May 312011

When Water Drops Collide

Photo by laszlo-photo

“I am in the world beyond this world here. For me, they are the same. I need no hand to guide me. I see every movement all around me. I see every expression of your face. I have no eyes, yet I see.”

- Paul Atreides, Dune Messiah

Hello again!

I’m continuing here with my series, which began with “This Mythos Called ‘Life’” and “How Existence Responds.” Today I’m going to again focus on morality, seeing that it’s such a crucial concept for any faith system, but I’m going to flesh out my concept of morality a bit more.

Morality, Again

“Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right.”

- Isaac Asimov

Let’s recall the definition of morality I’m using: any means by which the ethos (self) and cosmos (world) interact. This is an intentionally broad definition, and can include moral systems as complex as the Catechism of the Catholic Church and as simple as “make it up as you go.” It certainly includes ethics (the ethos affecting the cosmos), but it also includes cosmics (the cosmos affecting the ethos).

Okay, now that the refresher is out of the way, let’s look at moral actions more closely. I want to primarily bring attention to the fact that all moral actions can be broken up into four distinct parts, which I’ll explain with an example.

First, imagine that you’re having a charity like the Salvation Army or charity: water pitched to you. The person is going through his presentation, explaining why you should donate to his organization. He’s giving personal stories of lives being changed through his charity, and you’re moved by them. Then he asks for a donation, and you respond to it. What are the parts of your response?

The first is intent. Do you want to give or not?

The second is initiation. If you do want to give, do you pull out your wallet or not?

The third is execution. If you do pull out your wallet, do you actually give him a donation?

The fourth is effect. If you do give him the donation, does he accept it?

These may not seem like important distinctions at first, but they are. These are the four parts to every moral action, and, at least in principle, we can break down every single interaction between ethos and cosmos into these four pieces in order to analyze it.

First, let’s see how this applies to ethics.

Clarifying Ethics

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.”

- Albert Camus

Let me make clear from the start that I don’t suggest actually breaking down in practice every single moral action into these four separate parts.

What I do feel is absolutely important, though, is that we are clear about which of these we are focusing on in any given ethic we propose or adhere to. Whether we realize it or not, when a given ethic is unclear about when it’s discussing intent, initiation, execution, or effect, we will assume which of these it is talking about. That is a problem for those adhering to the same ethic; they think that they are talking about the same thing when they quote the ethic, but often end up doing completely different things in practice. This happens all of the time, and it is extremely frustrating (especially considering the human tendency to think of our own assumption as the obviously correct one).

So how do we judge an ethic’s clarity? Let’s look at some examples of ethics to see if the four parts actually help.

First example: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Now, I don’t know whether this was clear to the original audience. For all I know, it could have been completely unambiguous, with no further clarification ever needed. Now, though, this is a pretty vague statement. How are we to judge whether or not we’ve loved our neighbors as ourselves?

Is it our intent that matters? Is it okay to have really strong intentions of loving others? After all, it’s difficult to actually put forth the effort of loving them.

Or maybe initiation is important. Maybe we have to actually begin to act upon our choice to love others. But life happens, so if we can’t follow through, that’s understandable.

Maybe it’s the execution that’s important. No matter what, we have to follow through on our intents and initiations and complete the acts of love, but the effects of our actions are out of our hands.

Or could it be the effects of our loving actions which are important? Regardless of how loving our intents and follow-throughs were, if it doesn’t result in a loving effect, then we aren’t really following the ethic correctly (I think, and I could be mistaken, that Ken makes something like this argument in “Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape”).

While the first two options aren’t likely to be argued for (though I do think they could be, based solely on the ethic as quoted), confusion between the last two options is a very likely and very common thing as far as I can tell. “Oh, but an action isn’t really loving if it isn’t resulting in a loving effect,” or “I’m doing all the loving things I can, how can I control the outcomes of those actions?” seem to be both valid arguments. And I’m not saying that one argument might not actually have more weight based on other quotes to draw from; all I’m saying is that this ethic in and of itself is unclear and will lead to confusion.

Let’s try another example: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

This is a little bit better, but I think it suffers from slight ambiguity as well. We can tell that intent is not the focus of this ethic at all, but whether execution or effect is the focus is completely unclear. For that matter, even initiation could be argued for, though this seems as weak as the argument for initiation in the previous ethic.

Okay, let’s try one more time: “Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures.”

This is much clearer. It is clearly not talking about an intent of well-being, or even an initiation or execution of actions that hope to increase well-being. It is talking about the actual effects of moral actions, that the actual effects on well-being are what morality should concern itself with.

Do you see why these four parts are important to ethics? We have to be clear about what we actually mean with a given ethic, even if it’s simply a common understanding with our local faith group, or we risk schism-creating arguments.

But ethics isn’t all I want to deal with.

Personal Cosmics

Remember how I said that these are the four parts to every moral action? That goes for cosmics just as much as ethics. Before I give an example of how the four parts are relevant to cosmics, though, I want go first simply highlight the fact that cosmics actually do have all four of these parts.

Why is this important to realize? When we see cosmics as broken down into intent, initiation, execution, and effect, we suddenly understand more easily why humans often attribute human-like personality to the cosmos (see “What do you mean, a personal God?” for more discussion on this issue). Because cosmics are just as much a part of the moral system as ethics, people have traditionally thought of cosmics in the same terms as ethics; that is, in personal terms. Famines become the gods’ way of punishing unrighteousness, economic blessing becomes the return of good karma, and a promotion at work becomes the universe’s way of thanking you for being a positive thinker. Even though it can often lead to a scientifically inaccurate view of the world, this personification has perpetuated throughout human culture because it makes cosmics much easier to integrate and deal with on a day to day basis.

That said, it is sometimes useful to also break down cosmics into these four parts in order to more accurately understand them. For our example, let’s look at the doctrine of salvation (at least as discussed in Evangelicalism) once again, beginning with intent.

“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

- Apostle Paul, in his first letter to Timothy

Well, the intent of the cosmic of salvation seems pretty clear here: God intends to save everyone. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s anything in the Bible which disputes this verse. Next?

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

- Jesus Christ, the Gospel according to John

Now we have initiation. God had the intent of saving the world, and he began doing just that by sending his Son into the world. This is his way of initiating the cosmic of salvation. But what about execution? Did God really follow through?

“[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life–not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

- Apostle Paul, in his second letter to Timothy

From what I can tell, the New Testament speaks unanimously of the actual execution of God’s plan of salvation. According to the New Testament writers, not only did God send his Son, but his Son also died and rose again, ultimately completing the salvation plan, and I think again that all branches of Christianity are in agreement about this (though again, I could be wrong).

But here’s where it gets tricky: even granting that God intended, initiated, and executed salvation, what effect does it have? Is God’s plan fully effective, resulting in all people being saved? Or is it possible for humans to interrupt the plan of the Almighty and render his plan ineffective? Do you see why this might be a heated issue in Christianity?

I have no interest in attempting to answer major religious issues; it is up to the religions to address them. My purpose here is to simply provide a means for discussing morality in faith systems a bit more intelligently, and I hope that I’ve done so.

Effective Intentions

Morality is present in every faith system, whether it’s explicit or implicit, and these four parts are crucial to the clarity and understanding of any moral action.

My intention with this Thought has been to provide a tool for discussion, and I have initiated and executed that intention as best as I know how. Here’s to it being effective to that end.

Updated 7/4/11:

I had classified Sam Harris’ argument as an ethic in and of itself, but that’s wrong. All he does is actually set a standard for judging any moral system.


“Man, that guy has a great work ethic.”
“Really? Does it contribute to the well-being of conscious creatures?”
“Well, his boss likes using him, but he and his family are miserable because of his work.”
“Then his work ethic sucks.”

And for the record, I completely agree with this as a standard for moral systems.

C Luke Mula

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Google+

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