A reflection on the fragments of Heraclitus of Ephesus
In the last reflection, I discussed the nature of value, in particular with relation to the constant change that exists in the world of the senses (see on Value). When extrapolated beyond our own experience to human history and prehistory, it is obvious that the human world has been wracked with changes in morals, religion, tradition and culture. In this reflection, I will refer to such constant change as ‘flux’ and attempt to explore whether or not such phenomena can improve the world, the so-called cosmic arc of justice, or is morally neutral, background noise in the struggle for individual virtue.
To begin this discussion, I believe it is important to examine the difference between morality and ethic. I posit that morality, as the product of flux, is a normative system which develops organically within society – a product of environment and the struggles of individuals competing for power and prestige within said cultures hierarchy. In my estimation morality is fungible, shifting to and fro with the fashions and furies of popular culture. On the other hand, ethic is the system of belief internalised within a single individual – shaped by external inputs but conformed to or denied by the conscious decision of the will.
If we even look over the last hundred years, we can see that morality, in this social sense, has gone through upheaval, change and fragmentation – troughs and peaks of flux as society squirmed under the hot iron of industrialisation and modernisation. I do not necessarily subscribe the tradition of a monolithic morality of premodernity – however, the proliferation of information technology has increased the visibility of other systems of morality. To the lay observer, it appears that morality has become more diffuse and it has become more difficult to reconcile different models of living. Despite a flattening of the ideological horizon, with the lexicon and ground of discussion converging towards singularity, ideologues of every stripe have continued to tear bloody strips from each other and creating an overwhelming sense of cultural disunity and collapse. In this sense, we can see that morality is always a contested narrative, but also that it has more to do with the proclivities of the elite than with any sense of positivity improvement of overarching society.
In contrast to morality, ethic only exists with regards to the individual. Ethic is formed from the experience, conditioning and socialisation with other members of their group – be that family, friends, colleagues and compatriots. Ethic differs from conditioning in that it is a crystallisation of these conflicting and competing influences. If conditioning is the lens through which the individual perceives the world, ethic is the internal ruleset by which an individual decides which actions are good or bad, providing the value set from which the will struggles against the instinctive drivers of pleasure and pain. Virtue, if it exists in the universal sense, is the alignment of this ethic with natural good and evil to overcome instinctual drives and societal conditioning (see On Ethics).
With these definitions explored, the heart of the question lays bare before us. If virtue is a conscious decision to align the will with natural good, and ethic is the framework by which we perceive the good, can public morality – as conditioning which impacts individual ethics on a societal level – achieve good on a societal level? I would argue that the best that morality can achieve is the liberation of the individual to pursue virtue, not the imposition of virtue by the bayonet. If virtue can only exist concerning the conscious decision to align one’s ethic and natural good, then the imposition of violence – or the threat thereof – in the quest for societal good can only result in oppression. If we accept this argument, we must also admit the desire for philosopher kings to align the ideal and the real can only feather the nest of tyranny – the path to hell paved with good intentions.
Taking this line of argument to its conclusion, I would posit that the argument for public indoctrination of morality is fraught with danger, as it personifies society rather than recognising it as a system of individuals. The changes of mores in society are largely irrelevant to the quest for individual virtue – in fact, the only role they can play is that of obstruction. Thus, I would argue that flux is not the mechanism by which we achieve the good, but that the search for true goodness is an internal quest. If there exists a cosmic arc it bends not towards justice, but spirals aimlessly in the ethically grey nothingness of the vast universe – the goodness we seek is not in the stars, but in ourselves.
Umberto Boccioni, Dynamism of a Cyclist, 1913