In some discussions of morality, some people will say:
“If I’m not going to be acknowledged for behaving morally, I won’t.
“If there was no God, why would we be moral?”
“If no one was watching, I’d steal.”
“If I wasn’t afraid of getting caught, I’d cheat.”
O.K.–they are saying they have no internal compass for morality. That absent the approval of the tribe, or the fear of being cast into hell by God, or of being thrown into jail, or getting a painful divorce…they would do things considered “bad.”
But…do THEY consider these things “bad”? Or do they consider them neutral, but mouth platitudes about them being “bad”?
I remember a guy who, under other circumstances spoke deeply and fervently about God and morality, commenting about how if we were on a liferaft together in the middle of the Pacific, he’d kill me and eat me. Nice. Hard for that person to then come back later and tell me about morality, don’t you think?
He’s saying there is no moral law absent human perceptions, there is only efficiency and effectiveness. Law of the jungle. I can deal with that, because it seems to me that ALL morality starts there. It is “bottom up” in the sense that the same principles against stealing, killing, lying, raping and abusing children recur all over the world (to varying degrees) even among cultures who have no contact with each other. Cannibalism is relatively rare as well, so we might add that.
If human beings aren’t much good alone, then a primary survival question is: “how shall we live together?”
Hard to imagine any kind of society where there are no laws against killing, lying, child abuse, stealing and so forth. At the very least, that culture will be smaller and more chaotic than a culture that has prohibitions against such things. And will therefore be out-competed by them.
But WHY do people obey those rules? Initially, for the same reason children do their homework or pick up their rooms: to avoid punishment. This is the CHILD level of the game.
The fact is that you CAN get away with stealing much of the time. This leads to the “tragedy of the commons,” where you are best off, short term, convincing other people to be honest, while being a thief yourself.
LONG term you will usually be found out. But it is entirely possible to postpone that reckoning for an entire lifetime. People who put out a surface appearance of being “good, pious” people, but are horrible behind the scenes. Again, however…in general this will be found out over enough interactions, enough deals, enough years.
But another thing that happens in a society is we ask “what is true?” What is the structure of the universe? And all societies evolve religion and mythology. Ways to grasp the infinite. Whether imagination or revelation, they create demons and gods, and begin to personify vast natural forces into structures we can begin to understand. Often, they mirror the structure of human societies: we understand the strong father or loving matriarch, so a LOT of god figures mirror those.
It is an exercise for the reader whether you believe this is human beings projecting what they know, or a Divine Mind simply recapitulating its essence in Earthly form. The notion works either way.
But the point is that you can see morality as starting from individual human needs, progressing through group imperatives and becoming encoded socially through mythology and religion.
As soon as you believe in a God figure, you have an omnipotent being who is ALWAYS there. He knows when you’ve been sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or….
Oh, wait. Different magical being. Ahem.
If up and down the structure, morality is important…but FAKING morality is actually more effective short-term, but actually BEING moral is more effective long term, then we ask the next question: how can we be moral beings whether or not there is anyone watching?
We must integrate morality into our most basic essence. We must do what we do not for EXTERNAL rewards, but because that is simply who we are. Or who we aspire to be.
When I was a kid, I had a hard time with stealing. I just couldn’t figure out an external reason not to. I was smart enough to get away with it…but it was clear to me that eventually I’d run into someone smarter than me, and I’d be screwed. I might have been smarter than ANY body, but I sure as hell wasn’t smarter than EVERY body.
No matter how swollen my ego, I knew that wasn’t true. So what could I do?
I had to find the aspect of my personal intimate being that was contrary to theft. It took a few days of deep introspection, but I found it:
Every time I stole, I stole because I believed that was the most efficient and effective way of gaining something. But that means that I had no real faith that I could organize my mind and heart to EARN it. ONLY if I could not earn it did it make long-term sense to steal it.
I was damaging my faith in myself. And without that faith I couldn’t accomplish my dreams.
There. I’d found it. I BELIEVED that: that stealing weakened my ability to create the life I wanted, whether or not I ever got “caught.”
Armed with that, I was able to turn my life around. It had NOTHING to do with other people, or an omniscient being. It was “what do I want from life? Who do I have to be to get it? Is every action of my life a step toward becoming that person? Yes? No? If `yes’, continue. If `no’ CUT THAT SHIT OUT.”
And that, evolved when I was about 24, removed any thought that dishonesty was a viable tactic, and clarified my path.
When you hear law-abiding people who insist that morality (“goodness”) is tied with obeying the rules of society, also hear the ways what they are REALLY saying is “as long as I agree with the laws of society, so long as I believe they are good for me and my family, I will obey them.”
One thing that cracks me up is hearing one of them then state, re: 2nd Amendment Rights, that a lawfully elected government could only take their guns if pried from their “cold dead hands” and imply that they would kill legally empowered law enforcement officers.
In other words, they will agree with laws, consider them moral, if and only if they are in alignment with their personal desires and interests. This is a serious reality of life. It is only dishonest if they then imply that other people should obey laws even if they don’t align with personal interests.
Tragedy of the Commons, right there on the level of obeying laws. What is right? Law of the Jungle. What is efficient? Convincing other people to obey laws for the sake of “goodness” when you are actually picking and choosing.
Is this common? You bet. Is it optimal? I think not…but that’s a value decision. You have to decide for yourself.
And for your children, of course. And every time a storyteller writes a tale of moral consequence, they are arguing the ethical structure of the universe.
In Black Panther T’Chaka kills his own brother, conceals the crime and abandons his nephew to poverty. Was it right? Few would say so. Was it understandable? That kid was gonna go Hamlet on the royal family, you know damned well. If your primary intent was to protect his son and the throne…well, yeah, li’l Killmonger was kinda screwed. In fact, it would have been safest to kill him.
It would have been BEST, probably, to Flashy-Thing that kid’s memory and give him to a middle-class family in Atlanta somewhere to raise. But of course that would involve more people in setting it up, and the more people who knew, the more dangerous. Someone ALWAYS wants to take the throne.
(And that is where I agree with Wakanda remaining secretive until and unless there is a sufficient organization of nations to deter open invasion to take their resources. And those who think “Wakanda was strong enough to resist” IMO aren’t thinking it through. If I’m writing that story, I don’t attack openly. I attack psychologically, splintering the alliances of tribes, supporting usurpers, supporting assassinations rather than outright military action UNTIL THEY ARE WEAK ENOUGH, or until I have a puppet on the throne. That story is EASY to write. You don’t attack where your opponent is strong. Attack their weaknesses. Ego and ambition. Wakanda would have been toast within a couple of generations)
One theme of BP is that evil will emerge. Decisions made from efficiency, unless they are aligned with morality, will come back to destroy you. T’Challa was so appalled by what his father had done that he gave Killmonger a chance to surrender and almost lost that fight, WOULD have lost it if Killmonger hadn’t succumbed to his sense of the theatrical and tossed him off the waterfall rather than just stab him to death. Boom. Done. He’d have the throne.
To be a king, T’Challa had to be a better man than his father. But even that was only standing on his father’s shoulders: he was the man he was because his father had protected him. He was a worthy son: a warrior, a statesman, capable of both vengeance and mercy. “You are a good man, with a good heart. And it is hard for a good man to be king.”
There you go. A beautiful, wise moral and strategic lesson encoded in a superb entertainment. Works for people in general, but for an underserved community BP is an absolute THUNDERBOLT. An advance so extreme that I can only think that Ryan Coogler was “lit” along his entire system: intellect, emotion, aesthetic/creative, political, philosophical, kinetic and more. It worked on all levels, and presented what might be the overall strongest Marvel character: a man of intellect, physicality, morality, family connections, political savvy, courage, and capacity to love. What comic character has as many levels cooking? Spider Man has his Aunt May…Thor has his relationship with his father and half-brother…but we watched Tony Stark going batshit to kill Bucky who was only a puppet, willing to KILL a “friend” (Captain America) to do it, and this was after 2/3 of a billion dollars of therapy and twenty years of distance.
T’Challa had better control of his emotions less than a WEEK after holding his father’s corpse in his arms, confronted with the ACTUAL killer. No slightest comparison in terms of maturity and “wholeness.”
What do YOU think of morality, ethics, the human condition? What do YOU think your community, or the human race needs to move forward to the future?
Either support the art that teaches these lessons, or asks the right questions…or create it. That is one of the ways we can, as individuals, make the world better for our children.
The other is to do the right things, not because otherwise we’ll be caught, or so that people will pat us on the back. Those are rewards for sleeping children.
Do what you do because that is what you are. THAT is how you change the world. Once word, one action, one soul, one work of art at a time.
Write with Passion!