Nov 7, 2023
“The Past is what it is, the Future will be what will be. We are just here, now!”
Rule of thumb: Any 10 philosophers on the head of a pin = 18 different ethical systems!
Most of us cling to a childhood confidence that ethics can be reduced to a series of commandments, a list of dos and don'ts, and the convergence of the 4 P’s: priest, parent, pedagogue, and police.
Since 1500 CE, we have eagerly shifted our ethical focus away from the concrete act per se and onto the imputed ‘intentions’ behind the act (psychology) and/or its mythical ‘consequences’ (political science). “Act? What act?” The Future is nothing but a mirror image of the Past: New chairs, same deck!
From Machiavelli (‘ends justify means’) to Mill (‘greatest good for the greatest number’) to Marx (‘dictatorship of the proletariat’) to Malcolm (‘by any means necessary’), we have made a pact to suppress the Present (action) and amplify the Past (intention) and the Future (consequence).
We have deceived ourselves into believing that modern pragmatism is a smooth continuation of an ethical heritage that traces back to Moses and Socrates. It’s not! Moses did not lead the Exodus because he wanted to experiment with a new social contract or because he dreamed of enjoying a more lavish lifestyle in the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, Canaan.
Moses did it because Liberation per se is an ethical imperative. As we’ll see (below), it is one of the Works of Mercy, albeit writ large. The ethics of Moses, Socrates, Jesus, and Marcus Aurelius are consistent with their cosmologies. Our ethics…not so much! Example: Chaos Theory renders any ‘consequence-based’ morality untenable. No event ‘causes’ any other event; therefore, no event is to blame for any other event. On the other hand, every event is responsible for itself; it is its own intention and its own consequence.
According to the ‘standard model’, an Event is simply the Past acting through the Present to secure the Future (Darwin, Freud, Trotsky, Skinner, Derrida, et al.). I am the accidental battlefield on which various cosmic forces contend: Michael vs. Lucifer, God vs. Satan, Arjuna vs. his kinsmen.
According to this ontology, ‘to do’ is active voice in form only; in fact, it can have only one voice: the passive voice. I am the passive product of my Past projecting its ‘image’ onto my Future.
Our morality, therefore, contradicts our ontology. It requires us to take full responsibility for events over which we have no control and to shun all responsibility for events over which we have total control. We’ve stood the Serenity Prayer on its head: “God grant me the serenity to accept things I could have changed but didn’t, and the courage to change things that can’t be altered.”
According to contemporary ethics, “the devil made me so it…or it was an accident; I inherited bad genes…or bad Karma; I grew up poor…or posh; I was abused…or neglected, and of course, I was under the influence of alcohol and drugs.”
This contradiction is crystallized in the structure of most modern Indo-European languages: noun (subject) → verb (active voice) → noun (object). Past (noun) → Present (verb) → Future (noun).
The active/passive voice is well suited to describe the transition from Past (subject) to Future (object): I dig a hole in the ground so that I can pour concrete. Most of us assume without reflection that this formula describes something that is a substructural feature of being itself: intention → action → consequence; I mean, how else could it be?
Well, instead of Past (subject) → Present (verb) → Future (object), try Past (co-subject) → Present (verb) ← Future (co-subject) or Past (co-object) ← Present (verb) → Future (co-object).
The difference appears subtle, but in fact, it is tectonic…to the extent that anything in philosophy can be ‘tectonic’. According to consensus, the contrast of Past and Future constitutes the Present. But according to our ‘alternative models’ (above), every Present determines its own Past and its own Future.
It is easy to express an ethics based on intentions (Past) or consequences (Future), using active/passive verb forms. But how about an ethics divorced from any consideration of Past or Future, an ethics focused entirely on the Act per se, the Present? That would require an alternate voice: a Middle Voice, interactive and/or reflexive. Originally, Middle Voice may have been the dominant voice; today, it has disappeared or atrophied in most Indo-European languages.
Now consider the Works of Mercy! The first known reference to these Works, Corporal and Spiritual, comes from the theologian Pseudo-Isidore, a Frankish monk, writing around 550 CE. The Works of Mercy focus on the material and spiritual needs of other creatures. They are consistent with the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule. They trace back to Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, but they are also mentioned in the Old Testament (Isaiah and Tobit):
Feed the hungry. Water the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Visit the sick. Liberate captives. Bury the dead. Instruct the ignorant. Counsel the doubtful. Admonish sinners. Bear wrongs patiently. Forgive offenses. Comfort the sorrowful. Pray for the living and the dead.
These ‘new commandments’ make no reference to Past or Future, only Present. In fact, what makes these Works ethically imperative is precisely that they are divorced from motives and consequences. They just are! A recent Thoughts While Shaving mentioned Michael Kelly’s Holy Moments. His ‘Holy Moments’ are moments of kindness, of being there for others. In other words, performing the Works of Mercy!
The Past consists of ‘settled matters of fact’ – we can’t do anything about it. The Future is indeterminate; we can’t control it. We can only control the Present, the moment, the act. The Past is what it is, the Future will be what will be. We are just here, now!