trunk and another a…tail — will still be describing some elements that are common to both ends of a single animal.  This is why we can, for instance, enjoy art and literature from people who are living lives very different from our own: we are each having our own unique experience of a universal experience: life.

I’ll stretch the analogy a bit further, and describe science as the attempt to “see” every part of the “elephant” by examining the tiniest bits of it — and then adding all of those bits together with the most distant perspectives we can get — to form a complete picture.  I think this is a noble thing.  I think the problem comes in when people who are touching only their square inches of the great cosmic pachyderm think that they are touching the entire thing, and dismiss the very idea that there are different perspectives.

I’ve noticed that when I write opinion pieces for the local newspaper, I write to a different audience.  I write more like a missionary — as if I’m talking to the uninformed.  Here, I write more like I’m writing to colleagues, companions on this journey that have joined themselves into a loosely-organized caravan headed in roughly the same direction.  When I write for the paper, I get a load of comments from those that think their square inch of elephant is the whole thing.  They are clearly annoyed at me for wanting them to think otherwise.

But i happen to be the kind of person that derives pleasure from the way I’ve grown to think about things.  I enjoy ideas, and the way my brain has turned out to be a curious one, moving from thought to thought like a bumble bee from flower to flower, gathering pollen as it goes.

For instance, while eating some strawberries, my mind wandered to the following subjects: a recognition that the golf ball sized berries I was eating were most certainly the product of unnatural selection by human breeders; that there were millions of people on this earth who would give just about anything to be able to sit and eat the berries I was eating in quiet and safety; a pang of guilt over my excesses of consumption (treating myself to an entire pint of strawberries); a musing over the question of human compassion, all while still managing to fully enjoy those berries.

I am an extremely lucky human, by any historical measure.  I may be low-income by contemporary American standards, but the fact that I have a comfortable place to lay my head in peace each night and a pretty high degree of freedom from fear instantly separates me from most of my ancestors and many humans alive today.

My Ice Age brain struggles with the demands of modern knowledge.  How do I adjust my naturally-evolved sense of blood-relation compassion to an entire human family?  How do I satisfy my social-animal need to see myself as a good person when that is always in tension with my inherently selfish survival instinct?  How do I enjoy the ripe strawberry in front of me knowing that I could give up some of what I own and make lives much worse than mine exponentially better, or — to take it further — give up everything I own and not put a dent in the human suffering on the planet?  How do I pay attention to the part of the elephant I can touch without being overwhelmed by the other parts of the vast animal that I hear about, but can never completely explore myself?

This is the condition of the modern human, complicated by the technology and science-aided awareness of our time.

Is that my goat? Click image for Heifer International.

There is no complete answer to it.  I donate a enough money Heifer International (it’s not much) to buy a goat a year for someone I’ll never meet.   Why?  To lessen feelings of selfishness generated by my sense of good fortune and abiding happiness.  And I endeavor to blend the work that satisfies me with work that brings pleasure and solace to my fellow humans.  In short, I practice a sort of reciprocal altruism that we humans have developed over the millennia.  I don’t give because I expect something back from those to whom I give (such as a shipment of home-made goat cheese from Indonesia or wherever), but I do give because I know that it will make me a happier person.  For we learn from experience that the satisfying of a craving or lust is not what creates a state of happiness (for the consummation of a craving is much more about alleviating the extreme discomfort of the craving).  No: we learn that the more abiding sense of happiness comes from what we call “generous” or “kind” behavior, in that it waters the seeds of warm social relationships (and we humans are wired to be all about social relationships).

In practical terms, to be quite honest, I find myself testing the limits of how far I can go in getting what I want while maintaining my cherished place in my social family —  my community.  The paradox being that if I give more than others, I am held in higher esteem, and may then have more opportunity for getting what I want.  But if I want something that carries a high social risk, I am faced with getting right back to where I started if I actually take advantage of my opportunities.  Interesting this (and, it turns out, one of the main arguments against human morality being a Heavenly mandate — the entire dynamic that keeps the non-sociopathic in line is right here in our human troop).

This is what life is like: a mix of competing needs, desires, pressures and satisfactions that takes a massive, calorie-consuming brain such as ours to keep track of.  But there I am again, talking about the whole elephant.

There is a certain comfort in recognizing the reality that we live in.  At least to me there is (even if understanding just how complex our social interactions are does nothing to make them less complicated!)

Thanks to science, we now understand a great deal about how our individual lives fit within the scheme of the larger life that surrounds us (the elephant).  We also understand a great deal more about our individual minds, bodies and personalities (the part of the elephant we touch, taste, smell, hear and see).  This bounty of information challenges the comprehensive power of our primate brains, even as it challenges our evolved blood-kin centered compassion.  Accepting this reality may not make things less challenging or complex, but it can help us enjoy the sweet strawberries that life sets before us as we keep exploring our bit of the cosmic elephant.

t.n.s.r. bob