Sunday, July 10, 2016

Mapping Out Moral Behavior

            The word map is frequently used when we want to create a visual image of the physical relationship between different phenomena.  When we use it for the environments in which we live, it can be used for everything from the whole world to a neighborhood in a city.  A map can be used to focus on different features like the topography of different geographical entities.  Maps are used in biology as well to diagram different aspects or different features of an animal or human body.  Nowadays, we map out the genes on chromosomes, and we map out the brain, determining which sections of the brain carry out which cerebral functions.  And maps are also used in dealing with our solar system or the universe.

            Within the context of the philosophical model that has been presented in this column, I would like to focus on using the notion of a map in a slightly different context.  It is my contention that morality is not just about moral events: doing moral things and not doing immoral things.  It is not simply about our freely-made moral decisions to do moral things and not do immoral things.  Rather it is also about the influence of our fields of experience, our configurations of stimuli to create different predispositions for different kinds of personally viable and socially viable behavior.  How can we maintain a basic human essence within and sometimes in spite of the surroundings in which we dwell?

            Our evolving modern technological living environments are creating fields of experience, configurations of stimuli that are very different from the fields of experience and configurations of stimuli of the traditional living environments in which traditional moral systems were created.  These fields of experience and configurations of stimuli elicit very different kinds of responses, very different behavior from the kinds of responses and behavior found in more traditional pre-industrial living environments.  So the spectrum of available human responses for treating other people as well as ourselves in a good way is also shifting.  In short, the traditional moral map no longer fits very well the experiential territory of modern humanity.

            Traditional morality is based on developing rules to rise above the grounding of more natural environments, a grounding that has an abundance of flowing blendable continual stimuli that tend to blur into a person and cause him to lose control of his behavior and to undifferentiate into his animal desires such as violence, lust, gluttony, greed, and sloth.  To control these desires, he develops firm defined discrete behavioral boundaries: moral rules that, depending on the person and the situation, proclaim moderation or even abstention.  But extreme animalistic behavior has to be reined in not only because it can hurt oneself and other people, but because it tends to swallow up a person and undifferentiate his sense of self.  And it is the uniqueness of a human sense of self, so much more developed than in other animals, that separates him from other animals and allows him to survive.

            Traditional religions have been developed on the basis of creating rules for stable affirmative behavior among the members of a society.  With the non-measurable non-controllable flowing blendable continual stimuli in traditional more natural environments, people are stimulated to misbehave in relation to the standards of traditional morality.  Using their unique cognitive faculties, people learn how to regulate their behavior and how to hold themselves together.  The map of hypothetical life situations in which people can slide away from their defined human sense of self is laid out in the holy books of traditional religions.  Connected to this map are behavioral answers so that a person doesn’t slide.

            As we move into the era of modern technology, we need different kinds of rules to survive with our human essence intact.  The problem today is no longer as much the danger of undifferentiating into an animal.  Modern technology creates what I have called vacuum and tension-pocket environments: environments of understimulating numbness with pockets of overstimulating jolts to our nervous system.  To live and function in such an environment, there is a tendency to organically unbond from one’s living environment and to function to a great extent as an overly defined figure – a robot.  So in order to restore a human balance, one has to find a way to restore sources of flowing blendable continual stimuli and to reground oneself.  Rather than have a morality that focuses exclusively on preventing animalistic excesses, one has to develop a morality that focuses more on preventing robotic numbness and jadedness.

            From another perspective, the organic surfaces of traditional more natural living environments are fine for making and receiving the organic imprints that allow us to feel alive.  But because of the strong tendency towards organic perishability in those environments, they are not as good for preserving the imprints that are made and, in this way, allowing people to create a surrogate immortality with the imprints they leave and thus prepare for death.  On the other hand, modern technological living environments, existing as they do above and apart from nature, are terrific for preserving imprints.  Notice how many museums are constantly sprouting up today.  But modern technological living environments lack a lot of the organic surfaces necessary for making organic imprints.

            Patterns of experiential surfaces may not be suitable for making precise measured defined visual maps.  But, if nothing else, we can make impressionistic descriptive maps.  Just as impressionistic descriptive maps can also be made of patterns of experiential phenomena and patterns of stimuli.  One might ask what does all this have to do with morality and with ethical decision-making.  The whole point being made here is that people don’t exist as phenomena that are isolated and separate from their surroundings.  People exist within different kinds of living environments that impinge on them in different ways, that influence their behavior in different ways, and that present different kinds of challenges and threats to their human essence.  So sometimes a person’s behavior towards himself and other people is a reflection of what he is experiencing in his living environments.  And sometimes a person’s best behavior towards himself and other people is a behavior that protects both himself and other people from the dangers in the living environment – in particular, the dangers that threaten to attack the integrity of the human sense of self.

            This is why what I am calling moral cartography is so important.  Humans can move among different ecosystems, among different living environments, far more easily than most other animals.  But the fact that they can move among them does not mean that they are immune to the influences of the environment in which they are living.  And profound differences in technology over time can mean that the configurations of behavioral influences from a modern technology-oriented environment can be very different from the influences of a more traditional nature-oriented environment.  And different configurations of behavioral influences can elicit different kinds of harmful behavior that would be considered immoral.

            So in making different descriptive maps of these configurations of behavior influences, we can gain a better understanding of what could be considered immoral in a particular environment, and we can try to develop behavioral responses that can be protective of the human essence both of ourselves and of the people that surround us related to that environment.

            One last point.  Not all of what is considered immoral is going to shift as people move into technologically more advanced living environments.  Fundamental crimes like murder, physical assault, rape and robbery remain the same as immoral actions no matter what the living environment.  Crimes like these symbolize fundamental attacks not only on real live humans but also on the human essence in any living environment.  However, they can be generated by different kinds of patterns, depending on whether they occur in more traditional natural environments (crimes of passion) or modern technological environments (crimes of numbness).  In the first case, a person is swallowed up by his emotions.  In the second case, a person is trying to generate enough emotions to feel alive.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

No comments:

Post a Comment