Morality, like language, is a living thing. And like all living things it evolves. The changes that occur in that evolution will be deep or superficial, rapid or slow, depending on variables that influence the process. One of those variables, similar to a grammar scheme for a language, is codification and its rational justification.
In both language and morality, the influence of codification is artificial, unnatural, imposed from without on a living process by a relatively arbitrary rationalization. It is a theoretical construct designed, after the fact, to make it all “make sense;” the overall intent is to insure that things do not change.
But change breaks through those barriers as it must because morality evolves, and it results in an irreconcilable antinomy between practice and theory. New behavior no longer “makes sense” by the accepted standards and tends to be considered immoral. The following essay is an attempt to elucidate the traditional rational ground that once justified our western “Judaeo-Christian” moral inheritance and guaranteed its immutability. I want to understand why it no longer makes sense and ask how we should respond.
Hopefully, understanding the living process of moral evolution will make it possible for us to integrate with it as creative and responsible participants.
In a universe constructed by “Spirit,” reality is the product of “Mind” and rationality is the key to understanding it. What things do is determined by what they are, and what things are was conceived in advance by the “Mind” that designed and gave them their “purpose.” So by knowing what something was — how it was structured — one could discern its purpose and how it should act. The procedure for arriving at conclusions about human morality — how we should act — was, broadly speaking, deductive; it is what the philosophers call a priori: you reason from a known prior premise (human nature) to a posterior conclusion (right human behavior).
In a universe constructed by matter, on the other hand, reality is the result of the trial and error meanderings of an irrepressible energy to exist. What things are is determined by what has been able to survive by interacting successfully with its material environment. In a material universe the survival activity of entities determines their structure, not the other way around. Matter has only one goal and therefore there is only one “purpose” common to all things: to exist. Unlike a universe of spirit, what things are (their nature) is determined by what they do that works. By examining the way something survives, therefore, one is able to determine why it developed the structure that it has. And that structure has no other purpose than to serve as a platform for the continuation of the behavior that works. The method of discerning the relationship between nature and action in this case is inductive … and the procedures are called a posteriori: human behavior shaped and therefore explains the organism from which that behavior emanates.
The “purpose” of existence is to exist — to survive. The natural selection that produced living things of all kinds was driven exclusively by their ability to exist. Once human beings came along, however, the game changed. The emergence of language in community required larger brain power. Humankind’s imagination, exponentially expanded over that of other animals and colletively employed, became its principal tool of survival. Humans understand the sequential nature of time; they can anticipate future events and make plans together accordingly. Hence “purpose” became the key to human behavior and explains the phenomenal success of the species which now dominates the planet. With humans purpose was introduced into the universe for the first time.
Purpose is natural to human behavior, so it is natural that humans would project purpose onto the the very process of evolutionary emergence itself. In the West we have traditionally believed a “Mind” like ours made everything, and like our minds it did what it did for a purpose.
We have learned, however, that what made everything was not “Mind” but rather an irrepressible energy to exist, esse. What evolved from esse was a function of esse; by surviving, it would slowly develop those structures that would allow it to do what was necessary to continue to be-here, to survive.
This means that it was human behavior in society that slowly sculpted the hominid body and its psychic characteristics out of the granite potential of our simian ancestors; it was not the other way around. Human social behavior is morality; hence we say that it was our moral choices beginning in the distant past that shaped what we are. Humans are moral beings because they decided long ago that for human society to survive, sustain its individual members and thrive, “moral” behavior was demanded. Our life in society made us “human.”
This was not an instantaneous process. These constructions have taken place over eons of geologic time and they are obviously still a work in progress. The first species of homo, homo erectus, a direct ancestor of homo sapiens, emerged from the australopithecines 2.4 million years ago and human behavior in society has been evolving ever since, refining itself by prioritizing the choices that work to protect and enhance human-life-in-society. Our body and mind was given its current size, shape, physical features and psychic predispositions by that process. Many of our special characteristics, like the physical forms of our genders and our sense of the sacred come from there. Everything we are is a combination of our organic inheritance and human choice in society.
The “selections” made in this regard were not exclusively empathic. The absence of any subspecies of homo other than ours suggests that our brains were originally xenophobic — programmed for the visceral rejection of others, hominid or not, that did not share our identity. It was the way we survived; it worked for us and so xenophobia was “selected.” It’s no surprise, then, that beginning in the 16th century these same brains slaughtered, brutalized, enslaved, and exploited dark-skinned “heathen”peoples all over the globe creating inequities that are with us still; it confirms the survival etiology of our organic structures. If our morality now condemns such practices, it is because they are no longer seen as conducive to collective survival; but in the 1500’s no amount of “deduction from Natural Law” or Catholic belief and practice had any deterrent effect on the baptized “conquerors” of New Spain and the colonizers that came after them. Even after the issue was publicly debated by Catholic theologians before Phillip II in the 1540’s, the practice of encomienda, “christianizing slavery,” was upheld as “moral.” So much for the rational deduction of morality from the principles of natural law.
Morality is what works for us
I am talking about the fundamental direction that development takes in a material universe; development does not come rationally reasoned from the top down, it goes non-rationally from the bottom up. What works, survives, whether it makes sense or not; that’s how things evolve. And the structural variations that work better will endure and eventually displace the others leaving a trail of what may appear to be rationally designed modifications.
I am trying to enunciate the general principles of organic construction and therefore a way of understanding the character of the entities that have evolved in our universe of matter, and that includes us. Evolution explains reality at all times and at all levels of development. It is as true for us today as it was 2.4 million years ago. Behavior that guarantees survival determines genetics; and genetics establishes the parameters of potential future behavior — in the case of humans, it determines the possible moral choices in the struggles of societal survival still to come. While there is always a mutual causality between choice and genetics, successful survival behavior remains the heuristic priority. That means that purpose and choice, albeit highly conditioned and certainly not in the short run, guide the process.
A moral code is the pragmatic result of human beings “muddling through” life-in-society and, over time, deciding together what works and what doesn’t work. The biblical code that we inherited — do not kill, do not steal, do not covet your neighbors wife or goods, do not lie, respect your parents — was the result of that same process of trial and error coming to conclusions of increasing consensus among the individuals of our social /cultural continuum. The “ten” commandments were a compendium of what was working when Exodus was redacted in the 6th century bce. “God” did not promulgate them. “God” was called on to justify and sacralize the existing social order and its self-understanding. And it is important to emphasize, “religion,” the fear and exclusive worship of the tribe’s “gods,” was an integral part of it. It should not surprise us that it still is. In the ancient past we survived by clan and tribe; we are predisposed to protect and advance them. Universalism is the growing effect of gloablization, not its cause.
Morality is not a matter of rational principles inferred by analyzing “human nature” and determining its “purpose.” There is no “natural law,” and the only purpose of human life, as for all life, is to exist. How existence can be achieved and enhanced for all in the huge complex societies that we have developed to protect ourselves from the elements and from the natural selfishness common to all organisms, is our morality. It is a human project. Morality is what we have decided is the “right” way to live, and as time goes by our organisms are shaped by our decisions. If human survival has moved from tribe to global civilization, our bodies and instincts have not. In time they will.
Parenthetically: just as there is no “natural law” embedded in human nature by a rational “God” that must be obeyed, so too there is no “natural law” of the jungle implanted by evolution to which we must surrender. I am not calling for a Nietzschean return to primal forces — the substitution of one “natural law” for another. I am saying there is no natural “law” of any kind; we create the law we want to live by and, in the long run, we create ourselves.
We are organically conditioned by the past choices our species has made, but only relatively. Selected predispositions like xenophobia that served survival in the past will become meaningless in time because as our collectivities expand and overlap the “tribe” will become all-inclusive. We already see that process under way. If the new ethnic inclusiveness survives, in time the organic substrate will catch up and xenophobia will be “de-selected.” It will take a long time, but it will happen.
Morality is only secondarily what we should do, primarily it is who we want to be, and tribal religion has, up to now, always been the principal tool for articulating and implementing it. It seems likely that that will also change and I believe we are seeing it beginning right before our eyes: tribal religion will be replaced by a universal vision of right behavior. This evolving process holds true in all areas. We can also anticipate a change in the secondary sex characteristics of the human genders; if present trends are any indication of what the future holds, la différence will eventually disappear. As they did in the past, over time our choices will shape our bodies and our minds. That’s the way things work in a material universe.
I am trying to establish the physical / metaphysical ground for how we should think about morality. It is admittedly a speculative discussion but it has some immediate practical implications.
The first is that morality is a collective human responsibility, both in its design and its implementation. It does not come down to us from “God,” the State, or the State’s “Church.” Morality is the collective “survival strategy” of a self-conscious human community; the ultimate accountability belongs to the whole community. State and Church are subordinate instruments that the community has created to carry out its designs. Clarifying these relationships eliminates any temptation to abdicate our responsibility to some “sacred authority.” Morality is what we want it to be; it will shape the kind of society we want to live in and the kind of persons we become. Morality is human purpose in action at the deepest, most creative level.
The second is that this process of “muddling through” or “trial and error” continues to be the principal method by which society determines acceptable behavior. The popularity of TV shows like “Judge Judy” and the many talk shows and soap operas are evidence of the public’s perennial fascination with the process of deciding what is right and wrong in situations that never existed before.
There is no area more illustrative of this evolving process than western sexual mores. That the taboos and restrictions to sexual activity had all along been determined by “what worked” is confirmed by the sea change in sexual morality that has occurred in the last century ushered in by the availability of the means of avoiding pregnancy. Once it became possible for sexual relations to serve as a vehicle of intense interpersonal familiarity without having children, sexual mores began to change. “Having children” no longer defined “family” and therefore non-reproductive sexual relationships, including people of the same gender, or the elderly (a laughable event a generation ago), became workable realities. It is interesting in this regard that “non-reproductive” religious communities, like convents and monasteries which had always existed alongside the conventional family, did so on the condition that sexual expression be sublimated or repressed in service to “higher” goals. These communities provided an alternative “family” for many who did not want to make their life’s work the rearing of children in a conventional husband-wife relationship. Disconnecting sexuality from reproduction severed its iron link to the conventional family, and combined with a new awareness of the “spiritual” dimension in sexual expression, terminated the mystique of virginity as the high road to Christian perfection. Together they conspired to bring about the sudden disappearance of these communities.
In hindsight it is now apparent that the “purpose” of human sexuality as “reproduction of the species” had all along been the naïvely physiological definition of a pervasive human energy that took many forms beyond the specifically genital and reproductive. Freud saw sexuality intimately linked to the life-force itself, which he called eros. Spinoza called it conatus, and I contend it is the source of our sense of the sacred. Freud claimed that the creative employment of sexual energy was the very driving force in the construction of not only Western culture but of human civilization itself. Our “muddling through” since the end of the 19th century has resulted in a broad consensus: far from being narrowly specific to reproduction, sexual energy is seen as the general élan that pervades all of human life and is responsible for social bonding and creative achievement of all kinds. This explains why sexual expression outside of the confines of the reproductive relationship (but not outside interpersonal responsibility) is no longer seen as damaging to social and individual well-being. What is considered “moral” in this regard has changed significantly even during the lifetime of many of us. Morality is the pragmatist’s quintessential case in point: moral “truth” is what is determined — by consensus and over time — to work for human life in society, on this earth, in this universe.
Will future developments prove some of these these changes to have been premature, taken on too little evidence, insufficient data? Perhaps. But then they will be reassessed and adjusted. Herbert Marcuse’s rejection of “repressive desublimation” in One Dimensional Man was an attempt at exactly such an adjustment. It confirms the thesis: it is the accumulation of collective experience over time that determines moral norms. Morality is community wisdom. Any imposition of moral norms — their codification — is understood to be ultimately tentative, not final, relative to current understanding, not absolute. Morally normative behavior will evolve as long as humans are material organisms that survive socially in a material universe.
I am not talking about some new way to determine moral absolutes. I am saying there are no moral absolutes. “Thou shalt not kill,” for instance, is currently contradicted by war, pre-emptive assassination, “collateral damage,” self-defense, capital punishment, the decision to withdraw life support from those who cannot live on their own, medical triage and therapeutic abortion, among others — all considered legitimate. 160 million people died in wars in the 20th century. This number of people killed intentionally by other people sanctioned by the highest (reigious) authorities belies any claim that the commandment not to kill is an absolute that derives from “human nature.” Killing is no more “unnatural” than altruism. Both are human choices. The rejection of killing is a moral goal we have set for ourselves to guarantee social harmony … and it is obviously far from being realized. The general mandate to avoid killing human beings is solidly in place, but it must be acknowledged that it is relative, not absolute, and therefore more of the nature of a guiding ideal than a commandment from “God” or derived from the predispositions of the human organism — and exactly the same can be said for altruism.
Our tradition claims that “God” issued ten commandments which we are internally obligated to obey because they allegedly correspond to the “purpose” embedded in human nature and so they reflect “natural law.” We were taught that other requirements are not “natural” but are rather conventional, arbitrary, imposed by society; they are laws, like traffic regulations, whose coercive power derives primarily from social agreement and fear of sanctions and not from any internal compulsion to obey.
One would think “natural law” would be internally compelling; that’s what “natural” means. Augustine thought so too, and when he was faced with the fact that we regularly flout the “commandments” he concluded that human nature must have been corrupted. The reasoned principles of morality should have been as clear and effortless as eating a good meal; but we find them difficult to discern and even more difficult to put into practice. Augustine built an entire world-view on the presumption that we humans were corrupt from birth and morally impotent; we needed the miraculous intervention of “God” just to lead a moral life. His mistake was thinking moral norms were “natural law,” instead of what they are: the counsels of the community. He did not understand that our bodies were structured by evolution, not by “God,” and our morals, ideals projected by long experience, consensus and choice. What is natural to humankind, as to all forms of life, is not some rational “law” but survival and the enhancement of life. Augustine was scandalized by desire and selfishness because he did not know, as we do, that we are organic xenophobic survivors in a material world who have embarked on an “unnatural” adventure in empathy, altruism and rationality by our own choice. Morality is what we want, not what “nature” wants; morality is a struggle for us precisely because it is not “natural.” But the choice is ours, and we have to assert our rights of ownership.
These two ways of looking at things — that they come from “Mind” or matter — differ as night from day. The behavior in each case may look the same from the outside, but the self-understanding, the autonomy, the responsibility, the social collaboration, and most importantly the self-esteem and empowerment, are not. Self-esteem and empowerment, to my mind, correspond to the core of Jesus’ message: the sacred value and autonomous responsibility of the ordinary human being. His message undermined the terror tactics employed by the Roman Empire to control its conquests; it’s the reason they killed him. Augustine’s vision, for its part, generates alienation, isolation, self-loathing and dependency … and from there fear and obeisance before dehumanizing power. This is not insignificant. The very structure of our morality should integrate with our sanity and “spiritual growth” … to treat them as separate is to compartmentalize the human being. The rationalized morality of our tradition has been treated as an isolated quasi-legal phenomenon — a matter of individual “crime and punishment” — when it should be integral to an evolving personal maturity-in-society. Our ideals were used as “laws” imposed by “God” from without, not goals set by us, and they splintered us interiorly and condemned us.
It’s time we abandoned this antiquated thinking and put it in the museums where it belongs. We need to encourage behavior that guarantees the sustainability of the human family nested in its fragile planet home. This will entail a number of modifications to traditional morality.
Morality is intrinsically social and ecological
Principal among them is the obligation to embrace our collective responsibility. Morality is not a private matter between the “soul” and “God.” The welfare of society as a whole, necessarily including its environmental matrix without which it cannot survive, is the focus of morality. That means that social and ecological justice is not some optional preference over and above one’s “normal” obligations. It is not the hobby of political junkies with the freedom to select from a range of dubious “values” some of which are crassly individualistic denials of social responsibility. The “ten commandments” have often been cited
in support of these individualistic attitudes. But the ten commandments are the primitive moral achievements of an ancient agricultural people. They are not sufficient for us today. Granted they are implicitly social because they address how individuals are to treat one another but they omit any positive requirements for social living and environmental responsibility. Moral obligation goes well beyond the classic ten commandments and their direct implications.
Another modification is the acknowledgement that morality is relative to circumstances. Moral norms function as guides and ideals and not as absolutes. Does the practice of “situation ethics” open the door to moral mayhem? Not at all. We are not dealing with some new phenomenon here; I contend that people have always “muddled through;” it was never true that we applied absolute norms; that was a manipulative fiction. Absolutes were the abstractions of the intellectual elite that followed logically from creationist essentialist premises, but they were never applied as such in practice; they were a bludgeon which the authorities kept on hand for “crowd control;” they function as ideals not as absolutes when they are used for conscientious discernment.
People are naturally moral because they are programmed to find and do “what works” in society; it’s the way they survive. If they seem to flout the moral code it is because as it currently exists it does not correspond to their fundamental needs as human beings or it is being imposed in a social context where survival requires they do things that otherwise they would not. Natural law is a fallacy; there is no such thing. The value of having moral norms is that they encourage seekers to look for answers to their unique situation in certain directions that the community has already explored and recommends; but these recommendations are not immutable. What’s moral is what works for social well-being now, not some traditional practice that only worked for people who are no longer alive. Over time, the community discovers and decides what does and what doesn’t achieve that goal for all concerned. But in all cases the goals and the decisions are ours.
In a universe planned by a rational “God,” as we once imagined it, whether created directly by fiat or indirectly through evolution,what things are had to be personally intended. It was “God” who “willed” their nature, and also, therefore, the way they should act. It’s no surprise, then, that even though human morality was known to have social benefit, it was embraced primarily as an element of the human individual’s (and the tribe’s) relationship with “God.” It became part of the “matter” of the sacred contract between “God” and his people, under the purview of religion. Ritual and morality together were taken as the visible display before the world of the honor that this particular people had for their “God,” and it became the condition for “God’s” benevolent providence in return. Obedience to the divine person who “saved” and protected the tribe was a sacred responsibility of the individual. The violation of morality was only indirectly considered a crime against the welfare of the community; it threatened the community because it was, first of all, a “sin” against the “God” by whose favor it thrived.
In the universe as we now know it to be, however, created by the survival struggles of matter, the divine principle — archē, LIFE — is resident in matter as its existential energy. It is the very drive to survive that is the locus of the “sacred.” It is where LIFE takes on flesh and displays itself. The “sense of the sacred” — i.e., that humans cherish what provides and supports their existence — derives directly from the conatus, the force of LIFE immanent, distributively, in every particle of matter and gathered, exponentially intensified and ultimately “personified,” in each complex organism made of it. Thus in our material universe the only “will” that such a “God” could possibly have, if one were to insist on the use of those terms and categories, is that organisms do what is necessary to survive. To survive is the only “natural law.” In such a universe no one, except the seriously insane, has any trouble discerning and implementing natural law.
It is immediately clear, however, that we are speaking metaphorically. For neither “law” nor “commandment” are any longer relevant terms for responsible human action, for “obedience” is not a possible valence between LIFE and the human beings who bear it. LIFE is immanent in matter: it is not other than the organism it enlivens and it is not conditioned on behavior. LIFE comes free and, self-destructive behavior aside, no amount of “immoral” behavior will cause it to withdraw. Because it is not a rational “other” it is not “personal” in any ordinary sense of the term. Therefore “obedience,” in a material universe, is no longer a literal religious category because it does not correspond to the nature of the relationship between LIFE — the divine principle — and man. This is a sea change in the fundamental understanding of our relationship to “God,” ourselves, society and the environmental matrix in which we are nested. If the divine principle is not-other-than-myself it makes no demands that are not already my own and no “obedience” is possible. Obedience can only be a metaphor.
For those who have been accustomed by their tradition to literally identify obedience to a divine person as a “sacred” act whose performance made one sacred, such a change can be more than challenging, it can be immobilizing. It seems to imply the elimination of the very possibiity of connecting to the “sacred” at all. It is not easy to “think outside the box” when it comes to personal relationship, and it is the “personal” aspect that is under threat here. One obeys a maximally superior person. Trying to imagine a relationship to “God” that is NOT characterized by obedience bypasses the very categories with which we define ourselves as human: we are human because we are persons and we cannot imagine relating to “God” otherwise. So to change the basic structure of our moral obligations threatens our understanding of who we are.
If “tradition” and “what we are used to” were the only considerations here, there would be little hesitation about what we would prefer. But, fortunately or unfortunately, besides being “persons” we have a connatural relationship to impersonal truth; it comes with the organism. It was “selected” because it helped us survive. We are drawn to conform our minds to it no matter what our personal preferences. The “truth” in this case is that science belies the possibility of conceiving “God” as a person who rationally “chooses” to create the universe, either proximately through a direct command as creationists believe, or remotely through the use of evolution as a “shaping tool” designed to accomplish “his” “will.” Science has discovered that there is no rational plan discernible in either the emergence of pre-life physical / chemical combinations or living organic genotypes throughout cosmic history. The same holds true for “providence:” there is no rational plan in the ongoing management of the events in the cosmos. Everything that occurs outside of conscious choice is the result of the power of material energy exclusively driven and steered by its hunger and ability to exist — the energy resident in matter. The violent interaction of pre-living aggregates of matter, as in earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados and other natural occurrences, are random. They are not planned and cannot be prevented. They are not the result of providence.
This turbulent “drive and ability to exist” also seethes and roils at the core of the human organism. It is where LIFE and the human being are more than in direct contact, it is where they are one. We call it, following Spinoza, the conatus: the palpable, irrepressible force of life, the instinct for self preservation expressed and on display in the human organism feeding, protecting and reproducing itself. The conatus of the rational individual is thus the ultimate source and ground of individual autonomy, the social imperative and the sense of the sacred. If there is any relationship that is “sacred” in our material universe it is right here in the conatus, “where the rubber meets the road,” where LIFE takes on flesh and displays itself for all to see.
In marked contrast, in the traditional “spiritual” universe that we imagined was created and run by a divine “Mind,” the instinct for self-preservation and self-enhancement, far from being the sacred meeting place of LIFE and man, was mistrusted and disesteemed, along with its derivatives: the drive to survive, consume and reproduce. We have been slowly emerging from these cultural prejudices over the last centuries, but they had been firmly in place for two millennia and still exercise a profound influence on the imagery that dominates our thinking. In many cases the moral behavior once mandated by them has been transcended in practice but the theoretical rationale for the change lags behind leaving the moral agent unsure and unintegrated. Without a guiding idea of how to interpret these instincts and use them constructively in society, the corresponding behavior often suffers from excess, sometimes in one direction, sometimes another.
This forces the community to assess the relative value of the various behavioral “experiments” under way, and over time and by consensus new codified norms of behavior begin to congeal. But the “muddling through” remains a problematic procedure for those who were accustomed to commandments that come down from on high which one “obeys.” The new understanding of the sacred nexus of “God and man” in the conatus, however, provides exactly the moral clarification that makes “muddling through” more than acceptable, it makes it an act of creative responsibility and collaboration with LIFE. The sense of the sacred, derived from the “divine-human” conatus, brings its centered and mindful energies to bear on the human decision-making process. It allows for the broadening of the power of discernment and identifies its ultimate goals as more than just the xenophobic protection of the individual and its local tribe.
“Obedience,” the traditional practice, represented a deflective appropriation of responsibility. By that I mean the one who obeys is necessarily choosing to behave in accordance with someone else’s appreciation of what morality demands. The one who obeys acts responsibly precisely by deferring to another’s view of responsible behavior. There is nothing wrong with that, but it implies the inability of the obeying subjects to make their own moral evaluation appropriate to the situation. It is good for children to obey, and they know it.
In an ideal scenario, where there is no lack of knowledge and information on the part of the one following orders, obedience presumes only a lack of perspective. The “general” person, allegedly in a “position” to see the whole situation in a way that the “private” person cannot, gives the orders to which the other submits. This example makes no adverse judgment on the moral capacity of any individual because the commander-obeyer relationship is entirely due to the range of vision provided by “position.” When the “positions” are reversed the erstwhile inferior will have the wider range of vision and therefore will give orders as appropriately as the former superior. This presumes the positions are reversible.
But the indentification of responsibility with obedience alone, as is the case in a “God-commanded” morality exclusively administered by a hierarchy, contemplates a permanent state of moral myopia and impotence. The “positions” are never reversed. If the only way someone can be said to be acting responsibly is that they obey, it implies that they are intrinsically incapable of discernibng and/or implementing moral behavior. Such a person is not expected to ever achieve full human autonomy.
In a universe where “God’s” agents command, everyone, regardless of perspective, obeys. Contrarywise, in our material universe, where there are no “divine commandments” because “God” did not plan the structure of human nature, everyone, regardless of the lack of “position,” is called upon to collaborate in discerning, through the process of trial and error, what works for the well-being of the community. The claim of “private” persons that they were only carrying out the orders of the “generals” no longer serves to exonerate immoral behavior. “War” as the state sanctioned mass killing of those who are officially declared to be “enemies,” can no longer be justified on the sole basis of “obedience” to legitimate authority. The trial and error results of millennia of human experience indicates a growing consensus across the globe: war is immoral. War has been delegitimized by the common consent of the human family. That it has not been codified is simply the baleful effect of the irresponsibility of the entrenched ruling class. In the long run universal consensus will rule. This is the way morality evolves and comes to be codified a material universe. We live in such a universe, and the autonomous responsibilities of each and all to collaborate in community survival are finally coming to be acknowledged. It is the ground of a community comprised of free individuals. “Democracy” and other forms of true social cooperation are impossible without it.
It is interesting in this regard that not only did Jesus’ moral preaching bypass any reference to “obedience” as the essence of the sacred relationship, but he himself conspicuouly sought out the companionship of those reputed to be the disobedient: sinners, prostitutes, lepers and other maimed individuals who bore their malady as a sure sign of “sin.” (“Lord, who sinned, this man or his fathers, that he should have been born blind?” Jn 9:1). Jesus’ earliest followers, those who offered the first interpretations of his significance, declared that the derogation of the supreme place of “law” in deciding right behavior and a right relationship to “God” was an essential element in his message. Jesus appealed to the spontaneous sense of “humanity” within people. “Humanity” transcended “law” and was to be used to discern right behavior.
Why did he do that? Consider the dynamic that is set in motion for those considered “disobedient”: they have lost all outside reference that would give their behavior sacred status and sanctifying power. To connect with the sacred now they have nothing but themselves. Perhaps this is why Jesus found “sinners” so special: having despaired of any hope for justification from outside they were ripe for the discovery he was trying to elicit with his message: that the sacred is already present at the core of our being. They were no longer distracted by the illusion of a sky-hook; they were thrown back on own own center as the only possible source of the sacred. That’s exactly what Jesus was trying to communicate. That turn inward produces a different kind of person, with a different kind of morality, a different kind of spirituality, a different kind of sanity and a different kind of community — one born of the autonomous appropriation of collaborative responsibility. It is a vision of humanness grounded in the recognition that we are, as the emergent display of the living “God,” the source of the sacred. That, I contend, is the core of Jesus’ message. The sacred is embedded in our organismic humanity, therefore we listen to ourselves and we choose wisely.
In a material universe the point from which esse radiates has shifted from outside this world and outside the body to the organismic center, the conatus. This shift corresponds directly to where we believe the divine principle — the archē, source of existence — resides. It is not in another world populated by immortal spirits; it is immanent in this material world as the existential energy of matter itself. The fact that in our material universe the sacred is identified with the autonomous discernment and responsible implementation of morality does not militate in any way against the uninterrupted categorical supremacy of “the sacred.” It simply finds its source in a different place: right here in this world of matter activated at the intensity level of the human conatus itself.
What originally seemed like a sea-change turns out to be nothing of the sort, for we have learned that imputing the norms of morality to the will of a rational “God” was all along a metaphoric projection of the biblical authors. “God” never issued any commandments. Those claims were poetic hyperbole. The result of this awareness is that our autonomous “muddling through” can now be valued for what it is: the creative collaboration with LIFE, not the disregard for “divine commandments” that never existed. By not having “someone to obey” we do not abandon our spontaneous instinct to surrender to something greater than ourselves, we pursue that goal now through our partnership with others in the discernment and implementation of what is good for our community and we surrender, we commit ourselves to that service. Thus morality in a material universe is sacred from start to finish: from its origins in the LIFE-energized conatus to the autonomous efforts to preserve and enhance the community as the guarantor of personal survival.
Tony Equale , March 2014