To say that we face a social crisis may be the understatement of the millennium. Many would argue we face a number of crises simultaneously, in fact: inflation, inequality, polarization, trust, ecological, geopolitical, health, education, employment.

They seem many, but in fact they are merely the many faces, the numberless consequences of the same crisis: a crisis of morality.

I do not mean morality in the “traditional” or “conservative” sense. You are not about to read an argument of returning to anything, going back to the way things once were, or making anything great again. I may make use of the ancient texts in my arguments, but pay close attention: I am actually suggesting something radical, not something reactionary.

Instead, my aim is to first rehabilitate the word morality itself, liberate it from the clutches of hate and politics, and point toward an unfinished revolution that would meet the manifold consequences of our social crisis in a single, if difficult to deliver blow.

The word moral comes to us from the Latin moralis, Cicero’s translation of the Greek word ἠθικός (ethikos) meaning “habit or custom,” and is cognate to the Sanskrit word svádhā, with the same meaning. They supposedly derive from the Proto Indo European root words for “to put or set in place” with “self”.

In the most literal terms, we could say that morality means “to set oneself in place.”

We could contrast this with its opposite posture, which would be to simply move around responding to incentives, changing as they change.

The very first Psalm of David describes the Godly individual as being like a tree planted by the water, which is then contrasted with the ungodly, who are like the chaff which the winds scatters.

Morality does, in fact fix us in place, roots and grounds us, like a tree — which the Psalmist goes on to say will bear its fruit in due season. The purpose of moral grounding is to eventually bear some fruit, to have some positive outcome. I would add that it presumes that the fruit it will bear is for God’s sake, or another way of putting it, to the benefit of the whole, rather than merely some part.

Here of course, I am not imagining God as some distant cop-in-the-sky, an angry and capricious human father who demands conformity, the idol of political conservatives in our time. Rather, I understand God as the ineffable, the unknowable, the unspeakable, the Great I AM, the transcendent immanent, the immanent transcendence, whose ways are greater than our ways, and whose thoughts are greater than our thoughts, the omnibenevolent force underlying all universal processes and driving us ever toward The Good, if always through an unclear and often circuitous path.

You need not have any opinion of God at all to follow the rest of my argument, but I felt it necessary to clarify both for those coming from a more traditional religious background (as I had growing up), and for those who only have a caricatured understanding of God and religion, and who reflexively reject anything religious-sounding on ideological grounds.

Whether you ascribe personality to God or see God as an underlying force and do not even like to call it God, I hope you will be able to see the life-affirming reasoning in my arguments that follow, and embrace their logic, free of ideology.

In one sense, we must give some acknowledgement to the traditionalists, though. They are right when they say that we have become unmoored, detached, amoral. The incentive structure of our economic system, call it whatever “capitalism” or “financialism” or “consumerism” or “industrialism” or “globalism”, is decidedly without morality. It has no habits or customs, per se, but rather is exclusively utilitarian:

Whatever profits, until it doesn’t, then whatever else, so long as it profits.

Where “profit” is effectively and narrowly defined as “economically profitable,” mostly in terms of some abstract economic unit, such as dollars or euros. It may be measured by those with rightwing tendencies in terms of microeconomic shareholder value or macroeconomic GDP growth, and by those with leftwing tendencies in terms of unemployment rate or jobs created, or some complex of abstracted sociological benchmarks variously called “inclusion” or “ESG”. They may be touching a different part of the beast, but they are clinging to the same filthy beast.

Both sides accept the basic utilitarian logic, they merely reject the other side’s definition of “what profits.”

In the face of this shapeshifting monster and the havoc it has wreaked upon the world, causing the many-faced crisis we described at the beginning, the Extreme Left and the Hard Right agree on one thing, which is the need to replace this amorality with a rigid and punitive morality that prevents evil.

We hear this every day in the media. Some horrific event occurs, and some crusader declares that the entire category of thing “must never be allowed to happen again.”

The Right did this with terrorism after the 9/11 attacks. The Left does it several times a day with mass shootings (because indeed there seem to be several per day — this is certainly not normal, or acceptable). Everybody in the West is squawking a similar harangue with respect to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (wild hypocrisy coming from ritual aggressive invaders with 500 years of now uncountable invasions of every manner on place on the earth — but we digress).

Drawing back from politics into the personal realm, similar patterns will be familiar to anyone who does not live alone in a hermitage. Horrified by something their child has done, parents insist “this can never happen again,” or still scarred from their own traumas, try to prevent it from ever happening in the first place.

Spouses and dating partners demand that something can never happen again “or else I’ll leave,” and on goes the fantasy of preemptive morality.

It is not only a fantasy, but a childish one, built on top of an even more childish epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge — it attempts to answer the question “how do we know that what we know is actually true?”

To be able to successfully preempt an action or event, we would need to understand its full complex of causes. Causality, in the real world, is anything but simple and straightforward. Nothing has a single cause, but many interlocking, intertwined, inseparable causes. The more we learn and understand about quantum mechanics, the less we understand about causality.

We have laws against murder, for example, and yet, there are murders. Places even institute the death penalty as punishment for murder, and yet there are murders. So then we implement prohibitions on certain kinds of weapons, and yet there are still murders. We have taught children, for a couple thousand years, that murder is wrong, yet — still there are murders. For fear of this, we will likely see, in our lifetimes, attempts to predict murders and stop people before they do it, either through social media algorithms (which probably are probably already being used, without our knowledge or consent) or AI prediction, or even mind-reading, as brain computer interface technology matures.

I predict that even with such measures, and invariably so, there will still be murders.

No matter how advanced our knowledge becomes, it will never be exhaustive enough to understand causality. Thus, all attempts to preempt evil, will fail to some degree or another. But even our successes will be failures, for every intervention (successful or not) creates a whole other complex chain of causality.

Moreover, the desire to make sure this never happens again is rooted in fear, not in the desire for good. Our fear-based society has reduced good to the absence of evil, and this is one of the roots of our many-faced social crisis. When good is merely the absence of evil, a society’s norms will become increasingly nihilistic. Nothing will be seen as the moral high ground.

We see this manifested in contemporary aesthetics and art. Empty, white spaces are considered the most aesthetically pleasing. Art without shape, without form, and often without much color, is praised — even when it tells no story, represents nothing, and does not even evidence craft or diligence on the part of the artist.

Likewise, good people are discouraged from doing anything, because doing always comes with it the risk of making a mistake, of accidentally and unintentionally causing some sort of harm. Better to sit at home and scroll, or binge on streaming services, or play video games: those things are “safe.”

Such squalid forms of passtime are only safe when one sees morality through this two-dimensional lens of avoiding doing something wrong. Virtually all major religious traditions have some notion that avoiding doing right is as bad, or almost as bad as doing something overtly wrong: sins of omission are as bad as sins of commission.

The Anglican common prayer for forgiveness begs that we be pardoned for “what we have done, and what we have left undone."

Perhaps, then, we must reexamine the common morality of our age, which is alternatively non-existent (the passive nihilism of consumerism), or actively annihilative (the destructive forces of extreme left and extreme right ideological programs).

Perhaps instead our “custom or habit” should be “correct and improve in the face of error and harm” rather than “commit no error and do no harm.”

We are plainly incapable of the latter, and whenever we implement measures of preemption, we created unforeseen and unintended consequences, many of which make the (preventative) medicine more deadly than the cure.

Moreover, it is only in the absence of punitive preemption that a heart-centered positive morality and concept of justice can emerge. So long as we believe evil can be prevented by prohibiting it, we will not realize the extent to which we should be concerned with, and actively occupied with, creating an environment for goodness to flourish.

I suggest, indeed, that we have it completely backward:

good is not the absence of evil,

evil is the absence of good.

What we call evil acts are actually the consequences of there being no goodness. Violence & discrimination occur in the absence of love; hunger and need in the absence of compassion. Boredom is the absence of passion; anxiety of faith; meaninglessness of purposeful action; alienation of connection, and so forth. Whether evil manifests as physical, psychological, or spiritual, it is an absence of corresponding good.

Just as we cannot starve our way to our individual physical order and health, we cannot prohibit our way to a good and peaceful social order. Conversely, we cannot simply fill ourselves mindlessly with whatever seems good and expect health, either. The answer to starvation is not undiscerning gluttony.

Learning what is healthy for your body to eat, in what quantities, at what times, and with what exceptions is an iterative process, and one that never, in fact, ends. Your body is constantly changing, and so what may work in general for a little while will require further refinement and alteration later. Yet, there are certain things that you will come to recognize never work, and should be avoided. No single metric will suffice, either. You cannot merely count calories, or measure micronutrients.

— Just as the unemployment rate cannot drive all economic policy, or the bottom line all corporate initiatives for a society to be healthy.

With your physical health, you must consider both objective and subjective feedback. How do you feel when you eat a heavy breakfast? How do you feel when you fast in the morning? Does your body respond poorly to beans? Do you sleep badly if you eat late at night? Are you gaining weight or losing it? Is the weight you’re gaining muscle or fat?

You can see that if you selected any one of these questions alone, and then targeted your entire health & nutrition planning to just that question, it would end in disaster. Everything about you would be out of alignment.

Physical health is one aspect of morality (remember the real meaning: habit or custom). Nearly every religious tradition at some time or another placed very heavy emphasis on dietary rules, in fact. It turned out that since time immemorial it was recognized that the broader spiritual health of an individual had much to do with diet. We are what we eat.

Corrective morality is not only a question of doing more of what works and less of what doesn’t work, but is perpetually reexamining its own parameters. Preemptive morality assumes it already and always accurately understands the parameters a priori.

Corrective morality constantly goes back and forth between tending to its roots, and examining the quality of its fruits, remembering that “a good tree bears good fruit, and a corrupt tree, corrupt fruit.” It asks “does this fruit nourish myself and others? How could it be more nourishing? How do I make it more nourishing in the ways in which it could be?"

This is different from both the amorality of marketplace logic, which doesn’t care about the quality of the fruit, so long as somebody will buy it for more than it cost to produce, and from the rigid morality of preemption, that says “a good fruit is always x size, y shape, and z sweet, and nothing else can be allowed.”

Preemptive morality takes the victim mindset, externalizing responsibility“who is to blame for this evil? Who should be punished? How can this be stopped?”

It puts everything into terms of regret for the past, and fear of the future.

Marketplace amorality, when it can even recognize something as undesirable, merely asks “how can we change the incentives?”

Corrective morality instead takes personal responsibility, asking self-critically “how can I do better? how can I make things better?"

In view of the many-faced social crisis, rather than declaring our institutions “broken” and problems “intractable”, we should ask instead “what else could we try?” — importantly, without needing proof that it will work, being willing to tolerate it not working, and willing to try something else if it doesn’t.

Doubling down on failed strategies is the opposite of corrective morality. Declaring “we just didn’t do it forcefully enough” is perhaps the strongest contraindication of corrective morality, in fact. Taxation, international financial sanctions, emissions treaties, subsidizing so-called “green energy,” forced urbanization, mandatory vaccinations — all of these authoritarian strategies wanting to force things on other people, make them do things against their will — these do not seem to have worked at any point, and we should not imagine that the threat of more violence will suddenly and magically do the trick.

Wishing to have things in a certain aesthetic arrangement “once and for all” is always a recipe for violence, disaster, and the ultimate failure of whatever was originally intended. It wishfully rejects the idea that error and harm are inevitable, yet no matter what, they will indeed always recur.

Here we get to the root and core of suffering in any age, at both the individual and collective level. Suffering always results from the unwillingness to accept reality in the present, and that reality always includes many kinds of pain. Resistance to the inevitability of pain is what creates the most suffering in the world.

Acceptance, paradoxically, is the beginning of change.

So long as you believe a perfect utopia is possible “if only…” certain conditions are met, you will always maintain a victim mentality blaming the people you perceive to be blocking those conditions. You will remain both helpless in resolving your own problems and useless to the world in solving our shared problems.

The moment you accept that there will be no utopia, no world in which your effort will not be required to confront new challenges, your resistance to pain will cease and along with it, your pointless suffering. You will begin to take personal responsibility, forgiving yourself and others of the past, and seeking improvement to conditions wherever you can create it. You will not be paralyzed by fixation on an ideal, but constantly adapting your actions in order to move toward it, without feeling dissatisfied by imperfection along the way.

Critically, the correction we most need is less about avoiding error and more about crowding out error with positive good. The more time you spend walking in Nature, the less time you spend driving a car or using electricity, for example. The more you garden and grow your own food at home, the fewer emissions are required to transport your food from one place to another. The more you orient your life toward meaningful relationships, the less emptiness will drive you toward transactional ones. More forest time means less polluted air in your lungs. More fruit in your diet means less desire for processed sugar.

Time spent writing in your journal and meditating is a direct tradeoff with doom scrolling and binge watching. Books and poetry crowd out fast food entertainment and boredom. As you spend your time more wisely, and your happiness increases as a result, others around you will notice, and they will do the same. Then others around them will notice and do the same, and this expansion of goodness will extend outward by imitation and example — gradually at first, and then explosively.

When I buy organic goat milk and make my own kefir at home, I am signaling to the market for more people to keep goats. When I buy raw honey, I am signaling to the market to keep more bees. These individual actions not only benefit me and my personal health, and the health of my household, they also benefit the world more broadly by amplifying positive signals.

When somebody buys vodka and Doritos, it is a moral choice to make their health — and the world — worse, because they not only fill their body with toxins, they also signal to the market to produce more toxins.

Corrective morality at the individual level leads to the gradual redemption of our marketplaces. The healthier you are, the healthier those around you will be. Those healthier people will demand healthier products, and producers of unhealthy products will go out of business.

But it all starts with personal responsibility for active improvement. It requires the will and energy to overcome the inertia of established and frictionless patterns. The great lie we tell ourselves that upholds the evil we say we hate is “yes, but what’s the point of doing something right if nobody else does it?”

Immobilized out of the fear that a small act of good will be destroyed in the vacuum of other people’s inaction, evil wins.

Instead, see that each act of good is self-rewarding, and therefore self-perpetuating. The more good you do, the more reward you will feel for it, and the more motivated you will be to do it. And that is how the good spreads, and how our crisis can be defused.

The moment somebody invokes fear to dissuade you from this line of thinking, realize that is the voice of evil; that is the voice of somebody trying to acquire or wield power to assuage their own fears.

Good people are always doing good, not scaring others. So shut off your feeds, go drink some goat milk kefir, take a hike in the forest, and listen to the trees. They will tell you what to do next.

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