Absolute and Relative Morality: The Crisis of Direction
In addition to a Crisis of Identity, we are in the midst of a Crisis of Direction. The sense that we are headed somewhere governs our concerns, whether consciously or unconsciously, and its urgency is only compounded by our sneaking suspicions that we are missing the mark. The increasingly destructive habits we have unleashed on the world, whether environmental or interpersonal, are a mere symptom of this deeper crisis. The old panaceas are less and less effective as we become more and more aware that both of the apparently competing stories given to us by religion and science fail to provide us with a sense of direction palatable to our often finicky unconscious minds. In our dogmatic fervor on the one hand or relativistic blasé on the other, we unthinkingly adopt crude attitudes about good and evil—passively buying into them like the cartoons depict or else rejecting them outright because life is not a cartoon. We give all our energy to our convictions only to find progress slow or blocked and we can only conclude that the many roadmaps claiming reliability rather tend to confuse.
Although the world-wide state of crisis is the most obvious symptom of a dysfunctional collective psyche, most of us are too confused about our own direction, too lost in our own self-defeating patterns to rise to genuine concern about social dynamics. We secretly ask ourselves, “Why do I care where the world is heading when I’m not comfortable at all with where I’m heading?” The crisis of direction therefore begins on a personal level. “What is my life’s purpose?” is a question we only ask of ourselves once we are well on our way. Prior to asking, we repeatedly false-start on paths handed to us by our forebears. The question “What is right?” implicitly lays the groundwork for the question “What am I supposed to do?” If the answers we have inherited fail to inspire us, it is probably because the question, “What am I supposed to do?” is personal, but in the question, “What is right?” we hear the impersonal. On the one hand, we see our life’s purpose as something unique to ourselves, while on the other hand, we see rightness or moral rectitude as something universal or objectively fixed.
Part 1. The Origin of the Crisis: Dysfunctional Mythoi
The Childhood Story
Inevitably, however, young adults newly introduced to a world no longer sustained by the external Mother and Father discover that the mythos they were imparted doesn’t seem to work the way mom and dad said it would. We notice that evil folks go unpunished while good folks get framed or taken advantage of. The pragmatic justifications for following the path of moral rectitude lose much of their force when we discover the hard way that there are profound gains to be gotten from moral corruption, so long as you are not caught. Those of us who clung to the childhood story anyway know that the inner resource that kept us coming back to this inherited mythos (call it the Childhood Story) was the Self that sincerely wanted to be Good, whatever that might mean.
The Childhood Story is emphatically not the same as the mythic approach our parents had; rather, it is our simplified interpretation of what they were trying to teach us. As such, the Childhood Story is always inadequate. When the Childhood Story does prove inadequate, we resist abandoning it for fear that we will either lose meaning or betray our parents. Although we cannot help but feel the cognitive dissonance between our beliefs and our experiences, we are not yet prepared to face them head on.
The unsightly realities of a world unbuffered test our Childhood Stories, leading to two typical outcomes: denial and/or rigidity. When we deny that there is any cognitive dissonance at all, we augment our Childhood Story ad hoc by adding elements that account for the dissonance: “It’s not a sin if you do it this way.” Conversely, when we become rigidly scrupulous, we recognize that we have desires that impel us against the grain of what we were taught was right, so we reinforce the superego self whose moral authority has become virtually divine command to us: “This desire is evil and I will not entertain it any longer. I don’t care what other people do or whether they benefit from doing things that are wrong. I will do what is right.” Although we tend to rely more heavily on one method of easing cognitive dissonance, we all use a combination of denial and moral scrupulosity. We become unconsciously aware that the moral ship is sinking, so we plug the leaks as fast as we can, hoping that it will stay afloat. Nevertheless, the Childhood Story eventually disintegrates. We, abandoning our upbringing, are now left to our own devices.
The Chosen Story
This is where the Crisis of Direction begins: Who am I without the Childhood Story? Why do I persist in having this human experience (ending it seems easy enough, after all)? Where am I really going? Will I be happy there?
The next step could end the Crisis of Direction, but it rarely does. Those of us who discover that the Childhood Story is not a seaworthy vessel must decide which ship to board, which mythos to adopt. The essence of the Crisis of Direction is not that we must abandon the Childhood Story; rather, it is that most of the ships in the harbor are defective, so when we do abandon the Childhood Story we trade one leaky vessel for another.
What gain, then, is there in switching stories at all? We soon discover that the options are grim: accept that denial and moral scrupulosity are part of life, or abandon a moral story altogether. If we tend toward optimism, we become dogmatic; if we tend toward pessimism, we become nihilistic.
Dogmatism offers us direction. Every dogma provides its adherents with a horizon for human fulfillment. Christianity (my Childhood Story) offers salvation from sin (i.e. cognitive dissonance) and the reward of eternal bliss. Non-theistic rationalism offers freedom from mystical explanations and the reward of self-determined achievement. Scientism (or “belief in science” as Jodie Foster describes in Contact) offers freedom from false hope and the infinite horizon of technological advancement. Progressivism (which includes socialism and communism) offers salvation from social ills and the promise of Utopia. Buddhism offers freedom from suffering and the experience of enlightenment. Even hedonism, paltry dogmatic vessel that it is, offers freedom from moral scrupulosity and the reward of unending pleasure.
In every case, dogmas identify where we are now, where we are going, and why we want to get from here to there. Each of these vessels has complex structures for navigating the ideological waters that we must cross in going from here to there. Each must deal with emotions and desires (the wind and current), social interaction (the possibility of collision with those who ride a different vessel), a reliable navigation system for getting from here to there (moral compass and map), and a troubleshooting manual when problems arise (Catholics call one such manual “apologetics”).
The dogmatist is brazenly optimistic. She is already so invested in her vessel that she simply cannot conceive abandoning it without sacrificing everything important to her. Such dogmatists gladly spend endless energy plugging the leaks in their vessels in exchange for the opportunity to sail to the Promised Land. The nihilist, however, prefers to abandon the ship. In her moods of pessimism and/or despair, the nihilist ceases to believe that the Promised Land exists, perceiving every single dogmatic ship as a doomed voyage. So long as we persist in being human (i.e. in not offing ourselves), we cannot help braving the ocean of desire, emotion and experience, but in those moments of despair, we imagine that all we want is a raft. It is enough to stay afloat. Despite Nietzsche’s writings, nihilism rarely lasts us very long. When the nihilist sees a vessel cross her path whose amenities are far more comfortable than the shabby nihilistic raft, she usually waves her hands to ask for rescue. Human beings cannot last long without a story.
On those occasions when we actually do reach the shore of the Promised Land, like an athlete who has finally achieved her lifelong goal, we ask ourselves, “Is this what I wanted? Is this all there is?” Once again, we must either board a dogmatic ship or float on a nihilistic raft.
This is the Crisis of Direction. For most of us, the stories we adopt do not fulfill their promises. Either they are not adequately equipped for the long voyage from here to there or we only find out too late that they were not headed where we wanted to go.
What is wrong with where we are?
Where are we going?
How will we get there?
Do we want to go there?
No longer can we deny the urgency of these questions. The growing crises in our environments (glacial deterioration, ocean quality, deforestation, waste accumulation, soil deterioration, food quality, air quality, water reserves, etc.) are symptoms that we are still either plugging leaks in shabby vessels, floating on a raft, or sailing to the wrong shore. Now, more than ever, we seek to satisfy our sense of direction. Though history suggests that we never had a clear grasp of who we are and where we are going, the urgency to find clarity is stronger than ever. Ours is a culture hungry for answers and ripe for rapid growth.
Part 2. The Center of the Crisis: Conflict Between Duty and Desire
Our religious friend who asks, “What is to stop me from raping the neighbor lady?” shares his basic sentiment with all moral dogmatists, regardless of the dogma—though most dogmatists do not characterize the sentiment in such extreme terms. That sentiment is this: “I have some desires that are acceptable and some desires that are unacceptable. The moral dogma that I espouse helps me distinguish between these two and motivates me to act on my acceptable desires and to refrain from acting on my unacceptable desires.” A dogmatist recognizes that there is something in her which desires to do “wrong” and is therefore immoral. The dogmatist’s espoused mythos must move in the direction of the moral rather than the immoral because that is how you get to the Promised Land. We can call such dogmatists “moralists” insofar as they are unceasingly concerned that they and the world around them are “moral” rather than “immoral.”
Moralism, however, has no meaning without immoralism. According to a moralist mythos, anyone who acts immorally and has no inner qualms about it is an immoralist. The only reason to act immorally is because you wanted to, so an immoralist is someone who does what he wants without regard for the moral imperative. At heart, however, the difference between a dogmatic moralist and an immoralist is that the moralist does his duty above all else, while the immoralist follows his desire above all else. That is, both have a moral imperative, but the two moral imperatives are at odds with each other.
The moralist’s rejection of a desire-based system of moral norms is precisely why he labels and distances himself from the “immoralist,” yet all dogmatic stories implicitly teach that desire is a necessary inclusion in our acts of moralizing. The moralist seeks to appropriate the passion of the immoralist without the “wrongness.” While I was growing up, my mother frequently reminded me that just going to church was not enough: one must also want to go to church. Had I been older and therefore stronger of mind, I might have realized that this very assertion undermined the entire concept of duty. How can I be called to duty when I am supposed to want to do what I do? How does one learn to want to carry a burden? For a child this was, of course, inconceivable, and led inevitably to a guilt complex caused by the childhood impasse. But not to worry, mother, I don’t hold you personally responsible for a cultural contradiction. Anyone who lives on Planet Earth engages in cultural contradictions, so it’s just us chickens here.
Divine Command Morality: The Example of Christianity
The cultural contradiction between duty and desire is not so difficult at all to trace. In all moral systems that espouse commitment to duty above desire (duty-based systems), we find the simultaneous assertion that (a) not doing your duty is unacceptable in the most absolute sense conceivable, and (b) that wanting to do your duty yields a better reward. The most famous of these ethical systems, Christianity, threatens endless suffering as a punishment to those who don’t do the bare minimum, while promising a better heaven to those who not only do it, but do it with fervor (the Saints). As Revelation 3:16 in The Bible has it, “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.”
In the process of doing your duty, it will, of course, be smooth sailing until you get to the part where you don’t want to do your duty. Consider your prospects: if you do what you want to do, you will suffer eternally; but if you don’t want to do what you should do, you’re miserable and you can’t get the biggest trophy. Why suffer through misery if the reward isn’t even that good? In these duty-based systems, the obvious choice is to somehow want to do what you should do by beating the self into submission: “You want this, dammit.” Unfortunately, there are dire psychic consequences to this repressive and tyrannical attitude toward the self, so the path of the dutiful moralist leads inevitably to guilt.
As we all know, both hellions and saints defy the standards of dutiful morality. The extremity of their words, actions and, apparently, their experiences baffle us regular folk who recognize their power but still see them as crazy. From the Buddhist monk who set himself aflame and the Saints who happily flogged themselves with ruthless vigor to the Hitlers and Rasputins whose motives for conquest boggle our minds, these exceptions to the rule fall on the extreme ends of morality, suggesting that we have already manifested the famous dystopian scenario in which we trade both joy and suffering for unfeeling tranquility. The real world is not so far from the sci-fi nightmare: in our commitment to duty, we have, in fact, sacrificed ecstatic experiences of both good and evil in exchange for a safe and steady sense of guilt.
If nothing else, guilt is safe. It keeps us from diving into wanton addiction. Few saints there are to counterbalance the many casualties of excess. Guilt itself, however, contributes to these casualties of excess in its tendency to reinforce the desire to find an escape from its pressure. We abuse ourselves for wanting what we shouldn’t want. Then we allow ourselves to have it in some small way but abuse ourselves further for inviting eternal damnation. Finally, we develop an insatiable craving for the forbidden desire, a budding addiction whose roots become ever more enmeshed with the deep inner longing for fulfillment that never wanted to be suppressed in the first place. Thus, the knot of guilt is tied.
Enter the savior. According to Christianity, the most familiar (to me) of these duty-based systems, the knot of guilt and addiction (or “sin”) is unwound by inviting an outside deity to save you from your brokenness. Archetypally…this is actually pretty accurate. The Christian story does, in fact, offer salvation from the knot of guilt. Christianity is only an example here (the principle that duty demands desire applies to all duty-based systems), but like any enduring moral system, it has developed a response to the psychic trauma associated with either acting or wanting to act immorally: it is okay to do and want immoral things as long as you accept Jesus Christ as your savior. This, however, only passes the buck because if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your savior or you don’t do so with enough fervor, then you are back to being immoral. Though the savior loop-hole offers blanket rescue from guilt for those who are happy to embrace a savior, the ubiquity of both guilt and moral shaming that persists in all sects of Christianity suggests that the story doesn’t work even for most Christians. The problem of desire persists.
The trouble is that the knot of guilt is not necessary. That is, the knot itself is created by the very system that unwinds it. The Christian mythology, while reasonably felicitous to the Architecture (which is precisely why it has endured so long), is a Noble Lie. It is a story, invented and then taught as true, whose purpose is to induce in others, through their belief in the story, greater virtue and achievement than would otherwise have been possible.
Christianity, however, is not the only Noble Lie. Some Noble Lies, like Buddhism, admit themselves as such. Gautama Buddha explicitly did not want to be raised up as a God. Other Noble Lies, like progressivism, are less honest with themselves. Deviation from the progressive agenda (whatever form it takes) is sin against progressivism because serving the self before the community is the root of all evil. As there are so many sinners in the world (according to the progressive myth), only felicity to the Utopia Project can save individuals from the sin of selfishness and save our world from the endless suffering that it now endures.
All long-standing duty-based systems, from Islam to rationalism, from Buddhism to progressivism, do live up to their promises for some. The fortunate few who find that their espoused dogmas live up to their promises are precisely those who shake their heads silently at the evangelistic efforts from other dogmatic systems, hoping to get them to jump from one vessel to another. “You do not understand,” these success stories say, “I have found what I wanted, so there is nothing you can offer me.”
Those who find their salvation through the Christian myth (or any myth) observe evidence that verifies the mythos. They find greater tranquility within themselves and they can now see in others a desperate but unconscious longing for salvation from sin. The faithless and confused actions of those around them inspire the saved to service, often through evangelism. Similarly, the salvation offered by progressivism lights the flame of passion through an inspiring shared vision of The World As It Ought to Be. Progressives who find themselves fulfilled by this story see verification of their mythos in every social injustice and inequality.
The success stories all have a unique property: duty and desire move in unison. Even among Christians, moralists on fire for God eventually take on the characteristics of immoralists who follow their desires first and their duty second. They become snake-handlers, dangerous breakers of norms who appear to others to have sanctified their perversions. The story of Abraham and Isaac is a classic example of the absurd amorality of sainthood. Is Abraham duty-bound to sacrifice Isaac or is he duty-bound to follow the “command of God,” which surely looked to others like a voice in his head?” Where is Abraham’s desire in all of this? Surely he desired to follow his intuition and let his son live. Fortunately, Abraham got to have his cake and eat it too. That we can retrospectively read fidelity to duty into these examples reinforces the pattern: the success stories got lucky because they wanted what was right.
Social Obligation Morality: Utilitarianism
There are two basic forms of duty-based systems: Divine command and social obligation. In both cases, as source greater and more powerful than the Self bequeaths a rulebook to the Self. Both systems offer a reward for adhering to the rules as well as a punishment for breaking them. Divine command systems, like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and probably many other religions I’m not familiar with, offer the kind of reward outlined above: it’s good if you do your duty, but better if you desire to do your duty. Social obligation systems, among which utilitarianism is by far the most common, typically fail to incentivize doing your duty passionately. This absence is to the credit of social obligation systems because it the incentive only tightens the knot of guilt. A utilitarian may be unhappy doing his duty, but at least the prize (Utopia) won’t suck because he is unhappy.
The conflict between duty and desire outlined above in reference to Christianity takes essentially the same shape in all divine command systems. Can we sidestep the knot of guilt with a utilitarian system? Progressivism, scientism, and non-theistic rationalism are all utilitarian systems. In the absence of divine authority, according to a utilitarian social obligation system, we human beings must decide for ourselves how to hold our society together in the quest for Utopia. Because we are members of this society, have a responsibility to contribute to it. We are each crewmen on this vessel headed for Utopia.
Utilitarian systems leave far more moral leeway than divine command systems because they do not attempt to govern your thoughts and feelings; rather, they govern only your actions. For a utilitarian, the Goodness of an action is measured by its consequences, and these consequences are judged by whether they move both individuals and the society as a whole closer to Utopia. Hence, a good progressive law is one that results in more poor people being fed, or more victims led to safety, or less damage to the environment, than if the law had not been passed. In a social obligation system, the benefit of the whole is given priority over the benefit of the individual, so individuals are served only insofar as doing so serves the society as a whole. Wealthy adherents of these utilitarian systems are often happy to sacrifice something of theirs (like part of their income) as a symbolic act of prioritizing the benefit of society over the benefit of the self.
The first great downfall of social obligation systems is that they assume that there is only one kind of Utopia and that getting from here to there is entirely a matter of “right” action (duty), though “right” intention (desire) helps. It is no wonder that progressives and conservatives so often see each other as idiots: if they attempted to understand each other, they would discover that they have very different visions of Utopia. Even Ayn Rand appreciated this difference of vision, though she found the progressive Utopia disgusting.
The second great downfall of social obligation systems is that they are almost always centrally organized. Central organization, typically through government, allows the social obligation system to enforce rules (laws) upon its populace in order to ensure that the agenda moves forward, that the vessel continues on its course to Utopia. Unfortunately, central organization is highly inefficient due to its inability to accommodate outliers. Because we are all outliers in some way, we all suffer the consequences of the global initiatives whose impact is almost invisible at the individual level. Even if it were possible to measure units of utility, we must still contend with the bland and lifeless benefits that a good-for-all approach invariably produces. My grocery store once won a “food truck party.” Because no one could agree with an acceptable location or time and because some employees had dietary restrictions, we ended up with cold pizza in the breakroom. What could have been awesome was thoroughly nerfed because it had to appeal to everyone.
The third great downfall of social obligation systems is they do not place value on right intention. Although freedom from the divine command that would dictate your thoughts and feelings is attractive, the price of removing intention from morality is felt as soon as you try to do good but fail. At times when our very best and sincerest efforts to serve others either explode in our faces or fall flat, only one thought can redeem us from an excruciating sense of failure: I did the best I could. Utility strips intention away as if it is chaff, exposing us to the harsh moral tribunal that is external response. Measuring morality by results can only lead to hopelessness at the apparently random nature of being Good. In fact, because we make such heavy use of this emotional mechanism for accepting failure, we can reasonably say that very few of us are genuinely utilitarians.
Finally, social obligation systems do not even avoid the knot of guilt. Rather, they only avoid a crippling knot of guilt. In terms of the Architecture of the Human Experience, this may ultimately be a disservice. The extremity of the knot of guilt is precisely what motivates divine command adherents to find relief from it. Without the extremity, there is far less impetus to seek full release from the knot of guilt. Social obligation, then, invites the worst of both worlds: you will still feel guilt when you do not desire to do your duty, but there is no apparent method of being released from it. You just have to accept that sometimes it sucks to be a good person.
The proper domain of utility is pragmatism which, by its very nature, assumes you already know what you want but would like to make your efforts as efficient as possible. At its most coherent, utilitarianism is not a system of morality, but a system for executing already existing moral judgments.
Moral Relativism: The Desire-Based System
What of those who do not desire to do their duty?
If the knot of guilt is not necessary, what moral system would replace it? Just as the drawback of a duty-based system is that it tends to induce unnecessary inner turmoil, so the drawback of a desire-based system is that it tends to offer little in the way of structure. Where the road for the dutiful tends to be steep and rocky, the road for the desirous tends to be muddy and pit-like. Archetypally, both approaches miss the mark; both fail to cultivate a synergy between structure and impetus which is capable of shortcutting the path from guilt into salvation, subverting the experience of guilt without the consequence of wayward hedonism. The middle ground between dogmatism and nihilism lies in the dangerous land called moral relativism.
The greatest moral significance of doing what you want is that it denies the concepts of “right” and “wrong” as defined according to duty. All duty-based ethical systems give a fixed or absolute definition of what is “right,” which, though it may be somewhat malleable on an individual level, still derives most of its content from an authoritative universalization: THOU SHALT LOVE THY GOD (or thy society) AND THY NEIGHBOR, or else. Because duty-based systems universalize what is right, personal conflict and eventually the knot of guilt enter when we are faced with our desires to do “wrong.”
In contrast to these duty-based or absolutist moral systems, functional desire-based systems adopt an attitude of moral relativism. According to relativist systems, right and wrong are defined in terms that relate to your desire. What is “right” is an experience that you prefer to have, while what is “wrong” is an experience that moves against the fiber of your will. Both moralists and immoralists have tended to associate this subjectivized version of morality with hedonism. The hedonist attitude is, of course, the symptom of an addict who exclaims sentiments such as, “If you let them, they will drink themselves dead.” His concern points surreptitiously to his own unsatisfied desires, unconsciously confirming the confession of the dutiful but secretly addicted: “If you let me, I will drink myself dead,” or “What’s to stop me from raping the neighbor lady?”
We read Nietzsche and think ourselves to be beyond Good and Evil simply because we have relativized right and wrong. I call this the Nietzschean Error. The foundation of moral relativism is that what is right is subjective. Because absolutist systems have always identified rightness with goodness, it is easy and almost natural to cast off the concept of absolute goodness along with absolute rightness. After all, what’s the point of being good if it isn’t necessarily right? The shirking of absolute good and evil in tandem with absolute right and wrong, however, is precisely the origin of our attitudes about the actual experience of moral relativism. Even Nietzsche couldn’t help but characterize it in basically hedonistic terms. In effect, the Nietzschean Error tells us that we must be felicitous to our desires, embracing the reckless intoxication toward which those desires lead. Although careful reading suggests that Nietzsche himself did not believe that moral relativism leads to hedonism, his followers typically fall into the two standard camps: Nietzschean morality as dogma (we must become Ubermenschen!) or Nietzschean morality as hedonism (Yay Dionysus! Boo Apollo!).
Randian Libertarianism (if we can call it that) reaches for a moral relativism that is subtler than hedonism. Randian thought tells us that the individual who strives for greatness without sacrificing herself for others is fulfilling her moral duty. According to this theory, Utopia will come about by each doing what is best for herself without regard for others. At the heart of this libertarianism is the assertion that self-service is Good and social obligation is Evil, effectively turning utilitarianism on its head. Although it is ironic that Randian thought has become dogma for its adherents (thus negating its potency as a relativistic system), it is even more ironic that standard conservatism (or Neo-conservatism) in America has become an unhappy marriage of Randian self-service and Christian divine command. This is clearly a cultural Shadow begging to be seen. In any case, we can’t properly evaluate Randian Libertarianism until we can make sense of the concepts of Good and Evil. More on this later.
Values: The Modern Moral System
Just as absolutist (duty-based) moral systems fail to accommodate those who do no already want to do what is absolutely right, so (excluding Randian Libertarianism) relativist (desire-based) moral systems fail to notice that our deep desires self-organize. The self-organization of deep desires is nowhere more obvious than in our values. In the past 25 years we have seen a dramatic rise in the concept of values or “principles” (which are really just expressions of value) as driving forces. And what, after all, is a value except something that you care about for its own sake?
The continued disrepute that organized religions are falling into (hence the popularity of the phrase, “spiritual but not religious”) necessitates a language about our central moral drives that does not depend on a particular religious story. In order to circumvent religiosity, businesses present themselves in terms of values, principles and missions, regardless of how honestly those values are portrayed. Corporate credos have become a mere flourish, a required step in the corporate dance whose centerpiece is money-making. Their moral dictionaries are filled with empty buzzwords—words which at a different time and in a different context actually carried substance. It’s a good thing poets have already learned to abandon words like excellence, integrity and service, because they don’t seem mean much anymore.
Despite the ever-present danger of moral lip-service, the concept of values actually reaches for moral bedrock, even if it does not find it. To be sure, we all care. Yes, there are sociopaths who do not care, but they are the exceptions who prove the rule. Google can show you lists of more than 400 values, and yet while they all boast “compassion” and “sincerity,” none of them contain “ruthlessness” or “power-seeking.” If you consider ruthlessness and power-seeking to be values of yours, then you are on the moral margin—the margin that, like Voldemort, we all know about but do not speak about.
Complaints about the “unethical” nature of corporate business, government bureaucracy, or any other sizable institution implicitly assert the absence of values, rather than the presence of values that you simply do not prefer. The accusation of absent morality is unfortunate insofar as it misses the point. If you value power-seeking and ruthlessness, then you probably also value lies and manipulation. Given, then, that the majority of us are not sociopaths, we should only expect that the minority would disguise themselves in order to further pursue their clandestine values. I am consistently surprised to find that others are surprised when a clearly profit-driven business is caught doing something “unethical” because there was money in it.
We might pretend to ourselves that these sociopaths are someone else but not me, but let’s not. For example, in America today, the “greed is good” ideology is still common among right-wingers (i.e. individualists) of all varieties, most notably Randian libertarians. A robust theoretical structure supports this ideology, as you’d expect from any good myth, but the foundation remains the same one that Adam Smith spoke centuries ago: we are all rational self-interest maximizers. Despite the amoral language Smith used, the implication from him and his contemporaries (like Locke) is clear: absolute power corrupts absolutely because we all want it in some way. So as long as power remains unconsolidated, all’s well.
Power, however, is not the only ethical bogeyman. In religious institutions, all manner of violations of human dignity have become commonplace scandals. Some of these violations are relegated to the internal ideology of the religion (like pastors having sex with prostitutes), while others are not (like priests having sex with children). Plato’s Ring of Gyges conundrum is still relevant: how do we comport ourselves when there is no one to answer to? What would we discover ourselves to value if there were no consequences?
We do have values, even if the values themselves are not the root of morality. Our values, however, are often a hodge-podge collection of desires whose substance eludes our conscious grasp. Where there are internal contradictions in our value systems we have no choice but to compartmentalize our lives. Necessity demands it. If my values at work are different from my values at home, well that’s because I’d be a chump to bring those values to work. No one will take me seriously if I am unwilling to fire an incompetent employee despite my concerns for his family. But abandon my child? What kind of monster do you take me for?
In religion and politics, we are keenly aware the disparity between our moral standards for public officials versus the public itself. We demand from our officials the perfect exemplification of our own values that we cannot ourselves manage. When these officials find that they cannot exemplify their values especially well, much less ours, their options are limited: lose office or pretend. Well, if they already don’t meet our standards, then pretending might very well align with their compartmentalized values. If my integrity (a value of mine) would remove me from the possibility of contributing positively to society (another value of mine), then I simply have to accept the lesser of the two evils—each of which will violate my values somehow.
Part 3. The Resolution of the Crisis: Binary Moral Relativism
Good, Evil, and In-Between
The ubiquitous presence of values does not resolve the problem, but awareness of what these values are is certainly a step in the right direction. Laughably large lists of values suggest that they can come in all shapes and sizes and that you never know what kind of values you’ll find in any given person, but this is actually not the case. Ultimately, there are four sets of values: the values that everyone wants (sociopath or not), the values that the “moral” folk want, the values that the sociopaths want, and finally the values no one consciously wants (like disease or impotence). Although the “moral” folk will have certain disagreements both within themselves and among their ranks, the values they uphold are fairly consistent. In fact, these moralist-oriented values are more or less the same values enumerated in the gargantuan lists Google returns.
You probably consider the following values to be positive:
Now separate these values into two groups. In the first group, place the values that, in your opinion, an evil person can have. In the second group, place the rest. The first group are not moral values because both good and evil persons can have them; we call these “virtues.” The second group are moral values, and we can call them Good values. The groups ought to look something like this:
Repeat this process for negative values, identifying which negative traits do not detract from a person’s moral Goodness and which do. The first group are vices and the second are Evil values. So a list like this:
Splits roughly thus:
Your lists will probably look a little different because these words may signify different concepts to us, but the division between your lists ought to carry the same basic message: virtue and vice are a matter of human functionality; whereas Good and Evil are a matter of moral alignment. We can easily imagine a fully functional and not-crazy Evil person. We even have psychiatric names for them: psychopaths and sociopaths. These names imply that Evil is an illness, an unsurprising association considering that we do not typically make an effort to distinguish between genuine Evil and mere vice. This failure to distinguish between morality and functionality comes out readily when we say “She didn’t mean any harm by it,” or “I know his heart was in the right place, but it’s still fucked up.” We can be Good-natured but vicious (dysfunctional), just as we can be Evil-natured but virtuous (functional).
Values, then, are located at opposite poles along two separate axes. The first axis, the functionality axis, opposes the values everyone wants against the values no one wants, i.e. virtues and vices. Insofar as you unconsciously value a vice, you have a dysfunctional ethical system. Insofar as you value virtue, you have a functional ethical system. The second axis, the morality axis, opposes the values “moral” people want against the values sociopaths want.
A mere look at these four lists can only leave one startling conclusion: there are two and only two functional moral systems, and their values are in conflict. These two moral systems are traditionally named “Good” and “Evil.” It is incoherent, for example, to value generosity, forgiveness, and fairness, but not equality and gratitude. Similarly, it is incoherent to value contempt, dominance and greed, but not disgust and eliteness. Each of the values within a value quadrant implies the rest.
How do we define Good and Evil? The value quadrants indicate what we already know, even if we do not consciously recognize it. To be Good is to live and act with a genuine concern for the good of others according to them. A Good person treats every other individual as an end in herself and not means (to use Kant’s terms). She speaks Thou to each other individual and not It (to use Buber’s terms) We can always tell when someone genuinely wants to help versus when she just wants something from us, and we always feel uplifted when someone respects our freedom to decide what is good for us rather than approaching us with an agenda. For example, I always welcome advice that helps me clarify my options, but I rarely appreciate advice that tells me what to do. The attitude of Goodness is what the Golden Rule tries to capture.
Kant’s moral philosophy revolved around the Golden Rule (or the Categorical Imperative as he called it) and, as such, was meant to be a morality of the Good. Because it failed to offer moral options, however, Kantian ethics was ultimately another duty-based system. To his credit, he recognized within himself a genuine desire to abide by the Golden Rule, but his downfall was his lack if appreciation for the genuine human capacity for Evil. Bless his naive little heart. Because the Golden Rule was a deep and pure motive within him, Kant took it as a fundamental imperative for everyone. It didn’t take long for self-serving exceptions to his rule to emerge (“I will as a universal law of nature that everyone does what Joseph Dartez says”). What Kant was pointing to, though he didn’t know it, was not actually duty but desire; only when you desire the good of others without attending to the self’s gain does the Golden Rule become morally coherent. The Golden Rule, then, is merely a formulaic model that is meant to capture the essence of the Good alignment.
Evil is simply the opposite of Good. An Evil attitude is one that views all other individuals ultimately as servants to the Self, as opportunities to improve the Self’s position. To be Evil is to see others only as a means and to refuse to speak anything but It to them. The values in the Evil quadrant are all implied in this attitude as each of these values is geared toward raising up the Self at the cost of others.
While Randian Libertarianism may be a viable candidate for a coherent morality, its placement of good for self above good for other is the very definition of Evil, as the natural divide in values makes obvious. Even so, Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy is no more coherent than progressivism because her brand of libertarianism was a response to the evils she saw in progressivism. Like any individualist, she recognized that sacrificing the individual to the whole is a disservice to the individual, so she dreamed of a win-win situation. Because she associated both Evil and vice with the progressive agenda (classic characteristics of the Shadow Self), she saw the glory of the individual as the pinnacle of Good and virtue. Her vision of Utopia admitted characters who had I-It relationships (again, using Martin Buber’s terms) in which each saw the other as a means to an end. Her Utopia also admitted a self-organizing social structure which would necessarily depend upon the mutual appreciation and upliftment of characters toward each other. The incoherence of her vision is apparent: she imagines Evil Utopia for Individuals but Good Utopia for the society. Libertarians continue to uphold this vision without appreciating that transactional relationships are a direct impediment to the self-organizing Utopia they envision.
Only sociopaths consciously want to uphold the Evil values, but we all find ourselves drawn in some way toward values such as self-aggrandizement and control: we’re all a little sociopathic. Similarly, even though we know that the vices are dysfunctional to a healthy sense of self, we still embody them because the latent incoherence of our moral systems yields these vices as symptoms. Many of us become distraught by unattended inner conflicts while facing what looks like an impossible task of making the world “right,” (a task compounded by the inner conflicts we project into it), so we lose hope, seeking distraction and comfort as a means of bearing through a world that feels like a prison, both personally and socially. In this state of moral pessimism or vicious nihilism, we find ourselves refusing any positive expression of direction, preferring to “expect the worst” because “the world’s going to shit anyway.”
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The world has also played a trick on itself: wherever it finds the devil, it classifies it as either corrupt or insane. “There must be something wrong with someone who doesn’t have a conscience,” we tell ourselves. This story has but one effect, which is to sooth our minds so that we can sleep at night knowing that the devil isn’t real.
How often does a film depict villains who are not merely hiding a fundamental weakness? How often does a film depict heroes who do not rely on violence to ward off evil? Our cultural representations of Good and Evil betray our deep intuitions about these moral systems by rendering them both incoherent and weak. Mature audiences have begun to recognize this betrayal and prefer fictional works that reach for the morally confused complexity of the human experience rather than clear Archetypal description of the moral binary. In our preference for subtlety and our rejection of moral stereotypes, we slip into the mistaken attitude that there can be no clear distinction between the Good and Evil. But if Good and Evil cannot be clearly distinguished, then why are Good and Evil values so easy to separate? Indeed, we have ceased to believe that it is possible to approach purity in either Good or Evil, preferring to remain within the safe and uneventful designated area between the poles of Good and Evil, the space where the two blend into countless incoherent moral schemes. We look upon Good and Evil as cartoon pictures without recognizing the price we pay for shutting out the possibility of moral purity.
Though undeniably useful, values miss the point of morality because when value clusters are maximally coherent, they only admit two basic outlooks. The point of morality, then, is that there are only two coherent moral perspectives, so anyone who lies between is simply in an incoherent moral state. Interestingly, only in the chasm between the moral poles is it possible to hold dysfunctional values, so to be a fully functional human being requires that we choose a moral alignment.
The inevitable knot of guilt that arises in an absolutist system prevents us from reaching the Promised Land because it employs evil values in an effort to achieve virtues and good values. That is, we want ourselves to be more loving and generous, more confident and productive, but often the methods we use upon both ourselves and others rely upon manipulation and disgust, addiction and dishonesty. When we lie to ourselves, control ourselves, berate ourselves and betray ourselves all for the sake of doing the “right” thing, we prevent ourselves from moving in any functional direction. When faced with the knot of guilt, do we not respond with goodness and virtue, but with an incoherent blend of virtues, vices, good and evil. These relationships can be easily accounted for in a binary system (i.e. Good/Evil) that is also relativistic (subjective right and wrong).
The Moral Gyroscope and the Dynamics of Morality
Morality is more like a gyroscope than a compass. Implicit in the notion of a moral compass is that there is only one “right” direction (north), but a gyroscope has a north and a south, each of which is equally stable. We feel pulled toward virtue (i.e. a healthy body, a sound mind, and a vibrant spirit), but this gravity leads inexorably to moral coherence sooner or later. The closer we are to moral coherence, the more virtuous we become, but moral coherence can be either positive (Good) or negative (Evil).
A compass is static, moving only in response to a force, but a gyroscope is always moving. Our states of consciousness are not static. Emotions flow in and through us at all times (we often call them “moods”) and we find ourselves acting in surprising ways “in the heat of the moment.” Our thought patterns change depending on location and time of day. The moral self, then, is always in motion and this motion encircles the direction we intend to move: path to Utopia.
A gyroscope is stable even when it is not spinning straight on its axis. Most of us are neither purely Good nor purely Evil. Our moral gyroscopes spin at an angle and as they spin, the top of the gyroscope sweeps a circular path rather than pointing to a straight path. By analogy, our moral impurity or moral incoherence (the two are synonymous) determines the angle at which our moral gyroscopes deviate from moral north or south. Because our moral gyroscopes deviate from moral north or south, our vision of Utopia is unfocused and distorted. We trace a circle around Utopia but do not actually find it. We are unconsciously aware that this is happening, so we experience cultural nightmares of dystopias manifesting in literature, music and film.
Our gyroscopes fluctuate in their precessional spin, oscillating up and down in a range. We do not manifest the same degree of virtue at all times. Our consciousnesses occupy a range of moral experience whose limits are the limits of our ability to conceive the mental environment in which a moral act is possible. I call this the Threshold of Awareness. Whatever lies beyond this threshold is indistinguishable from insanity because we cannot fathom what it feels like to occupy that state of consciousness. Whenever we say to ourselves, “I don’t know if he is just that evil or just that crazy,” or “she’s either a saint or a nut,” we are identifying a moral states that lies beyond our upper and lower Thresholds of Awareness. The only way to extend the Threshold of Awareness is to experience a mental state that was previously beyond the threshold—typically a “mystical experience.”
The Threshold of Awareness, however, does not accurately identify our own range of moral action; it only identifies the range of moral action that we can conceive. Within the bounds of the upper and lower Thresholds we find ourselves moving within a range that I call the Tolerance of Desire. These are the upper and lower limits of the moral desires we experience strongly enough to act upon, be they Good or Evil. I call it a tolerance because these are the limits of your ability to tolerate moral action. There are many ways to change the tolerance of desire, one of which is to consciously violate it. This, however, typically only lowers the Tolerance of Evil Desire. The easiest way to raise the Tolerance of Good Desire is to allow yourself to be more vulnerable in front of others. The following image has Thresholds and Tolerances assigned arbitrarily. In reality, of course, these limits are different for each person.
We all occupy an average position on our inner moral gyroscopes, and this position will be between the two Tolerances of Desire. I call this average position the Locus of Awareness. The Locus of Awareness identifies the actual direction in which our mythic vessel is moving, though the perceived direction is almost always due north: toward pure good, for the Architecture impels us in the direction of virtue. However, insofar as we adopt and implement incoherent mythic vessels for the purpose of seeking the Promised Land, we prevent ourselves from finding the Promised Land. If the incoherent ship we are sailing upon does actually reach a shore, we will find ourselves stepping into a Dystopia rather than the Utopia we thought we were targeting.
The major impediment that prevents us from recognizing that we’re heading for the wrong shore is the Shadow. The Shadow always occupies a mirror position on the moral gyroscope: the Shadow’s vices are the exact opposite of your vices. Because we are always attempting to separate and contrast ourselves from the Shadow, we perceive ourselves as virtuous rather than merely vicious in an opposite way. Hence, a Spinster’s Shadow is a Tease; compared to the Tease the Spinster sees herself as virtuous. Similarly, a Player’s Shadow is a Nice Guy, in whom the Player identifies vices he does not have (if these roles are not familiar to you, then please read Attraction: The Suitor and the Débutante). Because we incorrectly relegate both evil and vice to the Shadow, we prevent ourselves from seeing our own vices and moral incoherence. This mistake persists even when we—faithful to the movement of the gyroscope—switch places with the Shadow, as when a Nice Guy who is tired of not getting the girl switches to the Player, whom he had previously thought of as an asshole. In doing so, we allow the Shadow to anchor us in our Locus of Awareness, preventing us from moving closer to virtue and coherence.
The Shadow’s anchor reveals itself most readily in the “necessary evils” we consciously accept in order to continue our crusade against the Shadow. The Anchor of Necessary Evil is easiest to locate in politics, where progressives and conservatives alike will regularly violate their own moral systems for the sake of beating out the opposition. On those rare occasions when we discover that the Shadow is no better or worse than we are, we no longer need to rely on vice to beat him out, so the anchor lifts and the Locus of Awareness rises (or lowers).
Because there are two viable directions of motion, there are two possible Utopias. I call them “Harmonic Utopia” and “Hierarchic Utopia.” Each is a pure manifestation of coherent moral values at work in a society. In a Good society, there is no authoritative hierarchy, but rather an organic desire for each to do what she is best at and enjoys the most. The love and respect that each has for each other stabilizes the Harmonic Utopia, while the diversity of skill and talent self-organizes it. Although Harmonic Utopia may have a hierarchy, it is a hierarchy in which leaders are followed out of respect and admiration, not coercion. In an Evil society, there is no room for reliance upon others. Each must be self-sufficient and capable of throwing his weight around when necessary. Authoritarian hierarchy is an absolute necessity and the only way to change the chain of command is to successfully overpower a superior. We see these kinds of interactions at play in international politics and war between hostile nations.
The Guiding Light and the Hard Truth
If Nietzsche was incorrect about Good and Evil but correct about right, we have on our hands both a hard truth and a guiding light. The guiding light of binary moral relativism is this: if we do what feels right, trusting that we will find virtue therein, we will almost surely find that virtue since we will no longer need to hide our desires for the sake of accomplishing our duty. What sets the binary moral relativist apart from the Nietzschean moral relativist is that the binary relativist trusts that his genuine desires lead inexorably toward virtue and coherence. Because both the moral absolutist and the Nietzschean moral relativist imagine that gluttony and hedonism are the end result of moral relativism, that is exactly what they find. Unless we are looking for a path, we will never notice that there is one—or two.
The hard truth of binary moral relativism, however, is that Evil must be treated as viable. Whereas Nietzschean moral relativists reject the very existence of a moral binary (even Nietzsche himself sought only virtues and not values) and moral absolutists reject the viability of Evil as an acceptable direction, binary moral relativists must be willing to discover themselves to value Evil over Good in order to actually choose one or the other. The only way to avoid the knot of guilt is to accept the very real possibility that you prefer power and dominance to acceptance and equality. You must be willing to become a sociopath. Only in the space of complete moral freedom can we allow ourselves to become truly ourselves, trusting that this authentic self has a reserve of infinite virtue and goodness (or evilness).
In allowing ourselves to be as we are and to act upon our desires within the confines of pragmatism (who, after all, wants to be imprisoned?), we can discover for ourselves whether we actually are greedy and power-hungry, or whether we actually are loving and generous. When we have faced within ourselves the strongholds of good and evil, dissolving internal conflict with each new experience and confirming internal coherence with each dissolution, then we discover ourselves capable of turning our attention outward into the world, where the Crisis of Direction reiterates itself upon a far grander scale. If we see Evil as wrong, then we will always be hiding from it, both in ourselves and in our institutions. “It is wrong and cannot be suffered,” we say about the Evil we find. We then lie to ourselves and we require that our institutions lie to us also so that we may sleep more peacefully in our trust that the world means well. Only once we discover first-person the look and feel of Good and Evil, virtue and vice, can we pierce the naivety, deception, and incoherence latent in so many of our institutions whose very motives have begun to resemble the sociopathic more than the altruistic. Only once we have achieved moral stability within ourselves will we find the energy and enthusiasm to collaborate toward moral stability within our social structures.
When given the freedom to trust our desires, to find virtue within ourselves as we are, our unconscious selves become fertile ground for cultivating ever more virtue, and what appears as duty to others becomes a passion for us. This is how we resolve the Crisis of Direction.
We Have Always Had Direction
The world as it exists today has grown naturally from the ingredients with which it was seeded: stable environmental conditions, a robust living ecosystem, and an adventurous but adaptable species (us). From these elements, the natural result was the world we see today. All the crises we now witness were grown from the natural elements seeded upon this planet. If we deny this story, then humans—exactly as they are—are not allowed entry into mother nature. We are an alien species.
If, on the other hand, we accept this story, then humans—exactly as they are—are acceptable and virtuous and right, despite their current illness and malady. We are not bad or a plague; rather, we are sick with internal conflict whose resolution has not yet come.
This experiment was not for nothing. We did not pillage and plunder the world and each other for no reason. We had to know what it felt like to truly abuse ourselves and our world before we could purely choose to love and heal it—or continue abusing it if that is where our hearts lie.