Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Heirs of Job

The Best Lack All Conviction

Ben makes some cogent points about my recent "Duncan Does Deus" post, all of which deserve consideration... and which I hope will allow me to clarify and expand on (or just expound on) the whole issue of scripture versus satire, morality versus ethics, and how I think that plays out in religion, to make my stance with a little more reason and a little less righteous ire.

First of these is a pretty specific point about generalisations and exceptions...

Note, I am not denying the existence or gravity of the culture war... What I'm specifically responding to is your erasure of the religious left and middle... as complicit fellow travelers of the fundies, clinging to the monotheisms out of some combination of nostalgia, moral timidity, and confusion... I'm just asking you to notice that we exist. Not as a milder version of the religion you hate, but as a force which has been fighting it for twenty-five hundred years.

In my defence, I'd argue that I was characterising the religious left and middle as complacent rather than complicit, their loyalty to the religion making them not willing enough to tackle the religious right head-on, making too many compromises with the forces of conservatism. The current stushie in the Anglican Church over gay clergy illustrates both sides of the coin. Clearly the progressives are there and clearly some of them are willing to take a stand. But at the same time, the reactionaries seem to be louder and more numerous, and able to hold the moderate majority hostage with their threats to break the community. The current uneasy state is one in which, largely speaking, the conservatives are being appeased from a reluctance to risk that break.

I don't mean to deny the existence of the progressives (although it may have come across that way; fair point), simply to challenge their priorities. If there's a tendency within monotheist religions for conservative moralism to dominate progressive ethics -- as I think there is -- any lack of resolve on the part of the progressives in defying the conservatives is bad news for us all.

You seem to accept that my usage of religion might be Kohlbergian post-conventional... But you also seem to insist that this is an idiosyncratic, individual development of my own, something I arrived at after leaving religion behind as a stepping stone... Bullshit. It's what I learned at my parents' knee. I didn't arrive at it past Judaism, but through Judaism...

As I'm sure you can imagine, I'm not interested in being excused with an "oh, Ben, I didn't mean *you* -- you're not like the rest of them."

Quite. That would be a total cop-out on my part, a face-saving caveat laced with condescension. It would basically be saying "Of course, you're not really one of *them*. You might think you are, but you're really one of *us*; you just haven't *realised* it yet." This is the sort of meta-argument you get where rather than dealing with someone's contrary opinion you just rationalise it away. "You're only saying that because..." followed by some spurious mind-reading act, implicit or explicit ("... you've *actually* advanced to Stage 5 or 6 but you remain loyal to your religious roots due to blah blah psychobabble blah").

I referred to a good example of how, I think, that works in my original post -- the classic meta-argument used against satirists or any such antagonists to the orthodoxy... that they're just saying what they're saying to be "controversial". I hate that and the folks who've commented on this blog, arguing with me on this point or that, have had the good grace not to use that tactic ("I mean, all that shaitan nonsense; that's just being controversial for the sake of it, isn't it?"). So I'd be a low-down scurvy knave if I did the same myself.No... I'm not interested in systems of thought that propose "All X are A" then simply gloss over individual exceptions with an "except, of course, U". And I'm even less interested in systems of thought that set it out as "All X are A except, of course, U & I". What I am happy to do is set it out as a challenge -- "All X are A, no?" in the hope that someone will come back with an argument as to why, where and how this generalisation fails to apply. Specific counter-examples which illuminate the gaps in the model. Better still, an "All Y are B" where X and Y are often combined and A and B are incompatible. Something that collides with the implicit absolutism of any generalisation -- such as my correlation of religious moral systems with Kohleberg's Stage 4 "law and order orientation" and the idea that this kind of institutional system, founded so strongly on a social order bound together by notions of faith, scripture and sin hence considers doubt, critique and empathy as anathema.

Which is exactly what Ben gives:

I am the heir of an *ancient tradition* of construing wisdom, justice, and mercy as paramount, of questioning scripture, puzzling and grieving over the brutal and bizarre aspects of the traditions we've inherited, and of mending the world, man.

I don't doubt it, not at all. What I'm *not* trying to do is set up an argument that says "All monotheists are ethical retards" or, for that matter, that says "All ethical retards are monotheists". The selected subject -- monotheism -- the key question -- why all the irrational vengeful ruthlessness? -- and the proposed answer -- institutionalisation of the "law and order orientation" -- aren't by any means intended to add up to a simple equation of the three elements, the religion, the behaviour pattern and the moral pyschology... if A then B, if B then C, if C then A. Rather I'm proposing that the religious structures, the behaviour patterns and the psychological mechanics are features of a system, something we can abstract, talk about in generalisations. This doesn't preclude the possibility of other systems, systems which work against this "constraint morality", either at a higher level (countermanding it with conscious ethics-driven judgement) or at a lower level (undermining it with unconscious aesthetics-driven choice). Nor do I preclude the possibility that these other systems of thought are also formalised, manifested, in the religious structures of monotheism, the behaviour patterns of its followers-as-a-group, and the psychological mechanics of individual believers.

Hell, I don't even think this is unique to monotheism. Totalitarian communism seems to share the key features I'm identifying. We all go through Kohlberg's Stage 4, indeed, so any institutionalised ideology might be expected to reflect this.

What I'm arguing is that this constraint morality is a dominant system in the huge complex of systems that constitute that big abstraction we refer to as monotheism (perhaps because it's a dominant system in society, in general; that's why Kohlberg labels this morality "conventional", after all). So I don't deny the tradition of argument in each of the Big Three that is driven by the philosophical principles of doubt, analysis and empathy I admire so much. All my rhetoric about "kicking the hatemongers out of the temple" is, in fact, based on a profound respect for that tradition and a profound sorrow and, yes, anger that this tradition is consistently and repeatedly side-lined. That it has happened so often in the past. That it is, undeniably, I think, happening again.

From W.B. Yeats's, "The Second Coming:

"The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity"

I think those of us driven by doubt, analysis and empathy need a bit more of that passionate intensity. We need to be ferocious in our challenges to faith, uncompromising in our critique of scripture and unlimited in the empathy we level against this hideous notion of sin.

There are questions, I freely admit...

There's Battle Lines Being Drawn

Consider: there are people out there who really hate Jews... Demagogues in my community call all these people "anti-semites". They point to the scariest ones and say "those are my target; the rest of you are just in the way"... It's a neat trick. It's also understandable for someone who feels embattled. Actually "reaching out to the other", though, would require a bit more discrimination. It's all in how you draw the boundaries, isn't it? To you, those folks are in the vast category "monotheists", a circle you can draw around most people on the planet, leaving you in the embattled and enlightened minority. To them, though, they draw the circle called "goyim", and there you go -- the goyim hate us.

I think this is all fair comment. An attitude of entrenchment against a projected "enemy" reinforces their own projection of hostility. Thinking of yourself as embattled can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and an expedient abandonment of any attempt at compromise. And whichever side of the "battle lines" you position yourself on by simply thinking in terms of battle lines we're buying into dualism of constraint morality, of right and wrong, good and evil... Good and Evil even.My approach in that blog entry and elsewhere, every so often -- and it may or may not work, may or may not blow up in my face, I admit -- is to go "over the top". Fuck the entrenchment. Fuck the embattlement. Fuck the boundaries. I'm trying to get behind the lines by jumping up on my Evil Rhinoceros and riding it full-tilt at the gates, clinging on for dear life with one hand and firing the grenade launcher at the gun-emplacements that are trying to blast me off. I recognise this could be counter-productive. I recognise that fighting fire with fire may only lead to scorched earth all round. That my own rhetoric of antagonism is just as deserving of destruction as that of those monomaniacs I'm opposing.

As the song says:

"There's battle lines being drawn / And nobody's right, and everybody's wrong"

At the end of the day, maybe that's what I want... to get taken down. To be proven wrong. To charge in with all that infernokrusher passion and power, to break through the barriers of decorum, smash up some preconceptions, and seize the moral high ground -- not so as to hold it, but so as to level it. To qrush and be qrushed, you know. And I don't mean that in a glib way. I really don't.I mean, a part of me says the only solution is tact and diplomacy, reasoned argument; anything else is counter-productive, fuel for the fires. But a part of me says that sometimes you've just got to apply cant and rhetoric, impassioned attack; you've got to tear down. Construction or destruction. Compromise or conflict Sometimes, I think, you have to throw all your weight behind the antithesis, not so as to over-run the thesis, not to "win the argument", but knowing full well that the thesis and the antithesis have to destroy each other to make room for the synthesis.

One problem, I think -- not the only problem, but one of them -- is that the elaborate constructions, the intricate compromises which result from the non-confrontational approach can become -- have become in many ways -- a labyrinth of barriers too complex for negotiation. Believers and non-believers alike, we look at that maze and we tend to just... not bother. One wrong turn and we'll get lost. We'll make a wrong step. We'll find ourselves insulting those we consider friends by questioning their beliefs or looking like we're trying to impose our own. We'll get so lost in it we'll end up having to hack and slash our way out, leaving holes in the wall, gaps in the bushes that only reinforce the perception of us as barbarians with no real understanding of each other, no real sense of the subtleties of ethics and aesthetics that went into making that elaborate constructed compromise of "polite society". The other week, Lawrence and I were talking in the pub about how you can end up feeling like you should be apologising for your beliefs.

This is when, I think, an Evil Rhinocerous comes in handy.

It does have it's down-side though.

The Satirist and the Shaitan

[L]et me ask you, which ethics is at work in your post "Duncan Does Deus"? I'm looking for "the attempt to reconstruct the self by finding the acceptable other" in that post, and I'm not finding it...

In terms of the inherent contradiction of, well, going all fire-and-brimstone about the fire-and-brimstone brigade... I'll admit straight off that in writing that rant I came up against a choice between reason and rhetoric and deliberately let the rhetoric have its head. The reasoned argument, I decided, should temporarily take a back seat to the impassioned articulation. My rant was intended as an inversion, an antithesis, of that type of generalisation I hate, that "All X are A". It was intended as an "All Y are B" which crashes full-speed into the notion of religion as an intrinsically Good Thing, an improving, edifying system for making us all Better People.

It was a rhetorical attack, one as much driven by aesthetics as by ethics, an attempt to say, look, the religious don't have a monopoly on being insulted, on feeling furious at the utter lack of appreciation of deeply-held principles. I felt it had to be no-holds-barred to get that message across. So do I withdraw the excesses of rhetoric or justify them? I don't think it's an either/or. I'd be a coward to withdraw what I believe in, a fool to justify what I don't, but I hope I can explain it, prune away the confusion of implications that go along with any generalisation, refine those crude, blasting accusations with specifics and, more importantly, contingencies.

So. Ben picks up on a specific example:

What I am seeing is that the cogent argumentation on the risks of abdicating personal skepticism and empathy to a received morality is mixed with revulsion and disgust, so that the cultural practices of monotheism -- praying, for instance -- take on their worst possible interpretation; the argument against prayer, here, is not founded in analysis but in revulsion. At first the revulsion which drips from the passage is a little odd, given that the metaphorical imagery is one of fellatio, which is a little odd coming from you; but dig a little deeper ("making Him proud and happy") and we see that it's the power assymetry of the fellatio that bothers you; that we're not talking about consenting fags having a nice fuck, but about abuse -- about a choirboy gagging on the uninvited member of a Catholic priest.

And play this against my own words:

Their transgressive actions are, as in any propagandist's story, there to validate the already-existant animosity, to illustrate the tow'ebah nature of the enemy culture.

I can see how that looks like I'm the pot calling the kettle black. But my point in that example is not to demonise but to trivialise, to appropriate the transgressive, the taboo, to my own ends. That example is a perfect one to point to because it's specifically related to the use of the term "deus-diddlers" and to the play on "Debbie Does Dallas" in the title. To that extent it can be taken as a statement-of-intent, an attempt to say, here's what I'm trying to do and here's why I'm trying to do it. It's a cards-on-the-table open aknowledgment of my own rhetorical gamble. "Yes, I am being insulting; I'm taking this *beyond* reason; here's why." Ben is right that the whole metaphor is about power assymetry... but it's not about abuse; it's about the petitionary aspect of prayer, the self-interest of the sycophant. The focus of revulsion is in the self-abasement and, particularly, in that supplication as a means to an end. The disgust is at the cheapness, the tawdriness of submission in the expectation of reward... even if that reward is only the proud humility of piety. But note that it's a snide sneer, a side-swiping dismissal, not the wrathful "j'accuse" of elsewhere in the rant. Here the pettiness of prayer is the point. Worship is not being raged at as an "abomination", but being ridiculed as "deus-diddling". My contempt is the contempt of the satirist, not the scripturist. I do think they're different.
I'm not trying to illustrate the abominable nature of the enemy culture by invoking an imagery of abuse here. I am playing on the sexual taboo, the obscenity of oral sex, but if the revulsion is "a little odd"... well, that's exactly my point.

After all, prayer is -- in its best possible interpretation, surely -- a selfless act of love, offered freely, aimed only at pleasing the recipient and improving one's relationship with Him... and involving the skilled use of one's tongue. What better metaphor could there be than fellatio? But simply by making that association I recast it as a selfish, loveless act, with strings attached, aimed at pleasing the recipient in order to get something out of Him... prayer as, literally, lip-service. I make it a blowjob and I imply that it's for payback. Why? What's worse than a faggot or a whore? A faggot whore, of course.

What I'm trying to do, by linking prayer and fellatio, is set up a metaphorical double-bind which maps to the double-standard. If you accept the metaphor at any level then surely it has to undercut either the taboo status of fellatio or the privileged status of prayer, is what I'm trying to imply. If fellatio is revolting why isn't prayer? If prayer is revered why isn't fellatio? It's a boiling down of my whole argument about the cartoons, about free speech and moral constraints. If satire is insulting why isn't scripture? If scripture is revered why isn't satire? What privileges one reaction of "this is obscene!" over another?

Unlike the use of taboo in, for example, the Sodom story, here the taboo is invoked because those most likely to be offended by it are those least likely to be sympathetic to the ethical stance of the text in which it's used. Even those sympathetic to the ethical stance might find it just a little uncomfortable, going a little bit "too far", like one of those Bill Hicks routines where he pushes it so close to the bone the audience are laughing their asses off but at the same time thinking "You can't say that". This is maybe what, for me, is the distinction between scripture and satire; where one pushes those emotional buttons with the intent of re-assuring us, through the surface message of the text, that those emotional reactions are righteous, the other pushes those same buttons in order to unsettle us, to throw all our emotions, ethics and aesthetics into conflict. Every satirical invocation of outrage, every such attempt to push an audience into a state of aesthetic and ethical tension between the rightness and wrongness of what's being said and how it's being said ("He's so non-PC... but he's so right!"... "Some of what he says is spot-on... but some of what he says is just outrageous!"), is an attempt to focus our attention on the absurdity of that tension. When we accept that absurdity, release it as laughter, we're acknowledging that absurdity.

Satire is, for me, a sacred thing. The word "satire" coming from the Greek "satyr" plays which would be staged after a trilogy of tragedies, to finish the proceedings on a high, I think the modern satire is still following on in that tradition, an antidote to solemnity, a puncturing of the pomp. The tragedian gives us their spectacle of sorrow, bloody revenge and brutal horrors, rituals of misery. And then the satirist says "Fuck that shit".

(I have a sudden whimsy of the Big Three monotheisms as a trilogy of tragedies by Aeschylus, telling a three thousand year long story: from the Construction of Israel to the Destruction of the Temple; from the Crucifixion to the Crusades; from the Caliphate to Al Qaeda. The sad story of the heirs of Job, as much heroic as tragic, with nobility as much as brutality, with the great and the good brought low. And then you follow that with the absurd satire of Humanism -- nihilist Nietszche prancing on in goathide leggings with an ithyphallic cock dancing in the air, bringing existential panic, but saying "Whatever doesn't kill me, makes me stronger" -- bara boom. I always thought Nietszche was a misunderstood comic genius.)

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that the irreligious, satiric tradition is as much a tradition as the religious, scriptural one. It's confrontational, outrageous, absurdist. It has no respect for decency, respects no boundaries. It should respect no boundaries. That's its sacred duty. The satirist and the shaitan are two sides of the same transgressive trickster, the jester who doesn't just have the right to insult everyone, the king included. He has the responsibility to do so, to say what no-one else will.

If the Devil's Advocate isn't using every trick in the book, including low-down, dirty, venomous ridicule, in an attempt to challenge our acceptance of the authoritarian "social order" and even, yes, the nice, liberal, moderate dictates of tact and diplomacy, the strictures of "polite society", he's not doing his job.

Tools and Rules

So was I aiming at the right target, applying the right tools?

Kohlberg's work, as a text, elicits very naturally the elitist [...] reading... It sits in a very old tradition -- back to Brahmins and Plato's philosopher-kings. Like the story of Sodom, it lends itself to convenient "othering". We the few have liberated ourselves from the chains of false ideologies; the masses in their blind and fearful subservience to custom must, accordingly, be ruled.

I agree with this, actually. I think the simplicity of Kohlberg's hierarchy is suspicious, the discreteness of the stages imposing a theoretical caste system of moral development, a hierarchy of ethical enlightenment which we have to challenge for exactly the reasons given above. Are we to suppose that people transition suddenly to the post-conventional in some blinding moment of satori, that the "chains of false ideologies" all suddenly just fall away? Are we to flatter ourselves that "All X are A... except, of course, for U and I"?

[W]hen people offer me a system -- like the Tanak's, like Kohlberg's -- to teach ethics, a system to inspire empathy, a system which offers a moral description of the world, I perk up... When they tell me the system *completely specifies* the good, that it will *ensure and validate ethics*, guarantee empathy, and describe the world *accurately*, I get nervous. And when it sorts people into those who are worthy to be listened to and those who aren't, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the philosopher-kings, I reach for my... well, I don't have a gun right here, but I reach for my pruning shears...

So do I.

Personally, I think Kohlberg's system is... a good theory, with observations to support it, and applications that make it valuable. But it is still a theory and I'm not convinced it gets deep enough into the mechanics of morality and ethics. I think it builds well on the work of Piaget in tracing the socialisation of children from the pre-conventional to the conventional, the abstraction and internalisation of reward and punishment, and in positing that as the groundwork for the ethical/moral adult. It seems to be backed up by some solid empirical evidence gathered from studies of children, how they react to this or that ethical dilemma, how those responses can be typified as patterns (I'm subsituting "patterns" to avoid the implicit hierarchy in the term "stages"), and how we may shift from one pattern of response (and the pattern of behaviour and pattern of thought that it implies) to another. I think the idea that those response patterns are better modified by presenting "ethical interrogatives" than by teaching "moral imperatives" opens up a vast field of possibilities, even if it isn't as black-and-white as Kohlberg asserts; even if it's not an outright impossibility to *teach* someone a "higher level" of ethical development, I find it quite plausible that his technique of presenting challenges is more effective.

But I do feel that same urge to reach for my pruning shears.

What I'm suspicious of is your confidence in the alternative you offer. I'm saying, "ok, look, I have these tools; they've got problems, I've had to patch them here and there, you wouldn't believe the things I've done with baling wire and duct tape; they're really old and cantankerous, and unfortunately I've noticed a lot of people who don't understand them end up just mauling up themselves and others when they use them. But I've got them more or less working; they mostly do the job I need them for. What have you got? What advantages and disadvantages does it have? What are the costs? What can we mix and match, trade and learn?" And you're saying "fuck those old tools, man, just burn 'em -- I've got the shit right here."

If that's how it reads, that's not what I was trying to say. Hell, maybe it's what I did say in trying to articulate my thoughts on constraint morality with reference to the Tanak, the Gospels, the Koran and Kohlberg, in trying to articulate those thoughts in order to formulate them. So maybe I can formulate those thoughts a bit better now.

Kohlberg's theory is a kicking off point for me, not a new system of ethical instruction I'd propose as a replacement for religion but rather a model of ethical development which, I think, can be used to critique the way(s) religion works. As a tool, I'd have to say, it seems like it could use some retro-fitting too.

In general, I think, it holds together. The internalisation of reward and punishment as pride and shame, the way those become measures of social status as we relate ourselves to those around us, the way those sensations of self abstract and cohere into ego, positive and negative, and are projected outwards into evaluations of our selves and our peers (the good boy/bad boy), the way that lionising or demonising the highest and lowest strata of that hierarchical system of status creates celebrities and scapegoats who define the outer limits of this social order, the way all of this is defined in moral terms, in terms of societally-imposed rules which proscribe and prescribe the acceptable and the unacceptable, virtue and vice, and the way we develop a deep-seated loyalty to, dependence on, and even reverence for this whole system of thought -- all of this strikes me as a recognisable feature of society. I do think this system -- which I'm labelling constraint morality -- is an observable, analysable system of society, something we can find, out in the world, in monotheistic religion (though not only in religion), and in individual believers (though not only in believers), something that is real enough that we can look for cause and effect.


I think that constraint morality functions as a discrete system and that other systems can and do operate simultaneously, at both the indvidual and societal level, systems in harmony and / or conflict with that constraint morality rather than being mutually exclusive. I mean, the "post-conventional" stage Kohlberg describes is something I'd reclassify as "idealist ethics", viewing it not as a "next stage on" but as a distinct set of psychological mechanisms for self-evaluation, a sub-system that does not displace the constraint morality we develop as a part of our socialisation, but which runs concurrently with it, either in harmony or in conflict. If these are in a state of conflict either one can come to dominate; either one can countermand the affect logic of the other by being more aesthetically effective.

What I mean by "affect logic" is the logic of feelings, the feeling of logic, what Luc Ciompi describes in "The Psyche and Schizophrenia"(1982) as "the co-existence of feeling and thinking, or affective and cognitive functions, in an inseperable whole that characterizes the way our minds experience reality far better than either aspect taken on its own". Ciompi draws on Freud, Piaget and Systems Theory to build a picture of the mind as homoestatic system. I can't begin to do him justice here, but I think the basic idea is fairly simple: our behaviour is shaped by judgements that are neither wholly intellectual nor wholly emotional but rather both; the way I would put it is that, at heart, we are acting on aesthetic evaluations.

I wonder if what Kohlberg refers to as "pre-conventional morality" cannot actually be seen as an aesthetic system wired into a Freudian id, a shaping of that wild force of instinctual passion into a pattern of behaviour where the affect-logic remains one of reward and punishment, aimed simply at maximising pleasure and minimising pain. Bearing in mind that empathy is an entirely natural part of this affect-logic this doesn't exclude the possibility of altruism; it's simply that altruistic behaviour is seen as good by the child because it feels good.

Contrary to Kohlberg, then, I'd argue that we never really "leave" this "stage", because it's not a stage we can actually leave in that sense. Rather it's the foundational aesthetic system that we build upon. It's there in our pleasure when we give a gift. It's there in our resentment when we get caught doing something wrong. Since I'm using Kohlberg and Freud pretty loosely here, springboarding off of them into my own theory, I'll call this system of affect-logic "impulse aesthetics" rather than risk abusing their terms.

I think we might then look at Kohlberg's "conventional morality" in terms of the Freudian ego, the "highly complex agency that mediates between the demands of drives (or the pleasure principle), on the one hand, and perception, experience, commands, and prohibitions (or the reality principle and the superego) on the other." (Ciompi again). Commands and prohibitions are important here; the ego is a social construct and one might argue, I think, that it is the aesthetic system by which we incorporate the affect-logic of others into our own affect-logic, that those commands and prohibitions are fundamentally communicated to us as affective imperatives. We begin to recognise that this is "right" and that is "wrong" because our parents and peers signal it in their emotional reactions. And as complex as that agency is, as complex as the internal articulation of "rightness" and "wrongness" is, there is a base vocabulary in which we communicate those judgements, six universally recognised facial expressions which map to simple, "cardinal" emotions -- anger, fear, disgust, joy, sorrow and surprise.

In the communication of those emotions, and in the reconstruction of our own behaviour in response, I think we can trace the development of constraint morality out of the impulse aesthetics it's founded in. Pride and shame can easily be seen, I think, as abstractions of those cardinal emotions applied as evaluations of our own behaviour, joy and surprise constructing pride, anger, disgust and sorrow constructing shame. Our impulse aesthetics drives us to maximise one and minimise the other. And this is so much easier if the behaviours and the evaluations of behaviours can be formalised, formulated as rules, as mores.

I do agree with Kohlberg's idea of "post-conventional morality" as being a more mature system of thought. I wouldn't hierarchicalise it as "higher", but I do think it's a more subtle, more complex pattern of thinking. As I would characterise it this is a further layer of abstraction wherein the mores themselves are open to evaluation, where the "received wisdom" of constraint morality is subject to scrutiny, where the conflicts of moral imperatives ("theft is wrong" versus "letting your children starve is wrong") are recognised and tackled. Freud's concept of the superego or Jung's concept of the Persona, the ideal self-image, are the psychological agency that has come into play here, I think, stepping into the Mexican stand-offs of constraint morality and negotiating solutions based on context-dependant decisions rather than inflexible rules, with an acceptance of contingencies and uncertainties rather than a strict adherence to absolutes of "right" and "wrong".

This idealist ethics could, in fact, be seen as a logical product of any constraint morality which contains, implicitly or explicitly, the moral imperative to (re)make morality, to "set standards". Kant's categorical imperative, Sartre's idea of "good faith" are, I think, secular articulations of just such an imperative. Such imperatives completely undercut the authority of any other imperative of the constraint morality in which they are formed. If the constraint morality can and must be remade by its adherents then its adherents can and must construct and utilise an idealist ethics in order to conform to that constraint morality.

I suspect that the sheer paradigm shift in the individual's relationship to the social order is what leads Kohlberg to identify individuals working with an idealist ethics as being at a discrete, higher level of moral development -- once you're consciously committed to, basically, making it up as you go along, you're playing a whole nother game -- but I would question whether that shift is as sudden, as absolute, or as permanent as Kohlberg's theory seems to imply. I see no reason why this idealist ethics could not co-exist with constraint morality, being brought into play as and when a stalemate of constraints requires abstract arbitration. I see no reason why an individual applying this idealist ethics, without necessarily reflecting on the complex chain of thought they've just used to select one rule in preference to another might not still, when questioned, simply explain their actions in terms of constraint morality -- "I did this because it was right." And I see no reason why an individual working generally with an idealist ethics and who articulates their behaviour in those terms, might not be unconsciously selecting this or that action on the basis of constraints which are, after all, if this theory has some foundation in the truth, deeply integral to our sense of who we are and how we fit into society.

I know I strive to live according to an idealist ethics. I'm quite sure I act, at times, according to my own constraint morality.

Where I part company with Kohlberg most of all though, and in particular with the implicit idea of a "priestly class" of enlightened thinkers pulling up the novitiates with a sequence of Q & A sessions like some Masonic ritual, is that I think the development of idealist ethics is driven from "below" rather than "above". If idealist ethics can be seen as a logical product of constraint morality -- as a law which says we must constantly redefine the law -- it can also be seen, I think, as a logical product of the impulse aesthetics at the heart of it all.

We want to measure up to the ideals we create.

We want this.

We are driven by doubt, by curiosity and by empathy, desiring to forge (sorry, my favourite paraphrase of Joyce again) in the smithy of our souls the uncreated conscience of our race.

Now I do not deny that this attitude of questioning, of critiquing faith, scripture and sin, is there within monotheism in the tradition of "construing wisdom, justice, and mercy as paramount, of questioning scripture, puzzling and grieving over the brutal and bizarre aspects of the traditions we've inherited, and of mending the world". Jew, Christian, Muslim or atheist, there are many on all "sides" who, I think, would see themselves in that tradition of argument, a tradition stretching back to a bet between God and shaitan and the critique of the hypocrisies of faith, scripture and sin that result from it. We're *all* the heirs of Job, in many ways, even those of us who've chosen to curse God to his face.

What really concerns me, though, is the palpable existence of another tradition, a rival tradition, an institutionalisation of constraint morality which in ascribing absolute ethical authority to God implicitly, or indeed explicitly, precludes the moral imperative to remake morality. What concerns me is that God's response to Job is basically an assertion that Job has no right to question him, no right to apply his own idealist ethics as a critique of the (metaphysical) social order. Is this right? asks Job; is this really right? Who the hell do you think you are to question me? says God.

"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand, who marked off its dimensions?"

God thunders his power and his majesty, his might as right, and Job is cowed. He submits, surrenders to the constraint morality of pride and shame:

"Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."

He fears God.

For all that the tradition of argument within monotheism is a long and noble one, for all that the emphasis on wisdom, justice and mercy is there, I think this lynchpin of monotheism -- this idea of a supreme moral authority, a God who makes the law, who owns the law, whose law is defined in terms of sin, dictated to us through scripture, and derived from faith -- this is the keystone of that rival tradition, I think. That authoritarian tendency within monotheism does its best to restrict a quite natural impulse to question the rules, justifying this on the basis that any such challenge is a lack of faith, a challenge to scripture, a sin in and of itself, because it challenges the supremacy of God's moral authority -- i.e. their constraint morality. I think it's arguable that the monotheist concepts of God and His Book, as tools, were designed to that purpose, as validation for the restriction of ethical autonomy. You can retrofit those tools, take them apart and put them back together, but if you strip away the baling wire and the duct tape, look at them as they came direct from the supplier, as they were used in the past and as, indeed, they're still used... and I think their purpose is something far grimmer than gardening. I'm not saying your reconstructed tools can't be put to good use. I would however argue that they are reconstructed. That it's dangerous to deny the other uses that can be made of, especially when you think of just how much blood there is on the blades.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shoot, I so don't have time to read this before I head home... and I so haven't been investing the time in this debate that it and you deserve. We've had the stomach flu, and are trying to get ready to send the wife & kids to Switzerland. Soon! Soon!

11:39 pm  
Blogger Ben Mack said...

i'm not in on this debate...but similar thinking can be found at and there is a Bill Hicks audio you have never heard is a lost track just now turned up because an audience member recorded one of those rants right after the last Letterman cancellation when Bill knew he was dying

check the 2nd page of the mutant media board on that site

peace my friends

let ideas evolve

3:41 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hope yez are feeling better soon, Ben (R).

Ben M: I'll check that out. Sounds cool.

1:18 pm  
Blogger anna tambour said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:09 am  
Blogger anna tambour said...

Hal, you said, responding to criticism of "your erasure of the religious left and middle":
"I'd argue that I was characterising the religious left and middle as complacent rather than complicit, their loyalty to the religion making them not willing enough to tackle the religious right head-on."

So I think that both you and others might be interested in Rabbi Michael Lerner's new book, THE LEFT HAND OF GOD: TAKING BACK OUR COUNTRY FROM THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT. And Tikkun.

But I still agree with you, and personally don't agree with Lerner, though he might be pragmatically right in the short term.

Running societies based on laws supposedly made by the invisible, unanswerable, and unaccountable doesn't make good societies, let alone foster thinking and reason, and debate.

Furthermore, religion is screwing up thought dangerously. If people can't understand evolution, they can't understand what communicable disease is and how it evolves. Then, because of their belief in god, we all lose.

And I sure don't believe in fate. Passion on, Hal!

7:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. I've been noodling over this stuff for decades (on my site, click on Distal Muse, go to Archives, you can find a number of essays on some of this, particularly the recent Darwin Battle in Ohio).

The basic problem traditional religion presents is an in-built tendency to *become* conservative to the point of concrete intractability. Look at the early christians and you see a gaggle of theorists and revolutionaries trying to find new ways to live. After Constantine, rigor mortis set in and has continued apace, despite the Reformation etc. This is because STABILITY is one of the chief selling points of religion. People coming in the door, on some level, want to know "So, what do I actually *do* in situation X, Y, or Z?" If you give them process philosophy, they tune out because that comes down to them figuring it out for themselves. The folks taking advantage of this desire for absolute standards and guidelines have a vested interest in making sure people find it difficult at best, impossible at worst, to answer current questions with new solutions which might contain formulae for abandoning the foundational premises of their particular pidgen.

Hence when someone stands up in an argument over interpretation and declares "But that's not what it means!" and all he has to back his claim up is having *thought it through rationally* he or she runs afoul of so-called "ancient traditions" (which even the fundies have a tendency of overlooking the really inconvenient ones).

Religion naturally codifies into static institutions because stability and continuity are paramount in their initial formulations. So the Christian Left ends up feeling queasy and unsure when disagreeing with the apparent certainty of the Right, because at some point the Left has to be willing to walk out the door with their marbles and start a new game somewhere else. Most aren't willing to do that, because there's still that stability issue, which adherents both left and right cherish.

3:07 pm  
Blogger paul f cockburn said...

Sorry to be pedantic, but aren't the Buffalo Springfield lyric you quote actually

"There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong"?

11:08 am  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

Wow, everyone comments about how they'll read the whole thing a bit later 'cos they don't have time. What is so pathetically wrong with my life that I have the time?

"Evil rhinoceros" is redundant, Hal. They're all evil. And none would take kindly to being ridden by anyone, let alone a self-confessed sodomite armed with a grenade-launcher (although that's not based on personal experience, since I don't have a grenade launcher). Also, although they can run pretty fast, I'm not sure about the jumping... :)

And in Other Dumb Things People Do With Safari Animals :

Mark Antony once -- while Caesar was out of town -- once experimented with a chariot pulled by lions. Sadly the book didn't go on to mention how successful the attempt was, but I'm willing to bet he wasn't the driver.

2:18 pm  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

What I'm trying to do, by linking prayer and fellatio...

My goal in life is to someday have reached the point where I find it necessary to begin a paragraph in that way. I mean that sincerely.

I'm willing to bet that sequence of eleven words (counting the contraction) has never before been used in the history of any language.

2:22 pm  

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