Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dec.14: thinking out loud: no. 2

So  how and why do people organize societies in the first place?

Well, we know that primitive hunters formed societies in order to cooperate for more effective hunting. There a direct line from their development of team strategies and tactics to hunt and their use of weapons to do their work that goes through the armies of Alexander the Great and all the way to modern armies. Working together to kill people, after all, is pretty much the same as working together to hunt game.

Then came agriculture. That, too, created societies to, for example, build water ditches for irrigation, to share labour at peak work times and, very important, for mutual defence against the hunter-warriors who swept down to raid them at harvest time.

Unlike the hunters, who had to follow game, the farmers had to stay put - where the crops were. They also had to form compact villages for mutual defence against the hunters.

But usually they couldn't match the killing skills of the  hunters, so farm villages would hire some of the hunters to protect them. This was the theme of a Japanese film called 'Seven Samurai'.  It was copied as a Hollywood western starring Yul Brynner in which seven gunmen were hired to protect a Mexican village.

Both films rather romanticized the hired killers. In real life, as villages grew and as they linked up to each other for trade, the hired warriors/hunters would use their brute force to become kings and aristocrats.

But to sustain that organized societies, there had to be rules. The example of that development that most of us are familiar with is the story of Moses.

(No. I'm not going to get religious on you. I  have no idea whether the story of Moses is true. I don't care. Even if there were no Moses, stories like it are found in other religions. If it's not a true story, it's at least a good example of what seems to have happened in many parts of the world.)

In The Bible, Moses finds himself  with a large number of people following him into the wilderness for who could know how many years of nomadic life. They were really nothing more than a mob. To survive, they needed rules and authority. In the story of Moses, those two necessities are combined.

Moses comes down from the mountain with the rules. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Most of them are eminently sensible rules. I think we can agree tht any society that accepted killing or stealing as acceptable behaviour wouldn't last long. But how was Moses going to get people to accept those rules?

Well, maybe Moses did talk to God. Or maybe he pulled a fast one. But his opening line laid down the authority, "I am the Lord they God".

That combination of rule and authority was practical. Indeed, it was essential for just about every society in the world. It was usually expressed in religion - Hinduism, Islam, Confucionism, Judaism, Christianty, Islam.We made those practical rules into what we call morality.

We should not allow that religious tone to obscure their essential value. They are practical rules. They work. However silly the various religions got in inventing trivial and sometimes bone-headed little rules all their own, the fundamental morality of any major religion is much the same. That's not because God says so. It's because that fundamental morality preached by Moses works. It holds a society together.

We have since tried all sorts of authority, from dictatorship to democracy. But the purpose and durability of a society is still determined by its morality. That doesn't mean that people have to be religious. But they do have to respect morality. Otherwise, the game doesn't work.

Do we have a moral society? Is it moral to believe that competition is a rule of morality?  The rule of our society is often that to amass a fortune  by exploiting others is good, to think only of yourself and your wants is desirable. Does that strike you as a sound piece of morality? Does it strike you as a practical way to hold a society together?

The latest US census shows that 48% of americans are living in poverty, and the their number is growing. How long do you think a society like that can survive? Meanwhile, the very rich are able to ensure that their money is safe from the taxman. As the society continues to move in that direction, we are seeing rising levels of violence by the authorities. Indeed, congress is now voting to allow the army to arrest American citizens on American soil, to detain them indefinitely with no charge, no lawyer, no nothing. How long can a society with that moral standard survive?

We need to forget isms for the time. We need to start with our sense of morals, our sense of what is practical in ensuring a lasting society. Let's nail that down first. Then we can talk about authority.

Then, once those are straight in our minds, let's look at what we really have, and what we have to change.

The starting point is morality - not because morality is good but because it's practical. It works. Immorality doesn't work.

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