Why I am not Sure About How Society Works

If a man thinks he understands the world well enough to fix it, he is called a Utopian – until he gets caught, when he is called a mass-murderer. Obviously, such arrogance is unfounded, but we all need a certain amount of understanding to function, so most of us have certain models of society which, while simplified, nevertheless help us think about the world around us. I’m going to share one of my models, which is a model of morality within society.

One model, variously espoused by Nietzsche and Ribbonfarm, is that morality comes from a few charismatic individuals who don’t much care about groups but care about their own private sense of nobility. Everyone else cares about the group and externalises their morality, and so popular moralities must inevitably come from one of these charismatics. Personally I view this as absurd. You may as well say that because I don’t calculate the value of milk myself, the price I pay must have been determined by some charismatic individualist who has persuaded all the producers and consumers, and that it will stay static until some new charismatic individualist persuades us differently. Moreover, within this way of thinking, the great agents of moral change in our history would be figures such as Jesus (or perhaps St. Paul), Mohammed, Darwin, etc – but none of these people were particularly individualistic or concerned with “nobility.” On the contrary, they were very concerned with their own group, and came from strong and well-established schools of thought, which they advanced rather than overthrew.

My own thinking is that morality is, essentially, about choices. Saying you value nobility isn’t morality, it’s aesthetics. It becomes a moral question when you start to ask what you’d sacrifice for your sense of nobility. But my choices are not made in a vacuum. They are made as part of a continual process of me choosing, and in the context of lots of other people choosing, and these choices need to make sense in social and economic terms. More often than not, popular moral changes are driven by changes in that underlying socio-economic basis. There wasn’t a charismatic individual who persuaded everyone that pre-marital sex was no longer sinful – it’s just that contraception became widely available. This is not to say that charismatic individuals can’t affect popular morality, but that their capacity to do so is very limited. No matter how charismatic an individual, his views will not catch on unless they resonate with people. By and large, you can only tell people to do what they want to do anyway. A charismatic individual, by huge effort, can change the day of rest from Saturday to Friday or Sunday. But he can’t change the number of days in the weekend. It’s not merely that modern (non-serious) Christians behave nothing like how Christ taught. It’s that ultra-serious 17th century Christians behaved nothing like how Christ taught. Everyone just reads into these things what they want to. Beyond tinkering around the edges, what a charismatic individual can do is provide a story as to why we are doing what we were going to do anyway. So instead of having a midwinter festival to praise Saturn or Odin, we have one to praise Jesus, but the actions are the same.

In my view, people develop their morality by making moral choices. And therefore the people with the most developed morality are those who make the most choices – i.e. the people with the greatest scope for action. Whereas if all your actions are hemmed in by (perceived) necessity and so you have very few moral choices, your sense of morality will be very limited. People with full bellies debate whether it is justified to steal a loaf of bread to feed their starving family, while people with empty bellies just steal the loaf and don’t worry about whether it’s justified. In other words, morality is not an imposition of the weak on the strong, it is the self-limiting process that the strong buy into. The weak have no need for a morality at all.

Therefore I see society as divided into three broad groups: the amoral weak, who have made few choices of necessity and hence are likely to act badly if given serious moral choices, e.g. children; the immoral, who have developed a moral sense but choose selfishly or poorly; and the moral, who have developed a good moral sense. And I think that is the heirarchy of any well-functioning society or organisation; moral -> immoral -> amoral, with the immoral being constantly squeezed and forced to conform.

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