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Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination 
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Post Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination
Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination



Sun Aug 15, 2010 11:02 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination
Lest we forget, Robert Wright does have a greater design in this book. Actually, he hasn't kept it a secret up to this chapter, but here he spells out what needs to happen if the moral circle is ever to widen to include everybody. Salvation, in the sense of social salvation, is the great concern of the ancient scriptures, individual salvation being secondary though today the only sense that people think about. Wright says that the prescription for salvation is embedded in the Abrahamic scriptures: "arrange things, wherever possible, so that people of different Abrahamic faiths find themselves in non-zero-sum relationships" (141).

But things are not so simple. Although Wright might have previously seemed to present the process of seeking win-win situations as automatically happening, here he says that people need first to be willing to see that situations are win-win, even though they may seem to be right in front of them. And then, they may need to be equipped with a special kind of sight, sight that allows them to see a truth deeper than the merely pragmatic one that governs enlightened self-interest.

Just because the world is characterized by a web of non-zero-sum economic arrangements--Wright gives the example of international car manufacture--doesn't mean that we will have an awareness of this and what it means. And then there is the trust factor that gets in the way of groups cooperating even when they recognize that their situation is non-zero-sum. But the biggest barrier according to Wright is that the human brain was "reared" in a hunter-gatherer environment, equipped to respond to situations typical to that environment, and typically now the picture is much different. We should be able to see that we're in the same boat as other people and respond accordingly, as we did when our only social experience was close association with others. Now our social experience typically consists of just as much superficial association and remote, non-personal association through media.

Media present us with images that work powerfully on our brains and can easily override rational thought. Our brain was built to respond to its sensory input, but in the days of its evolution this input was firsthand and not filtered. Now we see images of Muslims burning flags after 9/11 or protesting violently after publication of cartoons, and we respond to these images alone because we cannot be given an offsetting image of the great majority of Muslims not doing these things.

So antipathy to Muslims builds up, and people like Franklin Graham call Islam "a very evil and wicked religion." How does that work for us? By increasing the alienation of Muslims, for one thing. Another thing that giving vent to antipathy does is to close off a very important ability of ours, the ability to exercise moral imagination. "Antipathy can impede comprehension," Wright says (417), and if we really want to lessen hostility based in religion we need to be able to understand why another person feels and acts as he or she does. This doesn't amount to "pouring lots of sympathy" on violent protesters and terrorists. It amounts to a better strategy for preventing others from becoming violent.

Wright at this point fully explains his concept of moral imagination, the special kind of sight needed to take advantage of existing non-zero-sumness by putting ourselves in another person's place. And though we might not realize it, our situation vis-a-vis the "Muslim world" is non-zero-sum.

Enough for now, but the moral imagination is something worth returning to. I think it's in the category of a "super-rational" ability, including normal rational thinking but above and beyond it as well.


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Mon Oct 25, 2010 8:23 am
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Post Re: Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination
DWill wrote:

Media present us with images that work powerfully on our brains and can easily override rational thought. Our brain was built to respond to its sensory input, but in the days of its evolution this input was firsthand and not filtered. Now we see images of Muslims burning flags after 9/11 or protesting violently after publication of cartoons, and we respond to these images alone because we cannot be given an offsetting image of the great majority of Muslims not doing these things.


I'll have more later, but I thought this was a particular interesting point Wright makes. We are bombarded with negative images of Islam all the time. Like this one:

Image

This photo kind of cracks me up. Do these guys think a sign that says "Freedom can go to hell" is really going to catch on? And look at that guy on the lower right. Don't you just want to hang out with him?


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Mon Oct 25, 2010 2:37 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination
Good catch! The photo is effective, though, because I have to admit that I feel a sense of threat despite the cartoonishness of these guys. Wright says that using the moral imagination means doing the work, and he's correct. We need to train ourselves to override our built-in mode of response to images that trigger shut-down of of our capacity to see the interior of others' experience. We need not have sympathy for these Muslim men, but we need to be interested in how they came to this point, and we need to realize that they offer no basis for generalizing about Muslims.


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Last edited by DWill on Mon Oct 25, 2010 2:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination
Wright says that in introducing the term moral imagination he's not presenting a new idea. The moral imagination has been "one of the main drivers of the pattern we've seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one's religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum" (420). But that's the key point, as he has already said, when you perceive a relationship to be non-zero-sum. Earlier in the book, I had the impression that expanding these kinds of relationships was naturally what happens as cultural--especially technological--evolution goes on. Wright says "do business with," but when we speak of tensions between the West and Islam, we aren't going to remove them through trade; that's not going to involve enough people directly. What we're talking about is some greater a mutual effort at understanding each other, as fuzzy as that sounds. First, though, each side needs to know that the relationship is non-zero-sum, as Wright insists it is. What's good for the West will also be good for Muslims, and vice-versa. This may take a major selling job and it doesn't appear that it will happen just as a result of further cultural evolution. Perceiving a win-win situation after all is an act of some generosity toward the other side. You have to be well-disposed toward the others in order to want to see a mutual advantage. If there isn't an economic motive, which Wright has stressed, what can the motive be? You might in that case just want to make sure that all the advantages go to you, because the others don't deserve any, anyway. You might be happy with zero-sum, even if it would seem the odds are stacked against you. Radical Muslims have thought they could fight an asymmetrical war with the West and win despite having almost nothing in terms of resources, relatively speaking. And many Americans see no reason to "give into" Muslims by improving conditions for them.

So I'm thinking that getting this process of the moral imagination working will take a jump start. It doesn't seem to be working naturally, which Wright says is due to the failure of people on both sides to have a "closer encounter with moral truth" (429). Despite the remote worldwide contact we can have through media, media are instead impeding the process by flashing images that trigger our moral imagination to turn cold rather than warm up. This must be only part of the problem, though.

Wright says that religion, some manifestations of which can be largely blamed for the problem in the first place, partly redeems itself when it creates more lenient scriptures or highlights those that downplay the barrier of religion. The Abrahamic faiths will have to do much more of this than they've ever done, though, if social salvation is to be achieved. Wright goes into that more in the following chapter.


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Wed Oct 27, 2010 2:28 am
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Post Re: Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination
DWill wrote:
Salvation, in the sense of social salvation, is the great concern of the ancient scriptures, individual salvation being secondary though today the only sense that people think about. Wright says that the prescription for salvation is embedded in the Abrahamic scriptures: "arrange things, wherever possible, so that people of different Abrahamic faiths find themselves in non-zero-sum relationships" (141).
Individual salvation is a meaningless concept. Salvation is about saving the world. The whole concept of individualist belief is an evil modern corruption of the high spiritual tradition that said an individual must become selfless to be saved. The real question at hand is what we need to do to enable cultural evolution, grounded in global planetary ecology.

The Abrahamic faiths are spiritually dead. What we need for moral imagination today begins from reading myth through scientific eyes. For example, we can see that Abraham and Sarah are actually corrupted mythic renderings of the historical story 'out of Brahma and Sarasvati', based in the great migration of the Jews from India when the Sarasvati River changed its course in 1900 BC.



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Post Re: Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination
Robert Tulip wrote:
DWill wrote:
Salvation, in the sense of social salvation, is the great concern of the ancient scriptures, individual salvation being secondary though today the only sense that people think about. Wright says that the prescription for salvation is embedded in the Abrahamic scriptures: "arrange things, wherever possible, so that people of different Abrahamic faiths find themselves in non-zero-sum relationships" (141).
Individual salvation is a meaningless concept. Salvation is about saving the world. The whole concept of individualist belief is an evil modern corruption of the high spiritual tradition that said an individual must become selfless to be saved. The real question at hand is what we need to do to enable cultural evolution, grounded in global planetary ecology.

The Abrahamic faiths are spiritually dead. What we need for moral imagination today begins from reading myth through scientific eyes. For example, we can see that Abraham and Sarah are actually corrupted mythic renderings of the historical story 'out of Brahma and Sarasvati', based in the great migration of the Jews from India when the Sarasvati River changed its course in 1900 BC.

Thanks, Robert. It's Wright's notion that no alternative embodiment of moral truth will be enough to do the job of social salvation. The answer is not a different mythos. That would waste time getting people of other traditions to buy into it, not to mention that a "closer encounter" than this "with moral truth" is needed, moral truth being simply the recognition that the other is fully human and that nothing about our own beliefs is special or deserving of exclusive regard. We need to approximate the closeness of encounter that applied in the environment in which our species grew up.


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Wed Oct 27, 2010 7:34 am
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Post Re: Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination
Robert Tulip wrote:
Individual salvation is a meaningless concept. Salvation is about saving the world. The whole concept of individualist belief is an evil modern corruption of the high spiritual tradition that said an individual must become selfless to be saved. The real question at hand is what we need to do to enable cultural evolution, grounded in global planetary ecology.

The Abrahamic faiths are spiritually dead. What we need for moral imagination today begins from reading myth through scientific eyes. For example, we can see that Abraham and Sarah are actually corrupted mythic renderings of the historical story 'out of Brahma and Sarasvati', based in the great migration of the Jews from India when the Sarasvati River changed its course in 1900 BC.


Realistically, I doubt that most folks are going to be able to engage with such esoteric myth-readings. This might be meaningful to an intellectual such as yourself, but most people are too busy scratching out a meager existence to be concerned with such things. I suspect that the concept of personal salvation—in the sense of eternal life—as well as the notion that blind faith is a virtue, will remain irresistible in the religious meme pool for some time to come. You and I probably agree that science and reason alone aren't going to give most people a very meaningful context. But I seriously doubt that Wright's definition tweaks for "God" and "divinity" are going to find much of a niche either, and neither will this study of non-zero-sum relationships, as interesting as it is to us armchair philosophers. We're trying to bait and switch eternal salvation with non-zero-sum relationships and scientific interpretations of the Bible. I don't think it's going to fly.

To DWill: I've finished this book and I have to say Wright is really reaching in the final chapter. But I'll wait until you post your wonderful summary before posting my final comments.


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Post Re: Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination
Oh, one more thing.

Wright's term "moral imagination" seems to be just another way of saying empathy. Empathy is a remarkable thing. I was thinking of that old Sidney Poitier/Tony Curtis movie, The Defiant Ones about two chain-gang convicts who make their escape while still chained to one another. The two protagonists hate each other at first, but of course since they are thrust into one extreme non-zero-sum relationship, they eventually learn a great mutual respect and admiration for one another.

I just looked up the movie and the tagline is: "They couldn't like each other less. They couldn't need each other more."

If you think about it, this idea of moral imagination or empathy or whatever you want to call it, is very appealing to us and is depicted in fiction quite a bit. Any kind of sexual tension and every Jane Austen novel starts with an antagonism between the guy and the girl. The reader wants nothing more than for them to get together in the end, but we don't want it to be too easy. I would bet you could easily frame these kinds of relationships as non-zero-sum.


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Post Re: Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination
DWill wrote:
It's Wright's notion that no alternative embodiment of moral truth will be enough to do the job of social salvation. The answer is not a different mythos. That would waste time getting people of other traditions to buy into it, not to mention that a "closer encounter" than this "with moral truth" is needed, moral truth being simply the recognition that the other is fully human and that nothing about our own beliefs is special or deserving of exclusive regard. We need to approximate the closeness of encounter that applied in the environment in which our species grew up.

Without social salvation we are damned to extinction. The planet needs a new universal mythos that provides a compelling explanation of the place of humanity in nature. Such a persuasive story will enable us to leave behind the cultural and moral relativism of the belief that 'nothing about our own beliefs is special'. As we segue into discussion of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking, we can see that much about modern belief is special because it is true, while contrary ideas are wrong. Hawking is trying to describe a new mythos for science. His vision is not yet compelling because he fails to properly engage philosophy to place the human spirit within a cosmology that has a moral imagination.



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Post Re: Ch. 19 - The Moral Imagination
Although now you've taken a turn away from Wright's discussion of social salvation.


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