Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Medium of Morality

So, some follow-up on my last post on McLuhan and Morality, a question was raised about whether we can consider morality to be a medium.  If you know me at all, you'd know that my answer to that question is yes.  From my point of view, the concept of medium is a general one, much like the concept of system.  You might say that the medium is the system, in the sense that the terms really refer to the same underlying phenomena, and just provide slightly different perspectives and points of emphasis.  But this is getting very abstract, I know.

So, yes, morality is a medium.  And that being the case, what then is the message of the medium of morality?  That is, what is the message of morality as a medium?  Or, what is the message of the morality-medium?

It's not the content, which would be specific moral and ethical systems embraced and employed by various groups of people. Any system is going to be subject to human fallibility.  

Given the near infinite specific possibilities that might exist in reality, a system of morality has to be the product of abstracting from those infinite possibilities, to put it in Korzybski's terms.  A system of morality has to involve generalizing across specifics, and in doing so, invariably simplifying the situation.  Because of the non-identity between moral principle and actual event, some form of interpretation and evaluation must be made, some form of judgment.  And since that interpretation, evaluation, judgment comes from human beings, mistakes will be made, fallibility will be a factor.  

Even if the moral system is the product of divine will, once it is transferred to human hands, error comes into play. And even if there is a divine judge involved, human beings are not privy to whatever evaluations might be made from on high.

So, a particular moral system would involve messages on the content level, whereas the medium is the metamessage, that is, the medium involves messages on the level of relationships.  On that meta level, we can consider the message of morality in general, across various specific systems, and beyond their specifics.  

So what is the metamessage of morality?  It's that there ought to be limits on human behavior, that there are actions that we ought not to take, that we should not give in to every impulse and drive, but take control of our own behavior.  In this sense, morality is about consciousness-raising, about being aware of how we act, about self-control and self-mastery.  From certain points of view, it's about actualizing our potential to be truly human.  And in terms of relationship, that involves entering into what Martin Buber called I-You relationships.

The metamessage of morality is also about rules, it's a rules-governed approach to human behavior.  You might say it's about supplying a structure for deliberate action, a grammar for human life.  It makes sense that human beings, having a relatively unique capacity for symbolic communication and language, and therefore for grammar, also have morality where other forms of life are amoral.  And I think Freud would come into play here as well, with something about civilization and its dis-contents, which suggests that morality, rather than being only content, is in fact the medium of civilization.  (This also shows that Freud was a media ecologist, after all.)

Some years ago this all occurred to me in a more specific context.  It was during a Sabbath service at Congregation Adas Emuno, where the Torah reading had to do with the Kosher laws, and there was a discussion of what the kosher laws mean to us as Reform Jews living in the modern world.  Most of us don't adhere to them, seeing them as having made sense in the past for reasons of health and sanitation, but no longer necessary, although we may still have a sense of them as a cultural or aesthetic preference (for example, I have no problem eating a cheeseburger, but the thought of doing so with a glass of milk I find gross, and I have no problem with bacon, but tend not to order ham or pork, or shellfish, and we never eat that stuff at home).  Some Reform Jews reinterpret the Kosher laws in a contemporary way to justify or encourage a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.

But all of that is on the content level, and what occurred to me at the time was that the metamessage of the kosher laws is to be mindful of what you eat, think about what you're putting into your body, that you can't just eat anything you desire or anything that's available.  Again, it's the idea of limits, that you can't just do whatever you want.  And it's the idea of rules, of a grammar that gives meaning to the things in our world, the events that occur, and the actions that we take.  And it's certainly about the idea of clean vs. unclean, order vs. chaos, and given these binary oppositions, Bob Blechman would certainly want me to mention Claude Lévi-Strauss who, as a media ecologist, wrote about the underlying structure and grammar of cultural expression, morality being, in some sense, one type of cultural expression.

Understanding morality as a medium suggests, to me, that there is some aspect of morality that can be considered universal, in some sense.  By universal, I don't mean absolute, because anything pushed to its extreme reverses into its opposite, too much love is suffocating or oppressive, too much life can be torture (an idea explored in the new "Miracle Day" Torchwood series on Starz). Morality is relative, but relativity is not itself relative, something that many non-scientists misunderstand about Einstein's theories.  Relationship is the key to universal morality.

Universal doesn't mean universally accepted either, or else there'd be no need to ever talk about morality.  I think we can say that some actions are immoral, and that some persons, by reason of their actions, are themselves immoral.  And some cultures, some societies, are as well, such as Nazi Germany, and the Aztecs with their widespread practice of human sacrifice.  You might say I'm being romantic or naive, but I think something like the ethical principle from medicine, primum non nocere, first, do no harm, is universal, albeit in relative terms.

My personal bias is with the Pirkei Avot, but I would offer the following from my own tradition:

Micah:  "He has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?  Only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."

Hillel:  "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."

These statements originate from a specific culture and belief-system, with reference to monotheism and the Torah as a divine covenant between God and the Jewish people, but they speak to some universal moral principles, justice, mercy, humility, and do no harm.  And learning!

I do think that in understanding morality as a medium, the medium of morality helps us to understand the morality of morality.


Bruce I. Kodish said...

A very thought-provoking and highly readable post for contemplation—nice job, Lance. To build on what you wrote, it seems to me that the medium of morality consists of the value aspect (always present) of the neuro-semantic [evaluational], neuro-linguistic environment(s) we live in and which we substantially inherit, i.e., time-bind, from others, and then participate, co-create and carry on to others.

Mike Plugh said...

Morality as a medium has to be one of the most delicate or fragile of systems. In order to continue to serve the particular adherents to the system, the system itself has to be sufficiently open as to account for change. If it doesn't the system festers and dies. If, however, that system is too open it devolves into a sort of moral relativism that also ceases to be coherent.

Fundamentalists see morality as absolute and defined by a higher authority than man. Man can't decide what is moral or immoral. In that case, the system eats itself or becomes marginalized. Such is the case with most orthodoxies. The more permissive societies, which cease to find use for tradition or religion, end up swimming in a sea of moral relativism and complain that all is lost.

Reformists seem to have a good equilibrium between the wisdom of old and the new environments and their demands. As someone who went through Quaker education, I'm attached to this idea since the Quakers find moral roots in a system of Biblical tradition, but seek direct communion with God, without creeds or intermediaries.

From a purely secular perspective, if we turn this philosophical lens on education we get Postman's thermostatic view. If we turn this philosophical lens on technology we get McLuhan's media ecology..."so they don't cancel each other out." Dynamic equilibrium.

Such a perspective is elusive and requires a sense of time-binding and a keen perception of environment, and therefore change. It's why so few clergy are effective at reading their times and guiding their flocks. They either stick to what they know (like most schools) or they fall in love with change and succumb to the original sins of new media environments themselves.

McLuhan's hopes for the Catholic church seem to be built on this idea and whatever critique he may have had stemmed from the notion that the church had grown stagnant and inflexible in a time when it could be using the new electronic environment to reclaim what had been lost in the Reformation.

It all fits together....

Lance Strate said...

Thanks, Bruce, and Mike. Good thoughts there Mike, perhaps best understood by placing them in an orality-literacy framework. I was going to provide a lengthy comment about it, but I think this might merit one more actual blog post.