Shallow Morality vs Deep Ethics
The Terror of the Situation
Biologically speaking, human beings may be devolving. Scientists have pointed out that the human brain is actually shrinking, that our bodies weaker and more disconnected from reality, and that we are more prone to addiction and mental illness than ever before. Furthermore, have human beings become what George Ivan Gurdjieff called, ‘machine man’? That is, entirely mechanical and omnicidal creatures, increasingly vulnerable to totalitarian modes of thinking, unable to live beyond the collective superego. So what is all this talk then, about the ‘evolution of consciousness’ but a bunch of wishful thinking?
It’s good to look at what Gurdjieff called ‘the terror of the situation’, to gaze into the abyss and horrors that make up humanity’s lot. However, perhaps we are reaching a turning point, and something is awakening in us. Maybe for the ‘weak animal’ that the human being is, our vulnerability is also our strength. What if we are in the situation, similar to our early days on the African Savanna, where we need to become incredibly clever and wise again? The existential predators are all around us; and yet at the same time, we have created a new kind of powerful and dangerous God called the internet, an uber library and collective memory bank of human wisdom and folly. It is the kind of God that bestows on us amazing powers, either to destroy the world, or totally re-invent civilisation.
There are two types of human stories more or less: the comedy and the tragedy, the romance and the irony, the utopian and dystopian story. One is of the Exodus and voyage to the promised land, a bittersweet tale of discovery and heroic sacrifice. The other is of the more modern Hamlet, with its fatalism and exalted philosophical pessimism. The former is communal—the story of the tribe; the latter is individualistic—the story of the alienated human being. Obviously both stories are true. However, the dystopian romance encourages a gleeful herd nihilism on one end, and solitary existentialism on the other. Have we not had enough of this gloomy existential 20th Century dualism?
Grand narratives are neither old fashioned nor oppressive, contrary to what post modernist Jean-François Lyotard thought. Actually, we are always creating them and can’t live without them. Without a big positive story we are bound to create a big negative story: the story of a roaming bands of zombies centered around the end of the world, a projection of a collective death wish, the living-death state of the modern human.
To create the grand narrative, the engineer needs the philosopher, just as the scientist needs the mystic, and the poet needs the empiricist—otherwise the story becomes lopsided. Many are trapped in different versions of a positivist egg-head scientism or furious fundamentalist doomsday cult. To remedy this great divide, this tendency towards polarization and cultism, the main message from the silent film masterpiece Metropolis had it: “Head and hands need a mediator. The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”. This is an example of a grand narrative. A story which fires up the heart towards meaning, mission, and creating the ‘city on the hill’—an exalted place of human excellence.
With real vision, the engineers—the people who build things—will make structures that are spiritually and aesthetically informed. They will create the new grandiose cathedrals or just simple elegant living spaces which nourish the spirit—structures which honor both the extravagant and baroque, as well as the simple and the practical. The beautiful and the utilitarian will need to come together again. Integration is the future.
Extinction has always been our fate. However, our fate is also to engage in near miraculous forms of creativity, birthed through necessity and courage. The hypothesis is: the story of ‘extinction’ can be maintained through a positive kind of utopianism, an archetypal vision of the promise land. Success is secondary to the noble effort in building that world. Moses never made it to the promised land, but he died happy knowing that he had tried.
The Exodus story is the story of everybody— it contains all of our best romantic impulses along with a certain hard-headed realism. It gives human beings an exalted goal in the desert of their miserable lives, and the possibility of meaningful activity. We don’t have to be too religious to recognize this universal story of innocence, followed by many years of exile and loss, followed by the discovery of a new land. And such a story has universal significance—we all live an exodus whenever we change from one kind of lesser state to another greater one.
The post modern project of destroying the grand narrative goes against our very nature, and comes from a kind of forgetfulness and lack of vision. It forgets history and sees no future; it lives only in the desert and its mirages. Certainly, we live in illusions, but there is also the story of illumination. The thrust toward awakening is ancient and rooted in our biology. Intelligence is, in its very nature, about envisioning and creating a future story, while living powerfully in the present, and taking nourishment from past wisdom and experience. We need deep stories of awakening, collective and individual, to survive, to orient ourselves in the present but also to map the future.
Human beings are are the only creatures on earth with a complex perception of time and mortality, the ability to perceive a beginning, a middle, and end to our story: we know that we moving forward through space toward some location, and ultimately towards our own annihilation. And this ‘being thrown in time’ makes life tremble and shake with deep significance and meaning. The grand narrative and deep ethics give meaning and significance to time.
To avoid creating a shallow kind of utopianism, which easily turns to its murderous opposite, we need a solid ethical foundation, a foundation in lived experience. A genuine utopian vision is religious in the positive sense—it is about practice, atonement, and deep ethics. To build the ‘Ecotopia’—Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist’s term for the present utopian mythos—is to learn to think and perceive deeply: this means, holistically, contextually, and beyond shallow morality codes. Religion in its positive sense means: creating and participating in a grand narrative.
As we become sick with addiction to shallow media and depressed by social network phantoms, there are positive signs that a deeper ethics will emerge. In buddhism they say that ‘weariness with samsara’ is a virtue. In the fatigue that the culture is experiencing, and when intelligent people rejected the marketing slogans of the old paradigm and refuse to be infantilised by mass media—then something new can arise. It is often when sickness is at its maximum point of toxic intensity that it has already started to pass. But let’s not be too overly optimistic here. The beginning of a grand narrative entails a the fall from a certain kind of naive innocence.
First the apocalypse …
Is not history the story of successive apocalypses? The etymology of the word apocalypse contains the notions ‘to uncover’ or ‘to reveal’. So what will the next apocalypse reveal? Precisely that we have been living a lie, that our shallow morality and simplistic modes of thinking are obsolete. The ‘big judgment’ that awaits us, without being too biblical about it, is the revelation of all our ideological and theological monsters. But in order to move forward we first have to fully grasp the surreal terror of the situation.
The promise: The holy spirit beyond shallow morality
Some Jews think that the Torah, with all its rules for behavior, was actually a punishment for those who couldn’t understand the the inner Torah — which is ‘beyond words and letters’ as they say in Zen. It is not possible for most of us to meet the absolute (or God or whatever you want to call the totality of creative expression) directly and without preparation, as all perennial traditions point out.
However, at a certain point we must be ready to ‘kill the buddha’ or the image of religion itself, and directly commune with reality. Today we might not have a choice but to face the absolute head on. ‘The holy spirit’ is beyond ‘thou shalt’ or ‘thou shalt not’. In front of the coming apocalypse, we might have to abandon our shallow, albeit necessary, moral codes, and adopt the situational wisdom of deep ethics.
For what I am mischievously naming ‘the holy spirit’ to emerge, it first has to go through the hell of recognition, or re-cognizing and reevaluating all its precious axioms. Our old version of the world, with its music of the spheres and commandments, along with its paternal God on a throne, is dissolving in the quantum space. Will a new God arise from the ashes? I’d wager that it will not be a God that accepts shallow morality, but one which honers deep ethics.
That is not to say that we don’t need guiding principles, but such principals need to be dynamic and alive. For example, ‘Thou shall not kill’ is a nice principal to try to live up to, except in the ethical situation when it is right and necessary to kill. Nietzsche philosophically killed absolute morality over a century ago and entreated us to ‘create our own values’, which, however, is not very realistic. However, it might be better to say: we need to perceive and work on the deep ethics that are available to us in every moment.
To illustrate deep ethics, let’s use a medical analogy. You can either nuke a cancerous tumor — which may do the job but also have horrendous side effects — or treat it in a personalized manner, with a mix of, let’s say, microdosing of psilocybin, somatic exercises, therapy — and still a bit of nuking still may be the best solution. The point is: to be deeply ethical is to search out the most nuanced, pragmatic, and elegantly simple solution, one that acknowledges complexity. Deep ethics is complex and looks at substructures, whereas shallow morality prescribes universals and absolutes.
We should not think that we are ready for this kind of freedom, for most of us will never be. But the few who step outside of reified codes, who break the shell of religiosity, are those who will lead us to a new world. This is the world of deep ethics. For we, as a civilization, need to progress to the state of deep ethics, rather than trumpet borrowed or second-hand morality. We need to respond with mercy, grace, and intelligence to whatever arises.
Deep ethics are about becoming naked to the complex tissues of reality. They are seeing things as they are, as deeply as we can. One of the problems with our shallow moralizing, is that it is all about mental constructs that are second hand — in other words it is divorced from perception and context. Shallow morality is provincial, ideological, or culturally handed down. Deep ethics is becoming intelligently attuned to reality, reacting to what arises in the eternal nowness of the situation.