Martha Nussbaum’s moral systematic for society is very helpful, particularly her boldness in confronting “disgust.” I thought that before her book “From Disgust to Humanity” arrives, it would be a good thing to write out my own principles so I would be clear about what they are.
The main difference is that I’m not doing “library ethics” based on reading the classics or anything since. Rather I’m turning to nature for my patterns. And yet I see the key importance of the relationship between the human individual and the community, which is so often the subject of classic stories that try to suggest solutions or at least identify the tragic losses. I have no lists to offer, no commandments. I will borrow a principle but tweak it.
The principle is Darwin’s survival of the fittest, but my tweak is that “fittingness” is the proper word. The key to survival is not being able to overpower everything else but being able to fit in to everything else, to find a niche. If that niche should be as a slave, and you hate it and are in pain, then that’s not fitting. If you insist on being a slave and the culture has no use for slaves, no place for them, that’s not fitting. I’m moving from a hierarchical understanding of Darwin (sooooo Victorian) to an ecological view, a systems view, because it fits what I know about the world.
The primary “document” is everything: the world around one. But there IS writing and a body of thought that takes this point of view. It is my attraction to deleuzeguattarian thought, to organizational design back in my pre-ministry days, and to the Bioneers on the radio. (www.bioneers.org) Nassim Taleb’s struggle to interpret the world — and how one should act in it — is useful, particularly his example of joyfulness as he goes.
The required activity is not self-questioning, nor is it a matter of campaigning to change the world. Rather it is necessary (and often delightful) to be in “conversation” between oneself and the world, always remembering that oneself is also a constantly changing process, a system full of feedbacks, deadends and adventures. The goal is not to settle into some kind of stasis but to continue growing, seeking, risking.
This is a major change of point of view for me, a conversion, since as a child my whole being was determined to prevent change, to keep my home the same, because anything else felt far too dangerous. The whole definition of home was security and that meant consistency. So part of growing up has been committing to risk, to know that part of me might be lost at any moment — maybe ALL of me — and to be willing to accept that. This might be something like the Buddhist rejection of attachment, but I don’t reject attachment to creation or other people, painful as it may be. Neither do I make it my center, though I once did. I suppose I’m passive in some ways — but I don’t allow others to attach to me either. The best comfort has been the conviction (which might be wrong, but it’s a happy belief and sometimes demonstrable) that no change is really lost. Time is a place and what has once existed is always there someplace, even if only accessed through memory.
Another necessary acceptance is that of muck, darkness, perversity, pain, slime, and all the other disgusting stuff that any Manichean would oppose. I see these qualities as a bed of creation, both literally in the world and psychologically in individuals, but also socially, which is a lot harder to accept. Still, it is often the ghettoes, the drug houses, the brothels, the streets, the bloody rebel camps, that give rise to the future. This is not to say such phenomena should be encouraged or supported, but that they are the raw material and motive for understanding what is happening in the whole system. Do not attack the drug addict — rather ask why a functioning culture would give rise to forces that cause people to do this. And do not just address the drug addict outside the law, but also the forces that are quite legal. In what ways are street heroin addicts like, say, insulin-dependent diabetics and if they are unlike, in what way?
My training as a minister, because of the particular time and place, encouraged the examination of systems rather than individuals. One might propose that in a church system the minister is the one who defends the whole rather than the individual. Taken to extremes, this might mean burning heretics at the stake. Conscience doesn’t fit authority so conveniently as cremains. This is not a fittingness but an elimination. But if a minister becomes the individual who grips the denomination for his or her own benefit, that’s not fittingness either. And yet, both of those alternatives happen in nature all the time. Or seem to. They MUST be fittingness. These are invitations to reflection and experiment.
My sympathy as an ecologist is with the “deep ecologists,” the REALLY deep ecologists who reject both anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. “Anthro” as the measure of all things gives us the “anthropocene era,” which may be self-snuffing. This is neither good nor bad — it just is. The “isness,” the outside-of-humans reality that constantly unfolds and morphs around us is what includes us. It is not opposed to us, but if we lose our fittingness we are gone.
The unique human abilities of reflection and enjoyment should be supported and celebrated, even when they are only the confusion and pain which are their “other” side, which are motivation to strive for a better fit. We are all related. However, one cannot process the whole world at one time, so it’s necessary to choose a part and deeply understand it, in the belief that in some fractal way this will develop both one’s ability to understand and yield information for better understanding.
Any action a person takes, no matter how guided by understanding, is bound to go “wrong” sometimes. A process understanding of existence makes that necessary. In fact, one may have to choose one’s own death, even if the circumstances are not at all one’s choice. Like the woman dancer standing in the line being marched into a gas chamber, we can always imagine and choose a response. Instead of shuffling along, she danced and was shot.
But one need not constantly obsess over choice. Maybe the definition of domesticity is not having to be always struggle but to simply be in the world as it is, partly because you’ve made it your own place, a good fit. By definition, this kind of system or thinking about systems, does not rest for long. Enjoy it when it does. This is actually an old way of thinking: Heraclitean. I used to have a sermon about it called “Honey and Wax: Sweet and Hot.” I still have it somewhere. Maybe I should double back a little.