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On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt

This is an excellent essay by a historian named Wilfred M. McClay who does a wonderful job of explaining our current state of affairs in developed Western countries. With a growing awareness and understanding of interdependence comes the painful and inescapable knowledge of suffering even for those not on a path of meditation and this is a powerful force in modern culture.

He comes to an interesting conclusion that I would love to hear others' thoughts on, should anyone be interested in reading a long-ish and somewhat dark essay from an academic journal.


"In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects yields increasingly to human understanding and manipulation, and in which human agency therefore becomes ever more powerful and effective, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt, also steadily expands. We like to speak, romantically, of the interconnectedness of all things, failing to recognize that this same principle means that there is almost nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible. This is one inevitable side effect of the growing movement to change the name of our geological epoch from the Holocene to the Anthropocene—the first era in the life of the planet to be defined by the effects of the human presence and human power: effects such as nuclear fallout, plastic pollution, domesticated animals, and anthropogenic climate change. Power entails responsibility, and responsibility leads to guilt."

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 11:45 AM as a reply to Andromeda.
Andromeda:
Eh, in my view we are all Golden Retreivers and not outside of the "relationships between causes and effects".   I do not blame dogs for the abuse that makes them mean and I do not hold them morally responsible for their behavior.  I do not blame myself or others for the conditions that made us all who we seem to be and I do not hold myself or anyone else morally responsible for their behavior.  Just stating that is pretty transgressive and triggers a lot of people to reject the idea, starting off with a socratic question about dogs was my way of opening the conversation.  I realize it probably wont seem like a very convincing position to most people. 

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 12:03 PM as a reply to seth tapper.
seth tapper:
Andromeda:
Eh, in my view we are all Golden Retreivers and not outside of the "relationships between causes and effects".   I do not blame dogs for the abuse that makes them mean and I do not hold them morally responsible for their behavior.  I do not blame myself or others for the conditions that made us all who we seem to be and I do not hold myself or anyone else morally responsible for their behavior.  Just stating that is pretty transgressive and triggers a lot of people to reject the idea, starting off with a socratic question about dogs was my way of opening the conversation.  I realize it probably wont seem like a very convincing position to most people. 
Just curious: did you read the essay or not?

BTW aggression in dogs is typically a result of poor socialization and lack of training as puppies, not abuse. And the law and most people would consider the fault of the dog bite to be the dog owner's in most cases, assuming the bite was not provoked, as it is the dog owner's responsibility to make sure their dog behaves. So there are problems even with your first premise. If the golden retriever bit you, who would you blame?

As for your second statement, just to clarify, are you basically saying that you don't see the value in sila, the third training, because no one is responsible for their behavior anyway?

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 12:17 PM as a reply to Andromeda.
I dont think we are likely to come to any kind of common ground here.  Sorry for butting in.  As far as i can tell, every one is always just doing the best they can, but sometimes bad socialization, abuse, and various other negative experiences makes them bite. 

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 12:21 PM as a reply to seth tapper.
No apologies necessary. The point of discussion isn't necessarily to come to a common ground, but to better understand each other's perspectives. I do agree that everyone is just doing the best they can.

And I would love to hear your perspective on the value of training in morality.

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 12:35 PM as a reply to Andromeda.
I look at the Dharma and the Buddha's teachings as practice guides to realizing what is really going on - or better said - isnt.  Through that lenz, there are a lot of ways that being loving, kind and without prejudice can make the mind more relaxed, less caught up in delusions like guilt, nationalism, greed, ect.  Letting go of the idea that you are a seperate being with agency is really really hard for a human mind to do. The less wrapped up in stories and missions and regrets a mind is, the easier letting go will be.  

There is also an element of faking it til you make it.  As the mind drops delusions, being loving, kind and without prejudice comes naturally because we are all golden retrievers.  This isnt even an in my opinion thing - thats the truth. 

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
Answer
6/18/18 12:42 PM as a reply to seth tapper.
seth tapper:
I look at the Dharma and the Buddha's teachings as practice guides to realizing what is really going on - or better said - isnt.  Through that lenz, there are a lot of ways that being loving, kind and without prejudice can make the mind more relaxed, less caught up in delusions like guilt, nationalism, greed, ect.  Letting go of the idea that you are a seperate being with agency is really really hard for a human mind to do. The less wrapped up in stories and missions and regrets a mind is, the easier letting go will be.  

There is also an element of faking it til you make it.  As the mind drops delusions, being loving, kind and without prejudice comes naturally because we are all golden retrievers.  This isnt even an in my opinion thing - thats the truth. 

That doesn't answer my question about the value of training specifically in morality. Also, we're not golden retrievers. At least I'm not =D

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 12:58 PM as a reply to Andromeda.
If you give yourself permission to love, you, like all mammals, will love.  Watch some Reddit AWW and then give it a try!  Anyway, I know the Buddha was not a big fan of guilt, so maybe that is a place we can agree? 

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 1:02 PM as a reply to seth tapper.
seth tapper:
If you give yourself permission to love, you, like all mammals, will love.  Watch some Reddit AWW and then give it a try!  Anyway, I know the Buddha was not a big fan of guilt, so maybe that is a place we can agree? 
You still didn't answer my question, Seth. That's disappointing. 

But you might enjoy today's Existential Comics, Philosophy Roundtable: On Human Nature, which explores the difference between animals and humans.

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 1:11 PM as a reply to Andromeda.
In my view, training in morality is the same as being loving, kind and without prejudice.  Since you didnt seem to agree, I figured it wasnt a discussion that was likely to bear fruit for either of us. I seem to be pretty attached to my perspective at this point and you seem pretty attached to yours.  

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 1:27 PM as a reply to seth tapper.
seth tapper:
In my view, training in morality is the same as being loving, kind and without prejudice.  Since you didnt seem to agree, I figured it wasnt a discussion that was likely to bear fruit for either of us. I seem to be pretty attached to my perspective at this point and you seem pretty attached to yours.  
Actually, you haven't even asked me anything about my perspective. I've just been asking questions. 

Being loving, kind, and without prejudice is definitely desirable, but your view of training in morality as presented here seems incomplete and lacking in nuance. How about the virtues? 8-fold path? The precepts? 

But at this point I'm happy to end this discussion, as you've repeatedly attempted to exit it. As you say, you are attached to your perspective.

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 2:42 PM as a reply to Andromeda.
I just didnt want to get in a fight.  Usually, conversations in which I argue against morality and the like do not end well. 

I think that all trainings in morality are intended to develop a loving, kind mind beyond prejudice.   I am not an expert on Sila as taught tactically in one sutra or another.  I am an expert on my own mind.  All I can really comment on is what I have seen there.  In my mind, morality occurs because I care about hurting others.  I care because I love them.   My mind will love anything that it lets its self love.  If I have not made up a story about something that makes it less lovable than I am, then I love it without exception.  It is mechanical.  Reddit Aww!  Rationally, I ought to love everything with all of my heart and all of my mind.  If I could stop making up stories about stuff, I would. 

You can develop a loving, kind mind beyond prejudice in a lot of ways, because that is what all of our minds are like when we are not deluded about what is going on.  Any practice that lessens delusions will lead to a more loving, kind mind that is beyond prejudice.  

Sit and accept that your a meatball, and love is manifest, if meaningless. 

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 3:42 PM as a reply to Andromeda.
It can be a good exercise to absolve yourself completely as an agency-less cog in the machines of endless suffering. It can also be a good exercise to assume you are completely responsible for everything (or at least more) and to open yourself up truly to engagement, the weight of things, skin in the game. Inner = outer vs = nothing. 

Buddhism asks us to fix ourselves before we attempt to fix others. The laws of cause and effect operate in a one by one, being by being manner. If we were all to go about the process of fixing ourselves by understanding ourselves well enough to turn back around and help others with their own fix, could the cumulative effect change the global dynamic? I kinda sorta think that's why the historical Buddha decided to teach his unique way of gaining wisdom after he awakened. Thus the four noble truths and the teachings.

The difference now, as the article states, is scale - modern humans have a vastly more powerful effect on the planet, and it's possible that a one by one approach to a fix won't save us all in time.

I need to think more about this...

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 3:32 PM as a reply to seth tapper.
I think that all trainings in morality are intended to develop a loving, kind mind beyond prejudice.

I don't think this is quite right. I think some trainings in morality are based on punishment. Generally, "Don't do these things or you will go to hell." And some trainings in morality are based on redemption. Generally, "Do these things like treating others in a certain way and you will be saved." Other trainings in morality start with one of the previous methods and go further by asking us to examine the very nature of who we are and to then use that information to generate wisdom and compassion.

I'll take door # 3.

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 3:56 PM as a reply to Chris Marti.
I meant the Buddhist trainings in morality, but I am really making an assumption as I have never studied them in any kind of detail. 

There should be some kind of distinction made between loving kindness based morality and rule based morality - a la wear a burka or do not look the King in the face kind of stuff.  How do you know your morality is the right one? That kind of thing. 

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 4:38 PM as a reply to seth tapper.
Seth, did you read the article?

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
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6/18/18 5:07 PM as a reply to Andromeda.
Yeah I agree, global warming, weapons of mass destruction, the threat of nuclear annihilation--very interesting to consider that we have more and not less moral culpability in this modern secular age, in the West anyway. "With great power comes great responsibility," said Uncle Ben to Spiderman. ;)

You raise a lot of good questions about the origins of guilt that the article doesn't address. Obviously, this is a complex and multifactorial problem. I have more questions than answers as well.

I think my big takeaway is the conclusion that we need religion. My teenage self would have disagreed vehemently, even while getting into meditation and occult practices funny enough. But as it turns out, I am one of those people that needs religion and not just the meditation technology. Despite once scoffing at the very idea of sin, now I feel it acutely and spirituality gives me a way to focus my efforts at redemption. And I'm grateful for this. "The world is richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep a foot upon his neck," as William James put it.

So at this point in my life it seems totally plausible that mankind needs religion or something like it if we are to survive.

RE: On morality: The Strange Persistence of Guilt
Answer
6/18/18 5:08 PM as a reply to seth tapper.
In Theravada-Buddhism morality (śīla) is understood to be a stable foundation upon which to attain samatha. According to the Theravada tradition, samatha and vipassanā form an integral part of the Noble Eightfold Path as described by the Buddha in his core teaching, the Four Noble Truths.

source:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samatha