Saturday, 27 August 2016

Mice and men

Today I found a nest of wool and leaves containing six baby mice; they fell out of a box when I was emptying out my shed. If I were a dog or cat I would have eaten them straightaway. If I were the mouse-mother I would carefully have gathered them up and stashed them somewhere safe. Being myself, I studied them for a while; I felt pity for them; I found them attractive in a soft, velvety way; I dealt with them with a stick because I do not want more mice wrecking my storage boxes.

This episode has prompted some clear thinking about morality. What follows is an attempt to consider this subject in a fresh way, taking inspiration from Husserl's concept of intersubjectivity and Lifeworld, Bateson's systems theory, Von Uexkull's Umwelt theory and Schopenhauer's philosophy of will.


1) All human actions have moral value because they are enacted in a transpersonal (transsubjective) dimension. All actions impact on the world, including the lifeworlds of other beings.There is no such thing as a purely private action.

2) Whether the actions are considered to be morally 'good' or 'bad' depends on the outcome, not the motive. Motive is determined by personal character, which is a given. Morality is thus about outcomes and not motives.

3) The driver of all action is the organic Will to Life of the individual. The expression or enaction of this Will is determined by the participation of this individual in their transpersonal (social / ecological) context, which supplies information feedback. Other individuals (human or non-human) are maximising the expression of their respective Wills, either competing with or collaborating with their neighbours. The result is contested or participatory trophic action-space, with feedback loops tending to facilitate or to limit/sanction behavioural expression.

4) Moral value (meaning) is assigned by participants to incidental actions producing outcomes in their lifeworlds. All actions are interpreted by and signify to some person or some living thing; they have causal impact on lifeworlds.

5) All outcomes are in-themselves morally 'good' as well as 'bad'. Absolute good or bad is an idea, but nothing more. Assignment of moral value (i.e. place on the moral spectrum) relates to the context in which the outcome happens. Context is an open, layered system. A morally 'good' outcome at one systemic level may have a morally 'bad' outcome at another level or on the same level. Moral value is assigned to the outcome by fellow participants in the transpersonal dimension. The individual is not in a position to say whether their actions are morally 'good' or 'bad' except through a) direct feedback from contextual participants, or b) introjected feedback.

6) We pay attention to the various implications of our actions (ends as well as means) on as many levels as possible. That is morality in action. We provide feedback about the outcomes of the actions of others as they impact on our lifeworld. That is also morality in action.


My introjected feedback tells me I lack compassion. I suppose my fellow humans might tell me the same. The mouse-mother is not in a position to give me feedback about her reaction. Tonight a scavenging animal will probably find their bodies in the hedge where I chucked them; it will make them its own. A morally 'bad' outcome may have a morally 'good' outcome. This is the dance of creation and destruction, destruction and creation...


Some interesting reading
* Simpson, B, Willer, R, and Harrell, A, 2017: The Enforcement of Moral Boundaries Promotes Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior in Groups; Nature Scientific Reparts 7, Online Article 42844.