Class Warfare Blog

May 20, 2019

A Moral Tale

As I have mentioned I have been working my way through the book The Moral Animal (Why We Are The Way We Are; The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology) by Robert Wright. I was planning to do a book report when done, but there is so much in this book that that is probably futile. If you are interested in where morals really come from, get this book! It is by no means the final word on the topic but it is an excellent start!

What I am writing on now is based upon a comment made in a chapter on ethics. Here it is:

“Why should we have a moral code? Even accepting the basis of utilitarianism—the goodness of happiness—you might ask: Why should any of us worry about the happiness of others? Why not let everyone worry about their own happiness—which seems, anyway, to be the one thing they can be more or less counted on to do?

“Perhaps the best answer to this question is a sheerly practical one . . . everyone’s happiness can, in principle, go up if everyone treats everyone else nicely. You refrain from cheating or mistreating me, I refrain from cheating or mistreating you; we are both better off than we would be in a world without morality. For in such a world the mutual mistreatment would roughly cancel out anyway (assuming neither of us is a vastly more proficient villain than the other). And, meanwhile, we each would incur the added cost of fear and vigilance.”

This resonates on the political stage in current American life. A small minority of wealthy individuals has decided to run this country for their benefit alone and to hell with the rest of us. To claim that legislatures around this country are motivated by expanding the happiness of their constituents is to make a rather bad joke. They seem to be motivated only to please their paymasters.

That issue aside, this quote brings up the utilitarian ideal of each of us treating the others well (not necessarily as well as we treat ourselves, mind you, just well), that this can be a source of greater happiness in all of our lives and that brings me to my tale.

Back in my working days, I was part of a training group. We trained people in our enterprise (a community college district) in the process of interest-based decision making. Our first few attempts at doing these trainings was fraught with anxiety . . . on the part of us trainers; the trainees apparently didn’t notice our discomfort.

To allay these feelings, we spent a great deal of time (a really great deal of time) creating a master training schedule for each training. On this schedule, every presenter, every volunteer, was listed as to time and task, for example: At 10 AM on Thursday Steve goes to Room XYZ and does Task W or on Friday at 3 PM, Steve presents Topic A in the Main Training Room. Every task was supported with instructions; every presentation had a list of key points that was monitored and if any were skipped over, the Monitor doing that task would bring it to the attention of the presenter.

This went swimmingly . . . and then I noticed something happening. Following the master schedule, I (at time X in Room Y) was expected to go set the room up in a particular fashion. At that time, I went to that room, only to find my job already done! This was a gift from an anonymous volunteer. Since I now had nothing else to do, I looked down the list of tasks to find something worth doing and went to do that instead. Before long, in our daily debriefs, we discovered that everyone was doing the same thing, doing someone else’s job for them. When we teased this out we didn’t look at this practice as undermining our Master Plan for our trainings. Instead, each of us felt that we had received gifts, gifts of other peoples’ time and attention and work. This became an unscheduled practice for all of the subsequent trainings I participated in.

Interestingly, the same amount of work got done, but instead of us just wading through mundane tasks, each of us felt like we were giving a gift of our better self, and that we were receiving gifts, anonymous gifts, that left us feeling respected and, well, very happy indeed. In our end-of-training debrief sessions, volunteer after volunteer claimed that this work was the best and most satisfying work they did in their job! It was on their own time and sometimes on company time, but in no case were their job expectations lessened. It turned out that others voluntarily filled in for them while they were away at our trainings.

So, if you take author Wright’s point, that treating each other well is superior (for all) than the libertarian ideal of “every man for himself,” then there is another level of additional happiness available if we treat others more than just “well.” Not oppressing people, or taking advantage of an other, is one form of treating others “well.” But if you go beyond that, as the volunteers in our training group did, and actively treat others very well indeed and we all pay it forward, as the saying goes, a level of happiness unthought of before becomes available to us.

And if you immediately react with “what about the freeloaders” just taking and not giving, read the book. That topic is covered, too.

May 6, 2013

An Imaginarium of Meaning

A recurring topic in this blog is the rabid thirst we seem to have for meaning. We have created tens of thousands of gods to be responsible for myriad things we could not describe at the time. We have had a god of lightning, a god of the wind, a good of good luck and one for bad luck, a god of a spring (not all springs, just one in particular, actually many of these). When the ground shook from an earthquake, we attributed it to some god’s message which had a particular meaning. “Uh, the ground god is unhappy with us. We must mend our ways.”

There seems to be no limit to this thirst for meaning. I remember a New Yorker magazine cartoon in which one psychologist passed another in the hall and said “Hello,” while a thought balloon over the second psychologist said “I wonder what he meant by that?” At the time I thought it was a comment about psychologists but now I realize it is a comment about human behavior.

Where did this desire to find meaning everywhere come from? I can’t know whether anyone will be able to prove this but, as Bob Newhart used to say, I suspect it went something like this: when we evolved our big brains we found a use for them while out hunting. There were distinct advantages to having multiple hunters working in concert. The problem involved how to coordinate the hunt, how to turn a bunch of individuals into a team. Presumably grunts and hand signals worked up close and louder vocalizations worked from farther away. The question, though is what did that particular grunt or whistle mean? So through pantomime they eventually developed a vocabulary of hunting instructions. You can see the modern equivalents in any action-adventure movie when a group leader, moving his group in silence, stops the group in its tracks by an upheld clenched fist. Then moves them again with a hand wave.

The greater the communication, the greater the success of the hunt and the greater the demand for more communication. You could also substitute plant gathering as the activity (Ugh, this one poisonous. Mmm, this one okay but tastes bad.) or a number of different things. Such ability to communicate became very important on those occasions in which one family group encountered another. The encounters, as archeoanthropologists have determined, could be quite deadly. A larger group of males may decide to kill a smaller group’s males and take their females, for example. So communication was very helpful to prevent misunderstandings and possibly to negotiate bribes.

The central issue, always, was what did those grunts, clicks, and other vocalizations mean. One tribe’s grunts might be another’s whistles.

And as we developed language, it became a more and more valuable tool, so we developed nuances. We could agree with somebody sarcastically, indicating we do not agree. This meant that the words themselves didn’t carry all of the meaning. Some linguists state that the words themselves carry less than 10% of the meaning of any statement now. Tone, inflection, affect all carry more meaning.

So when frightening occurrences happened, it became natural to seek meaning as well as inherent dangers. Lunar eclipses, thunderstorms, herbivore stampedes, all had meaning sought for them.

So, at least this tendency is imaginable.

But there is no limit to it. It is like a three-year old asking “Why?” The question cannot be answered.

One critique of atheism is that without a god, life would have no meaning. So, people who believe this have created an all purpose answer to the question: what is the meaning of life? Their answer is “God has a plan for you.” But you can’t question the mind of God, so that is the end of the question.* (Whew, I didn’t think there was one!)

Well, there is a answer to “what is the meaning of life?” That is: if you want your life to have a meaning, you must live it so that it does.

* According to the Catholic Catechism “He created us so that we would know, love, and serve him.” So God’s plan is that you be an informed infatuated servant.” It pays to not ask too many questions.

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