Surfing the tidal waves of Belonging, Identity and Dogma
An Essay by Christopher Moore
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What you are about to read is a background paper about the shifting moral foundations and what is at stake in the American Presidential election in November 2020. I could start with the president’s latest Tweets. I have a more useful place to begin with—the Greeks and Romans.
Thucydides (460 – c. 400 BC) is the father of the scientific approach which submitted claims about reality to measurement, impartially, evidence and analysis of causation. What set Thucydides apart? From his perspective, what was real didn’t depend on the gods or was it productive to assign deities a solving the mysteries of the world. Fast forward to Roman times during the reign of Emperor Theodosius (383 to 394 AD) who used religion (Christianity) to launch a thousand-year scientific dark age that successfully repressed the Thucydides model of mental processing.
At the crossrads again
With President Donald Trump we have again reached a crossroads. To the left is Thucydides and to the right Theodosius. The Covid-19 pandemic has pitched one approach against the other before a human population divided into digital camps. Has history shows there’s no inevitably of outcome, and no certainty that any outcome is anything other than a temporary pause in the shifts in the stress and tensions produced in complex societies.
Tectonic plates provides a metaphor to understand the processes that change our sense of morality and the social norms that govern human relationships. It wasn’t until 1912 that Alfred Wegener suggested the mass of the continents weren’t stable. He called it continental drift and was derided and scorned. By the 1960s, science was able to establish that the land masses are on defined plates that move over time. That movement creates mountains, gorges, valleys, rivers and reconfigures continents. In other words, what seems solid and permanent isn’t. We are fooled because the process is slow that many generations come and go without noticing that earthquakes and volcanoes are signs of continents on the move.
Something similar happens with the foundations of morality. Jonathan Haidt’s book titled the Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2013) set out six foundations of intuitive ethics:
You can think of the foundations as a spectrum with extremes or outliers at the tails. Thucydides at one end and Theodosius at the other. Knitted together these foundations form the equivalent of the land mass of group morality. While the foundations may look solid underneath social earthquakes and volcanoes are bubbling to the surface. Social media has become a place to read the latest signals reported of violent movements that no longer out of sight, out of mind. Which side of the divides which have religious or political boundary markers depends on what you value higher. The struggle between waring camps is between supporting Thucydides or Theodosius. We’ve lost sight that this is a never-ending struggle and neither side wins a decisive victory.
Conservatives feel the moral ground shifting and Trump is their response. Conservatives are more likely to emphasize that a governing system should default, in case of conflict, to those actions which favor the values of loyalty, authority, purity and illiberal (a case can be made this is a better description than oppression). This weighing of values was the choice made by Emperor Theodosius. Liberals, in contrast, speak of values that evoke care and fairness as of greater importance, and believe that loyalty, authority, and purity are open to debate, criticism and challenge. How do we square an illiberal circle?
History indicates our moral foundations like the tectonic plates shift and move over time. In a time of instability a moment opens for a leader to step forward. It can be a Theodosius, a Thucydides, or a Trump to articulate, amplify and advance a foundation of morality to control the shifting patterns of human relationships. Unrest, fear and violence increase as the groups divide. The morality drift cuts people off. They occupy separate moral continents. The information explosion has threatened to overrun the moral terrain reflected in existing religious or political dogma.
When the lamp of enlightenment is extinguished on one moral continent, it continues to burn elsewhere. While the Roman empire after Theodosius’s dark age turned away from the classical knowledge of the Greeks, elsewhere knowledge and learning found a home with Abdullah al-Mamun (786-833) the seventh caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. Abdullah al-Mamun collected and preserved the Greek manuscripts with their multiple heresies in the dogmatic Christian Rome. The caliph translated the Greek manuscripts into Arabic, allowing Arab scholars to make important contributions to mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy. This decision by the caliph shifted the moral foundations from the Arab to the non-Arab Greek Classical world.
Trump, like Theodosius, has millions applauding his pushback against such a challenge. America, like China, uses surveillance, censorship, intimidation Such attempts to stop the forces of natural change is doomed. If you believe Thucydides was right, you rely not on dogma but a scientific based system of processing that observes, measures, analysis, proves, disproves and challenges ways of seeing and ways of behaving. The modern Abdallah al-Mamun is the Cloud where information, data and knowledge are stored, analyzed and accessed. The danger is Theodosius’s successors such as Trump and Xi Jinping would control access to the Cloud through censorship and alternative knowledge and information basis designed to promote authority, purity and loyalty. That’s the new digital territory they seek to control and defend.
America and elsewhere (Brazil, Russia, Britain, Turkey, Poland, and Hungry) find themselves in the midst of such a violent moral foundation drift. We see the demonstrations. The brutality of the police. We watch looting and destruction. Underneath the anger, we see a boiling cauldron with loosely connected elements: vast wealth and income disparities, regional conflicts, mass migration, famine, loss of employment, a pandemic, and climate change. We’ve been through times like this before. And we will, if we survive, no doubt be at this inflexion point again. It is a time of upheaval, disruptions, and uncertainty. Moral foundations are our way of resolving conflicts and doubts in troubled times. Do you open a bible, Torah or Koran, or do you bend over rows of statics and calculate the probabilities?
Belonging and Identity are what system you fall back on to resolve uncertainty and doubt. This has been our challenge since we entered a post-agricultural way of life. We’ve never had agreement that lasted on moral foundations. We never will as they emotional way of belonging and the identity that is shaped are like tectonic plates deep under the surface. Partly genetic, partly environmental, and partly contingency such as a leader like Trump gaining power.
What would be good is a public conversation about which direction we go in the future. We have the precedents. We can predict some aspects of the future shape of relations. Much like our shifting earth crust, we can predict what the continents will look like in millions of years, but we have trouble predicting what our society will look like in four years.
As this a presidential election year in the United States, it is a good time to reflect on the building blocks that are the foundation of our constructed modern social behavior and relationships. Take account of the continental moral foundation drift. This is the time to examine more closely the forces that predict how and why people behave the way they do, think the thoughts that stream their minds, and predicts with accuracy when certain emotions come into play.
We have searched for a way to understand why we and others act and react in real time in the real world. Forms of government and economic systems are based on preserving, protecting and advancing a particular view of life: one that is open and adjustable according to new evidence and discoveries, or one that is closed any ideas that would overturn traditional authority. Do wish to be monitored inside a tightly controlled landscape where those in authority can adjust and revised a populations sense of belonging and identity through the use of dogma, beliefs, propaganda? The moral equation is no longer limited to the role of governments; the moral foundation can be controlled by a private company like Facebook.
The shift to Internet platforms as the space to engage in social relations means the old traditional geographic and ideological boundaries are under threat. A competition for eyeballs on social media has created an industry to exploit our identity and belonging for power and influence. The digital space like our traditional one is not a neutral zone. Market and political forces devote large resources to fine-tuned the psychologically response to people who are tagged by their taste, choices, and affiliations.
When a society loses its shared sense of purpose, common values and beliefs, the moral foundation shifts. Continents separate. Political cleavage leave deep canyons. When that happens they no longer have the common ground to form bonds of trust. The loss of trust among people with different moral foundations works its way through all aspects of life. Trust vanishes for millions of people who turn their back of science and experts at the heighten of a pandemic. When trust broken in science and the scientific method, all you have to do is examine the thousand years following Theodosius. The November 2020 election in America is a referendum whether to authorize the resurrection of Theodosius for another thousand years.
Christopher G. Moore, a Canadian novelist and essayist, living in Bangkok, is CrimeMag’s South East Asia correspondent and the author of the award-winning Vincent Calvino series and a number of literary novels and non-fiction books. His books have been translated into 13 languages. The Christopher G. Moore Foundation is awarding a literary prize for a work of non-fiction, which advances understanding of human rights and freedom of Expression.