03: A realized potential

Concerning a moral identity

I continue to escalate the severity of the problems discussed in this blog — the severity, that is, as with how the topic has concerned countless philosophers, lawmakers, and the general society who are affected individually or secondarily. By moral identity, I invariably refer to what others have called personhood, autonomy, or even sanctified life itself. Of these, moral autonomy is perhaps a better descriptor of my goal, but I would like to place emphasis on the individual, whose moral identity is established by the demonstration or potential of autonomy.

In a later post it may become necessary to elaborate the difference between identity in its interpersonal, collective connotation, as in “national” identity, or “racial” identity, and the individualistic connotation. For now it suffices to say that moral identity can only by an individual phenomenon: Any concept of identity that seeks to divide people along the lines of nationality, race, or even social clique cannot be a moral qualifier by its inherent divisiveness; whereas a recognition of the individual faculties towards morality, though separating person from person (indiscriminately), directly precedes the possibility of bridging the gap between them.

You might have already predicted, even by my inclusion of “sanctified life” above, that the discussion of identity will flow through the pertinent topics abortion, where religion often loudly and violently strays onto the political scene. The questions of when a being, specifically human, is first granted moral identity is inexorably tied to the understanding of conception and development, the sanctity of life, and our generally enlightened abhorrence of ceasing or preventing human life. I suspect that anyone reading this may be on the fence — preferring no act that is is or seems like murder; but also recognizing the moral identity of the mother who may have been thrust into motherhood in anguish against her will, risks a desperate loss of life, or may be physically and/or emotionally incapable of the process.

To qualify the physiological perspectives, many who study conception and embryology, and other scientifically related fields have noted that conception is hardly a guarantee of life, especially without implantation. And yet even implantation bears risk of miscarriage. Assuming conception as a fixed point of life disregards the high amount of biochemical chance that reveals the living as only a fraction of potential offspring who were embryologically viable in the first place. Beyond that, the joining of egg and sperm is a variably complete unification, sometimes adding too much or too little generic material (which manifest as different genetic diseases), or begins to divide too much or too little (as in identical twins or absorbed twins).

Essentially, it seems, humanity is equipped with a myriad of biological mechanisms to insure it can overcome the odds against itself: From the overproduction of gametes (which in itself represents a human potential exponentially greater than the selection of the living), to the gradual construction of organ systems in the womb, to birth, to mammary nourishment,  to the early development of immune resistance, and to the post-adolescent finalization of brain chemistry. Many points along this timeline have been cited as the beginning of moral identity for the embryo/infant in question, such as the appearance of the nervous system (necessitating suffering as biological definition), or the initiation of heart palpitations. All of these propositions, including conception are unsatisfiably arbitrary and occur somewhere in the middle of the larger human reproductive process. Other definitions that assign moral autonomy more gradually as the child grows seem better equipped to handle the high variability.

Perhaps the process of finding  any binding definition for the beginning of human life is ultimately tenuous or misguided. Yet for many removing such a point is akin to destroying the concept of identity, especially of an individual whose soul is accountable to some higher power for a perfectly measurable existence before death. In response to this I must re-imagine that

Life is not sanctified. 

To cling desperately to a singular process in the continuation of human life firstly ignores the instances and variations of that process in all other manifestations of life. To call human conception a sacred event while at the same time dismissing any notion of sanctity for other possible conceptions on Earth is grossly conceited and ignorant of the vast history of known life before humanity. Many Abrahamic philosophies restrict sanctity as exclusively human; humanity, framed as the epitome of gods’ work, is far more important to conserve compared to anything else. This backwards view places humans as the goal of every evolution of matter and life in the history of the universe rather than as a possible product (and attempts to prove the premise by reinterpreting our slowly-evolved adaptations thereto as conditions because of which the universe was designed for us).

More open-minded Abrahamic philosophy, as well as many Eastern philosophies of sanctity, do better at acknowledging all or most life. In some cases there are rituals or prayers for food that was necessarily harvested or killed to lend energy to the eater. These ideas are much more encouraging, but still diverge in practice and idealism from reality. In practice we bend life to ourselves. Most chicken ova are not conceived and instead are eaten; most “fruit and vegetable” embryos are either forcibly fertilized or consumed beforehand; in too many cases a sacred animal for one culture is a delicacy or abomination for another. After all of these cases it is not far for imagination to create a different evolution of life where our conscious species is the domesticated food source of another.

The more implausible idealism of complete sanctity falls drastically short of reality. I too would love to imagine a world where all creatures are cared for and protected by a supernatural process, or where every life force is a cog in a divine wheel. The result, however is insurmountable and ultimately incompatible with the nature of life itself: In reality, life is a collection of processes that seek to maintain an influx of energy rather than deteriorate. We do not currently know the specific means by which it initially began, but it is not difficult to conceive that a process that renews its required energy gradually shifts to better means of doing so – while the less successful processes gradually discontinue. This is not a pessimistic or cold view of life on earth, though. The means by which life has found ways to continue itself is fascinating and beautiful, even when life is bound to competition with other life. And that it has found a way in what we distinguish as humanity, ourselves, for self-perception is an amazing, but no more sacred, aspect of its evolution. In fact, this step is not an end for the process of life, but likely somewhere in the middle of an unknowable trajectory. Humanity is not a goal of the universe.

This conversation can lead far astray from any ideas of human conception, but all for a purpose. Moral identity (and necessarily human identity) cannot be based on an ability to exist or on a point when existence starts. In one sense our lives have already existed in genetic potential and will continue to support more existence in the same way. The little power we can control the continuation of life (that is, abortion, contraception, family planning) is somewhat insignificant compared to the continued potential of our species or life itself. This is not to say that discontinuing the process is not regrettable or in need of serious thought and deliberation. Yet to assume mastery or a singularly correct view over continuation is misdirected and potentially inhibitive of the way life works.

So much time and resources are spent on a battle between pro-life and pro-choice and the desire to legally define the start of life. I posit that the issue is not about who gets to determine moral integrity (for the mother or child). It is not about crying murder and restricting sexuality. Nor is it about a patriarchy controlling women (an issue for another post entirely). The beauty of humanity is in its growth, and in how it transfers knowledge between and across generations. The beauty is in how parents invest in the physical, emotional, and moral development of their children. 

In the end, moral identity is determined by how one has learned and existed in relation to everything else, not in the precondition that one existed in the first place. And it is in this context that an individual can acquire autonomy or identity at all.

I think we should spend more time and resources to foster and protect the society we wish for through posterity, rather than trying to strangle the definition of posterity with our own conceit.


02: An ungrasped tyranny

Concerning moral enslavement

The nature of the last post was ultimately negative — not in its message, but in how it had to view morality in a context opposing religion. A poor system is any that requires qualification in opposition to something else, as if it has no substance for itself in the first place. My intention was first to clear the grounds before proceeding to more substantive matters of morality, hopefully in the process establishing morality as a subject existing independently and prior to religious thought.

From this point forward I aim to scaffold the precepts of moral thought. There is only a framework for ethical thinking; there is no absolute moral code: Even of our most accepted and ubiquitous examples of guiding principles, such as the condemnation of murder, we can imagine to different extents scenarios, however gruesome or troubling, where a violation of the principle is unavoidable or the preferable action. Examples of violations could range anywhere from imaginable manifestations of the trolley problem (a thought problem concerning the sacrifice of one life to save many), to the controversial issues of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, etc. While all of these are weighty topics that deserve individual posts, I can identify one cognitive framework demanded at the outset of our considerations of these or any dilemmas. To do so I would like to consider the treatment of gay rights in modern society, or more inclusively, the treatment of the LGBTQA community.

In all cases where we can mark the injustices that face people in this community, the root of the problem is the fundamental denial of all or part of someone’s identity. Gay men and lesbian women face an abject denial of their sexual feelings. Even progress made in court rulings and statutory laws is met with staunch resistance, most often by opponents claiming religious convictions. Transgendered persons face a denial of their basic identity in the face of society’s death-grip on a male/female dichotomy. They have even been targeted as unfit for the public right of bathroom usage. Instead of holding the self-identity of these individuals inviolable, society has chosen to re-categorize them against their wills, to confine them to narrow, preconceived niches. These notions are founded most likely as some god’s perfect creation of only two immutable sexes that are oriented to each other, rather than in any science that reveals an imperfect evolution towards two sexes, the complex, indescribable mental and physiological source of identity, or a consideration of culture’s overwhelming need and ability to cast identity for us. Easily recognizable is the effect of media stereotyping of the wide and varied LGBTQA community in engendering mistrust, alienation, or fear. However, for most moral citizens a genuine acquaintance with even just one member provokes the recognition of the humanity of that member, and the entire community. This is a fairly correlative principle in reversing animosity towards any “othered” group, separated by faith, nationality, or skin color.

Let us imagine that the biblical argument for condemning gay rights is not so easily dismissed (which is true for many devout individuals). And let us also imagine that the argument that only the biological complement of male and female is natural, and is not so easily refuted by psychological study or observation of nature. This is also a prevalent position, but only insofar as the arguer is ignorant. What I am left with in this case is a singular, untested, uninformed position that reflects only the way I see the word and intend to live my life: the position that for example would be, “I am  a man, and my sexual partner is a woman. Together we can have offspring, which is the goal of humanity.” There is nothing completely incorrect about this statement, aside from implying that having offspring is the only goal of humanity (as opposed to love, pursuit of happiness, coexistence, etc., but there is still nothing wrong with recognizing the requirement of reproduction in our definition of life itself). The problem here arises when I take my perspective, no matter its ethical or unethical ramifications, and assume it to be a universal truth regarding all humans (or other life). This leads us to our first cognitive framework for pursuing morality:

A singular moral stance asserted by dominance over the life of another individual is the definition of moral enslavement.

In other words, if I assume that the way I choose to live my life is the only way that all others must live, and cast the opinion into law or otherwise enforce it, then I have denied others their ability  to exercise freely moral rights and responsibilities. This is an act akin to slavery, especially when targeted against a specific different opinion. In this comparison, I do not wish to belittle the connotation of slavery that is tied with race, especially the centuries-long African slave trade in the Americas, a devastatingly corrupt era of human history that still resonates in racial tensions, discrimination, and stereotypes. Surely the LGBTQA of all of history have suffered indignation, corporal punishment, and death at the hands of their oppressors, but likely not to the debilitating extent experienced by African slaves and their descendants. Yet underlying physical slavery is this corruption of moral enslavement by which oppressors wrongly justify their claim over independent human lives.

It is likely still possible to conceive one’s own moral stance in the context of sacred texts, or ignorant biology, without resorting to moral enslavement. However to do so would still be to recognize the gradually prevailing morality among society that recognizes the identity and humanity of all its members. The better position would be to engage with the individuals whose identity and ethical choices clash with one’s own: to find common ground and common values, or to simply realize that if your morality is incapable of reaching everyone, then it is probably no morality at all.

01: An overdue divorce

Morality is not religious, nor is religion moral.

In a modern political landscape that is plagued by religious conflicts that are as destructive and tragic as they are petty to the grand scheme of humanity, so little concern is given to dissociating the ideas of morality and religion. These conflicts range from both the ominous increase in terrorism that is most often associated with Islam, to the regressive-liberal idea that Islam must not be incited or held accountable for the belligerence it actively pursues. But terrorism is not limited to Muslims; it is found in the Israeli who just as violently deny their Palestinian neighbors human rights, it is found in the deep-seated hatred between Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland, it is found in the racist, sexist, homophobic rhetoric of politicians worldwide, and it is found in the dehumanizing boycotts and protests of evangelical churches like the Westboro Baptists in the United States.

Morality concerns people and their relationships, and since religion mostly requires an utter control of both people and relationships, it has usurped the morality to allienate and trivialize it among the historical texts that for no good reason must remain holy and unquestionable. While the overwhelming amount of religious abuse of morality across the world is a topic for another post, it is quite possible that the only basic solution to the ensuing conflicts is an education and empowerment of all sexes and nations, and a removal of religion’s death-grip on morality.

To qualify the opening statement, I will divide my argument into three segments, which will relate most readily to Christianity and the monotheisms to which it is related.

  • The act of following a code or teaching, whatever the moral intent or outcome, is not moral in itself.

What any religion upholds as justification of its ethical superiority is its list of commandments, fatwas, and dogma. And in the same vein, any advanced society seeking similarly to demonstrate ethical superiority, will point to its constitution and statutory law to boast how civilized its constituents are. However in both cases, the code of law is predominantly negative (full of “thou shalt not’s” and other illegalities), the real purpose of which is to regulate the punishment, worldly or post-existential, of those who disobey the law. Oddly enough a better descriptor of the law’s inherent morality might lie in how it treats delinquency rather than in how it defines delinquency.

As I will try to demonstrate repeatedly on this blog, morality does not come from an authority downward, because it concerns and emanates from individuals. This is easily evidenced by the fact that individuals choose to make their own delinquent choices even within a regulated society — whether by malice, ignorance, or some sense of justifiable civil disobedience. Pretending that individuals only act morally when following an authoritarian ruling is to surrender to indoctrination and never question or decide what is important about other people’s lives. This line of thought should in no way be construed as a promulgation of anarchy: in an ideal society there is still a codification of morality, collectively supported by the individuals, and the individuals follow the code not because they are told to do so, but because they agree with the underlying morality upon which the code is based. This is not an argument that god-fearing people are often eager to make.

Certainly many monotheists will point to the Ten Commandments as a moral guide and state that their following of the commandments is based upon a moral agreement to them. I will not disagree that not murdering, no adultery, and not stealing, are ultimately good things for a society. However, to include in one’s moral agreement (numerically more importantly), not doubting, not engraving, and not misnaming a deity, as well as choosing one of every seven days as more sacred, lends absolutely nothing to morality. The most important commandments concerning how to think of the authority figure relate in no way to other humans, who are the only plausible moral objects of action. Following these commandments is otherwise the immoral justification for mistreating another individual or group whose god is even the slightest bit different from the god in question. Far more horrifying are the actions of people who justify gross immoralities such as honor-killings, divine directives for murder or assault, suicide-bombings and other martyrdoms, by contorting the supposed word of god. But this is not even to let the “words of god,” ever outdated and fabricated mythological texts, off the hook in their own rite. Any critic could pick lines from them that unabashedly promote slavery, the dehumanization of women, rape, and murder based on sexuality, nonconformity, or minor infractions, and not to mention the atrocities performed by god that are clearly against his own dictations. Yet all of these actions make sense with the realization that morality stems first from the individual, especially if there is no more dangerous individual than one who acts at the behest of their god.

Most Christians will run away from the majority of the Old Testament, where these are found, in favor of the more peaceful Jesus and his god “the father.” What is forgotten in this shift is the apparent moral improvement that happened between Old and New. Whether the improvement happened at the hands of Roman writers who fabricated the myth of Jesus to pacify the resistant tribes of Israel, reflected the influential trend of neighboring religions whose existing sacrificial-savior narratives were grafted upon a willing Judaism, or followed an exaggerated and Euhemerized tale of some historical preacher, I am not one qualified to say. But in any case the turn away from a destructive, jealous, and vindictive god to a loving, pacifist, and personal god show the power of reasoned, irreligious morality dragging humanity out of earlier times of torment. This has continued to happen as religions reform and are reconstructed, and modern individuals freely choose the aspects and verses of their holy texts that apply to or disagree with the world they want to bring about. All these acts occur despite religion and help to prove that morality is the independent force of conversation and reason that recreates religion, and not the other way around. I hope that morality continues to drag humanity out of the terrorizing pit of superstition.

And to those who uphold Jesus’s teachings as a true moral code, I again relate that merely following teachings is not an ethical stance in itself. Furthermore, while Jesus seemingly represents a leap forward for the morality of society, I ask that you question the motives of any teacher who cherishes the kneeling, submissive human, subjugated to a still divisive, judgmental authority, over the human who pursues reason and the direct empowerment of others. You should question his teachings that only bolster or do nothing to reverse the evils of the Old Testament, which still pepper the New. And of his death: Those who are so eager to point to the horrendous suffering such a teacher endured through crucifixion, never acknowledge (aside from some noted early followers) the crucifixion of others: the criminals, insurrectionists, or even wrongly-convicted innocents who also died upon a cross. What portion of our sins did their deaths reconcile? But above all, you should wonder if we can move beyond a teacher who epitomizes the idea that human sacrifice can ever be the solution to a problem, especially a problem he affirmed, as “son of god,” to be responsible for in the first place.

  • Repenting to god, being “saved,” and seeking a personal relationship with god are not moral positions and, far from contributing nothing to morality, rather detract from it.

The three ideas above are all related to the desire within monotheisms to remain personally in touch with the creator, to somehow communicate with it through verbalized, or more likely non-verbalized prayer. They encompass the feeling that only god judges individuals, and thus the relationships between them and others is unimportant in comparison to their obligation to god. This is the heart of the immorality, when injustices against other individuals are erased by a closed-door confession carried out in one’s head or beneath their breath. Even a priest hearing confessions is bound by religious dogma to convey none of the moral implications to the involved community or even beyond  the room with the one confessing. The debt of the infraction committed is rarely paid to society, since the absolution is bought often by a penance of prayers intended only to improve the sinner’s relationship with god and not in any way that addresses the price absorbed by the community. Even less productive is any system of repenting for sins that is moderated by the sinner themself. While morality certainly begins with the individual, it is useless without the social conversation necessary to its being a qualification of human interaction.

The idea of being “saved,” used as a moral qualifier is not respected or even allowed among all theists, but is important for some Protestant Christian denominations. For the most part, being “saved” merely relates to some revelation or conversion story of a person when they first considered god or Jesus as a personal savior. In some doctrine, though, a saved person is  considered absolved of crimes merely because they profess a new and unwavering faith in their deity — and for these people entrance to heaven is based solely on whether they “believe” in Jesus or not. In reality crimes are not committed against heaven (or if they are, they are irrelevant to human morality), they are committed against people; therefor the cost to society cannot be undone by  a mental state that is belief. Even in the case of deathbed conversions that so popularly fill literature or obituaries, a revelation of previous transgressions does not immediately remove those transgressions. Even genuine regret at this point, whether it comes from a sudden awe for the teachings of mythological texts or true insight into ethical ramifications, does not undo any damage that may have occurred in society. While regret may inspire forgiveness, any such reaction is still the burden of society as it discusses its own moral values.

A personal relationship with god may seem the least malign of this list, but often causes the most trouble. A significant underlying current for many faiths involves the internal digging or pleading, searching through one’s self for some god-instilled essence or manifest god itself. It is the idea that only the humblest, most humiliated self can know god’s will, or rely on god’s direction in important decisions. It is the idea that utter trust in the personally-revealed directive will always trump pretentious reason. Such a position utterly disregards my assertion that there is no morality that is not conferred or corroborated between people. And I hope it is not too obvious to say that the personal god is the vehicle by which the aforementioned contortions of god’s word instigate violence in otherwise moral peoples. The personal god defiles the rational personage, removing it from the moral landscape entirely while subsequently allowing it to cause the most harm.

I have saved the most abhorrent and hypocritical idea of religion for the last segment of my argument:

  • The promise of eternal reward or punishment destroys the grounds of morality and replaces them with something that is amoral.

Imagine the system where actions are taken not for their own merit but rather for the maximum gain for the actor. Judgments of any actions validity are weighed between costs and profits. Assets that allow for the most effective transactions are accumulated. Considerations for whom the actions benefit are irrelevant as long as the action can be deemed profitable. Conversely, actors that do not follow the system correctly are quickly condemned, impoverished, and forgotten.

Any reader by this point will recognize the scenario above crudely as capitalism, not as religion. But by pressing the analogy further, you could easily fit into the cogs of capitalism the aspects of religions: faith and good works as opposed to ignorance and wrongdoing; the eternal profit in heaven and the poverty of hell, indulgences and tithes, conversions and sainthoods. Surely mission trips and posthumous baptisms save the greatest number of souls, so the must be championed over feeding the hungry. Prayer by far must bring you closer to god, so it must be cherished over sending real relief or fighting for real cures.

The greatest hypocrisy possible in religion is that moral actions, while they may not be immediately beneficial, should be carried out so that we can reap rewards at a later time. Treating our fellow humans this way, regardless of any social improvement, denies the morality of that person in favor of a selfish gain. In this sense good works are no better than an amoral exchange of goods and services fulfilled in faceless consumers, always pursued in the expectation of eventual heavenly delights and sublime choruses at god’s right hand, whether those occur in some literal or figurative place. The grave disappointment of the morality behind heaven and hell is the disregard for the humans with whom we must interact. It is a morality that allows its believers to alienate the people who do not share their heaven, and allows them the sentence of damnation as somehow a justification of their superiority. And by far any system that would rather divide people into categorical fates than fight for the empowerment and reconciliation of all is not a system that can preach any superiority.

I cannot delve into the concepts of heaven and hell without addressing the main issue that leads people to believe in them: death. People somehow fear the calm nothingness that is in all probability death, and religion usually supplies an erroneous comfort that we should look forward to death to experience divine reward (or an improved reincarnation, or somehow an extra-corporal reunion with beloved friends and family). Religion teaches that the current life is unimportant aside from the quest to follow Jesus or Muhammad expectantly to god’s mythical kingdom. The details of life are so insignificant and pale in comparison to that kingdom. Yet the cost of that kingdom is that entire life, lived out in the details, lived out in the human relationships, and lived out in the moral decisions.

Death is neither a moral position, nor a moral gateway. Treating it as such is as much an affront to the lives that we choose to live ourselves as it is an affront to the lives of those around us that we must uphold.

Morality does not belong to a faith that seeks to control our deaths. It does not belong to a faith that seeks to force our submissionn and strip our reason. And it does not belong to a faith that would rather indoctrinate than see us question and determine freely for ourselves how we must coexist as humans.