Morality is often spoken of in terms of objectivity. It relates to what would be considered good or bad behaviour towards one another. The often-overlooked flipside of this is how acting in a objectively moral way would have a negative effect on the self.
A quick caveat - this is such a difficult topic to write about without seeming disruptive or sounding esoteric.
Let us first think about how morality has evolved on a societal level and simultaneously devolved on a personal level. We can be certain that no matter how moralistic we believe our behaviour may be, it will likely upset someone, yet is their taking offense something they must transcend themselves? Is it our direct concern how we affect the world around us without having any insight into the thoughts of those around us? Can we make presuppositions based on previous behaviour of how our actions will affect the world? Or would this action deprive the world of additional novelty, which in turn provides some aspect of fulfilment to us?
We begin from the Noachide laws, which include prohibitions like murder, eating an animal while it’s still alive, idolatry, sexual immorality, blasphemy and theft. We can instantly see that if interpreted as they were written, half of those are not considered immoral by modern societal standards. The ones that have survived relate to interactions with other beings (sexual immorality being a grey area). The ones which are not illegal are those that govern a relationship with god, which are of a personal nature. Before this, it was acceptable to offer human sacrifices. A hundred and fifty years ago it was considered not only moral but a matter of honour to duel with pistols at dawn. We have been moving towards a more moralistic global state of affairs, but the urge to be immoral remains in every single person.
Slowly but surely the concept of god has been removed from our governing laws, a concept which does not necessarily relate to an external omniscient power, but our perception of what it means to be made in god’s image. A growing obsession with the fellow man (perhaps in a bid to reconnect with each other) has led not only to concern for the well-being of others, but policing of each other’s actions and careful consideration of our own actions, so as not to transgress the, at times, childish rulebook.
Beyond this is a further set of societal limitations called the legal system. This has evolved over thousands of years of society determining what morality is and adapting a set of rules which ultimately governs and thus limits our physical interactions with one another. While this was instituted for good reason, the governing of such rules overstep the bounds of our personal quest.
Then, there is a set of unspoken social principles referred to as etiquette, politeness or common decency, which polices the minutiae of interactions with one another for the sake of emotional accord.
It is my understanding that morality is a spectrum of the subjective applied to the objective, something discussed by philosophers over the ages and something that is ever changing and progressing through the years as more and more novelty is introduced into the world. Whether it is homosexuality being immoral from a religious perspective, or murder of a murderous tyrant being unacceptable because of a blanket idea that it is immoral to murder, the subjective desires remain the same.
While religion and other large-scale ideologies have been the cause of much war, hate and division within the human race, it has also created empires, communities, economies and governed societies. While religions may have started from humble beginnings as a curiosity for meaning or spiritual understanding, it was devised to bring order to the masses, but brought meaning to the few. We study religions as historical stories and seek to understand them both in the context of their time and relate them to ours. When we look back at the dominant forces of the 21st century, the ‘religions’ will be financial, scientific, technological and political ideologies which surpassed the previous religions in its adoption by the masses, not with blood soaked battle fields, but with logic and a sense of binary morality.
The objective morality spectrum has shifted in the sense that women now have a more equal role in society and it seems insane that this was ever not the case. Things like the criminal justice system is ever evolving to make sense of human desires, i.e. crimes of passion vs premeditated murder. This takes into account that as human beings we occasionally have a blip of irrationality, in which we transfer all our aggression to another without thinking about the consequences – we become possessed. While this is not a validation of such actions, it is somewhat of a dispensation in that we are not purely rational beings and to demand this from us all the time is tiring.
Our personal moral values are out of whack with those of society. Society embraces vanity, greed and self-interest but cares less for humility, generosity and altruism. Yet, the former set are rewarded superficially and the latter set karmically.
At the risk of predicting further evolution in this sense, it will seem senseless that we are destroying the rainforest, not correcting major corruption in political and economic systems and putting recreational drug users in prison. As a society, we seem to act like individuals by clinging on to our comforts until they become beyond reprieve and we take drastic action for change. Democracy has been the most successful way of governing a country, yet it is not without flaw and while communism has its limitations, each system craves some aspects of the other.
There are continuous outcries of austerity and demands for reformation in western society, due to the ever-growing economic disparity, thus creating a splitting of moral ideation between the previous notion of becoming financially successful and the current disproportionate spread of wealth. While many are left dissatisfied with the state of the political system being a ‘contributing factor’ to this, these systems do not rid humanity of typical human traits such as greed and desire for power. Yet without being challenged would there be any reformation at all?
There are those who generally have no regard for the wider population and will act so impulsively without consideration of the consequences on their fellow man that they are labelled sociopathic. We generally see these types as bad apples and sit on our high moral high horse in judgement of them. Yet through these selfish acts these characters are achieving exactly what they want. They are alienating themselves from the global moral imperative, perhaps leaving devastation in their wake, yet if they are successful they are lavished with admiration by many and their sociopathic traits are now the focus of self-help books.
“Treat others as you wish to be treated” – Luke 6:31
If you are accepting of others then why would you not be accepting of yourself? We have a set of societal principles of how to treat those around us with kindness. The above phrase summarises it quite succinctly and very powerfully, yet we sometimes lose touch with ourselves playing the good Samaritan.
We have a moral obligation first and foremost to ourselves and by consistently putting the needs of other’s before our own we are acting in an immoral way. An example would be that you have social arrangements and your boss asks you to stay late to finish something, which is of no benefit to your career and the company will not suffer a loss if you do not stay late, it is purely for your egocentric, power hungry boss. You have been working hard all day and really need to unwind with friends but you feel this pressure to put in the sweat equity and be a ‘team player’ in the office for the long-term play of a promotion. This crudely described scenario is the sort of situation where it is immoral to flake on your plans in order to work.
The relationship between morality and karma
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet“ – Frederick Buechner.
There is immorality in your moral actions, when you sacrifice your own happiness to appease others. To appease another at your own expense is to shortchange them a learning experience. Spoon feeding slowly fades away as we grow older and learn to use our internal resources to aid in our nourishment. This is why therapists do not provide advice but rather a platform for self exploration.
Atonement is from within. Religious ideas of atonement are a seemingly easy way to absolve oneself form transgressing a predetermined set of rules, however, each person has a differing moral code and threshold. One cannot achieve absolute atonement from their transgressions as long as these transgressions remain in their mind, and by remaining in their mind I mean it can surface from the pool of the subconscious at any time and evoke a negative feeling within them. The more one suffers from the burden of guilt, the harder it is to bear this transgression, however, the sooner one accepts the truth of their transgression and seeks to repair this aspect of themselves, the path to atonement has begun. Being aware of your transgressions is the first step, but understanding why this occurred and actively seeking to repair the essence that caused these transgressions is an ongoing practice that becomes easier with time. Perhaps aspects of it are relatable to others but it is a transgression personal to you.
Let us take an example of somebody in a monogamous relationship who cheats on their partner. This person is generally a good person aside from this transgression, but their sexual or emotional desires got the better of them and they ‘transgressed’. Following this, if they were truly mired by guilt it would be the first thing on their mind every morning, living a life of deception and dishonesty. Of course, there is a spectrum of guilt and depending on the level of narcissism and other such factors this may only take up a small part of their conscious mind. If they fail to acknowledge breaking the rules of their relationship, the unconscious mind will do that for them, direct their actions, dreams and communication style thus changing the dynamics of the relationship without knowing how. If they believed themselves to be acting within their moral landscape, but deceiving their partner, perhaps they should reconsider how they relate to others.
The only way to release that guilt is to admit it to their other half and thus start the painful process of reparation. Irrespective of how their partner responds, our protagonist has learnt a valuable lesson of the heavy burden they carry when they step outside their moral landscape. The road to reparation is not only to rebuild the trust with their partner (if they have the opportunity) but to also delve into themselves introspectively to establish why this happened, whether they want to work on this aspect of themselves or whether this is a part of who they are. This is how dishonesty with ourselves can affect the relationships with others, thus we must be true to ourselves in order to properly serve others. Perhaps something happened to them in their life that has caused them to breech the trust or perhaps they just require a polyamorous relationship and are not sure how to navigate this avenue, or perhaps they just enjoy the taboo. The self-inquiry will resolve questions that we are not even aware of.
We use the word atonement in a regretful way, because the transgressions have hurt others. If no-one is hurt but we still feel guilty for contravening our own moral code then the self-inquiry begins. It may be due to a childhood trauma or an environmental factor, or in Freudian terms it could be your ID overpowering the superego on this occasion. Are you likely to commit this transgression again and why? How did you feel during the act and how did you feel afterwards?
Religion used to provide insight for the unobservable, until the un observable is seen at which point it becomes documented and science lays claim to it. Religious people instinctually believe this as faith, through teachings of sages, spiritual experiences and instinct. Doubters refuse to believe anything is real until it becomes rational thought. This is the equivalent of denying that the moon landing ever happened unless they were there themselves. Conversely, religious people that hold on to old ideologies and refuse to accept progression can suffer from ailments or forego having a more convenient life. Both the dogmatic believer and empiricist will limit their purview unless they learn to trust themselves a little more.
The conundrum we face in modern society is that we want to connect with others but taking part means playing the part in the ‘game’, but the game is run on as ego based operating system, which make up our social, political and economical structures (don’t worry, this will not turn into a left wing rant). The point here is that if you do embrace your spiritual self, which is an intuitive based method, it is very difficult to integrate into a society where spirituality has taken a battering through the patriarchy of Religions, which attempted to integrate the both with only fleeting success over the course of history. Faith and philosophy are intuitive and unprovable when questioned. They are intangible, yet those that hold faith in a higher power or universal force feel that this is more true than those that rationalise things through physical evidence. Religious people that approach the matter of god with logic are trying to justify their way of life thus conflating matters of religion with scientific methodology. This is irony at its finest. Those that follow scientific proof that there is no higher power have likely not considered their lack of ontological knowledge and probably suffer from some deep seated omnipotence. It is far easier for them to say; no proof, no faith, rather than explore the fear inducing depths of their gut, heart and intuition. Coincidence and randomness are merely words used to rationalise that which they do not understand, with no considered concepts behind them. While ontology helps us navigate the visible world, mythology provides a subtext to the inexplicable and something to further discover.
Science is ever evolving as human cognition develops and we learn to understand new concepts and shed more light on previously thought to be understood concepts. In doing so, removing the mystery of the unknown and feeding the ego. It is a process of scepticism, whereas religion embraces the not yet understood. Therefore it is difficult for scientists to embrace the intangible, whereas the religious man will embrace everything as a miracle. The child like naivety that the spiritual types experience helps release the existential angst and egotistical desire for control and allows one to embrace the world without the need to quantify it.
In 1961, as a self-experiment, Erving Goffman immersed himself into a psychiatric hospital for a year to learn about the sociological impacts of such a place on the recovery of mental health patients. He coined the phrase ‘institutionalisation’ which was used to describe how the patients become reliant on the system and thus find comfort in it. It was found to be counter-productive to their recovery because they submitted their agency to the institution. Whether it was the routine, the staff knowing which buttons to press to make the system work for them and various other moving parts of the system, the patient had no opportunity for self-expression, as that was the ‘reason’ they were locked up in the first place. While being protected from society and in protecting society from these troubled people, there was little ambition to help the patient reintegrate into society, but rather to conform to their new reality.
Religions are institutions with an aspect of mystery to them. They have power over people for as long as they submit themselves to a higher authority in return for a comfortable life of doctrine and servitude. This forgoes the questioning of reality and the self and keeps its followers in a ‘safe space’. Atheists are also too literal in their beliefs, just as orthodox religious people are, just as spiritualists are. Atheists believe in observable reality, because this is within their control. To think that there are unobservable forces flowing through the universe, would also be earth shattering to them. The more finger pointing and preaching there is, the more the proponent has to prove.
Man has always sacrificed himself to belief systems, under the understanding that there is something unknowable which is greater than them. It’s a new religion with the same basis as many previous religions – a higher power, a source which has programmed us.
Should we pick and choose bits from religions?
It is not to say that all religions are valid in the sense that they all contain some wisdom which is useful to us. This would necessitate picking and choosing elements of certain religions in which you believe, but leaving no room for following of a strict institutional framework, which provides accountability for learning self-discipline and limits room for error. We can pick and choose different elements of ideologies, poke holes in every religion and debate them endlessly, this is the spice of life and how new ideas emerge, however, we must allow room for change, not necessarily within the religious ideology but within ourselves. Religions survive through innuendo, making new and exciting interpretations that transpose to our current way of living. This is probably why simulation theory is so hot right now.
Being a religious fanatic can make for a very regimented person and is ideal to help one set a structured routine or framework which limits how many wrong turns they can take, but leaves little room for error or creativity. Having the openness to be dynamic in your beliefs can be insightful but can seem blurry or esoteric in a world of concrete ideas. It would be nihilistic to say that no one ideology is true, because each ideology is unique to each of us depending on where we are in time and space.
At one stage in your life you may find salvation in the teachings of Jesus, you may even find it beneficial to become part of a community that follow these teachings. But when the community evolves beyond the importance of the teachings, it is perhaps time to adapt or change. One single idea may bring you contentment for your entire life, but knowing you can walk away and it was your choice initially is true freedom. It is to enjoy the cake, knowing that there are other flavours out there with the same calorie content.
Religion and ideology provides the follower a reference point to which they can attach their existential uncertainty, therefore it will always be difficult to challenge because no one will easily let go of their existential belief less risk having their world collapsed. It takes real bravery to unlearn something that may have been a cornerstone of your life and existence, so it must be a path we tread carefully taking care not to damage the ego nor suppress the soul.
Religions and ideologies aside, it seems as if there is an evolving morphogenetic intent beyond human understanding. This action occurs in both the macrocosmic sphere, transmuted down infinite realms to the microcosms of reality. Occasionally we can it coincidence, sometimes it is referred to as miraculous, but more often than not – randomness.
The planets, the trees, animals, land and sea, the human collective, the human body, cells and the rest of it is in a continual shift, pulling and pushing itself infinitely in a self-preserving measure to prevent ultimate chaos or ultimate order, revealing mysteries of the universe in the most unexpected places and hiding them in the most obvious places.
So we adapt all these ideas, dismiss some, embrace some, in the hope of not only finding what works for us, but perhaps even a unified theory of everything, hidden in the underlying truths which connect these ideas. A gargantuan task of interconnecting everything in search of the recipe for the simplest of dishes – love. So...
There appears to be an ever evolving balance between our own sense of morality and how society governs this. To make an impact, we must use our own moral compass while respecting the societal guidelines, yet not hesitate to break the rules in order to effect change for the world that we want.