The Invisible Morality


 In a sense, all morality is invisible; that is, morality stems from feelings in the hearts and thoughts of people. The good actions and outcomes, or lack thereof, that result from morality's presence or absence are visible, but the emotional and/or intellectual source of what does or doesn't occur remains relatively unseen or at least often obscure.

        Our culture's moral linchpin has come to be called The Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As a precept, of course, contradictions and modifications to it can be found in other laws and doctrines handed down throughout history, particularly in those documents issued during more uniformly savage eras. Yet, the near-global application and benefit of The Golden Rule today can usually be reconfirmed by anyone who spends a weekend at an international film festival.

      In all our discussion about what constitutes moral behavior and what doesn't, I tend to think we generally do better when we emphasize the positive over the negative. Rather than focusing on missed opportunities to help one another, which are inevitable, life literally expands and glows, right along with our hearts and minds, when we are able to recognize new opportunities to help one another, and take advantage of them to actually do so, however modestly.

        This idea, in fact, inspired the name of my website. The premise here is that the mostly wonderful new technology that has come along during the past few hundred years, and particularly during the past several decades, doesn't necessarily guarantee a much better world for all those living in it, but does make it possible! To paraphrase one of Buckminster Fuller's central statements from at least one of his several interesting and groundbreaking books, human beings have now finally achieved a state of technology capable of rendering all the citizens of the world prosperous. As a modifier, he adds something to the effect of "if only we can get the politicians and robber barons to get on board with the idea. He also hypothesized and hoped that these "masters of commerce" would become increasingly dependent upon scientists and technicians, a development that would in itself help advance the proper exercise of The Golden Rule. The accuracy of this prediction has yet to be determined. 

     The main point here, though, is that, as new moral opportunities to help each other arise, we feel them, however unconsciously. Given this, we naturally feel good when and if we act on them, and the opposite when and if we don't. Changes in these opportunities in recent decades – often the result of advances in communications, transportation, and many other technologies – often occur outside our immediate participation or control – as does the often quite sudden awareness that as a result now we could do things to help people in lands far distant to our own, including acts of kindness, consideration, and understanding previously impossible during thousands of years of necessarily far more competitive human social interaction.

        At first, of course, it's normal to be overwhelmed by such a quick and massive change in conditions. But after a while, what we are all left with is a new and much larger set larger set of behavioral choices.

        Many years ago, I edited a newsletter that ran a regular column featuring a fairly wide range of interviews with interesting and prominent people. One of these I did over the telephone with the then head of the American Socialist party. He was currently thinking of running for President, so I thought his views might be of interest to some of our readers, even if they didn't agree with them. The fact is, that though he was an intelligent and articulate man, all I remember from that interview was his passion for putting a level cap on how much income rich people could spend on items like yachts. I think I remember that because it was so specifically focused and intensely felt.

        Of course, this idea runs smack into our cherished belief that each person not only ought to be free to become as wealthy as he or she is capable of becoming, but then also substantially free to spend it however she or he wishes, as long as this keeps within the law.

       This view pretty much remains the norm, particularly in conservative circles, even though many if not most of our richest citizens give money to charity, or to other worthy causes.

        But in light of the moral consideration raised earlier, all of this brings up questions about the roots and character of this kind of freedom. I think of myself as staunch a defender of individual rights and freedom as anyone, and have always tended to strongly agree with those who believe that any totalitarian-style regime is and should be destined to fail because, at heart, people need to be "free."

        Nevertheless, looking back on our recent history here in the West, and particularly in the US, on closer examination don't we mainly contextualize the word in terms of "freedom from"? Sure, somewhere in there the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" holds a prominent position. But freedom of religion really means freedom from persecution, freedom of the press means freedom from being silenced, and so on. None of these are bad things; quite the contrary. At the time of their formation into the laws of the land, they stood as great strides forward in the history of civilization.

        But I think it's also fair to say that these ideas crystallized and were embedded into law at least three or four centuries before we had achieved the technologies that, as Fuller noted, would allow all the world's citizens, not just the posterity of a relatively lucky few colonists in North America, and their emulators, to prosper. In short, even as "enlightened" US citizens today, our still-traditional notions of freedom are lodged in a worldview in which nearly perpetual war and mostly inevitable scarcity, with all their attendant imprecations on people's lives, were just assumed to be the norm.  Now, as stated above, I don't consider myself a "socialist," or for that matter, an "ist" of any sort. I do, however, now strongly tend to see our more traditional idea of freedom as somewhat outmoded – at least temporarily – in so far as it often seems to stand clearly in the way of a technologically renewed and greatly empowered universal application of The Golden Rule.

        To their credit, in my view, many people of great wealth have already voiced a willingness to give out large amounts of that wealth to help the millions of poor and malnourished around the world. Many of these have actually done and are still doing so. In addition, arithmetically speaking at least, there are probably more utter pacifists alive today than ever, particularly if we were add all those who wish an end to war, but dare not express it publicly – people who intuitively understand that a planet truly working together applying today's technologies in a focused and humane way could, indeed, probably put an end to war within two or three generations.

        Unfortunately, such people are still significantly outnumbered – or, if not, then outgunned and/or out-moneyed – by others still operating under the notion that the reality of inevitable scarcity, and the perpetual warfare that goes along with it, will, can, or should never end. Connected at the hip to this notion is the definition of freedom as the right of an individual to acquire and spend any amount of personal wealth – however immeasurable – as she or he sees fit, in order to protect and cushion themselves from the potential vicissitudes of that real or imagined, current or potential scarcity and violence.

        And so the heart of The Golden Rule continues to be largely lost, despite the fervent efforts of a relatively few valiant people who get that, technologically, we have moved far beyond what was, arguably, more than fair and reasonable for the "freedom loving" colonial mindset of 1776 – a habit of thinking which, for all its undeniable good points, was still largely mired in the darkness of ancient historical struggles.

        If we are to truly move beyond the past, and that "nightmare of history" Stephen Daedalus so much wanted to forget, and into the full, true, and universal application of The Golden Rule, rather than a future of more untold misery and incessant warfare, a critical mass of the world's citizens, and particular of those who lead, must look deeply into their own hearts and minds, and set out together, and in ways effectively inclusive of everyone else, to construct a new, improved set of formal laws and institutions conforming to a more technologically accurate sense of morality, or, if you like, morally-aware application of technology.

Lee Strauss (Copyright @ 2019)


SW writes "You can't legislate morality because it is a part of the individual human spirit. No two people have the same definition of morality. Our thoughts, even in a repressed society, belong only to ourselves.  

To SW: I entirely agree that legislating morality is full of pitfalls and perils. Yet don't all our laws represent some sort of public moral consensus about something? What about laws abolishing slavery, protecting natural habitats and endangered species, and those governing the possession of firearms? What about the laws used to send those deemed criminals to jail? The freer a society, the more any one individual may openly and safely argue the validity of any given law. That, however, doesn't mean the law lacks any moral basis. Interesting point, though.

JH writes: 

Good article.As I was reading it, I was comparing what it was saying to the current political debate, which avoids or negates so much of what we should like to think constitutes the Golden Rule. For example, no candidate is espousing ending war, specifically our elective wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (other than Ron Paul, and while,he did surprisingly well in the Iowa straw vote, the media has done little to publicize his positions).Technology, as you write, doesn't seem to have put a dent in the debate towards instituting the Golden Rule or what I like to call, Kant's categorical imperative.

JC writes:

Nice!  It seems to me you are revealing yourself in the writing.  Captivating.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Lots of currents of interpersonal energy are perceived as ethical or moral impulses. Maybe you could comment on those that go beyond what you refer to as technology. FYI: check my website:


Dear RMP,

You raise a very good question. With the caveat that I don't think it's in the way of things to have definitive answers to such questions, we might reframe it as "what isn't technology?"--particularly if we were to view language and social ritual--which could encompass everything from marching bands to church liturgies--also as forms of technology.

For a long time my standard answer to this has been that only "God," or the creator of all that technology--or at least the potentiality of it's creation by us-- could "somehow" exist outside or beyond "technology," in some way that by definition must remain ultimately mysterious to us "creatures."

If there's any validity to this idea, then the "ethical or moral impulses" to which you refer must necessarily stem at least in part from some sort of direct connection between the person experiencing them and that "creator."

Without getting much into the history of it, nowadays most people found espousing some "direct connection to God," immediately rather than abstractly, and outside of some socially or ritualistically approved context, tend to be considered at best somewhat lunatic. And I can't deny that this supposition has been proven true as often as not. On the other hand, if we human beings are left entirely to our own devices, with just the feelings and faculties of those "hearts and minds," and without any bonfide spiritual connection or guidance thrown into the mix, the epistemological and moral limitations of many of our age-old tenets soon become apparent.

To name just a few: how are we to know whether giving to others as we would have them give unto us will give them what they really want, or need? Or even if they want what they need or need what they want? And even before we start dissecting "The Golden Rule" this way, how do we integrate it in actual practice with, for example, "God helps him that helps himself."? Most sensible people today might say that following second adage must come before adhering to the first. Throw in a bit more metaphysics, though, and we have ourselves quite a moral tangle.

So, RMP, as I said, yours is a very good, and very provocative, if perhaps not definitively answerable question. Thanks for asking it!