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Beyond Shame

Preface: Oops, this is probably the longest blog post I've ever written. If you are not interested in abstract philosophical stuff, nor in vague spiritual stuff, feel free to skip this one. I'd guess after this I'll again be back to more mundane stuff of my daily life =) Also, the way I feel, this post kind of sums up a lot of things I've already said elsewhere, puts together bits and pieces from here and there. So it might also be that this long post actually has nothing new to you, if you have been following my blog for a longer time. Well, then, the post itself consists of three parts. First there is a short intro in a form of a diary entry. Then, a philosophical part 1 deals with some of the problems I see with a lot of (Western) moral philosophy. I'm afraid that part might be somewhat controversial, so, as usual, feel free to comment in case you feel a need to do so. I'm not the kind of a person who would feel offended if my blog readers disagree with my philosophical mumblings (and, most likely, it might well be that I've just expressed my thoughts in an obscure manner, in which case a discussion in the comment thread is a good way to try to make sense of what I tried to say.) Lastly, the part 2 combines philosophy and spirituality. If you are more interested in inspirational mystical stuff, I'd guess you can safely skip part 1 and only read the intro and part 2.

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I visited Helsinki to attend a birthday party of a friend. We were about 25 people gathered at the party, and one of the guests was singer Kielo Kärkkäinen. Kielo's birthday present was a living-room concert; she played guitar and sang her songs. I don't know but somehow I feel this is one ultimate form of a concert; a bunch of friends sitting in a circle, the space small enough so that an acoustic performance fully fills the space and you can immerse into every finest nuance of singer's voice.

Oh well. All in all, my visit at Helsinki was refreshing and uplifting in so many ways. All the friends I met, all the discussions we had, all the thoughts and feelings we shared. But instead of going into details I'll focus on one more general theme, which (either directly or indirectly) also was a theme of many discussions with my friends. Also, in my previous post I mentioned reading Salman Rushdie's book Shame. I think I also mentioned the library bus which used to stop near the house where I grew up, in the countryside near a small village in Eastern Finland. Once, when I was about 14 - 15 years or so, I borrowed a book on moral philosophy from the library bus. Reading the book, I was somehow disappointed; it seemed like the entire history of Western Moral Philosophy was all about theories on how to determine what is right and what is wrong - to determine what one ought to do, and what one shouldn't do. To me it felt obvious that the main question lies elsewhere; I grew up in a family where we all knew perfectly well what is right and what is wrong, yet we fought all the time. My parents did their best to raise us kids to follow a set of moral rules - and they themselves broke those very same rules on a daily basis. Already at age or four I started to question if their idea of morality does what it was supposed to do, or if an another model is needed. And, as you might very well guess, to me it seemed that the standard model of morals was based on categories of honour / shame, guilt, blame and punishment. The age-old standard model could be described as 'do a bad thing and you deserve to be punished - the punishments vary from public shaming to execution, depending on the severity of your your moral violations'. As a rebellious teenager I was disappointed to see that the brightest minds of Western Philosophy didn't seem to question that standard model in itself - they took the model for granted and only debated how to best justify a set of moral rules. Well, personally I think the entire model is outdated and counter-productive; it contributes towards re-creating the very problems it is supposed to solve. But is it possible to drop the entire category of shame? Is there any dignity beyond honour / shame ? Well, but let's start with the basics.

1. A problem with the standard model

First, let me elaborate this hunch that there is a problem with the so called standard model of morals. As far as I can remember, I've been observing and examining those problems, so the examples and aspects are numerous - I could probably write an entire series of books, just describing the different ways these problems manifest themselves. (Such books probably already exists. For those familiar with the Western tradition of academical philosophy, I'd suggest 'Moral Tribes' by Joshua Greene. I agree with most of his analysis, I don't fully agree with his conclusions, but I think the book is mostly on-point, and is very well written). Well, but to get this blog post written, I try to pick a few points in no particular order.

1.1. Do punishments really work?

The common sense says, self-evidently, that if someone does a bad thing there has to be consequences. That if others just ignore the moral violation, then the bad behaviour will be allowed and encouraged. So there has to be a punishment, a way of saying 'NO! ENOUGH IS ENOUGH, YOU CAN'T DO THAT!'. Sure, in some cases it works - stern negative feedback sets a bully back on the good path. But in case that doesn't happen, then what do we do? If a minor punishment didn't work, we imply a more severe one, right? I remember recently reading a random facebook comment chain - it was about Indonesia updating their laws to allow the death penalty to punish pedophiles. Most of the comments were positive - apparently, many people have a gut feeling that severe crimes need to be countered with severe punishments. The news also said that in Indonesia the old law allowed 15 years prison sentence for pedophiles - and someone in the comment thread wondered that why and how could anyone be so stupid that they commit actions which will earn them 15 years in prison. But, I'd guess that the so-called standard model is not interested in the why part of the question. The age old gut reaction says that moral violations need to be punished, and people get frustrated if their ancient moral needs aren't fulfilled. There is a need to punish, yes. And, I know, already if I start to talk about questioning the usefulness of severe punishments, the standard knee-jerk reaction is to get offended - to question the punishments appears as if my intention was to belittle the severity of the crime, and in case of pedophilia that won't do. So the standard gut reaction goes on to extend the moral outrage at me as well, for I deserve to be shamed in public because of my horrible ideas. So, before anyone feels a need to launch a moral crusade against me, let me set this one straight: without a slightest doubt my clear and unwavering belief is that pedophilia is no good, it is not to be accepted, not to be belittled. And, exactly because of that, for me the main question is: What would be the most effective way to stop pedophilia from happening? Strong feeling, gut reactions and age-old traditions they might all be so good, but it might also be that sometimes we need to look for new and better and more effective solutions. If a certain model worked for millenniums when we were semi-nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers, that doesn't automatically mean that the same models won't need any updating ever.

Yes, I know, so far my reasoning isn't that convincing. I've only elaborated my question, and failing to illustrate why or when do punishments fail to do what they are supposed to do. And, just for the sake of clarity, let me remind that I think that (public) shaming is the standard form of punishment. In a way, one could say that the entire concept of punishment is based on honour and shame - everyone has a reputation among the tribe, and to be humiliated can feel so deeply hurting that some people prefer to commit a suicide to avoid feeling the shame and guilt. I mean, shame is no way a minor punishment - it can be a capital one.

Well, the way I see it, the central problem with moral punishment can be formalized like this: "You have been found guilty of doing a bad thing X. Therefore we, the others, punish you by doing a bad thing Y to you." Sounds self-evident? For a punishment to have any effect it sure has to be an unpleasant thing, a bad thing? Doing a thing Y would otherwise be a crime, but when it happens as a moral punishment for another crime, then it is not only okay, but righteous - it is the moral duty of the others to do a bad thing to the one who initially violated moral rules. So, the standard model simply assumes that if you don't want to be treated bad by the others, then do not violate the shared moral rules. A plain simple idea which, apparently, has worked well enough for generations and generations. Some whiners might be unhappy about being publicly shamed by the others, but such people only need to learn a lesson, yes? Just like if you don't like the idea of gravity pulling you down, your whining is not going to change the laws of physics - and if you don't like being publicly shamed and punished for your moral violations, then your not liking the idea is not going to change the age old social rules deeply engraved in the fabric of any human society, yes? Oh well. I don't fully agree =)

So, in case you aren't already offended and full of moral outrage, let's continue this line of thinking. For, to me it seems that rather many crimes are committed exactly because people do apply the model "You have been found guilty of doing a bad thing X. Therefore we, the others, punish you by doing a bad thing Y to you.". Some years ago there was a short news report; it was about a man who travelled to a city, and walking down the city street he seemingly randomly assaulted several unknown people, punching them in the face. In the court he explained 'When I'm threatened I feel a need to defend myself. And if someone stares at me for a few seconds I feel myself threatened'. From his point of view his actions were perfectly logical and justified - he was unfairly threatened by a person A (person A did a bad thing X, where X is "without provocation to threaten someone with physical violence"), so therefore he needed to respond by punishing A (by doing Y, which is to punch.) Seen from outside this makes very little sense - he targeted innocent strangers who didn't provocate violence, yet he punched them in the face. So he was found guilty of the very crime he himself believed he was punishing the other people for committing that crime. What I mean is that to figure out what is a crime and what is a justified punishment, that becomes a question of perspective.

1.2. The problem of assumed moral superiority

On concluding my last paragraph I used the word 'perspective'. Now, I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone takes that as a warning flag suggesting that I condemn good old traditional morality, advocating the post-modern moral relativism where everything is just a matter of perspective. If something like that (with the naturally accompanied moral fury) took place in your mind, dear reader, as a pre-emptive means I suggest you to breathe deep, to have a break and to calm down. Then, if and only if you feel like it, continue reading on. (For, when the human mind is in agitated state, ones normal cognitive functions are blurred, and it becomes harder to spot that what the text actually says is not quite what one assumed it to say. A lot of moral fights take place due to this phenomenon only. People misinterpreting the messages of each other, and then furiously attacking their own misinterpretations, throwing in personal insults until both are outraged, and any possibility of intellectual discussion has died a long ago. In my eyes this is one of the innate problems with what I call the standard model of morals. But in this post I won't examine that phenomenon in more detail, so let's go pursue another paths of thought.)

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A fictional example; We have a street gang of unemployed young men. They spend their nights wandering the streets of their suburb, guarding their territory against rival gangs. One night the boss of the gang says: "We are running low on beer and burgers. Let's go raid a kiosk. But we are a honourable gang, we won't raid kiosks in our own territory, so we will cross the bridge and raid a kiosk on the other side of the railway." The newest member of the gang asks: "How is raiding a kiosk less of a crime if it happens on the other side of the railway? The cops will jail us anyway if we are caught!". Everyone laughs at him, and then the boss explains: "We won't get caught. See, the city is divided into territories of rival gangs. On the other side of railway it is Moco's territory, we sneak there, raid a kiosk and disappear before they spot us. And what comes to the cops, they are just another arrogant gang who believe the entire city is their territory. We have our street code of honour, and we play by that. At our territory we are the law. If you want to be in our gang, you do what I say. And if you don't, we will beat you black and blue!" There is no arguing against that line of reasoning, so the posse moves on to raid a kiosk. They are skilled, they are good at what they do, so they get their loot without being spotted. As they are moving towards their own territory, our newcomer spots members of the rival gang in the distance. Since he is not happy about his boss bullying him, he decides to switch sides. He quickly runs a few steps away from his fellows and then shouts 'Hey Mocos! Come quick, here is a bunch of those filthy Docos who have just raided your favourite kiosk!'. Alarmed, the posse of Mocos start running towards our gang of Docos. The Doco boss signals his gang to disperse and flee with the loot, but before fleeing himself he leaps to the newcomer and gives him a hell of a punch in the nose, in the chin, in the neck, and - but blinded by his rage, he failed to notice a police patrol approaching the scene. He is caught by the cops, found guilty and jailed for assault and battery. Four years in jail will sure teach a petty thug a lesson!

So our gang leader enters the jail, and after a few years he has familiarized himself with how the jail world works. One day, after exercising at the jail gym, he notices that some of his fellow inmates had stolen his spare T-shirt. He says nothing, but keeps his eyes open. The following day at the gym he is approached by Jub. He says: "Psst, guy, wanna buy a T-shirt? I can trade one for a few cigarettes!". Asking a few questions our guy learns that Jub got the T-shirt for Hib, who had traded it for one cigarette. Later on at the lunch our guy takes a seat next to Hib, and with a calm innocent voice asks a few more questions about where did Hib get that T-shirt from. Hib is fooled by the soft tone of the voice, and he goes on bragging how he sneaked into the gym locker room and stole the shirt, for he is the king of the thieves, the master of them all! Without further explanations our guy hits Hib with a fork, punches his nose and starts to strangle him, hissing "Don't you steal any of my stuff or I will kill you!". At that point our guy gets wrestled down by the jail guards.

Our hero is bitter and sour, but he knows that a revenge against the guards won't do he any good. But then he comes up with a master plan. His opportunity comes after a few days, when they are being transferred to the fenced yard to have their half-an-hour of walk in the fresh air. They walk in a line, and next to our hero there is Hib, and Hib walks behind a guard. When no guard is looking at his direction, our hero kicks Hib's legs and strongly pushes Hib at shoulders, making him fall and stumble on the guard. As he falls forward, Hib instinctively throws his hands in front of him, accidentally groping the guard at intimate parts, and grasping his gun holster in a desperate attempt to not hit the floor face first. The guards need no explanations for such an insult. In a matter of seconds they beat Hib black and blue. That should learn him a lesson, so that he will remember to respect the guards!

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Interwoven in this fictional story there are the theme of (moral) superiority - those who are in superior position (think that they) can write the rules and determine the punishments for breaking the said rules. Most of the time the hierarchy is clear; a gang boss is superior to a newcomer. The police think that they are superior (for they represent the lawfully organized society). In our fictional jail world it is the fit and the smart who are superior to the dumb and weak. Most of the time the guards are superior for they have more resources to inflict organized systematic violence over the convicts. And, most of the time, each person judging the situation sees ones own actions as justified and right, even heroic - although the very same act can be seen as a crime by others. So, the newcomer commits a crime of betrayal and gets righteously punished by a few good punches. But the cops see the punches as a crime, so the gang boss gets punished by sending him into a place where he will get beaten black and blue is he is to violate the norms set by superiors.

The fictional story would probably be more intuitive if I had only used neutral terms, like a network of rival gangs each punishing their own member or members of rival gangs for violating the gang rules. Supposing that no reader would identify with any of the fictional gangs, it would be easier to see how often it actually just is the case of person X doing a bad thing Y, just because he thinks that in that context it is justified to do Y. But then the others disagree and punish X for doing Y. What I try to say is that person X is not punished for violating a moral rule. Person X is punished for following a moral rule - only that (s)he judges and evaluates the situation differently.

Obviously, then, wouldn't the remedy be to quit seeing things differently, and to return to the good old common sense where everyone has a shared understanding of the self-evident reality of daily things? Wouldn't it?

1.3. The problem with the others

In many of my earlier posts I've tried to illustrate the numerous ways how we are inclined to see things differently. Probably most of us have a feeling that the way each one sees the things is the unbiased good old non-ideological true way of seeing things, and people who see things differently are just brainwashed by this or that corrupt ideology. That, again, I think, is a standard form of 'my-side bias'; they way our mind is equipped to work, out-of-the-box. I'd guess it takes some practice and training to learn to see beyond ones own biases. Oh well, but enough of that, let's try to keep this simple;

As I've hinted before, I guess that the standard model of morals indeed would work in a small, rather closed community where everyone knows all the other members of the community, where all share common values and ideas, and where it is possible to adequately to know what has truly happened. Our fictional street gang is a perfect example; they know who they are, they know their territory, and when they move together they also know what each member of the gang has done. There is no question if the newcomer is guilty of betrayal or not - everyone saw and heard what he did, so he is guilty, plain and square. No need for a lengthy boring legal inquiry ran by some distant central government - the moral violation can be clearly identified, and justice can be instantly distributed on the scene. Although, it is also obvious that this model sometimes fails - when our convicted gang boss makes Hib fall onto a guard, the situation instantly appears as if Hib was guilty. Since no-one saw what was done to Hib, his futile attempts to explain would most likely be in vain - the good old standard model says that when a plain violation of moral rules is clearly identified, the culprit is to be instantly punished with no questions asked (and that is made easier by the tempered feelings of righteous anger - you've been insulted by having your private parts groped, you feel justified to hit back, and only a coward would stop to ask questions.) Well, I'd guess that any philosopher consciously advocating for the so-called standard model of morals would say that it is only rare cases when the model fails, and for the most of the time it works so it is all good. This is the point I disagree with.

But, for a moment, let us put aside the possible cases of the standard model failing even in a small, closed community. For, what might be easier to see is how the model generates trouble in between different communities. This, I believe, is party because of the age-old tribalism; the tendency to treat 'us' differently from 'them'. For example, if thing X causes immediate harm to you and your closest neighbours, but generates profit for some distant oligarch you don't know, it might be rather easy to think that X is wrong - or at least, the one who profits from X should compensate the damage done. But, if there is a thing Y which yields profit for you and your friends, and then you hear some distant unknown people complaining that they are damaged by Y and they need a compensation for that, you are much more likely to say things like 'you whiners, don't beg for a compensation! First, we believe that everyone should take care of themselves, instead of crying for others to spoon-feed them! Secondly, we believe that the damage you are complaining about is not real - or if it is real it can't be proven that it really is caused by Y, maybe you have just caused the damage yourselves so that you could whine and beg for a compensation!'. This, unfortunately, is how human mind works. Generations of cultural evolution have secured these models, for they have boosted in-group survival. But it takes no genius to see how this model also sparks in-between-group conflicts. We can either carry on resolving those conflicts with military power (or a threat of it) - which in the world of weapons of mass destruction becomes a rather risky business, or then we should seek alternative models.

Global power politics aside, I see the same dynamics taking place on so many levels of social conflicts. On a bit more broader scale; take about any political divide, and on both sides you'll find people who are furiously defending a set of holy values which are not to be violated. They then accuse the other side of violating this or that value which can't be compromised. But if you don't identify with any of these groups, it becomes easier to see that most of the time the debate isn't actually about holy values - it is more about how each side understands and interprets the situations, how they see the facts and what they believe the consequences of certain actions to be. I mean, all of this stuff would, in an ideal world, be a matter of neutral scientific critical reasoning, learning from experience, adjusting beliefs based on evidence - instead of furiously sticking to this or that gut reaction.

Oh well. I had absolute no plan when I started writing this post. So let me stop to clarify; what happened to categories of honour and shame? Why am I suddenly talking about us / them, my-side bias and gut reactions? Well, because the way I see it, categories of honour and shame are deeply embedded in that standard set of gut reactions, a set which the biological and cultural evolution has equipped a human mind with. Our instincts, our deep feelings, our common sense tells us to interpret this or that practical action as a violation of a holy moral norm, a violation which needs to be punished by bestowing shame on the guilty person. And that often starts an endless loop; a father punishes a son for reckless behaviour, a son is offended by a stupid thing a daughter did and feels a need to punish the daughter, but the mother sees this and punishes the son for harming the daughter, the son feels he was unfairly punished and he rebels against his parents but the father is offended for his son questioning the authority of the father so the father punishes the son and on we go - we get a lot of unhappy people exactly because of those people are faithfully applying the standard model of 'you did a bad thing X, therefore it is justified for me to do the bad thing Y to you'.

1.4. Side-effects and counter-reactions

Again, I'm not sure but I'd guess it is pretty obvious that spamming moral guilt and shame on kids who are still too young to properly control their impulses serves to make them confused. Growing up in an atmosphere of unavoidable shame the kids learn that there is something bad inside them, something they can't fully hide nor control, and that they should always be a little ashamed of themselves. This often comes with the illusion that they, somehow, are the only expectations, the only bad ones - that out there all the other kids in the other families are well-behaving and decent, so better just hide ones inner guilt and shame and try to behave like the others do.

Well, some people probably won't find anything wrong with that. Kids need to be obedient and humble. The original sin is with all of us, there is no avoiding it. If you don't have inner sense of shame you become an arrogant and morally corrupt hedonist with a wrecked life. Personally, I find all of this as something I want to steer away from. I think that kind of internalised sense of general shame only serves to hinder the true potential of a person. Life could be a lot more free, full, joyous, creative and warm without that kind of nagging shame. Yes, shame probably also makes a person feel isolated from the others. It is easier to feel connected and to share things if you don't have to hide a bulk of shame haunting inside you. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, I think you can congratulate yourself and thank your parents or other people of your life for having such warmth and wisdom when they were supporting your personal growth).

Sometimes it also happens that when an inner sense of shame becomes unbearable, it spills out and fuels a furious revenge reaction. (Salman Rushdie's book is a lot about that - how the shame is used to guard the moral rules, but too much shame and an individual freaks out causing heck of a havoc violating even more of the moral rules.) Seems like the reaction has been known in different forms in various cultures. One aspect is the phenomenon of honour killing - where a social group kill a subordinate member of that group, to restore the honour of the group if that member had violated the honour. I mean; the act of murder is committed, because of unbearable shame caused by a moral violation which originally was somehow less than a murder. Things get more vile and evil when a person or a group feels ripped of their honour and pursues to restore the honour. Running amok, going on a killing spree. Probably also many of the terrorist suicide bombers are operating under this kind of psychology. Just read the news and ask yourself how many of the incidents have been actually motivated by a person having some kind of primitive urge to restore a sense of honour, or a person just freaking out because of having to swallow too much shaming. Again, the standard model isn't interested in the 'why' part of the stuff. But I am. I think if we'd like to see less of that kind of crimes, we'd better ask what are - scientifically speaking, backed by evidence and research - the most effective ways to reduce honour-based violence. (Or, any other type of crimes, in general.)

2. But is there any alternative to shame?

I think the standard model says that despite we can never be fully good, we should always aim to be good. To me it seems that hidden inside that model there is the dynamics of shame / shamelessness, or, the dynamics of controlled well-mannered behaviour vs. uncontrolled selfish hedonism. As if the primitive part of our soul is made of blind lust not caring about the consequences - we want to have sex, we want to feast on delicious food, we want to accumulate wealth and to gain riches, we want to get high and we just generally want a maximal amount of pleasure. The problem is that in pursuing those blind lusts we often end up causing harm for others, and the others will want to have their revenge. So, to protect ourselves against the inevitable revenge, the evolution equipped us with impulse control, or a higher self if we'd like to say so. Reason, moral dignity, self-control, virtuous nobleness - the ability to evaluate our actions before carrying them out. But have too much of self-control and you might find your life feeling empty and boring; after all we need to have at least some of the raw primitive hedonism. So, I guess the standard model accepts this inner dynamics, and advices us to have everything in moderation, not going into either extreme. That we need a healthy amount of shame to keep us behaving decently enough, so that we can also enjoy a modest amount of hedonistic pleasure making our lives happy and joyful enough? (Although, reading Rushdie's book one starts to wonder if it is more like a short moment of moderate happiness, which then gives way to the long boring duty-driven life devoid of inner happiness). Again, it is this very dynamics I started to question at the age of four or five.

2.1. The plasticity of mind

Before we venture further to the high seas of philosophical and spiritual thoughts, let us first ask a critical question; If millenniums of biological and cultural evolution have shaped human mind (and brain) in a way that it is naturally equipped with the standard model of moral perception and moral reactions, then is it even possible to imagine any alternative to those natural processes? Won't an attempt to reshape natural functions only lead to twisted anomalies, indeed opening the door to all the most horrible forms of post-modern relativist moral decay? To me this is a bit like saying that since no baby is born with an ability to walk, then no kid should try to learn to walk. Is walking natural to humans, despite we must learn it from experience? And, on a more broader note, I think what makes us human is our astonishing ability to learn, to re-shape our cognitive patterns, to re-invent ourselves. From learning to start a fire, to developing the world wide web, we have always been curious and keen to learn new skills. So, do we really have any reason to believe that when it comes to emotional / cognitive models and skills, we are totally incapable to learn new things?

Funnily enough, I do have a clear memory from my own childhood. As a little boy, my own experience of getting my clothes wet was because of playing in a pool of water, or peeing in my pants. Well, I accompanied my mother in the utility room, and my mother had a basket full of wet clothes. I saw her picking a piece of clothing one by one, hanging them on a laundry line. She picked up pants which I recognized to be my father's. In my mind I was wondering did my father play in a pool of water, or pee in his pants, so I asked my mother: "how did those pants get wet?". My mother replied dryly: "In the washing machine." Next it was a T-shirt belonging to my older brother. "How did that shirt get wet?" I asked my mother, and again she replied: "In the washing machine". Then it was a T-shirt belonging to my father. There was a strangle itching sense inside my mind, something big was about to happen, again I asked "And how did that shirt get wet?", and before finishing my question I already started to anticipate what the answer would be. Indeed, my mother sighed and then replied with a tone of boredom and frustration in her voice: "In the washing machine." I didn't dare to repeat the question for the following pieces of clothing, but I didn't need to - for the category of 'all' had emerged in my mind. Suddenly, it seemed evident that instead of repeating the question for each and every thing inside that basket, I could just see a basket full of wet clothes and conclude that they all, every one of them got wet in the washing machine. The category of 'all' proved to be very fruitful and it helped me make sense of the world I was living in. Although, later on I also found that I had been misapplying it. I had adopted that attitude that 'All Swedish-speaking people are arrogant elitists who deserve to be ridiculed'. Once I learnt to stop to examine that belief I realized it was pretty much based on no evidence, and that 'Swedish-speaking people' aren't like a basket full of laundry; there hardly are common attributes defining each and every Swedish-speaking person, so instead of 'all' they might just be individuals. Sharing some likeness, and having a lot of individual variation. And certainly not all to be collectively blamed for what a small bunch of Swedish-speaking people did generations ago. Personally, I don't think there is any twisted unnatural anomaly taking place here. Just a rather normal development of cognitive abilities. Therefore, I also do believe that a similar kind of development is possible also when it comes to the moral categories we apply when evaluating the social world and ourselves in that world.

2.2. Beyond egoism / altruism

One way to phrase the basics of moral philosophy is the dynamics of pursuing ones private goals, and contributing for the common good of the society. This, of course, maps vaguely to the dynamics of primitive hedonism vs. noble self-control - vaguely, but not completely. A person aiming for maximum private profit, coldly pursuing egoistic ends with zero care for others often is a controlled and intelligent person, always planning ahead. So, self-control alone doesn't guarantee morality, if that is seen as contributing towards a greater cause or common good. Then, of course, there is also a lot of philosophizing questioning the whole idea of 'common good', saying that altruism is not possible, as an individual is always pursuing for some private end. Even when one is donating money for a charity, or doing voluntary work it might be motivated by an egoistic drive - such actions can give pleasure, they can give you credibility and good reputation in your community, they can help you silence a little bit of that nagging inner guilt making you feel a better person - or what ever. That kind of philosophies often seem to suggest that the pursuit for private profit is the ultimate and the natural mode of a living organism, and that there is no escaping it. Well, they way I see it, the whole egoism / altruism dilemma isn't that interesting. I'm not advocating any moderately balanced middle way between the extremes of egoism and altruism. I think there is a way beyond the divide.

Personally, for me, that way opened up through introspection. In my adolescence I asked myself what is that self, that ego who has private goals and ends? Presumably, it is the same ego who would enjoy the primitive hedonistic pleasures of a shameless lifestyle. The same ego who is afraid of death, who would be gifted by the ultimate driving force of the evolution; the instinct to survive. So, let's suppose I have one, an ego. For the ego is concerned about the physical survival of my body, and is affected by substances I consume, and enjoys the pleasures originating from bodily sensations, there has to be some connection between the ego and the body. So, before trying to pinpoint the ego, let's concentrate on that body. The body breathes air, and needs water and food to survive. But, if in my mind I imagine a movement of a single oxygen molecule, when exactly does that molecule become a part of my body? Does that happen when it enters my respiratory tract? Or, only when inside my lung the oxygen becomes absorbed in my red blood cells? In any case, it seems that there is a constant in / out exchange between my body and the rest of nature. And without that traffic I would die instantly. In my mind I could continue tracking that single oxygen molecule, how the blood cell carries it to muscle tissue, where it gets consumed in a process producing muscle movement and releasing carbon dioxide. That carbon dioxide then travels in my blood cells, gets carried to the lung, where it is released back into the air, travels to a nearby pine tree, enters a chloroplast and gets consumed in a process producing energy for the pine organism, and releasing an oxygen molecule back into the air. Now, what makes me think that this traffic mediated by my blood veins from my lungs to muscle tissue is somehow different from the traffic of molecules mediated by the air, between the chloroplast of a pine tree and the mitochondrion of the cells in my body? I mean, what if the pine tree and my body are just parts of a bigger organism, just like a red blood cell and the cells of my muscle tissue are very different kind of entities yet integrally a part of a bigger organism? Where, exactly, does my ego end?

Suddenly, it felt that there is no boundary. The limits of my personal consciousness just melted away and I was left with a sense of being in direct contact with the Totality of The Existence, The Universe as A Whole. And that didn't appear as a mere cold mechanical machine, but a great organic dance, an endless flow of creation, where different forms of beauty emerge, sustain and vanish giving way to more and more waves of all the myriad forms of beauty. A deep mystery, yet so obvious that it is right front of our eyes all the time - and not only in the front of our eyes, but also inside ourselves, hidden in every breath we take, all the time. That the ego, in a metaphysical sense, is ultimately an illusion, and all what there is is The Totality of The Universe. Nature as one single big living organism, breathing love and beauty.

As I have mentioned in some of my earlier writings, sure the high of the mystical experience faded away. But it was a lot like that childhood moment with laundry in the utility room. A new model of thought was born. All the patterns inside my mind started to re-arrange themselves, I had a first-hand experience of something which can't be fully described in human words. Yet, after such an experience, those words (like The Totality of The Universe) became symbols for me, gesturing towards the memory of a beyond-words mystical experience. Later on, on different occasions, there were a few more moments of such blissful experiences (they often involved a presence of a pine tree.) Those experiences helped me to re-invent myself, to see the fundamental basics of human existence in a new light.

There was a new sense of universal empathy; how could I be indifferent towards what happens on the other side of the globe, or what happens in the depths of the oceans, for I'm nothing more but a part of the organism of this whole planet? And this planet, most likely, is a bubble in the organic living dance of the cosmos - but what I do has very little effect on distant stars and planets - although, the light photons from those distant starts do enter my retina, blending with my neural cells, so in a very physical sense my body actually is in direct contact with the stars, only that the contact is mediated by photons travelling the cosmos. Well, but I mean, even over those mind-boggling distances, we physical creatures are intertwined, we exists only as a part of this constant flow of energy in its different forms.

Oh well. What is central here is that these experiences were not merely abstract conceptual thought, but deeply felt emotional processes touching the very core of my mind. If we use the spatial metaphors of above / below, it is often said that the noble self-controlled layer of human thought is above the primitive layer of egoistic hedonism which lies below. So what about my mystical experiences? Spiritual stuff is often pictured to be even higher above than the ordinary cognitive thought. But personally I didn't experience it so - I felt the experience as diving deeper and deeper, revealing the ultimate foundations of the existence of my mind. The seamless Unity With Everything lies in the bottom of it all. So it is no more a question of using the higher processes to control and to contain the lower instincts. Suddenly, it is a question of letting a primordial light grow up from the very soil of bodily tissue, from the depths of the mysterious stuff we are made of. Allowing that sense of unity to re-shape both the sub-conscious primitive processes, working with the conceptual thoughts to get them better aligned with the ideas of cosmic unity. Not forcing oneself to, not struggling, not pursuing a higher goal. But just to allow, to accept, to let go, to let grow. To witness it happen. (Well, then, at moments this might also mean some work to be done, when a this or that old model or category gets stubborn and resists to give space to new models. That kind of situations might take some focused concentration to spot the stumbling blocks, to get to the roots of that model, digging until the rusty chains of old egoistic models loosen up and get washed away by a free flow of beauty, love and unity).

This also means a fundamentally different approach to moral questions. As, to me it seems that the traditional moral philosophy is about values and rules which should be obeyed by everybody. (Everybody being either the members of ones own tribe, or then it is tacitly assumed that any living being should be a member of our tribe for our tribe is the best.) But, it is obvious that a mystical insight can't be forced onto anyone. It can't be translated into a set of rules to be followed - it is all about internal transformation, self-learning. Just like you can't force a concept of 'all' down the throat of another person - the cognitive category needs to get born inside ones own mind. And, obviously, almost everyone naturally learns the category of 'all' at some point in their childhood. (Although, sometimes it seems that nothing guarantees that everyone would automatically learn that it isn't always so wise to collectively blame all members of a group for things which some individuals did. Again, even in this case, no amount of public shaming or ridicule is going to help those people to learn how to better use the categories of 'all', 'every', 'us, 'them' and 'individual'. These people would probably need some warmth, time, support and maybe a little bit of gentle guidance to help them to figure out that members of a group are, after all, also unique individuals.)

2.3. Life as art

So, personally, I think that for most aspects of human life we could just abandon the old categories of moral shame, blame and guilt. Most of the time it is not about following a set of rules, nor about trying to maintain some honour in the eyes of others. I think life is mostly about art, creation, imagination, beauty and flow. Allowing things to flow through, sending them into good directions. Sounds obscure? Let me illustrate.

A human body needs oxygen to survive. But does it make sense to try to accumulate a huge stockpile of oxygen? To grow a bigger and bigger lung so that you can store more and more oxygen? Probably not. The whole idea of breathing is to allow gases flow through your body. You inhale and you exhale. It is not the oxygen in itself which keeps you alive - it is the flow, the movement of oxygen and carbon dioxide and all the other molecules, photons and whatnot. The flow, the movement, the circulation. My body is nothing but one node in the network of this cosmic flow. It serves no good to try build a dam in that flow. Better just let the energy flow, for I also need the foliage inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen.

About the same with money. I need a little to survive. For most part, I need the money so that I can give it away. I give it to the supermarket owner, in exchange of the goods I buy from the market, and the supermarket owner will distribute my money to the personnel working there, and send some money to companies who produced the goods I bought. The money needs to flow. I get my money from other people, in exchange of the services they got from me. Those other people got their money from yet other people, companies got their money by selling stuff to customers, and customers got their money as a salary paid by companies producing stuff to be sold... I mean, where does the money come from? At the moment in Finland there is a political debate about who should pay a bigger share of services; companies, customers, or the government? To me the whole debate makes only that little sense, for the government gets its money as taxes collected from the companies and the customers, the companies get their money from the customers, and the customers get their money from the companies. Tax the banks, I'd say =) Well, what I mean is that for me the question is that what is the whole point of that circulation of money? I know that persons trapped in the ancient categories of ego / us / them probably feel that the purpose of money is to buy happiness for me / us. I know no amount of political nor philosophical debate is going to change their minds, as far as each person is locked with their own unquestioned moral categories. So I don't take that much part in the debate. I vote left and I voluntarily donate a little of my tiny income to Unicef, for I feel that the children of the world deserve to have health-care and education - and personally I'd prefer to live in a world where my fellow people are healthy and well-educated (that tends to reduce crime levels and to contribute towards overall prosperity, innovation, artistic creation and technological progress.)

So, the way I feel it, at the bottom of it all it is not a biological instinct to survive. Survival is just a surface layer on top of a deeper force, which is the endless creation of beauty. Everything is born out of that. All the forms of life we currently witness on this Earth, they are the myriad shapes and patterns of beauty, waves in that cosmic flow of creation. 'Art' and 'Beauty' are the human words I use to describe that sense beyond words. But 'Art' is a bit clumsy word, for it often comes with the assumptions of artist - audience -divide, and with the tradition on evaluating art, and making all kinds of distinctions between high art and popular art etc. For me those divides don't matter that much. For me the essence of art is the creation, the deep contact with those partially unknown subconscious processes which give rise to artistic innovation. The processes which spark poetry, paintings, dance, music, circus, light installations, woodcarvings, architecture, fashion, design, stories, tales, movies and computer games. The art can also have a huge therapeutic healing effect on the artist and also for the other people participating or enjoying the products of the process. But that great art doesn't always require a great audience - twenty five people gathered together to listen to a person singing and playing can, in my eyes, be about as grand and great art as a famous opera singer performing on a luxury opera house. Art can also be fallen autumn leaves on the lawn, the moment someone stops to watch them, to enjoy their colours and composition, being touched and inspired by the visual beauty of the scene. I mean, the way I see it, there doesn't always need to be a genius artist, a subject who could sing the piece of art. Most of all, art is born. Sometimes art is born via human beings, sometimes via freezing waters and high winds.

Art and beauty, the way I see it, can also be seen in the smoothness and beautiful curves of the flow of any abstract process. For example, if a dialogue flows smoothly, messages get across, people feel themselves heard and understood, and maybe new ideas are shared or a therapeutic healing takes place, or spontaneous jokes flow funnily, or a misunderstanding get straightened and a looming conflict is solved - to me all of that is beauty. Therefore, the art of listening, the art of trying to understand others, the art of expressing oneself in such a way that the other might be able to understand; these are the things which contribute towards the cosmic beauty being able to flow and manifest itself also in human communication. (If someone tries to insult me, I often just ignore it, for I don't care about a need to defend ones honour. If there is a thing like honour, I don't feel it can be damaged by what others say or think about me. So I have no need to engage in those verbal battles which sometimes seem to be the sole building material of internet discussions. For me there is a little point in trying to 'win an argument'. I'm more interested in making a contact, learning to share with another human being, finding a space which would allow mutual growth, the inspiring phenomenon of learning new skills and widening of the perspectives.)

Personally, it has taken a lot of inner processing (and there is still a lot of work to be done) to get past the overdose of inner shame I absorbed in my childhood. I never quite believed that I was guilty of all the things other people blamed me of. But what I learned was that despite my good intentions I will be misunderstood, other people get offended and then they blame and punish me for things I didn't mean and I didn't do. So I learned to avoid honest human contact, presenting the other people just an empty role, performing the actions which I estimated to be the least likely to make them annoyed. Only in my adult life I started to properly learn a way to move, to speak, to feel and to express my feelings without the barriers of needles shame and guilt (or, the crippling anticipation of furious shaming and punishments there's going to be). This, again, has been greatly helped by physical things like dancing. Earlier this autumn it was a MÄSÄ gig at Tampere. Litku Klemetti sings in MÄSÄ, and in an interview she has also said that the idea of ones own life as a form of art has been something which has helped her to break free from the shackles of shame. Indeed, on stage she is shamelessly alive - not vulgar, not egoistically arrogant, but just joyous, creative, spontaneous and energetic in an unhindered way. That particular MÄSÄ gig was in the middle of a week, not that many people were in the bar. And, just like the typical Finnish audience does, all the people sat still at their tables, watching the show. After a few songs I couldn't hold myself seated, I got up and found myself dancing and bouncing on the bar floor, singing along and participating in the jolly fun of the show. Litku stepped away from the stage, leaping around the bar floor, and for a moment she came to dance together with me. Me, a person who, some four years ago, was still totally paralyzed by a thought of people watching me dance. But there we were, two persons celebrating the lack of shame, happy about the increased freedom of life and movement, dancing on the bar floor not caring about if the supposed 'others' consider it appropriate or not. Dancing just because it was fun to dance.

Hehe, so, in a way, these are the moral questions for me. Yet, at the same time, they are not moral questions, for I don't care that much about concepts like 'rights' or 'moral values'. I don't know if I have a right to feel free of shame, to enjoy dancing and sharing the joy. But I do think that a free flowing and blossoming flow of beauty is nice, it feels deeply meaningful and aligned with the deepest sense of the meaning of life what I've experienced. (No, I'm not to deny that there could be some even deeper sense of meaning yet to be discovered. But in this finite life of mine I haven't yet experienced anything deeper that the Beauty of the Cosmic Oneness.) That also means that I don't consider myself morally superior to other people. I don't think my model is somehow morally better or more noble than the classical models of morality. I might think that 'a beauty-based model' does a better work than 'a shame-based model' - just like a rock and a hammer are equally good in the moral sense (if it makes sense to evaluate the moral value of items, that is. But at this point you might already guess that if you ask me, it makes little sense to judge the moral value of anything.) But if you have to hit nails, would you choose a rock or a hammer? I'd prefer a hammer, for I think it is - on the very practical level - better at doing the job.

In my own life, the same goes with a lot of decisions I have to make. For the most part I have abandoned the categories of moral good / bad, shame and guilt. I see little point in judging things as good or evil - I prefer to take a bit more calm and practical approach. If I need to feed myself, I don't bother about philosophies of animal rights - for me it is self-evident that the soil, the plants and all the animal have equal dignity to them and none of them deserve to be treated as mere raw-materials. So I seek the most beautiful flow of molecules and energy, I'd like to participate in those smooth, circular movements so that I allow my body to be a node in the cosmic network, the forms of life passing through me. I eat what feels good to me. For most part, that means vegetables I've grown myself, or simple ingredients produced at small-scale farms. There isn't a set of rules or a bunch of principles to strictly justify my choices. But, I think, if the flow of food was somehow visualized, I'd prefer the one which gives a beautiful, balanced, sustainable network of circular cycles spinning life. For that is what I like to participate in (instead of participating in such processes which are bound to totally consume some resources leaving nothing but a pile of waste - I don't judge that kind of production as morally wrong. I just think that it is unsustainable and ugly, and it will anyway come to an end, sooner of later. Because I'm life, I prefer processes which sustain and create life, instead of consuming and destroying life.)

Oh, soon it is 2am, I should be sleeping now =) So, one last point. A classical (Western) concept of 'meaning' often comes with an idea that a sign means something outside itself. Just like these letters, in itself, are nothing but a funny arrangement of pixels on a screen - they get their meaning only as signs which refer to concepts and ideas which aren't pixels. Or, if we are asking for a meaning of this or that action, the explanation often is the end. Thing X appears as meaningful, if it serves as a good means for an end Y. But that is to assume that Y, in itself, appears as meaningful. A lot of Western thought seems to place 'survival' or 'gaining private profit' as the ultimate Y, which then serves as an universal yardstick to evaluate the meaning of anything. That, again, is one possible model - but a model I don't feel always totally comfortable with. As you might guess, I'd place 'The Flow of Beauty' as Y. But the trick is that 'The Flow of Beauty' isn't a future goal, an end which needs to be achieved by means. The Flow of Cosmic Universal Beauty is present everywhere, and its manifestations aren't separate means - rather, they are the ways how the Cosmic Beauty exists. So, to sit still listening to a musician singing songs, or to dance shamelessly on a bar floor - I don't see them as means to some end. They are the meaning in itself. The life is present in each and every moment of life, and we allow the deep cosmic beauty to shine through in those moments of existence. There hardly is a need to control that beauty with a nagging sense of shame =)

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EDIT: Added a link to a MÄSÄ live concert. It's not exactly the same concert mentioned in my blog post, but anyhow, the video shows Litku's way of wandering off the stage, improvising and interacting with the audience. "Hey you hippies, touch the ground, feel the ground, hug the ground!" she says =)
EDIT2: Oh, I accidentally stumbled upon a youtube video from that particular MÄSÄ gig. Before the gig someone bought their cassette but didn't have enough cash to pay the whole price, so the band said he can pay the rest by doing some work for them. So, they invited that guy to play a tambourine for one song. His solo is at 13:20. The moment Litku dances together with me is at 19:00. I really do like the spontaneous and open MÄSÄ-atmosphere, where they encourage people to participate, completely forgetting about if they look silly or stupid for that doesn't matter - what matters is the shared flow of joyous energy.

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Comments

Interesting read...will take me time to process, and I'll probably need to re-read it, but it's food for thought.

Interesting, as usual. :)

Hi Erkka... What a wonderful post. I love the journey you take throughout, and these are ideas I love to think about. I have wondered what it would be like to live without shame, and what it would take to raise a child without it, but with a perfect ethical nature. I think you have the answer here. Without identifying with the small self, the ego with its biases, then there is an existence in a deep universal truth. I believe that in this truth lies a basic joy and goodness, which spurs right action and a compassionate oneness. This is why punishment is rarely a solution: it seems so after the fact. The true nurture comes in leading people to discover that open field of truth, to stop identifying with the material needs and to connect with the "golden rule" that is the real truth of existence. I love your description of oxygen molecules... who is breathing? What is being breathed? Your take on it all is wonderful and I could discuss it forever. I think I do! Many happy wishes for a spectacular holiday! xo Clementine

PS thank you for your order of my new music project! You rule! :)

Clementine

I hope your first Beaux Cheveux live show was an uplifting experience!

Hey all, thanks for comments, and here's a short collective reply;

Personally, I've had an increasing feeling that some sentences in this blog post are far too unclear or provocatively too easy to totally misunderstand. And that some parts could probably use some elaboration. Hmmm, so, it might be that I'll write a follow-up post, adding some further clarifications. But not today, later on. Let's see =)

A few thoughts on this subject. I use the following definitions:

Ethics - a person's ability to apply reason to their actions without the group needing to intervene.
Morals - the group's list of good and bad actions and - "justice' is the the pressure put on the individuals by the group to follow the list.

When a person fails to apply ethics, then the group will often move in and punish. I see a problem with this too. There are some for which the threat of punishment is enough to keep them on the straight and narrow. However, there are some that feel that their survival is in such danger that they will never succumb to a group moral for to them everyone is an enemy. If we take your example of a pedophile, a potential or one who has acted on his bad intentions - (I totally agree with you that this is horrible action) what do we as a society ultimately want? I think it's that this person doesn't commit these actions. For a potential pedophile who never acts on the intentions - the threat in Indonesia of 15 years of prison has been enough enough to thwart him or her. But how about the one whose in such bad shape that they constantly striving overtly or covertly against everyone? Who will not stop their evil actions despite all moral threats? I agree with you here that there is a problem with the increasing punishment theme which ultimately results in capital punishment whether as painlessly as possible or burning at the stake-type punishments. I see that at that point the society justifies its own murder of this person. I don't think a society can ever be justified in torturing or murdering someone even for such a heinous action as pedophilia. The society's only function must be to prevent a person from continuing their immoral actions. When it descends into capital punishment it starts to operate on some very low intentions. I'm going to seem to contradict myself here, but when there is widespread immoral behavior, I'm not averse to putting some heads on pikes(literally). To put so much pressure on those committing crimes that they knock it off enough for standard justice to start being effective again.

Thanks for talking about things like this - It needs more discussion by people instead of people just assuming that a centralized government has it all figured out. Living on the American continent - I'm often sickened how our decentralized society has descended into a centralized war machine. I am a peaceful person but in another seeming contradiction - have decided I need to be well armed to preserve this for myself and my loved ones. Sigh.

Thanks for your reasonable and clearly formulated reply! I think I agree that it would be good if there was more rational and calm discussion on these topics.

First, a short note just for the curiosity;

I remember when I first started to study Western moral philosophy at the University, our lecturer used a following description; just like mathematics is a science studying numbers and their relations, so ethics is a science studying morals.

Well, which ever definition of words we use, I think it is very fruitful and necessary to take a note of that distinction between individual and group level of regulating behaviour.

In a way, all of my own moral philosophizing - all the provocations put aside - could be simplified down to what we think about the individuals self-regulating their behaviour. A lot of classical philosophy seems to assume that people are badly selfish and constantly seeking to hurt others to advance their private interests, so that individuals need to be kept in check by constant group pressure. That works to a certain degree, but personally I feel that more sustainable, smooth and long-lasting effects could come from individuals behaving in a peaceful good manner without a need of the external pressure prodding them to do so. Hence, my interest in all the possible ways of self-education and innate benevolence.

And, given that basic orientation, I then only have a minor foot-note to add to the idea of individuals behaving in ethical way without a need of external pressure; I've noticed that sometimes, despite our innocent or good-meaning intentions we are biased, or we might be blinded by our simple gut reactions, so that we mistakenly act in such a way which then creates trouble for others (and the others might feel bad about us, thus feeling justified to put pressure on us, and so the cycle of group pressure begins again, soon anyone can't trust anyone for it becomes common for people to group together to put pressure on this or that individual or group of individuals).

(What comes to pedophiles, I'd guess a society would do better to invest more resources in empirical research of what makes a person become a pedophile, how to spot the early signs, and if there are any ways to affect the flow of the things so that less of current kids would grow up the become a pedophile, so that for the future generation there would be fewer pedophiles around. And, if there aren't that many viable ways to help people not turning into pedophiles, then what does long-term evidence-backed scientific research say about best ways of preventing pedophiles from disturbing minors - like, if they can't be cured of their phantasies, then can they learn to keep it only as a phantasy understanding that such actions will cause harm and trouble for others. And, as the golden rule says, if you don't like others harming you, then stay away from hurting others. A fear of collective punishment has been a traditional way to keep pedophiles in check, but maybe the fear is not the only possible way, maybe a society could get better results if it applied a wider range of means instead of just increasing the classic fear.)

Ah yes, The North American continent - I'm fully aware that the culture there is somewhat different from what I see here and that I can't quite understand all of it for I haven't experienced it first-hand. I mean, I stay away from judging or taking sides on your local issues like the much debated gun control and everything. It has been a while since I last checked any statics, but I think Finland is another of the countries near the top when it comes to firearms owned per capita. But, luckily, here they still are mostly and mainly for hunting grouse, hare and moose =)

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