Ethics That Don’t Suck

Part One

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For those of you who’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll probably not be surprised to hear that I spend a lot of time thinking about modern morality. If you haven’t been following along but still want to be one of the cool kids, you can check out this or this or this or, if you’re feeling super adventurous, this.

In short, I think that in the modern West the competing moral systems basically boil down to formal Christians struggling against ethical Christians. (You can make a very similar comparison in East Asia between formal and ethical Confucians, incidentally.) Considering I just made those terms up, it’s probably best if we take a paragraph or four to unpack the concepts.

So let’s start with the formal Christians.  These are the people most likely to actually identify as Christians. These are the folks who value prayer, going to church and family values. A formal Christian sees the inherent value in smiting the wicked and upholding traditions. These are the partisans of order, of calm, of fighting back against the “fetishists of self-loathing” you’ll find teaching humanities classes at American universities and the “unwashed heathens” protesting in front of your local investment bank.

The symbols and forms of Christianity as used by people who are absolutely not poor fishermen.

The formal Christian’s strengths are an innate regard for self and the belief that power is good. Almost anything you see will have been built by formal Christians, the cars and museums and the empires will all have sprung from people of the establishment. Indeed the formal Christian’s primary ethical belief is that “I am good and the things associated with me are good.”

I call these people formal Christians because they are about symbols and rituals. They are the sort of establishment Christians that only became possible in the shadow of Emperor Constantine. They are the Christians who wear power suits and guild the cross. The formal aspects of Christianity, that is to say, the symbols, have more or less completely replaced Jesus’ and the Apostle Paul’s early Christian ethics, which brings us to  the ethical Christians.

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That the strong might know the suffering of the weak.

The ethical Christian opposes the formal Christian in a fashion nearly identical to the way early Christians opposed Roman paganism. The ethical Christian, just like Christ, sees little but corruption and rot in the established powers. The ethical Christian, just like Paul, hates his natural desire for domination, despises the instinct for status, opposes the animal’s drive for violence. The formal Christian, filled with guilt and shame, turns her pity towards the poor and outcast and strange. She raises her fists to heaven and burns at the injustice of it all. The ethical Christian says of himself “I’m the 99%,” he opposes “the man” and worships at the altars and shrines of the gloriously martyred.

Where the formal Christian builds the ethical Christian tears down. Imperialism fell at the hands of ethical Christians, as did the Tzars, Jim Crow and the unbelievers destroyed by ISIS. Wherever you see power challenged and the mighty humbled, you will find ethical Christians.

Where the formal Christian bases his ethics on the belief in his own innate goodness, the ethical Christian basically despises her anti-social desires. Where the formal Christian believes in her place among a glorious lineage, the ethical Christian believes in nothing so much as the need for rebirth.

It has perhaps not escaped your notice that the ethical Christian is very unlikely to call himself a Christian. Indeed, I would nominate Karl Marx and Richard Dawkins as some of the most representative ethical Christians of the last couple centuries. However, while these people go to great lengths to reject the forms of Christianity, the crosses and prayers and family values, they cling to the practical ethics of Christ like barnacles to a rusty tanker.
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Why Jesus has nothing to do with formal Christians but everything to do with Marx: “Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh. Blessed are ye when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in Heaven; for in like manner did their fathers unto the prophets. But woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full, for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now, for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” Luke 6:20-26 

This brings me to an examination of empire and the ways both types of Christian interact with greatness. Empires all fall. It doesn’t matter how much they build, how glorious their achievements or how clever their founders. Rome still burns, Alexander still dies, the Khans still can’t hold it together. Why?

Shouldn’t these glorious things, possessed of all imaginable advantages, persist against those whom they’ve vanquished? Perhaps it is luck, perhaps holding an empire together is just really hard and given enough shots, a weaker opponent will eventually get lucky. I’m sure this is part of the reason, but I don’t think it’s all. I think these empires committed suicide.

Some died in ways you’d expect from the formal Christians. The rulers of the late Roman Empire, for example, believed in their own goodness so much that they thought it was simply inevitable that they and their progeny would maintain power no matter what. They were just so damned cool that they could pass their property on to their kids, they could shuffle off dirty work like soldiering and administering onto mercenaries and plebeians – people with no hope of advancement within the establishment. After all, they were so good it’s just kind of inevitable they and their progeny would continue to reign in perpetuity.

They were what I call “inevitably superior.” They were not superior because they defeated the Gauls in single combat, they were not superior because they’d invented the phalanx and they were not superior because they’d subdued the steppe tribes – they were superior just because … well, umm … reasons and stuff.

Imagine this dynamic as it appears in a romance novel or princess story. Whether we’re talking about Jasmine or Elsa or Pocahontas, everybody in the story agrees that the princess just automatically deserves to be adored, deserves to be listened to and deserves deference. These stories are so popular because they represent the fulfillment of a fantasy where you, the audience, gets to imagine just being that princess. No hard work, no overcoming, no risk – you are simply rewarded for existing. Whenever you find a social structure with multi-generational dynasties – I’m looking at you House of Windsor, House of Bush and House of Park – you are seeing this wish-fulfillment princess story taken literally.

The problem with the inevitable superiority fantasy is that people aren’t automatically special, regardless of from which sacred womb they emerge. Being the daughter of a great man doesn’t make you destined for greatness, it doesn’t make you anything except very likely inferior to your dad.

The other problem is that human beings are products of their histories. If your history includes doing awesome things because you had to climb the social ladder, you are going to be well prepared to continue doing awesome things when you achieve power. There is no reason to doubt Julius Caesar’s competence, for example. If your history is just basically being born, the probability you can do anything useful is just a crap-shoot. We have no idea if Chelsea Clinton would be a good president because she’s not built up the history of earning power.

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But “useless” is such a strong word.

And thus these formal Christians, these believers in the inevitable superiority fantasy, tend to grow weaker with each generation. The great conqueror gives way to a pretty good son who participated in the conquest. He gives way to a bumbling but well meaning grandson who is pretty good at hunting who then gives way to a great grandson who’s greatest skill is tormenting the concubines. Raise your hand if you’ve heard this story before.

If we’re lucky, this just collapses in on itself. The (mercifully) impotent British waste of tax money royal family is probably the best case scenario. If we’re not lucky, the dynastic classes decide that the best way to ensure the safety of their inevitable superiority fantasy is to kill off all the people who have, you know, actual ability.  The literati purges from 16th century Korea, the White Terror in Falangist Spain or the fenshu kengru of Qin Dynasty China are examples of this in action.

Even this, though, is better than what happens to empires controlled by the resentful, the self-hating, the ethically Christian. The ethically Christian, driven by resentment towards the powerful, are at once driven to tear down the edifices that oppress them and unable to build anything new. Death comes swiftly at their hands as they kill the mighty, destroy the structures and lay low the institutions. They are the Arab Spring, they are the French Revolution, they are freed slaves in Libya and they are the Bolsheviks before the Bolsheviks became the new establishment.

Being driven by a horror-of-self, the ethical Christian is essentially reactionary – their decisions are always in reference to something the formal Christian has already done. The ethical Christians can destroy that which corrupts but destruction is all they can do. They can murder Qaddafi but they can’t govern at all. They can wipe out the Bourbons but they can’t reconcile with other revolutionaries of even slightly different world-view. They can throw off the masters, but they can create no alternative to slavery. Ethical Christians are the social equivalent of wild fires or earthquakes.

This all brings me to a problem. I’m really sick of Christian ethics. I’m tired of the corruption and decadence of formal Christians who think they and their progeny can do no wrong. Self-hating ethical Christians, wallowing in pity and nihilism, kind of make me want to vomit. There’s got to be a better way.

Part Two

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A friend on Facebook recently posted a Fox News video about “liberal agitators” at a Trump rally. Being that this was from Fox News, the agitators they chose to show were not particularly articulate. I was milliseconds away from forgetting all about it until I saw this comment beneath the video:

“They’re being paid to protest.”

I seriously doubt that’s true, but for the sake of the ethical analysis I hope to carry out, let’s just assume a shadowy cabal is paying inarticulate protesters to harass Trump rallies. In the formal Christian analysis, I hope to show that such an action is morally wrong. In the ethical Christian analysis, I think we will also find that clandestine payments to anti-Trump protesters is wrong. In my proposed alternative moral system, well, you’ll just have to wait to the end of the article.

So let’s begin with the formal Christians. As I conceptualized them in the previous “Beyond Christianity” article, the formal Christian’s ethics are based on two assumptions – “I am good” and “I am part of the establishment.” The formal Christian, upon discovering the shadowy anti-Trump cabal must necessarily condemn the payments.

After all, such underhanded techniques undermine lawfulness and our traditional values about open discourse. These payments represent an attempt to corrupt our tradition of democratic elections and they are dishonest. We can join hands, walk across our lawns and denounce the shadowy cabal for corruption, lies and lawlessness.

Unfortunately, any new or better group of people wanting to reform our cherished establishment are necessarily going to be outside our traditions and laws. Since the formal Christian is good and part of the establishment, the new or better group is necessarily evil from the formal Christian’s point of view. This makes our moral analysis a bit of an extermination campaign against progress.

There’s also the problem of what we do with this analysis. I suppose we can attempt to suppress the cabal in the hopes of vanquishing dishonest politics forevermore, however unlikely that seems to succeed and however likely that project seems to spell doom for the forces of progress.

The ethical Christian will also condemn secretly paying protesters, but for different reasons. The cabal’s paying protesters, the ethical Christian will point out, is an attempt to thwart the will of the oppressed (and therefore good) normal people by the powerful (and therefore bad) cabal. By allowing rich (and therefore bad) groups to influence elections and campaigns, the cabal is institutionalizing structures of injustice and oppression.

Once again, what we do with this analysis is a puzzling question. Suppression again, I guess? The problem there, in addition to the fact that suppression is awfully hard to accomplish, is that in order to suppress the powerful (and thus bad), the ethical Christian must become powerful (and thus bad) enough to overthrow the original villain. Any successful suppression of evil, therefore, will involve the creation of a new bad guy. I don’t know how to escape this cycle except to have the hero commit suicide or otherwise die at the moment of triumph, which seems a bit impractical. It also seems like that best case scenario creates a power vacuum.

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The first step in my proposed alternative is to take all your notions of justice and stuff them in the nearest recycling bin. Heroes and villains do not exist in this realm, at least not in the forms commonly recognized. Good and bad are still things, but we no longer believe in evil and condemnation is a waste of time. We are officially uninterested in moralizing of any type.

This probably sounds like moral nihilism or amorality and, in a sense, I can see why you’d think so. Indeed, this project began when I was a moral nihilist because I wanted to avoid the problems previously mentioned regarding ethical and formal Christianity. That said, nihilism can’t distinguish any good from any bad and thus falls apart when we try to use it as a moral system.

How then to get away from moralizing without slipping into nihilism and nothingness? My proposed solution takes two roads, reducing moral values to their absolute minimal states and emphasizing consequentialism over moral intentions.

First, the reduction of moral values. I don’t include freedoms in my list of essential good things because it is perfectly possible for conscious beings to live without freedom. I likewise don’t include equality, humility, charity, generosity or fairness in the essential goods because, like freedom, people can, do and have survived without them.

This is not to say I would recommend you become a tyrannical, elitist, arrogant, selfish and arbitrary jerkass, but simply that I reject most traditional values as universally good. Freedom, charity etc would, for me, slot into an inferior category of contextual goods. By this I mean that it is often good to live in a state of freedom, but not always and not in all contexts. 

The higher categories of absolute goods and absolute bads would include only four things. The absolute goods are continued existence and the imposition of meaning on reality. The absolute bads are extinction and meaninglessness. Why? Because without existence we cannot have meaning and without meaning existence is barren.

(I do think there is a hierarchy of existences and meanings, but I’ll get to them in another essay.)

You will perhaps notice that this morality is consequentialist.  Hindsight is 20/20, you might say. I really don’t have an answer to this other than to admit I’m guilty as charged. However, I can counter by saying that in our day to day lives, we are generally isolated from intentions but we are never isolated from outcomes. Getting a paycheck from a person who intended to defraud me but failed is every bit as useful as getting a paycheck from someone who is wholeheartedly devoted to my happiness.

This is not to say intentions don’t matter, and indeed, my likelihood of getting next months pay check are better if my boss is good-intentioned, but it is to say we are ultimately judged by outcomes and that, as such, outcomes are the ultimate arbiter of good and bad.

A necessary consequence of this outcome-focused morality is to admit that, when we perform an action, we can’t actually know if it is good or bad at the time. We can estimate the probabilities of our actions being good or bad, but we can never be certain. I’d be lying if I said this bothers me very much, but perhaps greater minds than my own will find what I’d consider unavoidable ethical uncertainty objectionable.

So, let’s go back to the cabal that keeps sending paid protesters to Donald Trump rallies. Dishonesty is no longer necessarily bad, so we can’t automatically cry foul just because the cabal is playing tricks. Being strong or manipulating the people is, likewise, no longer automatically a bad thing so we’ve successfully escaped the realm of Christian ethics, whether those Christians be of the formal or ethical flavors.

Since our absolute goods are simply continued existence and meaning and we can’t know if we’re being good or bad in the moment, our ethical analysis of the cabal reduces to a matter of estimating probability.

Does Donald Trump winning the election seem good for our continued existence and our continued ability to impose meaning on reality? This answers is of course hugely dependent on context but, if we estimate that the answer is yes, Trump is “good,” we must next decide if the cabal’s action is likely to hurt Trump, and thus be “bad.”

If, on the other hand, we estimate that Trump winning the election is bad for our abilities to exist and impose meaning, we must then estimate if the cabal’s actions are likely to stop Trump and thus become “good.”

My personal analysis would come down to something like this: Trump is unlikely to be “good” if he becomes president, though he could be “good” in any number of other contexts. However, the cabal’s actions are so likely to backfire that they will probably end up helping Trump. As such, Trump is bad and so is the cabal.

It seems to me this system of morality avoids most of the previously mentioned problems. This analysis also seems likely to be much more useful to the cabal, to Trump supporters and to Trump opponents than either of the Christian analyses. This is because it leads naturally away from moralizing and naturally toward cool-headed analysis.

Almost nothing is inevitably good, including the formal Christians, and almost nothing is inevitably bad, including the powerful who so bother the ethical Christians. Context triumphs over absolutism in all cases except where existence ends.

Part Three

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I recently asked a group of writers how I could write a convincing homophobic character who is himself a closeted gay. Since I’m a novelist asking this question to a group advertising itself as a resource for writers, it seemed to me a pretty reasonable question. I didn’t get anything useful for character development, but I did get some great examples of why I think we need to overhaul ethics.

The answers I got were, I think, excellent for killing thought, killing discourse and making it much harder to accomplish anything. They were perfidious and reprehensible and only possible because the writers believed in sacred moral values that were not continued existence and the imposition of meaning on reality.

I found it so frustrating because there was basically no attempt to understand why a person would be homophobic, in spite of the fact that around half of all known cultures are homophobic. Instead I got a morality lesson on why homophobia is bad.

“Homophobia isn’t about hate, it’s about power (control over resources). Like racism, homophobia is a structural system of disadvantages that benefits heterosexual people (whether they like it or not, agree with it or not). These disadvantages are political, economic, cultural, and even linguistic. Like racism, homophobia can inform (Eurocentric) scientific consensus. Because scientists and philosophers and the like are people, they can be biased and (Eurocentric) scientific consensus is therefore subject to the same bias.When someone says something homophobic, they’re using their power against you, reminding you that you are inferior, that you hold less power (and violence is a resource); or they’re relegating you to an inferior position in their own minds (calling you the f-word even if you’re straight, for example).”

The analysis here comes down to, basically, this formulation:

Homophobia is European. European is power. Power is bad.

The sheer scale of problems with this “analysis” are staggering. I mean I agree that homophobia is undesirable in modern society but come on, at least try to make sense.

First, there’s the fact that contemporary homophobia is most prevalent in Africa and Jamaica, neither of which are commonly confused for being European or powerful. But imperialism, you say? Well yes, this is an excellent argument if you believe the “primitive” locals are so stupid they are incapable of formulating or even changing their own values decades after the last imperialist went home.

Then there’s the wildly counter-intuitive and completely unsupported argument that power is bad. Power is the ability to do things. Obviously people who can do more things have a larger amplitude to the the good and bad things they do. That said, as someone who has lived in the ghetto and read history, I can assure you there’s no reason to assume someone is good simply because they come from a disadvantaged background.

Then there’s the implied belief that victims are inevitably helpless, which I think is a wildly dis-empowering belief for a poor person, an oppressed minority or a victim of attacks to have. It’s dripping with pity and condescension. It absolutely reeks with fake empathy and smugly smiling as you think “how deliciously low are they.” The single most humiliating part of my time in the ghetto was the way people like the writer above assumed helplessness. It was and is my sincerest desire to vigorously backhand the people who thought me inevitably lowly and pitiable.

(By the way, my white liberal friends, the paragraph above might go some distance toward explaining why black voters don’t like your guy Sanders.)  

And even if this analysis made sense, so what? How the hell are you supposed to overcome an enemy or oppressor if your analysis of their thinking boils down to “they are bad?” How are you to discover and take advantage of the homophobe’s motives if you think he’s a cartoon villain? How are you to understand the history of homophobia if it’s just something bad people do?

Another writer added this:

“If there existed rational reasons to oppose things like gay marriage, or even just the existence of gay people on general, you’d probably have heard them by now … Now, if you want to put some historical analysis into what structural factors might have perhaps been relevant to the prevalence (or lack thereof) of homophobia in your setting, that’s perfectly fine and I support that 100%. The attempt shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of the beliefs of the author or as some implicit endorsement of homophobic opinions.”

In other words, it’s okay to pretend to understand homophobes so long as we all agree to never question our predetermined conclusions and agree that the homophobe is always irrational. I have a hard time understanding how an opinion not subject to revision could be taken seriously, but maybe that’s just me. Being even a little bit intellectually honest, to me, means that you put your beliefs at jeopardy, even if it is scary.

What is this infatuation with sacred, unassailable conclusions? Why must the homophobes be evil? Why must the imperialists be evil? Why must we assign a good or evil tag to these things at all?

I ask because I’ve never met an evil person. I’ve never met anyone committed to pain or suffering. I’ve never met an omnicidal maniac. I’ve never come across anyone who even vaguely reminded me of Snidely Whiplash or Sauron.

I’ve met at least two child molesters, one of whom was my PE teacher in elementary school. Looking for “evil” in this guy offered exactly zero predictive power about his actions. He did not twirl his mustache, but he did charm parents with his strict belief in discipline. He never let out any evil laughter, but he did push students to overcome their fears. He never expressed admiration for Satan, but he did  preach self-sufficiency. It was precisely because he wasn’t evil that he had such easy access to that little girl when I was in the fifth grade.

I’ve been on friendly terms with white supremacists, pimps, a woman who took child abuse to unspeakable heights, methamphetamine dealers  and a guy who would later take out a family of four during a murder suicide. My overriding, overwhelming impression of these people was a deep and pervasive normalcy. They were people who wanted love and money and to be recognized. Their hatreds did not spring from pacts with the devil or midnight orgies or smearing themselves with the blood of virgins – they came almost exclusively from relatable, understandable environmental factors.

And this is why I want to strip the absolutist values of morality to the minimum. Because every time I decide the homophobes are evil, I cease to understand them. Every time I expect the pedophile to cackle maniacally I open my community to victimization. Every time  I denounce Osama bin Laden for his evil, freedom-hating ways I am walking into a situation (or War on Terror) that I don’t understand.

So, when I think back to those writers giving me unhelpful advice, I wonder if they might not do a better job opposing homophobia if they stopped condemning it and took the time to understand it.

Continued existence and meaning are the only two logical necessities for a moral system. If you think there is value in knowing your enemy or knowing yourself, I really recommend against taking the rest of the moral stuff too seriously.

 

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