September 9, 2011

First Principles: Morality and Action


We need to get back to first principles. We need to purge all aspects of the elites’ own framework from our thought and expression. Here’s the example (from Derrick Jensen*) which spurred this post, though any regular day in the blogosphere provides similar examples:

For years I have been asking whether abusers believe their lies, and I’m finally comfortable with an answer.

This understanding came in great measure because I finally stopped focusing on the lies and their purveyors and I began to focus on the abusers’ actions. I realized, following Lundy Bancroft, that to try to answer the question of whether the abusers believe their lies is to remain under the abusers’ spell, to “look off in the wrong direction”, to allow myself to be distracted so I “won’t notice where the real action is”. To remain focused on that question is exactly what abusers want.

Endgame Volume II, “Abusers”

There’s been some progress with this in the blogosphere. We don’t see as much solemn rumination on whether e.g. Tim Geithner is corrupt or merely “captured”, and the last I saw when someone like Simon Johnson would continue to write in these terms he was getting more blowback among commenters saying “Who cares?” (I haven’t followed Baseline Scenario in awhile, so if anyone is still doing so and can provide an update, by all means do.) There’s less of this at Naked Capitalism as well.
“Captured or corrupt” has been replaced in some venues with the question “Stupid or evil?” This is a substantive improvement (less euphemistic, more truthful), and the fact that the question is increasingly being asked (and that the answer is usually “evil”) is an advance.
Still, we need to get beyond asking this question at all, since it still frames things according to the elites’ own framework of morality, where (their proven) intention is the most important thing.
Let’s stress immediately that in the class war no one’s intention really means anything. The elites want to plunder and enslave, and they do plunder and enslave. The only thing they care about where it comes to the non-rich is our compliant action. The state of our minds and souls is irrelevant.
But it is useful to them for us to sit around doing differently toward them from what they do toward us. We waste time and energy parsing an alleged nexus of their actions and their intentions, allegedly trying to puzzle out the morality of things, but likely just engaging in Peter Principle-type procrastination.
When are we going to reject the entire question and simply judge according to actions and results? When are we going to judge capitalism purely by its results? When are we going to judge representative government purely by its results? (This purely empirical evaluation of representative government, BTW, is a core part of the American Revolutionary philosophy.)
Most of all, when are we going to judge elitism as such, and this kleptocracy, purely by its actions and results?
(I’ll add here that the stupid/evil question can have practical application. It can be of strategic and tactical value to understand to what extent your opponents are inertial idiots, as opposed to intentionally brutal thugs, as opposed to intelligently evil. But this is only a practical matter, not a moral one. Given the ubiquity of available knowledge, it’s not possible to be innocently ignorant of the truth. One can only be willfully ignorant, which is just as morally culpable as to be a calculating evildoer.
To what extent we publicly say this is, of course, another tactical question. But we must fully digest it as an element of our philosophy.)
Nietzsche (for whom analysis of morality was the number one priority of his thinking) differentiated between what he called the pre-moral and moral stages of humanity’s natural history:

Throughout the lengthiest period of human history—we call it the prehistoric age—the value or the lack of value in an action was derived from its consequences. The action in itself was thus considered just as insignificant as its origin, but, in somewhat the same way as even today in China an honour or disgrace reaches back from the child to the parents, so then it was the backward working power of success or lack of success which taught people to consider an action good or bad. Let’s call this period the pre-moralistic period of humanity: the imperative “Know thyself!” was then still unknown.

In the last ten millennia, by contrast, in a few large regions of the earth people have come, step by step, a great distance in allowing the value of an action to be determined, no longer by its consequences, but by its origin. As a whole, this was a great event, a considerable improvement in vision and standards, the unconscious influence of the ruling power of aristocratic values and of faith in “origins,” the sign of a period which one can designate moralistic in a narrower sense: with it the first attempt at self- knowledge was undertaken. Instead of the consequences, the origin: what a reversal of perspective! And this reversal was surely attained only after lengthy battles and variations! Of course, in the process a disastrous new superstition, a peculiar narrowing of interpretation, gained control. People interpreted the origin of an action in the most particular sense as an origin from an intention. People became unanimous in believing that the value of an action lay in the value of the intention behind it. The intention as the entire origin and prehistory of an action: in accordance with this bias people on earth have, almost right up to the most recent times, given moral approval, criticized, judged, and also practised philosophy.

But today shouldn’t we have reached the point where we must once again make up our minds about a reversal and fundamental shift in values, thanks to a further inward contemplation and profundity in human beings? Are we not standing on the threshold of a period which we might at first designate negatively as beyond morality, today, when, at least among us immoralists, the suspicion stirs that the decisive value of an action may lie precisely in what is unintentional in it and that all its intentionality, everything which we can see in it, know, “become conscious of,” still belongs to its surface layer and skin,—which, like every skin, indicates something but conceals even more? In short, we believe that the intention is only a sign and a symptom, something which still needs interpretation, and furthermore a sign which carries too many meanings and, thus, by itself alone means almost nothing. We think that morality, in the earlier sense, that is, a morality based on intentions, has been a prejudice, something rash and perhaps provisional, something along the lines of astrology and alchemy, but, in any case, something that must be overcome. The overpowering of morality, in a certain sense even the self-conquering of morality: let that be the name for that long secret work which remains reserved for the finest and most honest, and also the most malicious, consciences nowadays, as the living touchstones of the soul.

Beyond Good and Evil, section 32

Nietzsche called these stages false in differing ways. Today we can recognize the “moral” stage as having devolved into a scam. Meanwhile, if humanity is ever to reach that extra-moral stage, it will be doing so in a more tortuous way than he envisioned. We’re not evolving to what Nietzsche called extra-morality, we’re returning to the pre-moral. (Indeed, we’re reverting to the original pre-debtor position he describes in On the Genealogy of Morals. What we must do, and what the criminals must try to prevent, is our restoration of pre-formalized community relations in place of formalized debt.
Here as everywhere else there are two strange attractors – the reactionary path of restored (but far more vicious) feudalism, and the renewal and redemption path of true democracy. Either way, whether imposed by the alien criminals or sprouting from the soil of our souls, we shall traverse the mental and spiritual path where nothing but action matters. It’s our choice whether these are to be slave actions or cooperative democratic actions.
This is part of how in all things we need to get back to first principles. All existing words, philosophies, institutions are beholden to the structures of kleptocracy and feudal capitalism. We need to look anew at everything from a purely democratic perspective. This is part of how we shall be born anew as true human citizens.
I hope this isn’t too vague right now. I’ll be developing the idea further. For now the first practical lesson is, to repeat, the only thing that matters is how any action affects the class war. Alleged dissonances between intention and result, where it comes to those in power, are morally meaningless. Jensen said the criminals want us to fail to notice where the real action is. The real action is nothing but the action itself.
[*Please, no arguments about Jensen’s own philosophy. I accept and reject parts of it the same way I rejected parts of it at the LATOC forum. Nevertheless, parts of the book are excellent, and this passage makes my point very well.]