ben vandgrift · on living the dream

Thoughts on an Evolving Morality

A preamble: this is non-technical, and may be more philosophical than useful for most people.

My brother wrote a bit on The Extinction of Morality–Explained. In his FB account, he asks "What's your thoughts?" Since he asked, I started a response in the comments, but you know how it goes, twenty minutes later I have this thing:

Morality isn't becoming extinct, it's adapting. The world is changing, and quickly; the cultures of the world are working to keep up as best they can. Technology and science drives most of these changes; not only are these genies that can't be put back into bottles, but the pace of this advancement increases exponentially. Our notions of morality must keep pace, or become outmoded.

When I hear an evangelical say 'morality', what they mean is 'Christian morality', specifically, whatever rigid subset of Christian morality their sect espouses. What that resolves to in general is a set of behavioral rules created by a first nomadic, later agrarian culture made up of people with short lifespans, with the specific goal of maintaining ethnic purity, then co-opted by an extra-national organization intent on and largely successful at gaining political power for their own enrichment. That notion of 'morality' is definitely breaking down, and this is a good thing because it's not scalable. A static set of ethics is no more realistic than a static understanding of the physical world; it's not adaptable, doesn't account for new ideas or technology, and worst, doesn't account for the drastic shifts in the way humans live now as opposed to 2500 years ago.

As such, we as a culture move away from ideas about 'morality' that are clearly dysfunctional, and toward .. what? That's the question, any answer to that question is a moving target. It will continue to evolve so long as the human race (or whatever subsequent species we evolve into) exists, because as in any wetland ecology, stagnation is death.

When we entered an age of weaponry where one nation was capable of completely obliterating another nation, we had to let go of a 'morality' associated with xenophobic war on our neighbors based on either ignorant fear or megalomaniacal dreams. Those notions were born in a time of slings, stones, and swords. The world was smaller. Now, such endeavors can be suicidal.

As it becomes easier to travel, we come into contact with people of differing cultures and ethnicities more easily. We find that people whose skin color is different than ours are still human, still deserve respect, and maybe have things to teach us. 'Morality' based in ethnic purity should be discarded (if for no other reason than that they have weapons capable of completely obliterating another nation, see above). We'll call that a work in progress.

As agriculture becomes more efficient, farmsteads disappear, and the need for many offspring to survive, provide labor for, and eventually inherit the family farm, ideas about family structures, contraception, and marriage based on those needs can (and should) be abandoned. These things become unnecessary and inefficient overhead, a weight around the neck of the populace with no real benefit. On this, our report card would read 'needs improvement'.

As the sciences advance and explain things previously the exclusive domain of mystics and priests, we can lay down those mythologies and their associated 'morality', in favor of something more rational, something based in fact rather than superstition, uncertainty, and fear.

A similar story can be told of religions, traditionally (but hopefully not ultimately) the gatekeepers of 'morality'; as a local religion spreads and encounters other religions, all parties must adapt to survive. Already we see the necessary decline of Christian fundamentalism in the United States–at least that unyielding, intolerant part of Christian fundamentalism which takes a more literal and less philosophical bent–and the rise of a Christianity that is more spiritual, experiential, and circumspect. As we become better educated, we evolve our superstitions into philosophies, and rather than following them blindly, we begin to consider them rationally. This is a good thing, a necessary thing for the survival of each culture and religion.

The most obvious alternative plays out presently in the middle-east and other areas dominated by fundamentalist Islam: the farther they drift from the modern world, the more xenophobic and backward and willfully ignorant they become, the more likely they are to draw the ire of a nation or culture which has embraced advancement through change and the technology, education, economic power, and weaponry that advancement brings to bear. Moderate Islam distances itself from radical Islam, support networks disappear, fundamentalists become marginalized, their countries (at least the ones without oil) become poor, their people restless, and those people will, with only the barest spark of education throw off the yolk of the old fundamentalist 'morality' and enter the modern world. It's painful, turbulent, violent, and messy, but the world moves on. The takeaway is this: any religion which doesn't adapt its 'morality' to the current local and world culture is, over time, doomed to (sometimes bloody) extinction.

The biggest danger to our culture isn't a declining morality, it's the tendency of the static establishment to resist change, causing schisms in that culture. It's the fight by those clinging to static traditions attempting to impede progress in the name of an imagined nostalgia for a nonexistent past, a past that is naturally whitewashed with each antecedent generation back to the dawn of human culture. This resistance, this tendency to cling to dated cultural concepts has caused more harm and distress than anything else humans have ever done to each other.

The culture of the West is not the only culture. Some cultures are not encumbered by this kind of resistance. To fall behind culturally and technologically has historically proven to be a recipe for obsolescence.

In summary, 'morality' isn't becoming extinct. It is continuing to advance and evolve, the way it must. We can't resist change, any more than we can resist the tide, and if our culture doesn't keep up, it is that culture that will become extinct.

written: Mar 16 2012