Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

The Eternal Moral Codes We Live By Except When We Don’t

Ethics are more context-dependent than we care to notice.

I haven’t written an article in a few weeks and the reasons are themselves good grounds for an article.

Truth is, I’ve been feeling like a hypocrite.  I write a lot about the trouble people cause by getting on their high horse quickly and dismounting slowly. Lately I’ve witnessed myself do just that, for example lurching toward high-horse “how dare you?!” responses to anyone who gets in my way, even just in traffic. 

That I do this is not exactly news to me.  I’d describe myself as, by temperament thin-skinned and even “reverse thin skinned,” meaning you can usually tell what’s going on with me. My heart shows right through my skin, the flush of irritation, the contorted eyebrows. And I’ve said getting and staying on our high horses comes naturally to all of us, me included. We are what you’d get when you cross emotion with the power of speech—creatures whose speech rationalizes their emotions.

Still, I thought I was making more progress than I seem to be.  I’ve dedicated myself to jerk-prevention and it turns out I still am one, at least in waves depending on my circumstances. 

Circumstances are more important than I tend to notice. When circumstances support me, delivering what I have come to hope for and expect from life, I’m stable in my groove, my equanimity easy to achieve. When life is going well, my groove’s sidewalls keep me rolling smoothly through my day and little bumps don’t throw me off much.  When circumstances are changing, my groove’s sidewalls become more porous with disorienting openings. A little bump can throw me off down some other path, or at least make me wonder whether I should I take this exit or that, whether I’m in a groove or a rut. In unstable times, my groove’s sidewalls shrink and my groove becomes too shallow to hold me stable. My heart leaps my groove’s walls too readily for my own good, little bumps shunting me into doubts about how I’m living overall. I’m no longer robust to perturbation.

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On a good day my groove is reliable enough that I can ignore it. I misattribute to my character the stability my groove provides. I perceive myself as inherently self-reliant and virtuous, a sterling lad progressing toward enlightenment.  But when circumstances change I discover that it’s not my core attributes so much as my circumstantial groove’s sidewalls that keep me aligned and on track.  I’m less a creature of temperament than of circumstances.

In times of feast I misperceive myself as inherently and universally generous, kind and ethical.  In famine, I both fudge and judge more, straining to reassert my groove, standing my ground and demanding that others supply what I want and miss from my former feast. Just like the jerks I write about.

In this I reflect general, even sweeping cultural trends.  In the sixties, we baby boomer children of the seemingly safe, forever-rising middle class declared eternal ethical commitment to love and generosity. In the new scarcity since the great recession, many have reneged on their eternal commitment to love as the answer and lurched toward a supposedly eternal commitment to libertarian self-preservation.

These are unstable times for many of us. I hear it in conversations with people hurting more than I have, their formerly stable, ethical answers reopened as questions, doubts, fudging, rationalizations and accusations. When the going gets tough, it’s tough to stay ethical.  It’s easy to be kind when there’s a lot to go around.  In scarcity our interlacing water currents don’t run in smooth grooving currents, becoming instead turbulent churnings as we cross each other, each in search of new stability.  We should pay more attention to groovenomics, the quest we’re all on to gain and maintain a smooth groove to roll our lives down.

We see our supposedly context-independent ethics become context-dependent in romance too. Though we tend to assume that relationships become unstable for all sorts of complex psychological reasons, increasingly I see instability more simply as a function of how much partners each need it to work, what they think they can get for how much effort.  If you sense that you’ve got game lot’s of potentially smooth grooves available to you, you don’t need the partnership enough to stick with it through thick and thin. You become more prone to ask, “can I make this partnership work?” than “how can I make it work?” Any partnership’s groove is less likely to hold you and you call it an absolute and universal virtue to hold partnership as loosely as you do, and think of those who don’t as “clingy.” Conversely if you need relationship to hold you more, you’ll come up with reasons why it’s an absolute universal virtue to want it as much as you do and you’ll disparage those who don’t as “unwilling to compromise” and “afraid of intimacy.”

One of the truest truths I know is that where we stand depends on where we sit, to which I’d add that where we sit changes over time, sometimes solid in our roller coaster seat, confident that through the ups and downs the wheels will hold the track’s grooves; sometimes less confident that the groove will hold, white-knuckle holding on for dear life through the rickety ride, not sure where you’re going. 

I am neither always a jerk, nor always a calm gentle observer of other jerks.  I am above all a creature of circumstances. 

This is an important thing for a philosopher to notice.  We philosophers are prone to a vocational hazard I’ve called “Ideolatry” the tendency to idolize ideologies as though they can create permanent shifts in consciousness.  It’s humbling to recognize that while they can, more often they are the symptoms of circumstances not the source of self-determination by which we overcome circumstances.

Recognizing how context-dependent our ideologies are makes getting and staying on our high horses harder to justify.  It’s not “There but for the grace of God go I” as if, thank God, I’m inherently not like those other people. Rather, it’s "There indeed go I when unstable circumstances take me there."

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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