My Patreon special ended while I spent a week without power, huddled near our home’s inefficient fireplace, reading Sherlock Holmes and Michelle Obama’s Becoming, sometimes by candlelight. Fascinating juxtaposition, though I don’t feel qualified to comment on all the layers of “whoa”.
More than either Sir Arthur or the former First Lady, however, the author I’ve been thinking about most in recent months is Octavia Butler, about whom I’m quite serious when I say I believe she was a prophet. Not some silly seer or oracle, deliverer of fiction-style “prophesies”, but a prophet in the Old Testament sense: one who sees the truth of society’s ills and calls upon us all to return to spiritual alignment.
The Parable of the Sower may have failed to predict one or two things: the Internet, the exact date of total collapse … but realistically speaking, its setting is more or less in the process of coming true. This is terrifying. Then again, it’s also comforting, because the story is about hope rising from the ashes of hate and fear and chaos. It’s about people who refuse to give up, even as the world they know is inexorably ending around them.
There will be people like Lauren who will rise to the challenge and strive to preserve and rebuild, to create a better, wiser civilization than the one that was lost. I am already grateful to these people in advance, just as I am grateful to the visionaries and organizers of today, who are so many and so vital.
My original concept of this post was bitter and cynical, but before I sat down to write it I saw that Democracy Now had republished an old interview with Octavia Butler, as if they’d heard me thinking about her. After watching, I found myself moved by her words to approach the matter differently.
But I do still want to acknowledge the moral degeneracy of our times. I don’t think there’s anyone of any philosophical outlook who would disagree that we live in morally degenerate times. We only disagree on what aspects of society are degenerate, and how we should respond to the overall problem.
I could write a whole series of essays on the nature of moral degeneracy, human perception of it, and our societal responses to the degeneracy that we perceive, but I try to keep these posts to 1000 words, so for now I just want to offer a few thoughts for your consideration:
Responses to degeneracy usually fall into three categories, often mixed and matched haphazardly.
1) We have to put a stop to the degenerates, by any means necessary.
2) Everyone is morally degenerate, so it doesn’t matter if I am too. In fact, it is better if I am.
3) We need to work together to restore a sustainably functioning community.
All three of these are instinctive human responses to the uncomfortable society we’ve created.
The first instinct is to scapegoat those who do not fit in, or who frighten us, assuming we can fix the problem by amputating the “infected” segments of the population.
The second instinct is to fit in with the crowd (in order to avoid falling prey to the first instinct), and also to strike proactively against threats perceived to be unavoidable.
The third set of instincts urge us toward empathy, teamwork, and community-building, instincts not unique to the human animal, but among our greatest strengths.
Our society bends over backwards to rationalize the first two instinctive responses as valuable. They are not, nor are they rational. In bestial survival situations of the past, they have their place, but for a functioning human society, we must acknowledge that they are gorilla fear-responses, no more.
Our society also bends over backwards to paint the third response to degeneracy as irrational: wet, naive, girly stuff that smart people should reject. The problem is that the compassionate instincts—even while they come from our emotional impulses (just like the other two responses do)—are born out to have rational utility, unlike either of the others.
In study after study, on topic after topic, we continually learn that our empathic and compassionate instincts are supported by rational fact. We save more money by giving homeless people homes than by leaving them on the streets. We help more people to recover from drug addiction by compassionately drawing them back into healthy community than we do by punishing or judging. We grow our economy more rapidly by giving directly to the poorest than we do by letting money sit unmoving in rich people’s bank accounts. Free education improves everyone’s lives by increasing the speed of innovation. Etc, etc.
Being kind is the only logical thing to be.
Now, I don’t expect human beings to suddenly become logical after all these centuries. We are more or less a bunch of tailless, bald monkeys with delusions of grandeur, and we will not be anything more anytime soon.
However, I do see hope for a moral reawakening in society’s future—not due to logic (which can be corrupted by bad data anyway)—but due to our compassionate and empathic instincts. Love is actually as instinctive to us as fear. Kindness is the instinct that is still of use in modern society, more than any other. So when we look to the problems around us and how to address them, remember and spread the word: Of your various instinctive responses to the moral swamp around you, the useful one, the rational one, is empathy.
Your other instincts do have a place, of course they do. But only in immediate life-or-death circumstances. The rest of the time, take them out on video games.
And when your turn to act comes, your turn to put your mark on society’s moral future, be on the side of the visionaries and organizers, the people around you who are most like Lauren Olamina.
Friday, February 26, 2021, 1:16:33 AM
Thoughts on moral philosophy, the Parable of the Sower, and where to go from here. Yes, my blog posts will probably usually be philosophical rambles. It's my nature.