Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Morality Follows the Dao

Last week I heard an economist by the name of Jeff Rubin talking about his book, Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller. Basically, his thesis is that because of peak oil there is going to be a very significant increase in the price of energy and that this is going to reverse globalisation. People will stop eating food out of season and imported from far away. Local industry and agriculture will revive. People will get rid of their cars and start using public transit. Vacations will be spent at home instead of at exotic tourist destinations. Suburbs will decline and revert to farmland while people emigrate to the inner city where they will live in high-efficiency higher-density housing.

In effect, people will start living far more environmentally-friendly lives.

Rubins emphasised that this change will not be because of some sort of ethical change in individuals but rather because they will be adapting to economic forces. (Although he certainly seems to relish these changes as significant improvements in the way we live our lives.)

This interview got me thinking about morality. Most of my life I have been someone who has pretty much seen the world through Puritan-coloured glasses. That is to say, I have had a tendency to look at what people do in terms of consequences with an emphasis on "right versus wrong". For example, when my friends go on vacation trips overseas I tend to fixate on the huge amounts of CO2 that their jet flight sends into the atmosphere, thereby adding to global warming. (As you might imagine, this makes me the life of the party.)

Listening to Mr. Rubin, the absurdity of my viewpoint was pretty obvious. Not because there are no consequences for our behaviour---such as wasting energy---but because it is wrong to think that human beings base their behaviour on moral reasoning. Instead, as near as I can tell, for most people morality is a much more of a "epiphenomenon" that is used to justify our behaviour which is almost always based on self-interest, emotion, habit, and so forth. As such, moral reasoning is sort of like Kipling's "just so stories" that try to explain why it is we do a certain thing without really doing much more than present a plausible fiction.

Take the example of women's liberation. In my lifetime I have seen a tremendous improvement in the choices available to women. But ultimately, I don't see much evidence that this has come about from masses of people changing their opinions because of consciousness-raising. As evidence for this, I would suggest the truism that all feminists will admit to---young women who have opportunities that are beyond their grandmothers wildest dreams steadfastly refuse to allow themselves to be labelled "feminists". If life is better for today's women, it is not because they have chosen to organise and fight for their rights!

If you look at women's liberation from the point of view of economics, however, this jarring disconnect makes sense. Women gained their liberation not because it is morally just, but rather because it was economically expedient.

First of all, in the 1960's the buying power of working-class jobs declined dramatically. This meant that it was no longer possible for men to work at a lower-middle-class job and support a household---complete with a stay-at-home wife. This means that in order to keep ahead of the credit card payments, the average family now has to have two breadwinners instead of one. When women began to bring in a significant fraction of the household's wealth, they began to have more say in how that home is organised.

Luckily, this decline in purchasing power happened at the same time that a whole new "service" sector was developing in the economy. This provided the huge numbers of jobs that were needed to give the wives work. But those jobs were significantly different from those of the manufacturing sector. They tended to be social in nature instead of numerical. That is to say, in a service job the the bottom line is whether or not the customer is satisfied. In a factory, it is how many widgets get turned out in an hour.

This new economic sector change has made a big change in the way our society sees things. So-called "women's work" has been to "keep things together" for the families and community. That means that they tended to place a greater value on harmony than on being "right". Men, on the other hand, have typically believed that none of the niceties matter as long as someone "produces". The language people used to use to describe a married couple illustrates this point: he is a "good provider" and she is "happy home-maker". In a service-based economy, being a "happy home-maker" has more value than a "good provider". In a world where "getting along" is increasingly important, we are changing the way we do politics, education and just about everything else to insert that new priority into the way we do things.

As a result of this change in the workplace, not only are women gaining in influence, but so-called "feminine values" (i.e. "getting along" versus "getting things done") are becoming more and more important. This shift in values is obvious at the academic library where I work. Increasingly, students do not sit at isolated carrels doing research on their own, but rather in groups that work together on projects.

In fact, I'm told that groups of individuals now take on-line exams together---and pool their knowledge using instant messaging software while actually doing the test. I suspect that if you asked these young people whether what they are doing is cheating, many of them wouldn't think so. This is because a cheat like this is only unfair if some people can do it and others cannot, and, you believe that the action being taken hides incompetence in the person being tested. In a world where information can be accessed instantly through the Internet, what real value is there in having facts in one's memory? Most of the jobs that these young people will end up filling will be ones where an ability to work together in a group is going to be far more important than being able to retain knowledge through individual study. As such, yet another values complex, i.e. "cheating", is changing in response to our economic and social reality.

I don't want to over-state the case. The women's liberation movement no doubt had some influence on the current improved status of women. And environmental groups will be able take some credit even if the increased price of oil is what finally prods people into living more sustainable lives. But, I don't think that any morally-based social movement in and of itself is capable to rendering real change in society.

In fact, it may very well be that in many cases the movement itself---and the moral viewpoint that informs it---is caused by the clash between different elements of a society that are experiencing different realities. The individual women who led the women's movement in the sixties may well have been the first fraction of the population who found themselves being significant "breadwinners" in dual-income families and chafed against a social system that was still very popular with the women who's husbands still "brought home the bacon". (I've certainly met women who would have loved to have been at home with the kids but had to work because of financial reasons. If someone has to be at work anyway, then they'd certainly want to get paid as much as men and force the boss to keep his hands to himself---.)

When I was working my way through this idea a passage in the Dao De Jing came to mind.
When the highest type of men hear the Way, with diligence they're able to practice it;

When the average men hear the Way, some things they retain and others they lose;

When the lowest type of men hear the Way, they laugh out loud at it.

If they didn't laugh at it, it couldn't be regarded as the Way.

Chapter 41, Hendricks translation.

At first glance the passage doesn't seem very apropos. But I suspect the reason why my subconscious seems to think it is, is because it is a statement about how the ultimate reality of life---the "Dao"---has both an objective element to it, yet at the same time is seen quite differently by individuals, depending on their own particular state-of-mind. Ideas are important because they animate people and create unity of purpose. But those ideas don't have traction with most people unless they fit into the day-to-day economic reality they inhabit. Object and subjective, a sage can see the multi-dimensional reality of an issue while the average man can only make a joke.


Caroline said...

Of course an Economist will view the world through economic phenomena---that is his/her training. I think, however, that it is "average man" thinking at best.

As a disclaimer: I too tend to the Puritan way of seeing the world. However, the "self-interest" viewpoint suffers from the problem that it can be argued that striving for the morally right is also in one's self interest. Good consequences or just a feeling of moral rectitude or self esteem are perhaps in our self interest as well. Enlightened self-interest.

I have a few chicken/egg problems with your Feminist example: I'm not sure if your premise "in the 1960's the buying power of working-class jobs declined dramatically" came before or after women began to get jobs outside the home in greater numbers. The realities of child care costs, second cars to get to work and the social pressure to have all the goodies the family next door has often eliminates much of the economic value a second income can bring to a family. This is especially true when either or both are working-class job.

Perhaps the value of the jobs in the 60's were diluted by the increase in available workers at that time?

Also the juxtaposition of economic and "moral" values is, perhaps, an inadequate way of looking at the picture. While women entering the workplace "may" have better morally or spiritually for women, it had many consequences that may or may not have been positive for children, the economy, the strength of families, relationships between men and women and society as a whole.

As with all change, there are positive and negative impacts across the board morally, spiritually, economically, physically, emotionally and every other niche that we can choose to focus on.

It seems to be a human characteristic, at least at this time, to want to find simple solutions for "problems". Perhaps we haven't developed the brain power to see the full picture. Whatever the many reasons may be, we have yet to understand or be able to find the balance----which is, in my opinion, The Way.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

It's true that with regard to issues like this that there really is no definitive
"answer", simply because there are so many variables and unknowns. As a result, it is one of those "you pays your money, you takes your chances" sort of things.

My gut feeling, therefore, is that feminism is one of those things where a profound social change took place not so much because of struggle and consciousness raising but rather because of a change in the economic climate. Once that particular jinnie got out of the bottle, however, it will be very difficult to put it back in. Perhaps that is where the importance of the women's movement comes into play.

In a similar vein, I suspect that Peak Oil will have more to do with building a sustainable economy than the environmental movement. But again, evnironmentalism will mean that when the change does come it will be in one direction instead of another.

Caroline said...

Yes, I think you're very likely right. It takes a effect to an individual's core needs before he/she is willing to go through the transitional discomfort of making substantial change.

What the visionaries do is offer a direction and open up the possibilities once the change is in motion.

It is interesting to observe the changes in the environmental movement and how it is continuing to be forged anew. As the child of "conservationists" before there was any such thing as an environmentalist----my parents were turning off lights, driving a VW and keeping the heat in New England turned to 55 in the 50's and early 60's----the vision has changed quite a bit and there is much more knowledge than when Rachel Carson was sounding her alarm bells.

Perhaps the fact that change won't come about before it effects survival is one of the balances that keeps us (sometimes) from going off in crazed directions like lemmings over the cliff?

Caroline said...

Hi Bill: I came across this blog, "The Natural Patriot" that might be of interest to you....and the article referenced pertains to this post and comments.


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Caroline. I read both the post and the "New Republic" article. It resonates with an idea that I have had for a while about a sustainable society being built on the "art economy". That is to say, I have this vision where people make their purchases on aesthetic reasons instead of price and are willing to simply live with less. Amitai Etzioni makes the point far better than that.

I also liked his reference to the Chinese literati. I suspect that a lot of my life has been based on trying to emulate the best elements of that society.