Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A tenuous and fickle grip

I think of our "conscience", our tendency to feel bad about trespassing our personal boundaries between good and evil as an evolved characteristic. It is a great shame that those boundaries are more learned artifacts than universal and derivable limits. The schooling that would enable us to derive the limits is formal and exacting while the schooling by which we commonly absorb our notions of ethics, from taboo to altruism, are the informal, unquestioned ever-present daily lives from infancy onward. That means that new learning or even forgetting can cause us to cease the self-censoring which keeps us from harming our neighbors in gross or subtle ways. The notion of the neighbors or of the community in which we live is a key element in understanding the purpose or benefit that would have selected for the trait of conscientious self-control behavior. It is our undeniable dependence on our tribe or city or fellow workers or whatever community we live within that makes a reflex for fairness, as that community defines it, such a valuable and stabilizing social force. Like any other trait or strength that evolution has given us, its general and necessary effect is, to phrase sustainability and survival as Deuteronomy 6:18 puts it:
Do what is right and good in the Lord 's sight, so that it may go well with you and you may go in and take over the good land that the Lord promised on oath to your forefathers,
That particular phrasing has been used with a parochial vengeance to divide the world into waring communities but that is not its best use. The community we live in is the whole world and all other lines we draw are drawn to our own detriment in the long run.

I like to think the most progressive among us have the most inclusive sense of who is a member of their community. Conversely, my perception of the social outlook of those who label themselves "conservative" is that they live in a world of "others", competitors, moochers, enemies, strangers presumed hostile until they prove allegiance. Given what I believe about the nature of our facility for conscience, I have to conclude that there is some difference in the learning and generally in the influences present in our upbringing that leave us each at some point along the spectrum of inclusiveness and set the scope and strength of our conscience. I admit these differences must be quite subtle and may interact with individual variations of innate personality because even siblings will arrive at different states of tolerance and political belief.

So a conscience is a weaker and more slippery thing than it flatters us to believe. That is the nature of the beast. Deal with it if you are serious about the longevity of our species on this planet. Conscience was meant to be a guide but it is not fully evolved or else we simply have too tenuous and fickle a grip upon its compass.

Today marks our nation's exit from an eight year period in which we acquiesced to a gang of "leaders" who seemed largely devoid of conscience. Even in their humiliated departing interviews, no apologies, not one admission that their mistakes were moral failings or involved selfishly dividing us and acting to harm others without reasonable cause. I should be grateful that our voting has cast these losers aside but I think we voted our pocket books more than our sense of decency toward other humans. Impeaching them would have been beneficial and prosecution for their actions should be kept as an instructive option for the American conscience. The stirring hopes arising with Obama's inauguration are not just the emotions of an economically scarred and scared nation. I hear from many and I feel within me that we have finally lived up to our claims to have the most inclusive boundary that history has ever seen drawn around those who may be given the reins of power. The tendency to hope too much and to blame too much should not be so focused on our leaders. Obama is already pointing to you and me. He will say to us today that it is we who will make the difference. And so it is. And so may it always be.

I suppose I seem to write my little essays with an air brush rather than a fine point pen. I actually share some of the reservations about evolutionary psychology that Amanda Marcotte describes. It is a fuzzy "science" at best and it is easily appropriated as a form into which to pour one's biases and thus free oneself from questioning a belief that is in fact highly questionable. But a conscience is so inconvenient personally that I have a hard time understanding mine as a bias.

"All sentient beings". Try that for a sense of community that your conscience should encompas.

1 comment:

racheariel said...

I wasn't sure how to contact you without leaving a comment (but feel free to take it down and respond by email, if you want). I found a comment you left on this site: http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2007/03/18/creative-types-help-me-out/
and just wanted to say that the t-shirt is mine - and if you (or anyone else) is interested in buying one, feel free to let me know. (racheariel@gmail.com)
I don't sell them online, but I have a supply of them that can be shipped out right away.
Anyway, thanks for the shout-out in that post. It was fun to read!