- Capitalism and Alternatives -

A Crack on Morality

Posted by: Hank on February 19, 19100 at 19:53:56:

I'd like to say first of all that anyone who tosses around words such as "absolute morality" and "human nature" should immediately get off these pages and start reading literature. All the speculation and pronouncements in the world won't come close to the depth of understanding one can gain from agood novels and stories. I have a particular fondness for William Faulkner , and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men is a particularly good treatment of good is used for evil purposes and evil.. And, of course, Shakespeare has a lot to say on the topic too.

I led into this discussion with a brief overview of the Skinner/Chomsky debate ("Skinner and Chomsky" post #13037). To perhaps nobody's satisfaction but my own, I outlined and defended Chomsky's rejection of Skinner and Behaviorism, hurriedly justifying the notion of an innate, species-specific language acquistion device. Chomsky claims this innate device to be intricately structured, so much so that it holds within it what human languages can and can't do. I then pointed to the next question: Could this language acquistion device have a moral analogue? If it does, would this "moral device" then justify the anarchist vision , a vision which by definition needs a benign model of human nature to dispense with the need for the state, police and prisons?

My screed met with three rebuttals:

1) Piper, who said that my triumphalism was premature. He then led me to a paper which showed that people learn through Skinnerian methods. ("Don't Hoist . . ." post #13144) This paper is not devastating to Chomsky (a subject I won't pursue here) but what is interesting is that the authors didn't call themselves "Behaviorists" they called themselves "Connectionists." My speculation is this means that they are dissatisfied with Chomsky's non-naturalistic approach which takes human language as if it suddenly appeared in the species. Chomskyan linguistics says nothing of the social aspects of language acquisition , let alone the evolutionary origins of the language device Here again is and interesting topic but one that is beyond the scope of this post and, indeed, inappropriate for this Discussion Room.

But it leads into the next rebuttal, which wasn't directly on my post but could have been . . .

2) MDG, in "God, non-human animals and morality" post #13241 set up links to some fascinating work which showed how animals have a vast array of emotional states which go far beyond the instinct for survival and perpetuation of the species. A dewey-eyed sentimentalist could even call these "moral instincts." MDG might remain neutral on the Skinner/Chomsky issue but he certainly will state his objections to an anthropocentric view of morality.

Then there were Chuck's "Not Quite" (post #13152) and , of course, the Poster with the Most-er, Barry Stoller. In post #13162, "Marxist 'Morality'", Mr. Stoller objected in the fashion immediately relevant to this chatroom which is . . .

3) The orthodox Marxist notion that the economic base of society determines its superstructure or its beliefs about everything, including family life, religion and especially ethical questions. To Marx and Chuck and Stoller , "morality" is an ideological mask for bourgeois or other class interests.

To Piper's discussion I really don't know what to say other than to use Chomsky's analogy of studying the sun. Since we can't go inside the sun and gather data, we have to make models as to its inner structure. We hope these models will explain and predict its behavior , and the best model will explain all or most observed behavior. When we begin to notice behavior that doesn't fit with our model, we can dismiss the behavior as aberrant, or we can alter our model, or we can make a new model. And so it igoes with linguistics. I'm satisfied with Chomsky's transformational grammar, but I'm not wedded to it.

I would like to emphasize that inference is a proper and necessary tool of science, so Chomsky shouldn't be rejected because he's anti-empiricist. Today, there are competing models, but Chomsky was the first modern scholar to take linguistics out of philology.

The link that MDG put up is quite fascinating and sits well with what I'm thinking about. While I find it very exciting that scientists are proving that animals have rich emotional lives, I, like every animal lover, knew this long ago. To their social structures and ability to sympathize and feel compassion, I would add that animals have have a sense of what can only be called dignity. I've been to animal santuaries around the world where signs that say "Don't stare at the monkeys. They are likely to attack you if you do." Have you ever blown in a dog's face? Have you ever been sad and have your cat know it and act to soothe you? So, science has proven what we all already knew: animals can identify with the suffering of others and they have characters, temperaments and even egos.

Connectionism gets harder when we consider that we humans are much superior to animals in our ability to establish causal relationships and to reflect abstraction into the past and future. So, if a person drives drunk and mows down a twelve year-old girl in a parking lot paralyzing her for life, this person feel the guilt knowing that this person will never walk again. If the drunk person was our brother, then we'll feel sorry for him. We will feel a variety of emotions depending on our position in the situation.

In short, humans have a sense of right and wrong, a conscience. It is natural to identify with the suffering of others. I'll even say a conscience is 'natural.' And I'll add to my list of natural attributes: humans are cooperative and to varying degrees social; humans are creative,; humans like to be recognized; humans have an innate sense of dignity; many male humans have aggressive impulses but I don't think it's natural toenjoy killing people for the sake of doing so nor do I think it's natural to enjoy inflicting permanent injury to others or permanent damage to the planet.

I don't think that these attributes can be dismissed as a bourgeois illusion any more than I think the environment programmed my genes to grow arms and hands instead of wings and feathers.

In fact, capitalist ideology doesn't create our consciences rather it seeks to DIVERT us and SHAPE so as to make us better servants. Rush Limbaugh is a daily purveyor of lies and half-truths; "60 Minutes" focuses our rage on small-time banking scams in Ohio; Nike pumps us up with our own narcissism. If the American public would hear about what's really going on with the planet, the IMF and the Third World misery upon which our luxuries depend, they couldn't find enough cops to stop the next anti-WTO demonstration.

So, humans have a conscience, and innate 'moral device.' Just like my hand it doesn't even do anything until I use it, until I pass judgement on some event or person in the material world, where EVERYTHING exists relative to other things. So we make for ourselves rules and laws that ostensibly are above the material reality, free of context, applicable in all cases.

I can't think of a single rule or moral law which is absolute in all cases all the time. Saying "killing is wrong" is demonstrably false, but "murder is wrong" is a tautology. Jesus talked about slavery as if it were a foregone conclusion that the institution could exist. Cannibalism was necessary for those soccer players stranded when their plane crashed. Infanticide has been necessary in some societies (I hear) and incest is by no means universally discouraged.

Close to where I live is a mountain called "Oba-sute-yama" which is Japanese for "Throw away the old people Mountain." Legend has it this is where they used to abandon old people who couldn't work and thus were a drain on the society's food supply. One day a man was taking his mother out to die when he noticed she was marking the trees.

"What are you doing, mother?" he asked.

"I'm marking the trees so you can find your way home."

So touched was the man that he couldn't go through with his plan to abandon his mother. He took her back to the village where the rest of the story continued.

What I like about Chuck and Stoller's position is that it wipes the slate clean. It's obvious that capitalist moral codes serve to prop up the capitalist state. While capitalists tell us not to rob, steal, kill and fuck, their history is full of them, well, uh . . . robbing stealing killing and fucking. Is it really necessary for me to substantiate this point?

What I don't like about Chuck and Stoller's position is they seem to be wiping the slate clean of all morality, and I don't think Marx would have agreed with this, and I'm sure Hegel wouldn't have. My view is that Marx was impatient with appeals to morality as imprecise and reformist but that he himself cast a moral shadow on the wall when he talked about the "false consciousness" inculcated in the proletariat. If there is a "false consciousness," mustn't there be a "true consciousness"?

Let me emphasize my position, which is really more of a hope. I'm convinced that capitalism alienates us from our better selves. Left alone, the natural state of human beings is generally cooperative and averse to killing. And if they do wind up killing it's because of some enviromental factor. I can cite personal experience here, for " X," a person close to me is in the U.S. military . X is directly responsible for the deaths of Iraqis, and Yugoslovians, and I can't even talk to X about the subject. I n my life I 've graphic examples of brainwashing at work, and I say with confidence that this military attitude NOT this person's natural state; I know this because I knew X as a child and young adult.

But, we have the rule problem again which why it's so hard to assign blame and dole out punishment in a just manner. Who is to blame, X or X's superiors? George Bush? Bill Clinton? What about the military industrial complex which rewards X handsomely? What about the society that attaches prestige to X's job? How about capitalism itself?

Maybe I'M to blame for driving a car on cheap oil!

Who is to blame for the My Lai massacre, the soldiers or the people who put them there? Who is to blame for massacre in East Timor, the militias or the Indonesian government or the US elected officials or the US corporations? Who is to blame for Nike? Who is to blame for the meat industry ravaging the planet? Who's to blame for Michael Jackson being allowed to put out cd's unmolested?

Just as no fact exists in an ideological vacuum, every moral accusation and verdict carries with it political consequence. To what end do American pundits remind their readers that the Soviet Union was a society run by a bludgeon? To what end do columnists and talking-heads accuse Cuba of denying its citizens their God-given rights? Why would a scholar in the 1990's spend energy researching the horrors of Stalinist gulags?

If we were to read a Soviet scholar's factual treatment of America's sordid history of slavery and Indian massacres, we'd die laughing. How could that know-it-all Ruskie tell US about OUR history? "Look in the mirror!" we'd howl, and justifiably.

So why can't we apply this same standard to ourselves? Why do WE have so much trouble looking in OUR OWN mirror?

One of the reasons is the MASSIVE PROPAGANDA SYSTEM by which capitalism sedates its populace. And this is one reason Americans are the most brainwashed of all--as they're closest to the locus of power, their support is the most important to secure.

So, it's obvious to almost everyone that the function of accusations about the evils of the communist menace is not to shed new light on the horrors of 'communism,' but to instill faith in capitalism. Of course, that takes nothing away from the FACTUAL ACCURACY of these accusations, but examining them in this manner certainly diminishes their moral force .

Thus, appeals to moral sensibilities is a common tool for propaganda and thought control, so I can understand why 'morality' is a target of such vigorous rhetoric from Chuck, Stoller and Marxists in general. What worries me about the wholesale rejection of moral standards is that it takes away one of the greatest weapons for change. There's nothing wrong with saying it: it's wrong to live in luxury on the backs of the poor, whether those poor be across the ocean or across the street; it's wrong invade other countries and slaughter millions of people just because they have the audacity to try to extract themselves from our dominance; it's wrong to eat up the planet with cows, heading straight for a enviromental catastrophe. There's nothing wrong with these moral judgements.

A moral judgement on an act must always consider the alternatives available. So, it wasn't a crime for the soccer players to become cannibals, but it would be a crime if I were to become one. Also, the "10 people on a raft with space for 5" problem could be a tough one. But capitalism has given us such abundance that we're simply not faced with such a dilemma. We have the resources, the technology and the know-how to feed the planet and provide for all. And capitalism is what is standing in the way.

Then we have the problem of violence. I am not a pacifist, but I believe in non-violent resistance. This is a TACTICAL statement not a moral one. We simply don't have the weapons, unless we could find a way to win the military to our side, but I just don't know. This is a public medium, so I will not discuss this and I suggest no one else does either.

In conclusion, it is my view that morality and cooperation is the normal state of humans, at least on the macro level. I think people will readily agree to egalitarian distribution of food, shelter, medical treatment, the goods of society and the labor to produce these. But appeals to morality are a murky, slippery arena. 'Morality' can be used for a reactionary argument, too. My advice to anyone using moral appeals is "don't wear your best sandals."*


*Thank you, Michael Palin from "Life of Brian"

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