How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What is Morality?

“He alone sees truly who sees the Lord the same in every creature, who sees the Deathless in the hearts of all that die. Seeing the same Lord everywhere, he does not harm himself or others. Thus he attains the supreme goal (Bhagavad Gida 13:27-28).”

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7.12).”

“Fill your mind with compassion (Attributed to Buddha).”

What is morality? I have a cat that kills two or three small animals almost every day. She doesn’t kill them for food, although she does partake of the occasional tidbit of mouse or bird. Most of the time, she just enjoys the act of killing. She will toss the victim up in the air, let it retreat into a corner for refuge, and then draw it out again only to torture it some more until the helpless innocent mercifully walks into the light. Is my cat immoral?

Wolves, hyenas, lions, tigers, chimpanzees and humans all kill for food, and sometimes we just kill. While the act of killing for pure sport is accepted as morally neutral in the animal kingdom, humans generally condemn senseless killing as immoral, but many people still hunt for sport (not food) and insist their actions are morally benign.

All of the religious traditions on Earth have prohibitions against killing. Buddha’s 5 moral precepts to abstain from killing, stealing, engaging in aberrations of sexuality, telling lies and indulging in intoxicants echo the Judeo Christian 10 commandments, which basically prescribe the same moral laws with a few others thrown in for good measure. Strict Buddhists do not even kill animals for food but many Buddhists indulge in meat and even occasional warfare. The Japanese were notorious imperialist warriors for much of their history in spite of their Buddhist traditions. In the Judeo Christian world, the matter of the morality of killing is further complicated by the fact that the same God who commands “Thou shall not kill” in Genesis is recommending wholesale genocide in later chapters. Jesus suggests we “turn the other cheek” when we are smitten by our enemies, but then in Revelation is condoning the slaughter of much of humanity. It is no wonder people are confused. Clearly morality is somewhat subjective.

Although I am sure my cat is thinking while she is devising strategies to draw the vole from its burrow, I do not think she gives her killing behavior a second thought after the deed is done and she is sitting on my bed delicately cleaning the stench of death from her pelt. Indeed, it could be argued that Nature has no morality. Certainly Nature has rules that must be followed or species do not thrive, but Her laws are universal and they do not change. (Note: I love (sarcasm) the way spell check always underlines “Her” or “She” when it is capitalized in the middle of a sentence, but it doesn’t do that when you capitalize “His” or “He”)

Human moral laws on the other hand seem to flow and wrap like the wind, convoluting into whichever contortion seems to fit the occasion.

In his book Endgame, Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization, Derrick Jensen exposes the subjective nature of morality by retelling the events of 9/11 from four perspectives. In the first narrative, the events are described without any embellishment. Two planes hit the World Trade Center, another strikes the Pentagon, and a third crashes in a field. In the second telling, Jensen conveys a typical American perspective in which terrorists carry out a heinous deed. The third perspective is from the terrorists’ point of view, and the fourth is the position of an individual who condones all violence from either side.

Jensen’s trick of literary craft is compelling in that it allows the reader to understand that everybody believes they are moral in their actions. The religious American Right believe they occupy the moral high ground in their quest to deny women the right to “kill babies.” Pro-choice advocates believe they have the morally superior stance because safe, legal abortion saves more lives than it takes. Capitalists believe that private capital equates to freedom even if many are exempted from that same freedom by virtue of poverty, while socialists believe that society can only be free when wealth is equitably distributed and all the members of society are cared for. I could go on forever regarding the moral ambiguities within our culture.

Given the above scenario, it is not too difficult for our elected “representatives” to use our multifarious moral positions to paint opposing points of view as pure evil. Divide and conquer is an effective and long-utilized technique for attaining power. An outsider looking in at the United States right now during this election cycle would conclude that Americans are deeply divided, which belies our fundamental truth. Americans are actually more alike than we are different. Family, liberty, charity and community are the essence of our core shared values. We are not so very different after all.

In the final analysis, although morality is clearly in the eye of the beholder, one core fundamental value seems to be universal regardless of whether one is Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or Non-believer. The highest value is one in which we recognize the soul of others as essentially the same as our own. We all share the glorious spark of life, and if we would treat others as we would have ourselves be treated and extend that value to Earth’s non-human residents too, well…just imagine.

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