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  • Writer's pictureCrone

On fire...

The other night I was talking to my father about how in older people, the DNA is not protected to the same extent so there are more chances of mistakes in replication, which is why there is a preference, biologically, to give birth at a younger age. My mother was in her forties. So I said to my Dad, 'That's why I have a useless left eye and a distinctive intellectual genius.' He burst out laughing at that and so did I.

For the record, I am not, nor do I think I am, a genius.

In the last few days, though, the old grey cells have been on fire. I had two revelations (of minimal interest and lesser import).

The first was about morality. To be honest, I've probably had it before. But I think that ethicists tie themselves in knots trying to prove that they are morally right to consider human beings the most important things in the known and unknown universe. Just stop! I want to shout at them. Just admit that we think we matter because we're us! That's how our brains evolved, that's the way we look at the world, that's our perspective. Don't justify it because you can't! We made up morality and so we can make it up how we like. Personally, I think it's better to dampen down the hubris. Personally, I think an oak tree matters as much as a person, but I'd be a freak if I fed human blood to an oak tree even if that would enhance its flourishing.

If we admit that morality is our creation but that we can seek to be better inhabitants of this planet (for now - perhaps later, 'of this solar system' etc) by expanding our concern well beyond ourselves, then that's a good thing - not least (from our point of view) because accepting the value of the ecosystem, in its own right, would also have a positive outcome for us.

Additionally, it seems to me that we constituted our moral systems to deal with actual inter-personal relationships in small groups. Morality was about the real people (and perhaps creatures and landscapes) that we knew personally. It was entirely practical and we could work out the costs and benefits of actions both immediately and over time from our personal experience.It made sense at a visceral and emotional level.

It was also flexible because it wasn't rigidly codified but could adapt to circumstances.

Once things are written, they are reified. The systematising (on tablets and in tables) turns what was an organic, living, experiential process of behaving and being into laws that become abstracted from their grounding in relationships and people.

That is troublesome.

More so is the abstraction away from 'people we actually know'. They are concepts, not flesh and blood people. One has to either deal with them as simply words - or numbers - or else imagine them to make simulacra with which you can empathise, or imagine empathising. A person who can't deal with abstractions very easily (like me) and who is also not great at imagining - maybe a practical person, who might have been a hero in a village - is cut adrift in this general, universal conception of morality. If we are to expect all people to deal with the reality that we can indeed impact people we will never meet, people who have not been born, creatures with different minds and lives, we have to bridge the gap between experiential morality and conceptual morality in a new way.

The religions did it through stories. And that was a damn good idea.

A final point on this, there's research showing that a photo of eyes can make people more honest - they feel watched. But I think eyes aren't just looking, they're communicating. We see someone in pain, and that's affecting - when they see us, we feel complicit and responsible. We have to make people not just see the other, but feel that the other sees them.

Because if our morality developed interpersonally, then the motive of care was paramount. Of course we feel greatest responsibility for our own child, our own family and friends. And they 'look to us' for support or protection or compassion or consideration or help.

I understand and accept that there are special duties to those close - not because we love them most, but because 'they look to us'. Thus special duties are restricted to a narrow circle - but the wider sense of general duty may be triggered by being seen.

Oh, and there's one more ember: morality in this actually interpersonal way could work through direct, immediate, emotional feedback. Praise and blame, reciprocation and gratitude, intimacy, warmth, coldness, and the effective working of the community - that impacted on everyone's wellbeing.

I will offer my other blaze of genius another day.

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