A Clash of Moralities

on April 4, 2011

After I posted the previous entry, Alexei remarked that he’d been impressed by the linked article about people responding to disasters with spontaneous self-organization. That told me I needed to go further into the subject — so here for consideration are the relevant paragraphs from “The Myth of the Panicking Disaster Victim” by Johann Hari:

The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organize spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. …

On April 18th 1906, San Francisco was leveled by an earthquake. Much of the city collapsed, and the rest began to burn. … In San Francisco that week, all the city’s plumbers began — unpaid — to fix the broken pipes, one by one. People organized into committees to put out the fires with buckets and anything they could find. … It had been an incredibly divided city, prone to race riots against Chinese immigrants. But not after the disaster struck. San Franciscans handed out food and clothes to astonished Chinese people. A young girl called Dorothy Day watched her mother give away all her clothes to survivors, and wrote: “While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.”

These descriptions are mesmerizing — but they also raise a host of questions about the complex intersection of politics, human nature, and higher knowledge.

To start with, the response in San Francisco resonates strongly with the anarchist dream of a society run on the basis of everyone pitching in and doing their part. It’s somehow not at all surprising that when Dorothy Day grew up, she became a member of the IWW.

Marxism is based on a very similar assumption — that if you could just peel away the class system and eliminate the exploitation of labor, everyone would cheerfully contribute to the limits of their ability, all needs would be met, and the state would peacefully wither away.

But the stumbling-block for all these utopian dreams is that under ordinary circumstances, no one acts that way. The crisis ends, self-interest returns, and people either pursue personal gain or look for any opportunity to slack off and duck the hard stuff.

As a result, the members of collectivist societies tend not to care about the land they farm, the equipment they use, or the goods they produce. They have no personal investment in any of them and no reason to take pride in their labor — which may be why countries like North Korea resort to coercion as a substitute.

In reaction to the failures of communism, however, global capitalism has gone overboard in the opposite direction, insisting that the only viable economic system is one based on private ownership, the profit motive, and simple greed.

But although capitalism does a dandy job when it comes to over-production of material goods, it is far less suited to providing services that involve giving without getting back — such as tending to the poor, the sick, and the elderly. And it becomes actively toxic when it attempts to extract profit from the commons.

So where can we turn instead? Is there any way to to create a free and open society that meets basic human and environmental needs without being either coercive or exploitative?

I don’t have any immediate answers — but I do have some observations.

If higher knowledge is the source of every outpouring of self-organization, altruism, and collective action, then the long-term solution to our dilemma must lie in upgrading our ability to access higher awareness even under non-crisis conditions.

We as a species have tried to do just that any number of times. We have been endlessly inventive of new social systems, new religious formulations, and new technologies. All of them proceed out of the same deep well of understanding, all create a hope that this time we’ve finally got it right — and all of them ultimately let us down.

Popular leaders turn into bosses and despots. Great spiritual revelations harden into rigid dogmas. Guns that enabled peasants to overcome armored knights mutate into billion-dollar weapon systems that keep whole populations in check.

All in all, the course of human history reminds me of nothing so much as trying to tune in a distant radio broadcast late at night. The signal fades in and out, becomes clear for a minute or two, and then breaks up again into static.

Tuning in to higher knowledge is a lot like that. The fruits of every moment of expanded awareness remain with us in the form of profound art and philosophy, increased social complexity, and technological innovations. But the awareness itself quickly slips away, the advances become institutionalized, and creativity is subordinated to power trips and self-interest.

So is there any reason to believe that at some point we might get the knack of doing this thing right?

Cynics say there isn’t because human nature is fundamentally flawed. We haven’t learned anything in all of history, we’re doomed to keep screwing up in the same ways over and over, and we’ve progressed only in our ability to make ever bigger messes.

There are also more optimistic theories which suggest that we were once in harmony with ourselves and nature and simply need to find our way back. The fatal misstep may be identified with the invention of agriculture, the birth of civilization, or the institution of patriarchy — but it is always portrayed as the origin of materialism, violence, and oppression.

Both these approaches, however, strike me as inadequate. They assume that human nature is static and unchanging — and do so in something very much like old-fashioned religious terms of sin and redemption. My own take on the matter is far more evolutionary.

When our remote ancestors started walking upright, it took time for them to get used to the change, learn to trust their running skills instead of scrambling up the nearest tree at any sign of trouble, and discover what wonderful things they could do once their hands were free for other purposes.

It’s no different with higher knowledge. We’ve spent the last 200,000 years adapting to the subtle shift in brain functioning that underlies our capacity for intuitive flashes, sudden integrations, and heightened creativity. Even now, we’re frequently awkward at it, and we haven’t entirely learned to trust it or found out what it is good for.

Some of us, however, appear to trust it more than others.

A psychologist named Jonathan Haidt recently made something of a splash by proposing that although cultures differ in their notions of what constitutes proper behavior, all moral values can be ascribed to one of five general categories — caring for others, a sense of fairness, group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity.

But Haidt’s most provocative finding was that these five types are not all equal. As summarized by Wikipedia, “Americans who identified as liberals tend to value care and fairness considerably higher than loyalty, respect, and purity. Self-identified conservative Americans value all five values more equally. … Both groups gave care the highest over-all weighting, but conservatives valued fairness the lowest, whereas liberals valued purity the lowest. Similar results were found across the political spectrum in other countries.”

There’s a lot of food for thought here, but what particularly interests me is that Haidt’s liberal values appear identical to the altruism and universalism associated with higher knowledge. In contrast, loyalty, authority, and purity might be described as tribal values, since they embody a hostility towards outsiders, a deference to established ways of doing things and a suspicion that anything out of the ordinary is potentially dangerous and corrupting.

In a pair of entries last winter, I explored the possibility that the concept of group identity may have arisen only towards the end of the ice age, when population growth was forcing wandering bands of hunter-gatherers to settle down in relatively small territories.

Under those conditions, it would no longer have been possible to resolve conflicts within the group by having feuding parties move off in opposite directions. The only alternative was to suppress social tensions through an appeal to group loyalty, deference to authority, and a projection of hostility onto outsiders.

I further speculated that increased population density might have led to a rise in communicable diseases, provoking both a fear of corruption and a suspicion that unruly shamans were deliberately causing misfortune through malevolent sorcery.

And I noted that this set of adaptations, however useful in its own context, would have had the unfortunate long-term consequence of disrupting the archaic sense of human unity and creating a distrust of the shamans who were the chief carriers of higher knowledge.

I don’t perceive the transition as an error to be reversed, however, but as an essential evolutionary step. Greater population density was necessary to set the engines of change into high gear by allowing for more rapid accumulation of knowledge. And if that created stresses which we have not yet fully resolved, the problem is neither permanent nor insoluble.

It looks to me like we’re almost out the other side — not quite there, but getting close. It’s apparent that many of the world’s current problems are the result of misapplied tribal values, ranging from wars to bigotry to fundamentalist hysteria. But those are now the values of a shrinking minority, where in times past they were all but uncontested.

The time may be at hand for all 6.9 billion of us to stop fearing one another, reassert our common humanity, and turn our attention to mastering our hit-or-miss talent for higher knowledge.


A listing of all my posts on the emerging counterculture can be found here and a listing of my posts on higher knowledge here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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