May 25 (Thursday)

The Foundation of a Whole Person
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Introduction

If you’re exploring the Politix 101 series, the last article you read introduced you to your political compass. In this article, we’ll sprout wings and search for our moral compass.

Morality Word Cloud

I like to tell people that politics is very logical and relatively easy to understand, similar to math or science. Unfortunately, I have to backtrack a bit when tackling psychology (which some people regard as a pseudoscience) and propaganda. (How scientific can a lie be?) Somewhere between psychology and lying is a thing called morality, which is at the center of a tug of war between philosophy, religion and science.

The problem could have been neatly solved by simply omitting morality and ethics from this series. But if there was no such thing as morality, we couldn’t recognize virtue, evil or corruption. That would be like erasing heroes like Spartacus, Crazy Horse, Che Guevara, Muammar Gaddafi and Malcolm X from our memory. Likewise, monsters like Vlad the Impaler, George W. Bush, Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu might be regarded as pretty normal people.

Simply memorizing facts might qualify you as a political expert, but you cannot be a whole person without a well developed moral code. In fact, you may find morality rather intriguing. I’ll bet you can’t get past the list of 20 Moral Compass Questions without scratching your head. Besides, you don’t have to read the entire article in one sitting.

So fasten your seat belt as we venture into the Morality Zone...

Morality Zone

What is morality?

The term morality can be defined as beliefs about what is right or correct (i.e. “good”) behavior and what is wrong (i.e. “bad”) behavior. By extension, it can be applied to intentions, decisions and actions. For example, we could say...

Their concept of morality was based on a reverence for three spiritual entities — Earth, Water and Sky.

Morality can also describe the degree to which something is right and good...

A virtual fountain of morality, he seemed destined for sainthood.

Though morality embraces both good and bad, it typically has a connotation of goodness. In this spirit, the opposite of morality is immorality — bad or evil beliefs, behavior or conduct. A person who has no sense of morality at all can be said to be amoral, without morals.

Ethics

Many philosophers make no distinction between philosophy and ethics. However, non-philosophers tend to view morality as what one might loosely describe as “the supreme law” (even if we don’t have a perfect understanding of it) and ethics as a more specific moral code. Ethics can also be thought of as a discipline dealing with the concepts of good and bad (or right and wrong), along with moral duty and obligation

Various cultures, groups and organizations have unique ethical codes. Even lawyers and gangsters have ethical codes (which can also be called moral codes).

People who think it’s all about morality are preaching emotivism, while those who think ethics are all that matter preach relativism.

One nearly universal ethic is known as the Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity. It says one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. Conversely, one should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated oneself.

Questioning Morality

We’ve defined morality, but do you really understand what it is?

Many people have a frankly twisted moral code. This is due largely to the fact that most people are intellectually lazy and let other people determine their morals. And when you let other people form your opinions, you’re opening the door to a flood of propaganda.

To put it in perspective, take a glance at the twenty questions below. Can you answer all of them in two minutes, or are there a few that make you stop and scratch your head?

20 Moral Compass Questions

1. If morality is a good thing, why do evil people always seem to have all the power? Wouldn’t it make more sense to be an evil white settler than to be an innocent Native American destined to be killed by white settlers?
2. Speaking of Native Americans, was it OK to steal their land when, as many people have observed, they weren’t doing anything to improve it?
3. Under what conditions is it OK for a person to kill another person?
4. How many different kinds of situations can you describe where you would kill someone?
5. Is it moral to call bad people names, or is civility more important than accountability?
6. If you buy something from a corrupt corporation, like Microsoft, does that make you a bad person?
7. Are people who work for Microsoft or other corrupt corporations bad?
8. Can apathetic people who don’t vote be described as bad?
9. Is cruelty to animals a bad thing?
10. If your answer to the last question is YES, how do you feel about people who eat chickens that spend virtually their entire lives penned up?
11. Are aboriginal peoples who have to hunt to survive evil?
12. Is hate a bad thing?
13. Can forgiveness be a bad thing?
14. Is it OK to lie to someone who lies to you or cheat someone who cheats you?
15. Is it OK to torture people?
16. If your answer to the last question is NO, then how do you feel about sentencing people to long prison terms, which can easily qualify as a form of torture? What about inmates in U.S. prisons who spend much of their lives in solitary confinement?
17. If a CIA agent tortures innocent Muslims, and you punish the CIA agent by torturing him, does that make you just as evil as the CIA agent?
18. Is it OK to commit suicide?
19. Who was more evil, Adolf Hitler or U.S. President Jackson, an Indian fighter who owned slaves?
20. Are humans free moral agents, truly capable of making good and bad choices, or are we nothing more than cosmic puppets controlled by destiny, God or some other higher power?

Confession: I don’t have answers to all those questions myself. But merely pondering such questions can make you a little smarter.

Who owns morality?

Morality is popularly associated with philosophy and religion. In fact, some people believe morality cannot exist without religion. More precisely, they believe it can’t exist without some kind of god or gods.

But other people argue just the opposite: Religion, with its emphasis on blind faith and dogma, is actually an impediment to understanding morality. (Think of the millions of people who have been killed in the name of religion.)

Some argue that science is in fact a rational basis for understanding morality. After all, sound moral decisions are dependent on reason and information (i.e. facts). Logic is the language of scientists and philosophers, while most major religions are based on “blind faith.”

If you can spare about 37 minutes, please watch both videos below. The first video, Morality: Good without gods, argues that “Education, especially in science, is crucial to moral progress.” In the second video (Science Can Answer Moral Questions), Sam Harris (an author, philosopher and neuroscientist) argues that “[Moral] values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.”

Both videos are well worth your time, but there’s a catch. Harris take several potshots at Muslims while saying nothing critical about Jewarchy (Jewish corruption). A little research reveals that Harris is Jewish. Harris thus appears to be an example of “controlled opposition” (i.e. a propagandist). Yet his talk is still very educational and even inspirational if you just ignore his racist propaganda.

The Origin of Morality

Since we humans are animals, let’s see if we can figure out a biological explanation for morality.

Animal Morality?

Many animals care for their young and their mates. They may groom each other and bring each other food. Some animals will sacrifice their lives to protect their families. Some animals will even help other species.

Animals also follow rules or rituals when playing with or fighting members of the same species, rules that typically appear to be designed to prevent them from hurting each other too badly. In other words, some animals apparently have codes of behavior. But does this qualify as morality?

Human Morality

Even if some non-human animals do have a sense of morality, most people would probably assume that humans have a far more advanced sense of morality. There are at least three basic reasons for our presumed moral superiority.

1. Humans are more intelligent and can therefore better understand the concept of morality.
2. Humans have the luxury of engaging in science and philosophy and exploring morality. Most animals are too busy trying to survive to spend much time pondering morality, even if they could understand it.
3. Overpopulation and ever advancing technology puts enormous pressure on humans, motivating us to create and refine ethical codes suited to our unique situation.

But is human morality really something special, or is it just some instinct that we’ve put on a throne?

Instinct or not, the obvious similarities between some human ethical conduct and animal behaviors allow us to speculate that morality might have some survival value. We might further speculate that that survival value is nixed when people allow their moral values to be dictated by political and religious propaganda.

For example, the Bible’s dictate that people should “be fruitful” and “subdue” the earth might have sounded sensible a thousand years ago, but it has become a global nightmare. We really can’t subdue the earth without subduing ourselves, similar to a man sawing off the branch he’s standing on. And do we really want people to continue multiplying like rabbits?

Selfish Morality?

Generosity is generally regarded as a moral virtue. Yet morality may ironically be largely linked to the so-called “selfish gene,” a euphemism for an innate instinct to perpetuate one’s genetic lineage. By extension, most species instinctively behave in a manner that ensures the survival not just of their relatives but of their species.

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors had to cooperate in order to survive. An entire clan might go hungry if someone stole a hunter’s spear, murdered a hunter or even lied to a hunter, directing him to an area where there was no game. So it isn’t hard to understand why murder, theft and lying might have all been regarded as bad, or immoral. People who broke the rules were likely punished by the entire band or tribe.

Loyalty Circles

People’s loyalties can be depicted as circles that become weaker as they grow larger. For example, self-preservation is a very powerful instinct. So draw a bold “loyalty circle” around yourself. You can also draw a bold loyalty circle around your family.

In fact, devotion to one’s family can be be even stronger than self-preservation. Many wild animals will, like many people, risk their lives to protect their young. Such behavior is called altruism, which essentially means caring about someone other than yourself.

Loyalty circles
“Loyalty circles” are a reminder of our priorities. My greatest loyalty is to myself and my family. Your greatest loyalty is to yourself and your family. We both share a lesser loyalty to our neighborhood, and we’re even less loyal to more distant neighborhoods. Our loyalty to our country depends largely on our political beliefs.

Loyalty circles generally grow weaker when we try to draw them around people who are dissimilar. For example, Americans might volunteer to fight against an enemy that threatens a European country, but few Americans give a damn about native peoples who are being displaced and murdered in the Amazon or New Guinea.

Loyalty circles
Humans are eerily similar to ants in their capacity for war. In fact, evolution suggests that war is necessary for ants. (However, most biologists might not characterize ant raids as wars.) War might have similarly served an important function in regulating human populations thousands of years ago. However, overpopulation and advancing technology have made wars increasingly cruel and destructive. What’s the survival value in destroying the entire human race with nuclear or biochemical weapons?

This can be very confusing, because 1) altruism suggests a lack of selfishness, 2) yet it’s actually very selfish because the altruistic one is concerned about his or her family or group, perhaps at the expense of other groups.

Most people certainly consider themselves superior to all other animals. Imagine someone who wants to protect his fellow villagers from a man-eating tiger by killing all the tigers in the area. In fact, many animals considered pests are wiped out for far lesser crimes.

Some scientists suspect our ancestors wiped out Neanderthals and other ancient humans. Even today, extinction and genocide are very frightening phenomena. There may be a fine line between altruism and nationalism.

Some social species display a “herd instinct,” with adults uniting to protect multiple families. Humans can similarly be motivated to sacrifice their lives in large numbers for their country or religion. However, it’s a tug-of-war, with many people valuing their lives or families over country. This is especially true of more intelligent people who understand the lies that most wars are built on.

Empathy

Empathy takes morality to a new level. It’s such a mysterious and powerful force, it might be scary if it wasn’t such a wonderful thing.

Che Guavera

Compassionate killer?

How can the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara be renowned for his compassion when he fought in the Cuban Revolution and presided over executions after the fighting ended? As you learn more about politix, you will discover that this apparent contradiction isn’t a contradiction at all. If you’re a victim of tyranny, you may be praying that an empath like Che Guevara will come to your rescue.

Some of the most famous philanthropists appear incapable of empathy. The most familiar example is Bill Gates, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and never donates money unless he can make a profit or boost his public image.

But some people learn to actually connect with other people on an emotional or even spiritual level. They may even learn to empathize with and support people who are very different from themselves. In fact, some people can empathize with different species or even Earth itself, recognizing it as a living thing whose well being is directly linked to ours.

Though many people are led to an appreciation of Earth through science, such reverence isn’t a new phenomenon; our distant ancestors worshiped Earth and diverse life forms eons ago. A contempt for the very planet that gave us birth may be the ultimate immorality, and it carries with it severe consequences.

The greatest heroes are often distinguished by a well developed sense of empathy for other people. Sadly, most of them don’t make the leap from connecting with other people to connecting with the environment. Nevertheless, great thinkers like Carl Sagan and Edward Abbey serve as timeless beacons for a species that has largely forgotten its roots.

Congratulations!