by Peter A. Belmont / 2020-04-13
© 2020 Peter Belmont
The racism and classism, including police violence targeting poor people and people of color, which we see so clearly today in America, is an outcome of a system of “white privilege” and “wealth privilege” which began on these shores with slavery and the oppression of the Native Americans.
Racism and privilege are parts of the entrenched rules for regulating behavior which, taken altogether, I allow myself to call America’s system of “morality”. Part of the “warp and woof” of the fabric of America, one may well say.
I am a mathematician and as such was trained to invent new notions and give them names. Sometimes the names are already in use. Here I reuse the word “morality”. What is my notion of “morality”?
By the term “morality” I mean to denote the entrenched, established rules for regulating behavior between two entities, how one entity may act upon another. By M1 I mean morality between people and other people. By M2 I mean morality between people and the rest of creation.
By “morality” I mean all applicable rules of behavior. These include customary social practice, religious behavioral norms, and statutes and other “law”.
A principal rule of M1 is the idea of “privilege”, whereby one group of people deem themselves superior and more deserving than another group of people, and “give themselves permission” to oppress or ignore the needs of the other. These “privileges” naturally become expressed in enacted (or judge-made) law, which is the repository of many rules made by the privileged.
To say that one believes in “the rule of law” is often to say that one believes in enforcing laws which establish or codify privileges. (The patent laws come to mind as we all face ridiculous drug pricing.)
And since our societies are ruled by the most privileged, which, these days, are capitalists and industrialists, we find that M1 trumps M2: capitalists and industrialists—and the societies they rule—deem themselves superior to and thus able freely to disregard the rest, remainder, and residue of creation; and this is experientially true even though there is no logical reason for the most powerful in society (M1) to wish to endanger the ground they walk on. Perhaps the reason is emotional: they are so used to trampling the people whom they are privileged to oppress (or ignore), that trampling nature is just more of the same, just as satisfying emotionally. (Just guessing.)
Global warming and climate change (“GWCC”) and other environmental disasters the earth faces today are clearly the products of the triumph of M1 over M2.
The survival of human life on earth, then, depends on changes to our moralities, especially a roll-back of “privileges”, and of these, especially the “privilege” of mankind over the rest of nature. To roll-back the “privileges” of capitalists and industrialists over “nature”, societies will probably have to make “war” on the “privileges” of these folks over the rest of humanity, for no-one gives up privilege without a struggle.
We live in a very moral society. But morality may not be what you think it is. Morality is just rules for behavior, and these rules turn out to be very flexible, especially today.
More accurately, one might say that morality is the presence and absence, the enforcement and the ignoring, of rules which govern relations between two entities.
Loosely, morality includes (or excludes, depending on how you see it) the laws imposed by governments and rulers, the rules usually of ancient origin imposed by religious institutions, and the customary practices of society.
Thus, today in the USA, the rules and practices of private property, support for industrial corporations, rules and support for trade and stock markets, etc., are all part of current customary “morality”. Customary morality also prizes the making of inventions, the introduction of these inventions without much worry about consequences, and the making of war.
MORALITY #1 (M1)
Our society is ruled by—and by turns benefits or suffers from—traditional morality, that is, rules (or lack of rules) for relations [M1] between and among people. And our ever so moral system of society is quite hierarchical. One name for a big part of this “morality” is “privilege”.
When society becomes broken up into sub-groups, differently privileged or unprivileged sub-groups, discriminating-against sub-groups and discriminated-against sub-groups, then contrary tendencies become recognized to reverse this discrimination and its granting and withholding of privilege.
Such contrary tendencies may appear, inter alia, as “women’s lib”, as “civil rights movements”, “#MeToo”, “Black Lives Matter”, “Free Palestine” and as “progressivism” or “socialism”. And as anti-war and anti-police movements.
These contrarian tendencies embrace a form of M1 which might be called M1B—a morality not necessarily in favor of co-existence with nature (M2, see below) but favoring a less discriminating, a less privilege-normalizing, morality within human society itself.
MORALITY #2 (M2)
Our society is broken as seen through the lens of another morality, the rules or lack of rules [M2] for the behavior of our societies as a whole with respect to the rest of the ecosystem, humanity’s part as a player among all other life-forms on earth.
To grasp M2, consider a banner of the environmental organization “Friends of the Earth” and title of its newsletter, “Not Man Apart”, taken from a poem of Robinson Jeffers
Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.
M1 v. M2
It will come as no surprise that MORALITY #1 (M1) is often seriously at odds with MORALITY #2 (M2). Surely it is time for politicians and religious teachers to proclaim the importance of M2 and the subservience that M2 demands of M1.
But don’t expect such a thing anytime soon. After all, a very practical rule of M1 is “you have to go along to get along”, and few dare to risk their future by bucking “the system” a/k/a M1.
And a principle component of M1 is the establishment of privilege, and no-one ever gives up a privilege without a fight. Unrestrained industrial capitalism is very much privileged in the world today.
M1 globally, certainly on average, prizes and protects the “right” of women to have babies. Worse (M2), in the USA and in many other “conservative” (or “traditional”) societies, having babies is often encouraged or mandatory (in cases of pregnancy) (see: rules against contraception and against abortion, tax-breaks for dependents). And thus, contrary to M2, humanity pushes ever onward on its ever-more-clear project of (deliberate, calculated) vast overpopulation, ecosystem-destroying overpopulation.
Ecosystem-destroying? Read here, here, and here. Or “only” human society destroying? Read here, here, and here. And here.
DEVELOPMENT AND PROGRESS OF M1
Anciently (think stone age) humans speeded up their inventiveness, perhaps partly spurred to do so by a gradual increase in population and consequential reduction in ease of hunting and gathering. Competition and/or scarcity led to invention.
Invention of new weapons made hunting more efficient and made warfare between rival small-groups of humans more deadly. As M1 developed, it prized warfare and invention and “progress”.
And allowing and promoting warfare (the contest of who shall have the hunting and gathering rights in a territory) became central to M1. “Us against them” is central to M1. Meanwhile, definitions of “us” and “them” are flexible. (Think Trump and immigrants and asylees.)
Also, small social groups must have merged into larger ones, perhaps by conquest and slavery of prisoners, and larger social groups allowed and demanded the development (more invention, more progress) of hierarchical society, leaders—perhaps inherited leadership, perhaps leadership (as in many animal societies—wolves, horses) by the strongest individual.
Hierarchical societies made agriculture possible and growing populations made agriculture “necessary”. Read speculations of Lee Child in his short essay ”The Hero”, (2019).
All within the ever-flexible rules of M1, for there was no M2 (except, and only perhaps, among some societies that managed to live in harmony with nature and developed “rules” (M2) for keeping things that way. (Nowadays, so-called “civilized” societies view such societies with disdain, calling them “primitive”, “savage”.)
Calling other people “primitive” or “savage” is a linguistic trick, part of the mental system for establishing and promoting “privilege”. So-called “civilized” people deride some others as “savage” and then give themselves permission to establish a “privilege” for themselves over the “savages”: to take their land and other property (as if this taking were not theft), to enslave them or kill them (as if this killing were not murder), etc.
Making an “enemy” of one’s neighbor and then giving oneself permission to make war on this enemy, is a sort of linguistic trick for establishing (in one’s own mind) a “privilege” for theft (which is now not theft) and killing (which now is not murder) over the neighboring “enemy”.
The recent history of the establishment of Israel on the land of the Palestinians is a perfect case in point.
Palestinian Christians and Muslims had lived peacefully for centuries with Palestinian Jews. The influx of Zionist Jews who openly expressed a desire to form a predominately-Jewish state upon the Palestinian land caused two new systems of “privilege” to be imagined.
Zionists imagined a “privilege” for themselves to make enemies of the Palestinian non-Jews, and thereby seize their land without theft, expel them without guilt, and kill them without murder. Palestinian (non-Jews) imagined a “privilege” for themselves of holding on to the land they had, without challenge and therefore without “privilege”, lived in for hundreds of years; and gave themselves permission to resist the influx of invading Zionists.
(The White-American assumption of “privilege” over Native Americans is well known and has had well known horrible results for the Native Americans. The assumption of “privilege” by White-Americans over Blacks—first as slaves and later as second-class Americans—is also well known. The assumption of a “privilege” to repress, torture, and kill Black people by White Police in the USA has lately come into striking prominence.
Back to the notions of “civilized”, “primitive”, and “savage”.
The “privilege” of “civilized” over “savage” also seems to imply disdain for the knowledge and morality of the “savage”, allowing and maybe requiring the “civilized” folks to disdain that knowledge (which may embody M2).
Language and name-calling all play into the flexibility of M1. Disdaining “the other” has always allowed one society to make war upon or to enslave another, as if to say, “We are human and you are not, you are less than human, and THEREFORE we may kill you, enslave you, take your property, take your living place, push you off into reservations or into the desert or the sea.” This linguistic or conceptual “THEREFORE” is a neat trick of M1, an escape hatch, an exception to ordinary logic and to ordinary morality. Our enemies are human unless we say they are not. (Again, think Trump and asylees and other aspiring immigrants. Trump is a real champion of the de-humanizing of “the other”.)
M1 has always been—or since the development of competition rather than cooperation between social groups—not so much rules for behavior among and between persons generally as between or among persons of one’s OWN GROUP. Or SUB-GROUP.
The Christian admonition to “love your neighbor as your self” has usually and in most places been interpreted as “Love your neighbor AMONG YOUR OWN GROUP as yourself.” Think of the sometimes supposed universality of this Christian teaching and then think of the Crusades, the inter-Christian wars in Europe, the Holocaust, and think of the similar Jewish teaching and then think of the Israeli-Jewish oppression of the Palestinians. And, of course, think of all the white-nationalists in the USA and other racists who most certainly do not love their neighbors outside their own group. Think of those paradoxical exemplars of “Christianity” in the USA who are so fiercely opposed to LGBT+ folks.
So we have today the existence of racism, sexism, ageism, classism, discrimination-on-the-basis-of-XXX, etc., each of which is felt—by persons of one group—to allow persons of that group to mistreat or be ungenerous toward persons not members of that particular (privileged) group.
DEVELOPMENT AND PROGRESS OF M1 OVER M2
As population grew, the need to feed everyone (not letting people of one’s own group die, in general anyhow, become part of M1 and also part of the privilege of leadership, which demanded soldiers and workers/farmers) led to inventiveness in agriculture, more agriculture, spreading of humanity over the surface of the earth, and pushing back non-human parts of “creation” (ecosystem). In the modern era, the development of chemical fertilizers and chemical agricultural poisons allowed agricultural production to increase “grotesquely” [M2] or “dramatically” [M1], which allowed population to increase beneficially [M1] (or destructively [M2]) which allowed and required chemical and mechanical “progress” to farther increase agricultural productivity. All M1, all contrary to any sensible M2. Ignoring M2. Never heard of M2. (Think Trump, who also never heard of M1).
Various other inventions, including medicine and public health, public water-supply and sewers and, later, sewage treatment, joined agriculture in the onrushing triumph of overpopulation (M1) over nature (M2).
Since all the world’s religions (teachings of certain aspects of M1, certainly not of all of M1) were created anciently when people were scarce upon the surface of the earth, M2 was not (in general) recognized—although there were rather hesitant suggestions that humankind was to act as a “steward” over the earth. That meant that people were to act as faithful servants of a higher power, “God”, to keep and maintain the earth for that higher power, to prevent “waste” and “destruction” of the earth system as a good tenant-farmer should do for the owner of the farm which he rents. Sadly, this hesitant suggestion always received VERY short shrift as against the other M1 rules favoring expansion and protection of humanity (or of one’s own group within humanity). For example, the Pope, the most noticeable and in some respects most responsible religious leader today, makes some hesitant gestures toward M2 but is ham-strung by the need—within the trammels of Catholic M1—to continue with Catholic M1, which contributes to continuing population growth.
DEVELOPMENT AND PROGRESS OF M2 OVER M1
Not much progress here.
To quote from a recent article:
The civilizational crisis of our age, in my view, is defined by capitalism’s inability to generate incomes for the majority of humanity, to provide jobs and meaningful social roles, end fossil fuel emissions, and translate revolutionary biological advances into public health. These are convergent crises, inseparable from one another, and need to be seen in their complex ensemble, not as separate issues. But to put it in more classical language, the super-capitalism of today has become an absolute fetter on the development of the productive forces necessary for our species survival.
Ecologists lament the “sixth mass extinction”, now under way. Earth scientists teach about global warming and warn against humanity continuing to behave as it has for the last 100-200 years (“industrialism” run wild), but politicians and the very rich who, in many places, control politicians, refuse to consider rolling back the system which elevated them to positions of wealth, eminence, and power. (Note the triumph of Biden over Sanders, M1 over M1B (and maybe also to some extent over M2). M1 in USA favors privileges of wealth, industrialism, etc., “though the heavens should fall” (or, more nearly correctly, “après moi le déluge”). M1B favors a reduction of privilege (these people over those people), not necessarily a reduction of human action against the rest of nature. But capitalist-apologist politicians, such as Trump and Biden, are definitely not proponents of M2, as Sanders was to some extent. Hilary Clinton was a strong proponent of pipelines and fracking, quite as if she’d never heard of GWCC (global warming and climate crisis). The power centers in the two great American political parties take their political money and their political directions from the managers of the great corporations, the worst of M1 (especially as over M2).
There are almost no calls to stabilize or reduce the human population, as if mentioning such things is a no-no (strongly forbidden by M1). Overpopulation may be “the elephant in the room”, but that elephant is as invisible as the emperor’s new clothes, and M1 proscribes noticing.
Even AOC and The Squad, although progressive on many points, have not been heard to challenge overpopulation.
There are calls to forbid certain (really, really bad) agricultural poisons, but no widely-recognized calls to roll back the chemical agricultural system altogether (which would require a return to the societal distribution of labor of an earlier time (100 years ago at least) when a large percentage of people were agricultural workers, hoeing weeds by hand, sweating under the heat of hard labor and (for the foreseeable future) an increasingly hot climate. Indeed, any such rollback, unless uselessly slow, would result in a great reduction in the food supply and resulting privilege-based rules of food distribution and intentional starvation of whole populations (think Stalin’s 1932 starvation of the Ukraine which killed 3 million people out of a world population, ] of 2 billion. (Today’s pop: 7.8 billion, id.) (Proud parents, :”My how you’ve grown!!” [M1]. Persons concerned with future generations and the continuity of nature: “Oh, my God!” [M2].)
COVID-19 AND PROGRESS IF ANY OF M2 OVER M1
We are now (2020) getting a fortunate glance at the way a society’s interactive workings (“economy”) can be damaged by a small consequence of overpopulation, of overspreading population, of over-destruction of non-human life, etc., COVID-19. It will show the resilience or otherwise of human (industrial) societies. It will perhaps give us a view of the need (M2) to reduce populations and the costs of unrestrained M1.
COVID-19 has shown, especially in the USA, the need for a morality toward the whole population [M1B] rather than toward the privileged (governance by the rich and otherwise privileged, who brought us Trump after years of bringing us governance of, by, and for the billionaire and CEO-class [M1].
But dealing with COVID-19 has not resulted in loud calls to adopt M2. And it has downplayed—the media and pols cannot walk and chew gum at the same time—the desperate need to deal with GWCC, a real M2 problem.