Further Offerings at the Grave of Right and Wrong

These words may seem strange, but years from now we might meet someone who can explain them, unexpectedly some morning or evening. -Chuang Tse, [trans. Hoff]

I’ve received a lot of feedback about the notion I’ve proposed (though not pioneered, certainly) that Right and Wrong do not serve someone who relates to the world through the eyes of a tracker, as someone who belongs to their place.

I use the word tracker in the sense that Tom Brown, Jr. coined: a person who connects to the earth in a deeply observant, and familial way. A person wanting to end the human war on the community of life, and begin living in a new, healing way.

You see, all around me I notice a society driven by values rooted in our Puritan past. Essentially, even the most diehard of atheists seem to operate on a set of values I call secular puritanism.

If you reflect on this for a moment, I think you’ll agree. Everything we do as a culture, we do as evangelists, salespeople selling a One Right Way. Vegans. Environmentalists. Neocons. Atkins Dieters. Christians. Capitalists. Right or left of center, it makes no difference.

We want to know the Right and Wrong ways to live. Our puritan science searches for Truth and Facts, and we judge it as such, feeling quite put out when new scientific paradigms demand acknowledgement (even Einstein, upset at the new models of quantum mechanics, said “God doesn’t play dice with the Universe”). Originally, however, we judged our science not on its ability to produce Truth and solidify Facts, but how well it filled our bellies. See Louis Liebenberg’s book, the Art of Tracking: the Origin of Science.

Just imagine that. A science based on its utility, purely on its ability to create models that predict the future, models that help us to fill our bellies, put clothes on our backs, heat our lodges. The models themselves don’t need to represent Truth; they only have to meet our survival (and curiosity!) needs.

Draw a circle on the chalkboard. Inside, write “degrees of usefulness”. Outside it, write “true”, “right”, “wrong”, “false”, “good”, “bad”. All that, on the outside of the circle, we can consider it extra, superfluous to what really matters: that whic belongs inside the circle. In that place, we put the things that we can ask sustaining questions of. Does it feed us? Does it shelter us? Strengthen our family? Heal us? Does it inspire me? Do we find it useful in living more satisfying lives?

Right there, usually someone speaks up. “Wait,” they say, “some things we can label bad, must label wrong, and conversely some things obviously represent goodness, rightness. What about Hitler? Murder? Justice? Saving a life?”

Well, we run into a couple problems with this. Opinions vary. Ask someone who self-identifies as a “pro-lifer” about saving lives. Then ask a “pro-choice” person to respond. So, how do we decide which one to agree with, which one to believe? Ahh, we’ve wandered back into secular puritanism, haven’t we?

So wait. If we junk the notion of Right and Wrong, Good and Bad, how do we know how to behave?

Well, next time you make a decision, instead of trying to make the “Right” one, ask which decision will get you more of what you want out of life.

Hmmm. But this will create a society of sociopaths, of dog-eat-dog individuals, won’t it?

No. We live in that society already, and it took many centuries to hone it to this point of maximum disaffection, alienation, isolation, numbness. We got here by ignoring our human needs, and following ideological needs.

Humans emerged as a species, with the qualities of sensitivity, compassion, courage, selfishness, sociability, by feeding our needs as human animals. By observing what happens when you make decisions based on meeting your needs, you discover that human biology encourages us to make decisions based upon cooperation, compassion, patience, attention. By observing the results of your behavior, you find out which results you really do want, and which ones you don’t. Simple.

But what about sociopaths?

Hmmm. Yes, sociopaths. Well, first of all, they currently don’t care about making decisions on a moral basis, so they won’t miss anything when we junk it for ourselves. Second of all, judging a sociopath as “Wrong” or “Bad” still falls outside the circle of usefulness, because however you label them, you still have to deal with them. You need to live harmoniously with the community of life around you, in a way that supports you having the kind of rich experience that you want. Kill them, cage them, exile them, rehabilitate them, do whatever you choose to do (if you even have the power to do it), but do it on the basis of creating a good life for yourself. I suspect if you’ve continued in your observation of your decisions and their results, you’ll notice that supporting a good life of those around you makes it easier for you to have the life you want too. So your decisions about the hypothetical sociopath, or any “offender”, will root themselves in this knowledge. Natural selection (and you may find this worth investigating further) doesn’t encourage dog-eat-dog competitiveness, but rather cooperation, and ever-more-complex levels of interdependence between species, communities, systems. The natural dynamic of life itself will constantly encourage you to make decisions rooted in this feeling of holding hands with all living things, even as you must kill to eat, build, clothe, and so on.

Right and Wrong get in the way of making decisions based on healing. Ideology of any sort gets in the way. At the end of the day, right or wrong, you still have to heal the wounds, feed the children, heat your homes, live your lives. Do you still want to add the burden of Right and Wrong on top of this? To what end?

Animal tracking requires skill at empathy as one of its primary tools in understanding the motivation of an animal, and thus finding it. This commits the hunter to a relationship with that animal, and native folklore abounds with the eloquence of the hunters’ prayers, ceremonies, and celebratory grief over the killing of a friend.

Empathy serves us as a survival tool. Do you see where this leads? How many people can truly claim to have skillful access to empathy for others…and how many of these people use it on other beings than humans?

How could we not hold the living world (really, ourselves) at gunpoint, when we don’t have any sense of its capacity to feel, care, experience?

And how can we, as people who begin to develop our ability to empathize, not trust ourselves to live beautiful lives, without resorting to Right and Wrong, without looking for wagging fingers to emerge from the heavens and either chastise or encourage us?

Those who’ve

The directions
will lead you

Written by Willem