Noble Fictions and Sacred Texts

Note: This is my contribution to the book What Do We Do about Inequality?, the first such book from an initiative called The Wicked Problems Collaborative. The book just marked one year since publication, and with the blessing of WPC publisher and editor Chris Oestereich I’m posting it here. It has been very lightly edited from the original.

It has been asserted that the relative morality of cultures and practices can be scientifically determined—“scientific” not in the sense of people in white coats doing lab experiments, but in the sense of being empirically perceivable. The idea is that we can compare one cultural practice or norm or moral tenet to others, observe how they affect human happiness, and make an objective judgment. This is a controversial way of thinking, notably advocated by Sam Harris in his concept of “The Moral Landcape,” and I largely agree with it. To be broad, I feel very secure in saying that a culture or morality that, say, makes a virtue of the subjugation, demonization, or abuse of entire classes of people is objectively worse than one that values all members of society and works to see them realize their individual potentials.

In order to say that a practice is morally better because of its impact on human happiness, we have to first decide that human happiness is something worth achieving. For if we choose not to grant that human happiness is an assumed goal of any moral code (in favor of, say, maximized production or complete subjugation of a given class or ethnic group), what we then determine is and isn’t “moral” changes drastically. There is no Cosmic Rulebook that states with utter authority that human happiness is something anyone, humans included, should give a damn about, so we have to choose it as our goal. We have to decide for ourselves that we will base our morality on what best allows for the flourishing of human happiness, and then behave as though it is an irrevocable law of existence. If we behave as though this is a malleable idea, that human happiness is only sort of important, then all choices that flow from this change entirely. Not only do we choose human happiness as our moral bedrock, but we also act as though it could be no other way even if we wanted it to be.

Let’s leave this aside for a moment.

I used to make my living (such as it was) as a Shakespearean actor. In the theatre world, there exists the concept of “the sacred text,” a kind of secular devotion to the words on the page over all else. If, as an actor, you want to make some kind of bold choice with your character, it cannot be out of the blue; there has to be support for it, an explanation of that behavior, in the script. If one is playing Willy Loman, and one feels compelled to perform him with an outlandish Australian accent, one had better see something within the words written by Arthur Miller in the text of Death of a Salesman that provides the basis for this.

The idea of the sacred text is given extra weight when referring to Shakespearean drama, partly because Shakespeare is widely considered to be the English language’s greatest writer (and so we assume that he probably knew what he was doing), but also because his works are, to us, so very old. They are now part of the very foundation of Western civilization. Go ahead and muck around with a Neil Simon comedy, even get crazy with your Bertolt Brecht (he is practically begging you to, anyway), but if you think Hamlet is entering from stage right on a hoverboard, you better find the line where he or someone else on stage says something synonymous to “But soft, what yonder hoverboard is this?”

Even if Shakespeare’s genius is taken as a given, adhering to his text and treating it as sacred is still a choice. But to take this to its extreme, to decide that the Word of William is infallible as far as the production of one of his plays goes, something has to be sacrificed. Usually, this is the audience’s attention. I suppose one could remain entirely faithful to the text of Comedy of Errors and probably wind up with a more-or-less satisfied audience. It is rather short and intellectually light for a Shakespearean play, so it doesn’t demand much of the audience’s brain power, and it also has a lot of dirty jokes that transcend time and space. On the other hand, as someone who has sat through full-text versions of plays like Henry IV and Hamlet, I can tell you that a production’s reverence for the text can go horribly awry, causing some of the most beautiful lines of English ever written to syphon off the audience’s will to live.

This gets us into what it means to treat a text as sacred. Certainly, we keep every written line intact, but must it then also be performed exactly as Shakespeare himself might have? Complete with the accent and pronunciations of sixteenth century England? The same clothes made from the same fabrics, fashioned without any industrial tools? Should the actors not bathe frequently? You see where this can go.

The idea of the sacred text is fine; it serves as an excellent guideline, a starting point for the choices that will have to be made in the mounting of a theatrical production. But if we choose to behave as though the text of a play is inerrant (and I say “behave as though” because we assume the play was written by a fallible human), the production can become shackled, rigid, and, essentially, bad art. If the goal is an entertaining, moving, and enlightening performance, choosing to treat the text as entirely sacred is a bad strategy. Instead, a production can remain faithful to the spirit of the play, cut lines where needed, add elements where they enhance the show, and make the best of it. But if the goal is to rigidly honor the words of a 400-years-dead man at all costs, those costs will likely include the joy of the art itself. By restricting the production to what it “must” be, we miss out on the all the possibilities of what it could be.

Laws are like this. As with plays, strict adherence to the precise wording of a given law (literally, “the letter of the law”) is a best-intentions means of making sure a law is applied equally to all parties, but the spirit of a law, the problem it seeks to solve, can be lost. And if they were not considered at least somewhat malleable, the Supreme Court would not have much to do. The same goes for musical notation, codes of ethics, and, yes, religious texts.

Let us now then look at an example that covers a lot of these aforementioned bases, as both a kind of code of ethics and religious text, at least for a civil religion:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

American society, as well as the broader Western world, gets a lot of mileage out of this couple of sentences. It is not a law, really, nor a code, but an expression of values—a “founding document” in the clearest sense. It is a declaration that a new nation has been established, one basing its very reason for being on its statement of purpose, that “all men are created equal,” with a particular set of rights that cannot be revoked even by said nation.

For this to work, though, for the “mission statement” of the United States to make sense, one has to accept that all men are, in fact, equal. But, of course, the very men who signed this document did not believe this to be the case. The man who wrote it certainly didn’t believe it, or, if he did, he was primed for a very awkward encounter with his slaves (who would be explicitly decreed a fraction of a person each), and an uncomfortable night at home, with the wife that he and his colleagues had forgotten to include in the franchise.

We’re off to a rough start with what is more or less the single most “sacred text” on the continent, excluding of course religious scriptures. It did not have full buy-in from its authors and signatories, and certainly was not applied in any broad sense. If we presume that the word “men” in “all men are created equal” was intended to mean “humans,” it was an utterly unfulfilled idea. And if it was meant in the narrow sense of males, the fact that only white, landowning men were allowed to vote still gives the lie to this assertion.

Not much of a sacred text then.

Interestingly, subsequent generations have broadened the meaning of “all men” to include more or less all human persons, at least in definition if not in practice. Despite enormous resistance, it seems to get broader all the time. And a lot of that progress has to do with the fact that so many of us today treat the opening words of the Declaration of Independence as a sacred text, in a way that its authors and signatories clearly did not.

But let us be coldly rational for a moment. Are all humans created equal? Of course we aren’t. We are unequal physically: not only do we come in a bewildering variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, but some of us are born with catastrophic conditions, and some with mind-boggling natural talents and innate geniuses. Beyond biology, we are born into different geographies, each with its own advantages and disadvantages to flourishing depending on any number of factors from availability of natural resources to whatever form of government manages the people within one’s borders. We are born with different tastes in food, sex, art, and activities. We are born into different stations in life, some into wealth and rank, others (most?) into abject poverty, and desperation. We each, individually, then take our collected circumstances, and make vastly different choices about how we will go about our lives. To assert flatly that we are created equal is so astoundingly and blatantly incorrect that it implies a fundamental problem of word comprehension on the part of the speaker.

Does this throw the entire human experiment in democracy, and well, humanism itself, into the toilet? Of course not: we still have some degree of agency here. And the founders, narrow as they were in their definitions, helped us out with this.

As a humanist myself (and a secular one at that), as much as I revere the broadened meaning ascribed to “all men are created equal,” the most meaningful words in all of America’s founding documents are actually its first:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

It is most decidedly not self-evident that all humans are created equal, for the reasons previously mentioned and an infinite number more. But the Declaration says that we will behave as though it is. It does not say, “Whereas it is self-evident that all men are created equal,” but “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” We have decided, on our own, using our fallible human brains, that we will act as though all men are created equal and form our government around this noble fiction.

I derive great inspiration and resolve from this. In the face of staggering inequality among the human population (where, in America alone, there were slaves and royalty, aristocrats and massacred indigenous people), these men said that their new nation would begin its very existence with those words, which amount to an admission that this founding idea of equality was entirely anthropogenic. God did not say we were all equal, and there was nothing embedded in our genes to tell us this by instinct. We just decided to think that way.

That part of the text is particularly sacred to me. It is both humble, in that it admits to being wholly invented, as well as grandiose, in that it means to act on this invention and use it to build an empire of the people.

This is all very well; we have announced our intentions as a people to treat each other equally, but, why? Because it seems nice? To what end? Evidence suggests that treating all human persons as though they were equal, even if they are not inherently, increases overall human happiness. Throughout the democratic world, where societies have rejected the official codification of castes, class distinction, and discrimination and disenfranchisement based on race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation, things have been better. Where everyone gets the same relative shot at an education, at employment opportunities, at business transactions and patronage, at social interaction, the society as a whole flourishes, leading to more opportunities and more happiness.

We are, of course, fallible humans, so we still manage to screw it up, but because this is science, we get to keep trying. It takes a long time to go from experiment to experiment, and the failed experiments can often be devastating, but we do learn. And through all the twists and turns civilization has taken in modern history, and the roller coaster ride on which democracies have taken their citizens because of varying interpretations of equality, it remains pretty obvious that those societies that act on the fiction of equality across the board contribute more to overall human happiness than those that do not. That means that even for self-serving narcissists, it makes more sense to back a system based on equality than inequality, if for no other reason than that because it tilts the odds for happiness in your favor.

Many plays begin with an acknowledgement that what the audience is about to see is fake. The opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V is not only an acknowledgement, but also an apology:

…But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…

This thing you are about to experience is a fiction, we are told, but we need you to buy into it. It won’t work otherwise. Excuse the fact that it’s obviously not true, and go with it, and we will all benefit. You’ll have a wonderful time at the theatre, and we actors will get paid. And when it’s over, we all know that it was just a show.

Knowing that these are our goals, to entertain a crowd and keep a troupe of performers employed, we can take the text given to us by the playwright and make the best of it, without treating it as immovable. We can remain true to the spirit of the play, but cut lines where necessary, make acting and staging choices that enhance the experience of the performance but may not be explicitly called for in the text. We can do all that because we know that our aim is not to robotically recite thousands of lines of verse, but to deliver an experience of art and entertainment. We need not treat the text as “sacred” in the theological sense, though we can revere it.

Ostensibly, the aim of government is to establish the parameters of societal behavior within which human happiness can be maximized. So we make rules and laws, and we establish systems and methods for carrying them out. If we follow each one to the letter, rigidly enforcing their literal meanings through all time and in all scenarios, we miss the chance to experiment and improve. If we follow the spirit of these laws and rules and systems, we offer ourselves more of a chance to make things better for everyone affected. If we were to treat “all men are created equal” as a sacred and inerrant expression of divine will, the majority of the American population would still be left out, and human happiness would be severely stultified, capped at the happiness of males, presuming we are at least not limiting this definition to white, property-holding males.

It is a remarkable thing, to see a theatrical performance in which the play itself acknowledges its own artifice. It is liberating for audience and actor alike to openly agree that we will all now consent to a fiction for the purpose of maximizing the happiness of the evening.

It is astounding that we could do the same when building a society. We can admit to ourselves that while our collective equality may be a fiction, yet we will hold it as a self-evident truth in order to maximize human happiness over the span of generations. The rest of the words in our play—in our constitutions, in our law books, in our manifestos, in our declarations and proclamations—are there to uphold the spirit of that idea, the idea of universal equality as a means to the general well-being. This suspension of disbelief is difficult, for some more than others, but once we all buy in, we can enjoy the hell out of the show.

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The Internet in Your Pocket, Before the Internet

Mark Hill, browsing for oddities in Amsterdam (what a life), discovers a most prescient artifact indeed: A portable transistor radio from the late 1960s named “Internet.”
Image by Mark Hill.

Hill writes:

[T]here’s even more connection with today’s internet age. The cream case, flat upright format, rounded corners, and ‘screen’-like black tuning display all recall Jonathan Ive’s now legendary design for the iPod. The Internet radio even has white earphones! … I was also very fond of the fact that it was complete with its instructions, warranty card, plastic protection pouch, earphone and box.

Amazing. If secreted away in a garment, this literally became “the Internet in your pocket.” An ur-Apple product if ever there was one.

Our Big, Crowded Moral Circle

As you might already know, as horrible as we humans are to each other, we used to be much, much worse. In the Boston Review, Claude S. Fischer takes a quick trip into the history, not of callousness, but of sympathy; primarily, why are we getting nicer to each other?

Before roughly the 1800s, sympathy was less common and more restricted in scope, overwhelmed as people were by practical needs and circumstances. Cruelty ran through everyday life—animal torture, bloody brawling, severe punishment of criminals, child abuse, whipping of servants, and so on. Such atrocities repel us today but were less dreadful and sometimes even amusing to people then.

Fischer spends some time on Western civilization’s eventual fetishization of misery (more on that in a bit), and gets to the meat of it:

Other explanations of sympathy’s greater reach point to economics. One version simply claims that growing wealth and security freed Westerners to focus on higher goals, including the pursuit of conscience.

Ermmm, I don’t think so. If you’ve read Robert Wright’s Nonzero or The Evolution of Godwhich I reviewed here — you might be inclined to think in terms of utility, where treating the “other” as fully human (or, an expanding moral circle as Wright calls it) turns out to be a pretty good developmental trait for a society. “Our society prospers, and the commoners are less likely to rise up and kill me, if we engage economically (and through economics, culturally) with other clans/tribes/states. Let’s get some glastnost on!”

Fischer goes there.

An alternate economic explanation may be more interesting. Some scholars, the historian Thomas Haskell perhaps most explicitly, argue that the widening circle of sympathy resulted from growing participation in commerce. Commerce, especially at a distance, introduces participants to strangers. Success at trade both requires and teaches people to see situations from others’ perspectives, to make and to keep promises, and, by experience, to have sympathy, even empathy, for the other. Buyers and sellers, however much they struggle against one another, come to know one another.

Fischer’s order here is a bit different, but I suppose there’s a little chicken-and-egg here. Fischer/Haskell has it as, “I want to trade with this alien person, and oh look, he’s not so bad once you get to know (and profit by) him!”

This doesn’t quite explain why we’d start feeling sympathy for slaves, for example, or children who supply labor, as they are both sustainers of a particular kind of economy. Perhaps it’s an inevitable and fortunate byproduct of losing xenophobia, that we look closer to home to see the human beings being mistreated right in front of us.

This is where the fetishization comes in. Fischer seems to be implying that a lot of what we think of as deep and natural sympathy today — the mourning for lost family members and acquaintances, the need for passionate love in a marriage, the desire to help those suffering on the other side of the planet (or in another species) — an expression of our “humanity,” really, is at least in large part the result of a kind of sentimentality porn in popular literature. Novels and the like that fired off our emotions taught us not just to feel, but got us a little bit addicted to grief and passion.

For example:

Nineteenth-century sentimentality focused a great deal on death. Middle-class Americans amplified grief by, for example, adopting elaborate mourners’ clothing and burying the deceased in forested cemeteries rather than churchyards. These romantic settings evoked stronger feelings and provoked experiences of the sublime.

If you think that, say, the national rending of garments every eleventh of September has gotten to be a bit much, you may be seeing this in action. Or, more locally, perhaps you simply don’t get so worked up at the death of acquaintances, distant relatives, or generally people you don’t know very well, as some others do. You may be a sociopath, or, perhaps, you just don’t go in for what I think is often, as Fischer calls it, the amplification of grief. It’s one thing to feel a loss, and another (and this is not a judgment on it) to broadcast it with an expectation that many others feel it as you do, and that it must last and last. (You can see why I think the hashtag #neverforget is one of the more easily mockable.)

And so maybe these two somewhat distinct phenomena feed into each other. We have learned to grieve more, to feel great pangs of sympathy and attachment to all manner of persons (and non-persons…I’m literally looking at you, iPad), pushing ourselves to the point of dependence on the emotional chemicals flooding our brains. This serves to make our moral circles, which are an economic advantage, expand ever faster. Once merely a practical trait that enabled freer trade and cultural exchange, our desire to amplify our feelings brought more kinds of people (and non-people) into those circles more quickly.

Forcing us all, then, to contend with the fact that we now all live in one big, crowded circle, and we all have a lot of strong feelings while we’re in there. Fischer’s prescription is to “cultivate” that sympathy, since it is so artificial to begin with. I’m okay with that. That’s why I like things like secular humanism and the idea that we hold certain truths to be self-evident. To me, that means even if the feelings of sympathy are manufactured, we will behave as though they are encoded into our very DNA. It’s good we can choose to do that. So let’s choose to do that.