Tuesday, June 12, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.7: Groupies

Here I continue my thoughts on Jesus and ethics.
I've mentioned before that the ideas I'm presenting have benefited me and the people in my small circle. Given the responses from some of you on that point, it seems I'm still not convincing anyone of the invitational nature of invitational ethics. The benefits I've observed haven't been predicated on anyone adopting the framework. In fact, I'm not even sure it's a framework. I'm still trying to figure that out. But it definitely is not some new attempt to rely on everyone's inherent generosity. Neither is it a new way to bind people into some sort of agreement. The benefits I've observed have mostly been the result of simply looking beyond coercive judgments in our assessment of people's behavior, including our own.
Let's talk about coercive judgments, the grotesque rationalizations of coercive ethics. Imagine a herd of wild donkeys. One donkey, "Donkey A," steps on the foot of "Donkey B." Donkey B has an impulsive response to the pain, retaliating against A with a bite or a kick. Donkey A, behaving according to principles of conditioning that we understand pretty well, will associate something of these circumstances with the suffering he just experienced, and will be less likely to repeat the action that resulted in his own suffering. This scenario has repeated itself countless times among countless different species of social animals over the last half-billion years.
We observe that evolution drives social animals toward simple, retaliatory conditioning, and it obviously works really well among most of the non-humans. When early primates started simulating each other's mental states, the mechanism began to show signs of weakness, resulting in new kinds of unnecessary suffering, as you can see in colonies of capuchins and geladas, who share many of our social ills. When humans started thinking about the world, and especially creating words to describe it, we invented concepts like deserve, claim, and should. These are some of the many grotesque rationalizations I'm referring to. Did Donkey A deserve to be caused to suffer? Did Donkey B have a claim on A being caused to suffer? Did some kind of should or ought come in to play? No, not until our big brains, and especially metaphor and language, crashed the party.
But aren't notions of justice built into our brains? Even very young human children sense something like justice, something like fairness. As Sam Harris has pointed out, normal children, from a very young age, recognize both the legitimacy of receiving special permission to drink soda in the classroom and the illegitimacy of receiving special permission to punch another kid in the face. They easily distinguish between social convention and something more fundamental. Surely these primitive notions are built into us for sound evolutionary reasons.
How could a highly adaptive idea like child-approved fairness be transformed into a pillar of coercive ethics? Perhaps something like this: during our big leap into the metaphor of language, someone asked himself, Why did I hit that guy just now when he hurt me? You can imagine the internal dialogue. Why did I hit him? Because I was mad. Ok, why was I mad? Early in our evolution, the dialogue would have been based on facts: Why was I mad? Because of the pain. If we could have stayed with that reality-based thinking a little longer, we might have prevented much of the suffering we've seen throughout history. But somewhere along the line, the answer became disconnected from the facts: I hit that guy because he did something wrong. He deserved to be hit. He hurt me, and I have a right not to be hurt when I haven't done anything to deserve it.
This is what I mean when I talk about grotesque rationalizations. The ideas of wrong, deserve, and having rights are entirely imaginary. They have nothing whatsoever to do with any external reality. In other words, even our current, secular ethical system is a religion. It is based entirely on imaginary concepts. Consider our historical need to separate ourselves from the animals. One clear reason for this need is that although we concede the reality that animals have no rights, we need a way to afford ourselves rights, because rights are the basis of our religion. John Stuart Mill concluded that I have the same claim to happiness that you have. He assumed the existence of a positive right possessed by each and every human. He was dead wrong, just as we all have been since the beginning.
The final two verses of the 7th Chapter of Matthew gave me a good laugh. Matthew tells us that the crowds were amazed at Jesus teaching, "because he taught as one who had authority.” After all that horoscope-talk, Jesus sounds like Deepak Chopra. It reminds me of my Politics & Religion Tour, when the General Assembly fawned over Chopra. It's funny to think that Matthew was trying to make us impressed with Jesus by saying that the crowds were amazed, while the amazement I observed had the opposite effect, making me less impressed with the crowd.
In Chapter 8, Verses 5-13, a Roman military officer asks Jesus to heal his servant, who is at home, suffering terribly. When Jesus agrees to help, the officer suddenly starts gushing like a teenager about how awesome Jesus is. Jesus responds with a public service announcement that being Jewish no longer gets you in the door, although a nice blow-job apparently will. Of course he puts it in polite terms, admiring the great faith of the officer. For further study of Jesus' emotional fragility relative to his esteem in the eyes of others, see also verses 23-27, where he takes very personally the fact that his disciples express perfectly reasonable fear, as somehow they're supposed to know that with him nearby, they are in no danger. I don't know how Jesus got such a reputation for compassion, given that every one of his appropriate expressions of compassion is utterly swamped by some other expression of zero tolerance for anything resembling human frailty.
In Verses 14-17 Jesus constructs a gigantic millstone and crushes the sciences of medicine and psychology, then proceeds to hang it on the necks of everyone who has ever been physically ill or psychologically impaired. He supposedly heals a lot of sick people and drives out a lot of demons, but apparently he never bothers to explain that physical and mental illness aren't typically addressed by magic tricks. I know, I wasn't going to complain about his lack of scientific knowledge. Still, it's clear that he never did spend even ten minutes thinking about the world around him. If he had, he might have started to have some suspicions, at least about the whole demon-possession thing. It makes me wonder what he was doing all that time in the desert, supposedly meditating.
That's 8.7. Thanks for watching.

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