Archive for January, 2010

Thoughts on Morality

January 28, 2010

In our culture, morality is an issue regarding codes of social behavior.  This is pretty much limited exclusively to the manner of our interactions with our neighbors, and this makes sense to us.  One thing we neglect, however, is the manner of our interactions with our descendents.

Think about this: if something we do would adversely affect out children, we wouldn’t do it, right?  This is basic to us.  Of course, we would necessarily have to be in some sort of personal interaction with our children, if we even have them, right? Same with our grandchildren, and if we are lucky enough to see them, our great-grandchildren as well.  But what we consider as “interaction” with these descendents is purely a product of direct inter-personal interchange.  We only think about how our living habits might affect our children, grandchildren, and so on in a direct, tangible way.   You wouldn’t just quit your job because you hated it, for example, not without some sort of contingency plan.  I mean, you’ve got kids to feed. Right? But what we don’t do is this:  we don’t necessarily consider how our living habits would indirectly affect those descendants that we may never even hope to see.   Let’s take your great-great-great-great grandkids.  That’s six whopping generations of separation.  Your great-grandkids are only three generations removed.  Double that.  Hard to think of what the world will be like when my great-great-great-great grandkids are my age. Shoot, I just found out the other day that my great-great grandmother (my grandfather’s grandmother) told my granddad first-hand accounts from the civil war!  What must the world have been like for her grandmother?

That was six generations behind me.  I shudder to think of the world in six more generations.  For one thing, the way that people—not to mention entire nations—communicate with one another has been fundamentally revolutionized at least twice since my grandparents’ parents were my age.  First the telephone, and even within my lifetime, the internet.  Not to mention radio and television, or the many other ways our world has irreversibly changed with the invention of automobiles, aeroplanes, jet-propulsion, the advent of the Age of Oil, and atomic energy… all in the last one hundred years.

And yet, how much have our ideas changed about the way that we interact with the planet, even as those interactions have become progressively more and more consumptive?  Add to that the rate at which the human population is mushrooming all over the planet—I start to wonder if we are not headed for some sort of invisible brick wall as a civilization.

If that is the case—even if it is a remote possibility—I think we need to drastically reconsider our priorities.  If the ways in which we now interact with our planet would adversely affect our children, would we change them?  What about our children’s children, or theirs, or the two succeeding generations?  Have we even thought about the possible condition of our planet in their time?

I have been considering our impact on the world we will leave for our descendents six generations away.  This is admittedly a staggering consideration, given our inherited half-life of technological advancement.  But what of a further generation?

Many native cultures in the Americas (yes, there were many—hundreds of different and very distinct native cultures existed here before the coming of the White Man, as distinct from one another as Americans from Germans, Greeks, or Russians are from one another) felt that, with consideration to the seventh generation down the line, if any decision they made would adversely—that is, negatively—affect those descendents, it was an immoral choice. Such a choice was not just inadvisable, unwise, or foolish, it was fundamentally wrong.  One thing I take away from this is that youth and future generations were extremely important to native cultures.  We could learn a lesson from this.

Today we see morality as a code dealing almost exclusively with sexual conduct.   Don’t have sex before marriage, don’t have sex with people who you couldn’t hypothetically procreate with, try not to enjoy it too much, and for heaven’s sake, don’t talk about it in front of your kids! It’s a reprehensible thing that we should hide from them until unavoidable, but at the same time it’s sacred and it shouldn’t be “perverted” by non-traditional forms or practices like homosexuality.  To talk about it is scandalous, and—hold the phone.  All the while, it’s the one thing that is on everyone’s mind, and it’s the key to the future of the species… and it has all this baggage attached to it?  God forgive us for dressing a blessing up as a sin.

Morality should not be so narrowly defined.  For one thing, as a Christian who is critically considering the teachings of Jesus, it’s important to consider that Jesus didn’t talk about sexuality nearly as much as he talked about economics (it’s true, read for yourself!) and if he could have imagined how distorted our modern perceptions of sex and sexuality could have become, I wonder that he wouldn’t have said more to clear the air.   Perhaps he didn’t think it was so bloody important in the grand scheme of things.  After all, it’s what consenting people do in the privacy of their own homes, isn’t it? And aren’t there more pressing issues of morality to talk about, like poverty, greed, incivility and the militaristic oppression of people for the sake of political power?

Perhaps Jesus thought that there were just more important things to consider as the pinnacle of moral consideration than sexuality.  But we moderns, we “children of the Enlightenment,” have become so wrapped up in issues of the “right” way and the “wrong” way to love one another, that we no longer love one another as much as we could, should, and would if these wedge topics didn’t exist to divide us.

And let’s not forget about our darling dear descendents.  We were talking about them, remember?  If what we are doing on this planet right now is important enough to merit the inheritance of our descendents six—no, seven—generations from now, then we ought to start thinking about the way we are going to leave it for them.  Our current trends (that is, those of humanity in general, but specifically those of America) of consumption, pollution, and violence in the ever-shrinking international community seem to me to be a death-knell for our great-grandchildren’s great-great grandchildren.  As I have heard it said eloquently before, we are stealing from our future in order to make a quick profit in the present.  If the legality of abortion is as big a human rights issue as some make it out to be (and I’m not saying that abortion isn’t an issue, y’all) think about this: How many millions, how many billions of unborn babies might we unknowingly murder in this way, if we neglect to consider the way we will leave the planet for our descendents?

When I really stop to think, hard, about what morality means to me, it seems as if the entire basis of the way we live our lives—that is, the foundational set of assumptions that we base our lifestyles upon—has been corrupted and immoral for centuries, and is in dire need of repentance.  That is, we are in dire need of an awakening to the wrong that has been done—and that we continue to do out of ignorance or indifference—and we are in dire need of a transformational change in behavior which arises out of that awakening; this is what I mean when I say the word “repentance.”  Not “oh, God, please forgive me so that I can feel better now, and go on to do exactly the same thing again tomorrow and the next day,” but rather, “Wow. This stuff needs changing; God, help me to change it as You would have me change it, so as to make this world a more perfect reflection the world You want for us all.”  It’s funny, but the phrasing I used there captures the meaning of the Lord’s prayer so much better than the King James translation we are all so used to:  “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”  But that’s what Jesus is saying: “Repent, be forgiven, and sin no more;” Recognize the problem and how you fit into it, realize what you can do to change it, do that to the best of your ability, and feel no guilt at the ill you committed unknowingly.

I think that we can start by considering the way in which we, as a species, are continuously, powerfully, and irreversibly changing the condition of the world that we will hand down to our children, and our children’s children, and their children, and theirs, and so on, ad infinitum, if you feel like it.  And then we can work, honestly and with determined persistence, to change it for the better.  They are our children, even thought we will never even see them.  And that’s the moral thing to do.