Discover more from Layman Pascal
Moral Diversity & the Developmental Practice of Values
I. We, the Unprincipled.
To savagely paraphrase that superlative opening line of the Tao Te Ching:
The Values that we think we Value might not be our True Values.
The whole moral situation is a stinking mess. We are tearing our society apart in “culture wars” that invoke our (supposedly) opposed values — however nobody on either side seems to actually embody their principles.
It is utterly cliche to observe that the most vocal advocates of Christianity seem indifferent to the lessons of Christ. How many times must we watch “fiscal conservatives” run up the debt? Are not getting tired of seeing public mobs bully people in the name of tolerance & empathy? We hear every day that the universities are promoting anti-intellectualism and that the advocates of austerity are irresponsible criminals busily lining their own pockets.
At the risk of sounding like Soren Kierkegaard, the problem is not that people have the wrong values. The problem is that “having values” doesn’t matter very much.
We don’t understand our own actual values.
We cannot articulate our values accurately.
We lack the courage and strength to embody our values consistently.
A crisis of moral intelligence has beset our civilization. Our various new and traditional strategies for cultivating the power and willingness to enact our principles, have proven largely insufficient. Here’s what does not seem to work:
beating morality into the children
preaching altruistic folk ideals from religious pulpits
leaving everyone alone to have their own unchallenged personal values
arguing with people who have conflicting values
telling your values to pollsters
engaging in university thought-experiments about whether or not you’d push a guy in front of a trolley to save kids or whether safe, involuntary incest is inherently immoral just because it’s gross, etc.
shaming bad people (with the WRONG values) on social media
deplatforming people whose values you think are antithetical to your team
voting for candidates who speak to our values
If any of these worked, we would expect to see a pandemic of unforced, antifragile, moral maturation and nuance throughout our civilization. Unfortunately that is NOT what is happening…
II. Three Basic Problems
In general our failed human attitudes toward values come in three big flavors (a) only this is good (b) anything could be good (c) nothing is any good.
The first is authoritarian and narrow. It involves individuals or groups who monolithically, even violently, advocate one set of value-principles against all others. Historically, the rough imposition of a singular set of values may have helped particular communities survive (if and only if those values expressed the actual principles by which the community protects, regenerates and enhances itself). However, there are clearly other groups profitably using other values and, just as obviously, any given adaptive principle will fail over time if conditions change. We need to work developmentally with moral diversity rather than a values monoculture.
The second position is admirably pluralistic but disturbingly flat. While it does seem obvious that everyone can approach values from different angles, and with different priorities, it also seems obvious that if we leave everyone alone with the assumption that they already possess a perfectly valid personal set of values, then they most likely experience no strong and shared impulse to evolve, deepen, complexify and better embody those principles. This can lead to social narcissism, immoral indifference and a disincentivizing of moral development.
The third is a sociopathic or depressive assertion. Nothing has value. It is not so much a claim about the world as it is a confession of a person’s owns inability to connect with the (practically and aesthetically rewarding) realm of goodness. What this attitude fails to do, in a sense, is to understand the context that is implicit to their own evaluations. You can only detect that “nothing is good” if you are somehow connected to the Good. That is what enables you to make the evaluation. Nothing is valuable — compared to what? You ARE valuing something…
III. Four Solutions
Let us play the game of meta-principles. Principles about how we can more competently and satisfyingly find, intensify and enact our principles.
So my first imaginary principle-of-principles is that value is present in every evaluation. The bad implies the good. We are subconsciously polarized toward a virtue in every moment of frustration. Being pissed off at carelessness is an implied, but usually unrecognized, affirmation of care. The north pole is pulling on your compass even when you are at the south pole. What a difference it might make to recognize the positive value implied by negative experience!
So in order to discover our actual principles, the values that move us, we should inspect those areas where we are routinely frustrated by the same type of events. However this is not limited only to thing that bother us. The issue is to attempt to clarify for yourself the implied value present in any act of evaluation regardless of the quality of the evaluation. When things go poorly, then what virtue was missing? If things go well, then what virtue was present?
The second principle of principles is to harvest contradictions. We might also call this a meta-principle of remorse. You suffer remorse when your action was in contradiction to one of your values. This gives us energy to work toward enacting our principles and helps emotionally clarify them. However we typically void this energy immediately by shifting our focus away from the perception that we have failed. The instinct to defend, reframe or fix the problem usually activates far too quickly. So we need to become intentional in our desire to find, accept and “stay with” the peculiar form of suffering that implicates us. This is closer to the artist’s angst about having imperfectly realizes their inspiration than it is to self-blame and low self-esteem. The point is not to get stuck in a negative self-definition but to fully receive the energy of the dissonance that is located in situations that feel unresolved, imperfect or mis-aligned with your principles.
The third meta-principle is the necessity for intensified abstract clarification. You will have noticed that the great moral philosophers speak in terms of the Good, True, Beautiful, etc. These are very abstract clarifications of value. You may want an apple in this instant but, in principle, you want deliciousness & nutrition. The desirable qualities must be abstracted — a la Socrates — from the local instantiations. This becomes the attempt to articulate to yourself an algorithm or aphorism that describes a virtue principle that probably operates to achieve these desirable qualities from out of many situations that might initially appear to be quite diverse.
This could be within your own experience or between people. Imagine a long intimate relationship discussion in which you discover, oddly late into the conversation, that everything you’ve been saying is some version of “I just want to be loved.” And now, having had that abstract clarification, you also start to see that the person you are speaking also wants this very generalized same thing.
Imagine you are watching the news. There is an apparent public argument between the advocates of liberty and advocates of justice. Yet it seems that they share the following proposition: the quality of life in our republic will collapse if the liberty/justice balance is not correct. You have taken another step in the abstraction clarification of values when you see that multiple positions, within yourself or between people, are expressed a shared, more general, underlying virtue-principle.
And by repeatedly encountering, or contemplatively pondering, an abstractly clarified value you can experience it more profoundly. That means more intensely, for longer periods, and with more parts of yourself. This is what allows the value to be more potently inscribed upon your neural architecture.
The fourth meta-principle is whim fulfillment. I use the word “whim” because I want to emphasize how delicate, half-formed and unnecessary our principles can be. The do not appear in our minds as commandments carved in stone but rather as whispers and potentials hinting at a divergence from our usual behavior. As they emerge through pondering and abstract clarification, they move from subconscious ideas or vague senses into sturdier pieces of conscious self-understanding.
If we ‘had to’ act on these things then we already would be doing so. We do not have to be virtuous. We do not have to follow our own principles. It would better if we followed them but it is not being forced upon us. This is why social intimidation and peer pressure to follow particular customs is seldom an effective way of producing moral intelligence. It leaves out the entire experimental discipline of clarifying your moral instincts and learning to embody them.
Embodiment is what this meta-principle chiefly concerns. We are always hearing, in our minds, from the voices of our principles AND we are always taking actions. It is odd how seldom we deliberately take actions based on our principles. This does not happen automatically.
There is a risk — because you always forgo some other option of action. There is an effort — because you have to “try” to do it. There is a remembrance — because you have to hold the principle in mind/heart while performing the deed.
Make yourself act on an values-insights and sacrifice something in that act.
How do we discover, deepen & more thoroughly embody our principles?
That’s the question. I have proposed a few principles about how to approach our principles but perhaps you can better?