– You writing a letter to the editor there, Bog-Hubert?

– Huh? What makes you think so, Vodçek?

– Well, scribbling furiously in your notebook and crossing out half of what you wrote, as far as I can see from this inverted perspective, anyway: must be something with a word limit, like a letter to the editor. Am I right?

– Nah, sorry. I was just reading some article in Abbé Boulah’s NYRB latest issue , about evolution of ethics and morality, a review of some fat book. And I don’t think that any comment about it other than ‘BS’ with an exclamation mark or two can be kept short enough for a letter to the editor.

– Good grief — and this in my lowly tavern? What makes you spend any more time on that profound conundrum, then?

– Well, … wait, why do you say ‘conundrum’?

– Hmm… can’t really tell you — it was just the first word matching the profundity of the topic that came to my mind.

– So you think it’s profound, huh? I tend to agree, but why make it so complicated? And why do serious, educated people throw it in with evolution and theories like that?

– To come up with some explanation or basis for ethical and moral rules that is somehow scientific, not just arbitrary?

– I got stuck on the arbitrary part too. Brings up the question of how’s doing the arbitrating, for one?

– It isn’t just arbitrary, though. Just looking no further, for a first step, than some society that has to deal with how its members act. Some behavior they don’t like, say, because it hurts another member of that society: what to do about it? So they make a rule: we don’t do things that hurt each other.

– And if somebody does such things?

– Good question. You want me to say something simple and stupid like ‘an eye for an eye’, etc. We do the same thing to the rule-breaker? Doesn’t always work right.

– Why not?

– Let’s see. For example: if you steal somebody’s savings, well, you have to give them back, if you didn’t already spend it all, well, let’s not investigate, you’ll have to give it back, if you don’t have any savings — which is why you did the deed in the first place, there’s no ‘eye for an eye’. And if you kill my child, by accident or intent: if you don’t have kids, there’s no ‘eye for that eye’ either, and if you did have a child, it sure wouldn’t be the right thing to do for that kid. So there’s got to be some better way.

– Yeah, well: there are laws that specify what substitutes for those eyes, right? And that’s what I was wondering: what’s the essential difference between laws and morals?

– Ah: better question. So let’s look at laws, first. A community, or society, decides what kind of acts and behavior it doesn’t like and wants to keep its members from doing.

– What about things people like to have the community members do?

– Another good question! Because that gives us a first possible way of dealing with your question of what to do — for either kinds of things and behavior. For we can say: as a community, we provide some good things for all our fellow members regardless of what they do or don’t do — that why we are a community, in the first place — and we can offer some good things in reward for doing things we like. Incentives. Now the first rule we can make about doing ‘bad’ things — that we don’t like: we can threaten to take away some of the good things — the incentives first, and then some of the essentials, for really bad stuff. Like freedom: if you do some things that really hurt people or their savings or kids and such, we put you in a place where you can’t do that, which means that you can’t go to do things you like to do either, even if they don’t hurt anybody.

– So laws are trying to prevent people from doing bad things. If you do them anyway, we’ll do this, that etc. to you. Threats of punishment and follow-through if the threats don’t work. Well: that should do it, shouldn’t it?

– What do you mean, do it?

– Let’s assume for the moment that we can make laws that cover all the good things we like people to do, and all the bad things we don’t want them to do — everything! — why would we need any ethics and morals? Case closed. Sure, there are details to be worked out: what are those do’s and don’t’s, and what kinds of incentives and punishments should be provided — that will need some serious discussion.

– Yes, and don’t forget the problem of finding out what people did. If there’s evolution in this, it’s mainly in the evolution of the gadgets we can give law enforcement to go after the ‘bad’ guys. But hey, that’s just the point: there are some things that are hard or impossible to find out, and some where it’s hard to tell who is right: the person who says ‘the other guy did something bad to me’, or the other guy who says ‘that guy just want to hurt me by saying I did those bad things: he’s really the bad one!’ And on the ‘good’ side do we really want to do good things for the incentives and rewards — that’s not really being good, is it?

– I see what you’re getting at. You’re saying that there are some things we should do or don’t do, just for the sake of their goodness, and our own wanting to be good, in one way or other. And it’s for those societies need moral ‘rules’ — that society itself doesn’t or can’t react to with rewards or punishment but just admiration or disrespect, disapproval?

– Yes, except that even admiration and disapproval can be powerful incentives or deterrents. But you were jumping ahead a step or two there, weren’t you? There are some acts or behaviors that are good or bad, but if we don’t find out, we may treat a person as an upstanding moral one even if they are secretly evil and rotten: if we want to say something about those…

– Ah. I see. You’ll have to invent a higher power — one who will know your secret noble or evil thoughts and deeds and will reward or punish you in the hereafter. And that’s the moral system.

– Yes. Or it’s internal: called your own conscience. That’s knowing how bad you really are, that will punish you with guilty sleepless nights and poor digestion…

– Let’s not go there. It could drive a fellow to drink.

– You put the finger right on the sore spot, my friend. And I’m here to help you with that…

– What a guy. Ok. One glass of Zin. The gloriously evolved one from Sonoma County. Just one, eh?

– Good choice. The Fog Island Tavern Reward for good thinking and conversation. Cheers.



  1. 1 abbeboulah December 9, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    Next morning in the Tavern

    – Good morning, Vodçek. Ah, I smell coffee. Beautiful. So what’s going on?

    – Hi Bog-Hubert, good morning. You just missed Abbé Boulah, he was going out to the rig. I told him about our ruminations from last night.

    – So what did he have to say about that?

    – I got the impression that he wasn’t overly impressed, though he praised our efforts towards moral improvement, as he called it. He thought there were several important parts missing.

    – I’m not surprised; I was thinking about it later and had the same impression. For one, don’t you think we should have explored the other end of the story some more — the thought experiment about laws covering everything so there’d be no need for morals anymore?

    – What do you mean, the other end? No laws, no morals? Total free-for-all? Count me out.

    – Well, we came to the conclusion that there’s no way the laws can cover the whole range of things we should or shouldn’t do, didn’t we? So it’s more like a spectrum, a range of possibilities. But I think the starting point of looking at the extreme end gave us some interesting insights, don’t you agree? So why didn’t we take a look at the other end of the scale more closely, too? The question of what would happen if there was a way to get humanity to adopt moral principles that would more effectively cover everything, so there wouldn’t be a need for any laws anymore?

    – Hmm. Coming to think about it, isn’t that what the entire project of morality is all about? Yes, perhaps we should have looked at the ways that could be achieved, that philosophers and gurus and spiritual leaders have explored over time.

    – Right. The different prescriptions that make a kind field of of triangle or square of approaches: Here’s education, taking the form of teaching everybody the rules about how to behave in all of life’s situations. There’s philosophy with the basic principles that we can use to examine every new situation and deductively find the the right thing to do; there’s the religion approach that says there’s some entity, divinity, that will judge everything we do in the hereafter, and make up stories about the wonderful rewards for being good, and the terrible punishments for being bad that await us. And there are the gurus and the Beatles song that say ‘all you need is love’; well, nowadays they use words like ‘awareness’ or even swarm or ‘crowd wisdom’ — simple rules that will automatically get everything moving in the right direction.

    – That’s the kind of thinking that makes for all the fat books about the issue.I don’t think we’d ever get through that, Bog-Hubert. Not here. It’s just not that easy, when it comes to the details. Well, I agree we get some nice songs, out of it. But that was not Abbé Boulah’s main concern.

    – Oh? I think I know where this is heading. The difference that makes a difference: design?

    – You know him well enough. Yes.

    – Well, we have circled around that issue many times, not directly, but in different conversations. But tell me, what was his point, did it align with any of the positions we sketched out?

    – He was more adamant about the design aspect being left out of all of them. He thought that while some people might be happy enough trying to be good at living up to the rules, within the rules of whatever rule system they find themselves in. But at some point, they might get tired of that, and others would even chafe at the very idea of living within rules others have made up. They want to be or become good at their own rules — rules that haven’t been put down in fat books yet. They want to make a difference; stand out from the tradition. So they design their own set of rules or ways of being to become good at.

    – Yes, that’s the Abbe Boulah we know. Coming to think about it, that opens up a different perspective on the evolution question we sort of dismissed yesterday, does it?

    – How so? You were just calling that BS or some unspeakable term last night.

    – Did I? Well, a person can learn and change his mind, can’t he? Looking at this idea of making a difference, I think it’s obvious — but in a different way than the usual forms of evolution people talk about: on a genetic, biological basis. Suppose I come up with a new way of being good, of making a difference, and it takes hold, maybe even gets some other folks to do it that way. But then after a while, it just becomes one of the old rules, doesn’t it? The rules the kids find they are supposed to live up to, but some of them don’t like because they aren’t theirs? And find that they need to come up with a different one?

    – I see: Over time, this automatically generates a new set of rules just because they need to be different, and ‘evolves’ into a different constellation of ideas about morality. But it may not necessarily be ‘better’ — not the ‘progress’ the deep thinkers are trying to discover in that process? Is that what you are calling evolution?

    – I need to think about that some more.

    – Well, by all means, do. Meanwhile: he mentioned another interesting point that I think explains a lot of what’s going on. It was the idea that some people apply that ‘difference’ idea to the realm of ‘bad’ things they choose to become good at.

    – Why’d they do that?

    – Yes: why do some people choose to become master criminals? There could be several reasons, but I can think of one: If the general circumstances, accepted rules and available resources and opportunities in a society make it too difficult to ‘make your own difference’ towards the ‘good’ end of things, is it so hard to understand why some folks may feel ‘oppressed’ by the burden of prevailing rules for being good, even to survive, and see more tempting opportunities in finding new ways of being ‘bad’. Not only interesting but also profitable opportunities?

    – Interesting. Yes, that could explain a lot. Even the perverse tendencies to turn things upside-down: to explain bad things as necessary for some other good: ‘greed is good’ as the engine of economic progress being just one; the politicians who advocate cruelty in the form of torture to fight against terrorism, the destruction of small scale mom-and-pop-stores in the name of economic efficiency, and so on. The implication of condemning all the ‘losing’ teams in sports to the fate of losers, in the name of pursuit of winning and ‘excellence’ in the one winning superbowl team.

    – So what’s the lesson in all that? Is there something in those insights that can guide the development of design of societies and governance systems?

    – I think there is.

    – Care to explain this unexpected expression of hope?

    – Don’t know if it justifies much hope, realistically. But doesn’t it suggest a principle, even a measure of performance for governance, that could change things a little? For example, instead of pursuing questionable goals such as increasing GDP — gross domestic product — with economic tools that prove destructive for many ‘losing’ participants in the game, why not adopt the goal of creating many more interesting opportunities for becoming good at new ways? So: generate more opportunities — even though they can’t be described yet, since they haven’t been invented?

    – Huh. That makes it kind of difficult, wouldn’t you say?

    – Who said governance should be easy? I guess what you are looking for is some overarching principle, a polestar to aim for? Well, how about this: Whatever you come up with to be good at that nobody ever dreamed of before, it should not violate any of the old rules that most people still live by, to not hurt anybody, etc. We still need the common rules of the road: which side of the road to drive on, to get to our different destinations. The destinations can be new, inspiring, ‘amazing’. But besides being ‘good’ in some new way, it should also be … beautiful. It’s easy to tear down, to ‘overthrow’ the old system. It’s creating something better and more beautiful that’s the challenge, would you agree? And society, government, common morals, should aim at helping us, everybody, to get better at that. Sure, it starts with survival, getting fed. But herds of sheep are getting fed, and I don’t think we should blame anybody for wanting to be more than just being one in a a herd of cattle.

    – Your words into the governor’s ear, my friend. If he knows about beautiful, that is, not just about powerful?

    – You’re making me depressed again.

    – Would a steaming cup of coffee and a fresh baked croissant help your deplorable condition?

    – For starters: Beautiful idea.


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