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A series about connection vs attachment.
Part 1: Is this connection or Attachment?
Part 2: Albatross Love & Human Jealousy
Part 3: Morality & Attachment
This blog post explores how attachments can complicate moral stances, and offers perspectives that might help us become aware of our own contradictions and confusions.
There is a difference between being connected with values and moral perspectives versus being attached to them. This is tricky.
Morality for security reasons
As humans we are liable to identify and cling to ideas and structures that help us make sense of the world and save us from critical thinking and making difficult decisions, for example, taking religious scripture literally and accepting dogma. It's just easier for the mind to have a "go-to" reasoning model than to assess each experience as it comes.
Morality for social reasons
We also may identify ourselves with particular moral stances taken by our parents, heroes, and role models. "I stand for this." These relationships with moral stances are based on the desire to feel secure, to protect a familiar sense of self, and to align with identified alphas. It is different to genuinely form intellectual and emotional connection with the values, contradictions, subjectivity, sacrifices, and grey areas that form the heart of morality.
Morality for emotional reasons
Emotions show us how we feel about the world. Unfortunately emotionality has its own grey areas and pitfalls. Sometimes it guides us well. Often it misleads us horrifically.
For example, some people may have very powerful emotional responses to moral issues--lets say, for example, abortion. Having a strong emotional response to a moral issue does not automatically tell us what is right and what is wrong. Rage, tears, and other drama can be very compelling, and may give you an urge to take a side or engage action, but emotional intensity does not necessarily lead us to ethical clarity. Often you will find that where emotionality is on public display, logic and consistency are absent from the person's moral framework. For example, a person who does not support abortion because "all life is sacred" may support the death penalty, physician-assisted suicide, war, or other events in which a life is ended. This begs the question why has the person subscribed to this value but not that similar value? Is their emotional relationship with life and death or their own inner emotional loops? What is the difference? Are prestige or social implications entering the reasons for taking this stance?
Emotional memory can block presence and critical thinking
Furthermore, if a person has a strong emotional experience that becomes stored away as trauma in the body, the moral question can trigger anxiety and panic. Though this person may feel genuinely connected with a moral stance based on real life experience and memories of suffering, this way of reasoning can mislead. Difficult feelings can make us reactive to similar but different new experiences as we quickly try to avoid repeating that negative experience. This is hugely relevant for racism and hostility between "groups" of people. We base broad opinions off of specific experiences and end up becoming narrow-minded about what might be a rather complex, nuanced matter. As mentioned in the beginning of this piece, we like to make life easier - its easier to follow rules than to critically assess every scenario. Easier, but not more accurate, not more intelligent. Following preconceived notions is relying on previous patterns formed by past experiences - it stops us from being present. Simply asking questions about the nature of the situation at hand can stimulate the needed pattern shift that helps us out of our emotional loops, enabling us to see more clearly what is here now.
A sense of moral goodness can become an obstacle to action
"Slave morality" was coined by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps known best for his explorations of Nihilism. He described slave morality as a mindset sometimes held by an oppressed group that undermines their potential for creativity and power. In slave morality, an oppressed group (and that might very well be you and me, who are likely not capable of influencing political action) spends their energy celebrating their own moral goodness while resenting their master and dreaming of a future world (such as heaven) in which they are rewarded for their moral rightness while their masters are punished. The emotional expenditure of feeling self-righteous and resentful, Nietzshe argues, is really the killer of the possibility for change. Because active resentment and self-celebration absorbs the slaves and provides them with an identity, rather than take action to destroy the master-slave relationship, they inadvertently reinforce it. They adopt an "I am oppressed" mentality and create a tolerable world within their limited freedoms, frequently telling themselves that they are righteous and one day justice will be served. So the slave on the one hand is poised with the necessary insight and inspiration to form important human social values and change the world, recognizing the injustice of oppression and inequality, but if the slave contents him/herself with the satisfaction of being morally good and dreaming of a better future, they will never actualize their values and overthrow their masters. None of this is to say that oppressed groups of people are weak, unintelligent, uncreative, or anything like that. Nietzsche's warning is that we are liable to play the role of the identity we have become familiar with rather than changing anything. Pattern stuck.
So we have to be careful about identifying with the parts of ourselves that fall into the weak, oppressed, marginalized zones, whether that's being female, poor, black, queer, etc. If we adopt this "disempowered" identity and resent those who do not treat us fairly, we may feel emotionally satisfied in victimhood (and we may fuel that self-satisfaction with regular arguments and minor uprisings) while not actually making a difference. Even if we create goodwill among our own marginalized group, which is commendable, we have not altered the power structure until we interrupt the powerful/weak dichotomy. And if we do find the inspiration to meaningfully alter the power structure, we want to be clever--we don't want to recreate the same structure with the only difference being that now we are the ones on top. We want to come up with something that does not rely on subjugation but is not devoid of power either. We need to do more than overthrow and displace our "masters." We need to create structures in which power flows dynamically and changes periodically, not favoring one group or another. I for one do not know what that looks like, but it makes me think of ecosystems. I think if we keep slave morality in mind we may be better at avoiding it and come up with some interesting ideas.
Emotionality is essential in moral reasoning
Concerns acknowledged, emotionality is important for our moral reasoning. You may find cases in which a strong logical case is made for an ethical stance, but empathy is absent, and the purveyor of that stance may be dangerous. Attempting to take a "purely logical" view of the world often leads us out of connection with that which we seek to understand. "Science" cannot be divorced from the world of emotion, and if science purposes to understand the world as is, emotion in fact needs to be front and center. This is explored in a compelling way in Carl Safina's book "Beyond Words." We may conduct clinical experiments on animals to be able to assert facts about them, but that is only one kind of knowledge. Furthermore, there's danger in alienating emotionality and empathy from scientific pursuits; historically we have justified animal abuse with their "scientifically confirmed" lack of consciousness and intelligence (we've done this to humans too). But doesn't that reveal our own lack of awareness? Aren't we actually evolutionarily equipped to recognize emotionality in other living beings? And is that not something to explore and embrace, regardless of the messiness of subjectivity?
Emotionality must be part of morality; we only know how we feel about anything through our emotional responses. Lying awake at night with an ache about what is happening in the world is an important experience. Our sense of empathy is critical to morality. So that which sincerely troubles us is worth exploring. But we have to know ourselves well enough to understand the nature of our emotional responses, understanding how the body's stored memories may be holding us back from new perspective, and that we might even get addicted to the rush of feeling defensive about a cause. Claiming victimhood can also give us a sense of power; to be "wronged" and to blame makes us feel higher, safer. It is a false feeling.
Emotional intelligence, which can be practiced by anyone, shows us that even it we get a serotonin dose when we act as victims, that doesn't mean that acting as victims is in our best interest. We have to be aware of our physiological and emotional responses to our life contexts, and be critical at the same time that we are open.
When a moral stance is encouraged as a means to fulfill an agenda, we can call that manipulation. Emotion and logic may be used to influence others to support a cause that benefits a chosen entity. In this case, "morality" is weaponized. Its attractiveness and supposed nobility are instrumentalized to influence action that suits somebody's agenda. Attachments are definitely involved. Over and over again I observe people fighting over an issue, and find that the issue itself has been stripped of its substance and become nothing more than fuel for an ego-battle. Over and over again we have witnessed the weaponization of morality by world leaders. And we have seen the horrors that unfold from there.
Inquiring into morality
We can inquire into our own values by inviting emotional, physical, and intellectual sensibilities into our assessments of right and wrong, and by being open to reassessing again and again. Emotional intelligence, body awareness, and logical inquires can help us understand what is at hand. However, no matter how disciplined we are with these inquiries, there is no certainty that they will guide us to moral rightness. How could they, if moral rightness simply isn't absolute?
The deeper we dive into morality, the clearer it becomes that morality is anything but clear. Morality will never be finalized in a neat set of laws, because there are unanswerable questions that riddle every moral problem. The desire for moral goodness is simply part of our ongoing human challenge to be self-aware, discerning, and intentional participants in the shaping of our world.
We can at best seek to identify incomplete or insincere moral stances by acknowledging the gaps and contradictions that fall between our choices. The sentiment "Maybe I am wrong" could prevent a great deal of suffering. Morality brings a tension to life that offers us a good reason to be engaged with our own actions. Perhaps it is not the answers, but the questions themselves that can most effectively lead us to do the right thing.
But are we so lost in the grey areas of morality? Maybe I am wrong. One of the most profound quotes I have ever come across was by a Matriarch of a remote island community in Micronesia. I was supporting a conservation project and had the opportunity to learn and share some local perspectives from the island. Translated from Palauan, Ungilreng Takawo said,
"We all know what is good and what is not. We choose to believe otherwise because of greed and ignorance."
Photo: Tim Evanson