Judging Morals

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently been exploring moral network maps. That is, using a network framework to visualize the ideas, themes and morals that drive a person.

But once you’ve created a network map of your morals…what should you do with it? Should you file it away with last year’s taxes? Perhaps put it on a shelf next to the award you received for acting like an adult? Or maybe you should carry it around with you for consultation at moment’s notice.

Or maybe not.

It may sound absurd when I put it like that, but this cuts to the idea that morals are not – and shouldn’t be – simple rules we set in stone then set aside, dusting them off for occasional validation. This is what makes the network framework such a powerful tool. A moral network is as complex, dynamic, and fluid as the situations we encounter.

I believe that we each have a personal responsibility to develop the best moral networks we can – to be the best person we can be. But how do we know whether our complex, dynamic, and fluid morals are appropriate for our complex, dynamic, and fluid world? How do we know if we are “good”?

The simple answer is that we cannot know, but since that is a somewhat dissatisfying conclusion, I’ll carry the question a little further.

My colleague Peter Levine argues the we should evaluate our moral networks along three dimensions: “1) truth, or at least the avoidance of error; 2) community or justice; and 3) happiness or inner peace.”

I find that somewhat dissatisfying as well. First, I could argue against each item on the list: 1) truth is a construct; 2) communal life is not required for morality and 3) well, let’s just say there are far greater virtues than happiness. Second, I could add to the list – perhaps it’s not only a respect for other people that’s required, but a respect for all other life.

But aside from quibbling over the specifics, more deeply I find this model…too static.

Perhaps it’s my background in physics, but I can’t stop thinking in terms of a universe built upon uncertainty, where observation affects measurement, where the “law” of opposites attract is overridden by a force much stronger.

If our moral networks have complex, dynamic, and fluid reactions to the complex, dynamic, and fluid situations we encounter…then it seems like we need complex, dynamic, and fluid measures to evaluate them by.

What do I mean by these terms?

1) Complex. In network analysis terms, you could look at the density of a map – are there many connections between nodes or few? You could also look at how nodes are connected – is there a path from any node to any other node, or do some ideas form their own, isolated network?

I’d not go so far as to claim there’s an ideal complexity, and I’m not sure complexity should be used to claim that one type of map – eg, all nodes are connected – is better than another. But it does seem like there could be such a thing as too simple a map. If you only had one node, for example, that would be an awful narrow a lens to process everything through.

A sufficiently complex map should have conflict and tension. Life has conflict and tension.

2) Dynamic. Your network should be capable of change. Unless you are in a coma or otherwise dead, your network should respond dynamically to situations.

And this is no trivial matter. It’s easy – perhaps even good – to fall into patterns and set routines. But if habit is the state our inertia naturally draws us into, a dynamic engine must counter that stagnation. It’s not uncommon to complain of people who’ve become too set in their ways. Consistency and sustainability are perfectly admirable traits, but staying the course can also be the road to damnation.

3) Fluid. In physics terms, a fluid is a substance that continually deforms (flows) under applied stress. Perhaps we shouldn’t want our morals to “deform” so greatly, stressed though we may be. But the key thing with a fluid is that…its form is not its substance. A 600-pound octopus can fit through a hole the size of a quarter, and yet it remains, continually, an octopus.

Similarly, our network should be able to survive in tough environs. It should find the cracks and push its way through. It should shift and bend, perhaps, but remain consistent in the way only a fluid can – true to itself until the end.

There is, perhaps, a danger in all this. If you open wide the doors of “good,” then any one could walk through. The traits I’ve described above are arguably a description for anyone who is alive – perhaps not sufficient for an evaluation of morality. Calling morality situational, embracing conflict and change, could be to deny the existence of evil – a topic for another time.

But, I’ll leave with this thought – much comes down to who is doing the judging. I’m not prepared to judge others, and I don’t generally appreciate it when others judge me. I don’t know what is “good” or what is “right,” and I certainly am in no position to apply such criteria to others.

The best I can hope for is to be my own worst critic. To question hard every decision, action, and impulse. To strive to be better tomorrow than I was today.

Was that right or was that wrong? We don’t always have the answer, but, I’d argue, the question should haunt us.


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