2018-12-24

A Soul-Food Model Of Morality


"It is possible to oppose evil without doing violence." Her voice held the simplicity of someone stating an obvious truth.
Perrin grunted sourly, then immediately muttered an apology. "Would it were as you say, Mistress Leya."

"Violence harms the doer as much as the victim," Leya said placidly. "That is why we flee those who harm us, to save them from harm to themselves as much for our own safety. If we do violence to oppose evil, soon we would be no different from what we struggle against. It is with the strength of our belief that we fight the Shadow."
-- Robert Jordan, The Dragon Reborn, pp. 38-39.
If your quest to attain a good end requires that you first do something evil from which you expect the good to come, you have fatally undermined your quest from the get-go. This seemingly obvious proposition may well be the most poorly understood and most often rejected moral precept in the world today.
-- Robert Higgs, Facebook post, December 20, 2018.

I happened to read both of these things within an hour of each other, and it set my mind ablaze for a while.

Coming from the Midwestern United States as I do, I am used to viewing morality from a sort of "redemption framework." In the typical Judeo-Islamo-Christian framework, we do good so that we can meet our salvation in the afterlife. All sin stems from the actions of Adam in the Garden of Eden, and we are doomed to live as imperfect sinners, struggling to be worthy of the love (and rewards) of our god.

Most people I know think of ethics this way, even if they don't believe in any Abrahamic religion; even if they don't believe in any religion at all. The Western view of ethics is that we are struggling against our nature to be better than we are naturally inclined to be. All ethics in Western philosophy are presented in this way. Left to our own devices, we would behave no more ethically than the beasts, so we turn to moral principles and ethical philosophies to improve upon our nature. Doing so successfully means, if not salvation, then at least moral achievement.

There are many strengths to this approach to morality, and I don't mean to criticize it in the slightest. The two quotations I cited above, however, present a way of looking at morality that offers a strength that is not readily available from the traditional Western framework; or at least, one that hasn't played a large role in Western ethics since the time of the Stoics.

An alternate way of seeing ethical behavior is in considering what it does for your "soul" (broadly construed). In this model, good behavior -- ethical behavior -- nurtures your spirit, while bad or sinful behavior is self-corrupting. The Hindus and Buddhists have the concept of karma to serve them here: the more you exhibit good moral behaviors and right thinking, the more it fosters goodness from within you. The more you exhibit bad behaviors and thinking, the more it sort of poisons your life.

It's possible to think of this in a mystical sense, but that's not how I mean it. It is generally true that if you walk around with a smile on your face, being kind to people, your mood improves. One of the key findings of happiness research is that the more a person lives for something larger than himself, the more a person chooses to serve his friends, family and community, the happier he tends to be. The more a person keeps to himself, dwells on negative thoughts, and/or pursues hedonistic pleasure-seeking and pain-aversion, the more unhappy that person tends to feel. It's simple cause-and-effect. As in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the worse is the life we choose to lead, the uglier our picture gets. The better the life we lead, the better the picture.

This is a useful way of thinking about ethics because it reminds us of the journey as well as the destination. Moral valor is not necessarily an achievement, but rather a lifelong set of choices that build upon each other. Start with small decisions to do the right thing, and gradually build up to the point where doing the right thing becomes second nature. And every bad choice you make takes you marginally in the other direction, toward moral poverty.

This need not be either-or, of course. We can see morality both ways, or neither way. But there are strengths to every kind of moral reasoning, so it's nice to keep this particular moral model in mind.