Thursday, July 13, 2006

Ethical Anarchism

In the West, ethics and religion have been intertwined for centuries. We have been trained that in questions of right or wrong, good or evil, we are to look to the priests, ministers, popes and lamas for answers. While this tradition of religious-ethical combination is well entrenched in the West, it is not an inevitable pairing. For instance, in China numerous ethical philosophies, such as Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, mix freely with various local religious traditions (and each other) or stand alone. Even in the West we have seen the rise of non-religious ethics over the past two centuries with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism being two fine examples.

Instead of equating religion and ethical philosophy as having a necessary one-to-one value (some deeply religious people can’t even fathom why an atheist would have any moral code… and then of course assume that they don’t), we should instead say that here in the West most people’s religions help define their ethical code, but that a complete ethical philosophy doe not necessarily need a religious base.

What is an ethical code without religious trappings? Ethics, at its heart, is a method for regulating our behavior with other human beings.[1] How should we treat other people ourselves, how do we as a group inform our social decision-making and how to do we deal with those who break these regulations are the three fundamental questions of any complete ethical philosophy. In contrast, a political philosophy deals primarily with the second question (how do we make decisions as a group) and somewhat less with the third question (regulation of rule breakers); it largely ignores interpersonal relationships. It could be said that a political philosophy is either an incomplete ethical philosophy or a component of a larger ethical philosophy.[2]

Classically, Anarchism has been considered a political philosophy, dealing with the organization of society. Yet, at the same time, as our philosophy emphasizes the importance of the individual within the group and the formation of groups in their smallest units, we have always skirted the boundaries of becoming an ethical philosophy.

I believe that it is time that we step firmly over that line and announce that Anarchism aught no longer to be considered a political alternative, but an ethical one- a system that stands on its own and will analyze morality upon its own grounds. Anarchist ethics calls for the rejection of outside standards and asks each individual human being to take the responsibility for their own moral decisions into their own hands. It asks for the universal standards of truth, beauty, freedom and love as understood by each individual to be the only ruler suitable for decision-making.

The professional moralists- the radio hosts, preachers, politicos and pundits- will of course decry the appearance of ethical anarchism, I can’t blame them since it undermines their self-appointed positions. What would happen in America if those that look to Rush Limbaugh to tell them what is right and what is wrong instead had to talk to their neighbors, co-workers and friends? If those who anxiously wait for the party politburo to release their latest statements in the party newspaper had to form their own opinions? That is the moral weight of ethical anarchism- the pressure of self-determination and the freedom of community interdependence. I quote Henry David Thoreau:

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience, to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivated a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right… A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder monkeys and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, aye, against their common sense and consciences” (On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, 1849)

Ethical anarchism does not ignore the questions of our earlier political philosophy; we are still interested in equitable social organization, hierarchy and oppression. What changes is that we say that since all human society emerges from the daily interaction of individuals- and the moral decisions of everyday life- any truly democratic society must emerge from those interactions. What are corporations and governments but the accumulated actions and inactions of millions? What happened if we ceased those actions and took those inactions? This is not, in the end, the question of leaders or movements, but of individual people and could, theoretically happen tomorrow. However, the dominant ethical philosophy holds that each should do his or her “duty,” and fill his or her role. The banker makes loans and takes payments, the factory worker builds chachkas, the prep-cook chops onions and each receives, in return, their daily value in green slips. To change this, except through the two acceptable political philosophies, is “unethical” and destructive to harmony and happiness. It is this ethical philosophy, underpinned by media propaganda, emotionally charged patriotism and the weight of habit, that ethical anarchism attacks at its very root. It does not seek more green slips for the cook, or the temporary victory of one political sub-philosophy, but a complete change into a more democratic, egalitarian and, in the end, ethical society.

Ind with a quote from the ever-thoughtful Weakerthans (“Ringing of Revolution”):

In a building of gold,

with riches untold,

lived the families on which the country was founded.

And the merchants of style,

With their vain velvet smiles,

Were there ‘cause they also were hounded.

And the soft middle class

Crowded in for the last

For the building was fully surrounded.

And the noise outside was the ringing of revolution.

Sadly they stared

And sank in their chairs

And searched for a comforting notion.

And the rich silver walls

Looked ready to fall

As they shook in doubtful devotion.

And the ice cubes would clink

As they freshened their drinks

With their minds in bitter emotion.

And they talked about the ringing of revolution.

And the clouds filled the room

In the darkening doom

As the crooked smoke rings were rising.

How long will it take?

How will we escape?

Someone asks but no one’s advising.

And the quivering floor

Responds to a roar

And the shake’s no longer surprising

As closer and closer come the ringing of revolution.

In tattered tuxedoes

They greet the new heroes

Who crawl about in confusion

And they sheepishly grin

For the memories within

Of the decade’s dark execution.

Hollow hands raised

They stood there amazed

In the shattering of their illusions

And the windows were smashed by the ringing of revolution.

Down on our knees

We’re begging you please

We’re sorry for the way you were driven

There’s no need to taunt

Just take what you want

And we’ll make amends if we’re living.

But a wave from the crowd

And the flames from the town

That only the dead are forgiven

And they vanished inside

The ringing of revolution.

As closer and closer come the ringing of revolution.

-by Jesse

[1] Relating ethics to the non-human world, like is called for in Deep Ecology and Veganism is not a new development, St. Francis called for it in Medieval Italy and Lao Tzu did it long before that in China, but doesn’t appear to be a necessary part of an ethical philosophy.

[2] It is possible that a larger ethical philosophy may have competing, but not contradictory, political philosophies within it; for instance American liberalism and conservativism are both subsumed under the rubric of American folk ethics.