Tim Boucher, ever eager to open up a philosophical can of worms, addresses the age-old liberal conundrum, what to do about tolerating evil
. Reflecting on a criticism of megachurch Christianity, Tim writes:
Isn’t this person saying that in order for a religion to be moral, then they must actively tolerate evil itself? I know that’s not what this guy is probably trying to say, but I think it’s only a short hop into that territory. Even though I’m only partly in favor of the Spiral Dynamics model championed by Ken Wilber and others, the comments by this person seem to reflect a very typical “green meme” attitude wherein nothing is better than anything else; everything is strictly egalitarian; and hierarchy is bad.
One of the only ways out of this apparent thought trap seems to be to recognize the inherent right of people everywhere not to tolerate what they think of as being bad or evil. If you think this church is evil, and if this church thinks somebody else is evil, then - hey - that’s okay. No one is really discredited in the process. We’re just recognizing that groups and individuals have likes and dislikes. Why should we force people to tolerate evil?
I've commented exensively in his thread, but I want to collect my thoughts into a coherent essay, because there are some important distinctions to be made.
First off, let's just get it out of the way up front: there is no Good or Evil. The fact is that the universe is terrifyingly amoral.
Now, before you accuse me of moral relativism, of advocating a green-meme free-for-all, hear me out. At this point it is useful to borrow from manifold theory and use the idea of a manifold
as a metaphor or analogy for the way morality operates in our universe.
A manifold is an abstract mathematical space in which every point has a neighborhood which resembles Euclidean space, but in which the global structure may be more complicated.
A technical definition is beyond the scope here, but a manifold is essentially a complex "space" with a coherent structure that can be patched together by gluing together smaller linear spaces, called atlases
. Any point in a manifold space has a neighborhood that is locally linear and appears to have clear axes and directions, even if the global space does not. Some manifolds are orientable in the sense that concepts of direction apply globally (e.g. a circle is a one-dimensional manifold that has two definite directions, clockwise and and its opposing direction, counterclockwise). But not all manifolds are orientable. The Moebius strip
is an example of one that is not.
With this bit of mathematical theory in hand, we can now talk about moral compass and axes of good and evil. I submit that in any context that applies to a given being or group of beings at a particular moment in time, there is a moral atlas that provides a local meaning to the concepts of good and evil. That is, there is a more-or-less clear "good" direction and a clear "evil" direction, discernable without intellectualizing and ultimately getting twisted into a logical pretzel. In context, there are right and wrong actions. Wrong actions are those that are harmful, in some sense that is clear in context, while right actions are those that are beneficial, also in some sense that is clear in context. However, problems arise when you try to patch together these local moral atlases into some absolute moral system: you just can’t, because different entities will always have different concerns, often competing ones. To the primitive human, a lion might be "evil" because it destroys, but to the lion, a human is a good source of protein.
Now, allow me to repeat: in a given situation with a given individual and/or group of individuals, there is, most of the time, a clear axis of “good” and “evil” that is defined by the context and concerns of the person(s) involved, but that there is no such global/absolute axis that applies universally to all people and situations. This is a fine distinction.
This view brings up another facet of (let us call it) moral calculus. You can focus on a very narrow context which appears to have a clear “right” answer, but if you follow the time-evolution out far enough along that axis, it turns out to be the clear “wrong” answer. Example:
it is clearly in the economic interests of Community X to clear-cut the nearby forest, because doing so will provide resources and jobs the people of X obviously need. It’s to everybody’s benefit, except of course the owls, but who cares about them? Unfortunately, cutting down the forest externalizes various costs to the future and ultimately destroys the physical environment upon which Community X depends. So (as suggested by Tim Boucher commenter Prunes
), the moral manifold of the universe really is something more like a Moebius strip, i.e., non-orientable.
As they say, karma is a bitch, and it is so because actions have a way of coming back to you from some direction you may not have forseen. We can talk about karma in the context of nonlinear dynamical systems, more popularly known as chaos theory
. Dynamical systems are usually defined with respect to manifolds, so we are still on-topic. Ecologies are the best examples of such sytems, and an essential feature of an ecology is the feedback loop, where aspects of a system feed back on themselves, thereby either regulating behavior (negative feedback) or cascading to a snowball effect (positive feedback). In our moral model of the universe, actions feed other actions, and the consequences return via feedback. One can view feedback as a physical manifestation of karma. You need not believe anything metaphysical; in very real terms, what you do returns to you or your children. In our example, the children of Community X will reap the consequences of clear-cutting the nearby forest.
Now, I’m not pretending that mathematical analogies are for everybody, and certainly are not Reality, but they do help me. In fact, I do believe in a “metaphysical” portion of the universe, that is to say, one not directly measurable by the senses or by equipment calibrated to “ordinary” matter and energy. But even within the so-called physical universe there are time scales and complexity scales beyond the ability of the human mind to contemplate, and these too also take on the flavor of the metaphysical. Somewhere at the juncture of the nonordinary manifestations of energy, geological timescales, and planetary complexities, lie the consequences of feedback from our own present actions. This provides a reasonable, spiritually-neutral definition of karma appropriate to 21st century linguistic needs. If you acknowledge that we are living in a universal ecology, you cannot help but conclude the existence of karma, as manifested in system feedback. In addition, a local moral coordinate system can be discerned by considering the lines along which actions evolve in time and flower into consequences, whether or not you consider the agency of such consequences to be metaphysical.
A common misperception (at least here in the West) is to view karma as an equivalent to Yahweh's divine retribution, and therefore to ignore it entirely (since pretty much nobody outside the megachurch crowd pays attention to Yahweh anymore). In my observations, it seems that karma is more a feature of the mundane universe, and nonlinear dynamics, if viewed from the right perspective, gives a plausible model for how it works.
It is ultimately impossible to know the true long-term consequences of even the smallest action. This principle is captured in the butterfly effect
, well known in chaos-theory, by which an infinitesimally small action can have enormous consequences. It is therefore fruitless to perseverate on Good and Evil in the global sense. An obsession with absolute morality can be a supreme distraction, allowing the mind to twist itself into logical pretzels that lead nowhere. It often enables inaction when action is required, and sometimes even enables action when inaction is necessary. I find it more useful to think about Duty, which I define in this context as an injunction to follow the "good" axis in a local moral coordinate system. If you recognize and accept the fact that the universe itself respects no absolute axis of Good and Evil, it becomes easier to recognize the local landscape and allow yourself to be led by a moral compass that is calibrated to your context. It becomes easier to do your own Duty, and also to allow others to do theirs even if it may conflict with your own.
The analogy of dynamical systems in the context of metaphysics is not exactly new, and appears in certain writings by the Chaos magick
proponents and adherents. But to echo a diatribe given by Zac in his excellent new systems-inspired series
, it appears to me that karma is not adequately addressed in that corner of the occult world. If you’re going to work the chaos theory angle, it’s foolish to ignore the most salient feature of nonlinear dynamics, which is the feedback loop. I'm a big proponent of using the fine-scale unpredictability of the universe to your own advantage, leveraging energies as needed to solve the problems of your community. But it is moronic not to factor in long-term consequences. Sustainability, people.
Bottom line: don’t shit in your own well. Unless of course you like the taste.