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The Arch of Metahistory:
Moral Design

The notion of moral design — the definition of right and wrong, framed by cosmic principles of balance, justice or compensation — certainly existed before Origins, but with the rise of civilization it became a central issue. It could be said that Eternal Conflict is always present, but not always operative in human society. The risk of Eternal Conflict is ever-present, but the human ability to balance opposites can deter or mitigate its destructive potential. Moral Design is not an abstract program, a set of rules written in stone. It is the way of knowing and acting by which humanity regulates the conflicting factors inherent to all experience. When British philosopher and peace activist Bertrand Russell declared that the world needs “a moral equivalent to war,” he acknowledged the danger of Eternal Conflict but proposed that there could be a positive way of engaging the energies that war elicits, even converting them to moral ends. Moral Design is the guiding framework through which such a conversion can be envisioned and achieved.

The infrastructure of the I Ching consists of six trigrams composed of solid and broken lines. The “Later Heaven“ or Inner-World Arrangement described in a commentary called the Shua Kua presents a mandala of the four seasons and the four cardinal points. Hence the psychic space of the oracle reflects the natural order of space in the external world. The combination of the six trigrams two at a time yields 64 hexagrams, each of which represents a particular ethical situation. By a coincidence (or perhaps not), the three-letter codons in DNA are formed from four nucleic acids, generating a total of 43 units, which is also 64. Much has been made of the correspondance between the genetic code and the Chinese oracle. One intriguing inference of this parallel is that life-itself, life at the biological core, may have an ethical structure that conforms to cosmological laws: the ultimate case of Moral Design. In presenting a theory of society reflecting cosmic principles and aligned to the ethical humanism of the Confucian school, the I Ching provides valuable lessons for personal choice and interpersonal cooperation. Hence it contributes to the harmonious survival of the human species, even if it does not literally represent a mysterious ethos inborn to our genes.

Like indigenous cultures that survive to this day, the people of prehistory drew their sense of morality from Nature, but the tendency of “civilized people” is to see Nature as immoral or amoral. The belief that Moral Design is imparted to humanity from Nature is encoded in many traditional scripts. Beliefs to the contrary raise the question of the source of moral order and moral authority. If not Nature, then God, or human beings themselves must be responsible for introducing morality.

Mass-scale religions such as Christianity and Islam solve this momentous problem by relegating all moral authority to God, the Supreme Being and Creator conceived to be above and beyond Nature. He -- for the creator god is invariably a he -- dictates how human beings ought to behave. He sets the rules for morality and male scribes take down his commandments and preserve them in holy scripture. In some way so difficult to understand that it requires an act of faith, God insures that those who follow his rules will prevail, justice will ultimately be done, and retribution will be visited on wrong-doers who ignore or violate his rules. In fact, the word faith derives from an Indo-European root bhidh-, “to believe, entrust.” Beliefs about the powers of the creator god vary in different religious denominations, and the interpretations of these powers can be widely divergent, but one conviction remains universal in monotheistic religion: the creator god determines the moral order of the world. In fundamentalist faith, Moral Design is entrusted to God. The belief that the father god's justice rules over all is the foundation stone of morality for three of the world-scale religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (Note: the term “world-scale” refers to the pervasive influence of the religion, not to the measurement of its importance by the number of adherents.) But this belief is not absolute and universal in the human societies. It does not occur in spiritual philosophies such as Buddhism or Taoism, in which no such divine moral authority is postulated.

It is one thing to introduce moral principles alleged to be given by God, and another to enforce them. Each of the three monotheistic religions has sacred scripts that sanction the use of force to impose God's authority. In other words, the rationale for enforcing the God-given principles is written into the texts where those principles are stated. For instance, the New Testament not only records the sayings of Jesus, it exhorts those who embrace them to evangelize the world and it authorizes violence to that end, for Jesus says, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace but a sword,” (Matthew 10:34). True to these words, millions have been put to the sword in the name of Jesus Christ. Countless numbers of people have been slain in the process of being converted to Christianity. The compound belief encoded in the story — namely, that those who follow God's commands have the right to impose them on others -- is acted out by those who identify with the story.

In many respects the master theme of Moral Design, on the right-hand side of the Arch (the trajectory of history), reflects the master theme of Eternal Conflict on the left-hand side (the trajectory of pre-history). The polarity of forces all through Nature may appear to display conflict, but ultimately the dynamism is harmonious, otherwise Nature would destroy itself — which it does not do. Humanity, however, may well be capable of destroying itself. If it chooses to participate in the self-regulating dynamic of Nature, it can be excluded from the dynamic. When human activity becomes predatory and excessive, it risks entering a path toward self-exclusion from the natural world. In the extra-human realms, many species prey on each other to survive. Lions attack water buffalo but they do not wipe out the entire species as human beings have been wont to do since history began. In Nature, Eternal Conflict is regulated by reciprocity and symbiosis, the divine principle known to the Egyptians as Ma'at, to the Hindus as Rita, and by many other names in other cultures. It corresponds to the idea of justice or balance in human terms. Our ancestors were wise enough to recognize cosmic order working all through the natural world, and, at the same time, to realize that it does not automatically operate in human nature. They understood that humanity is included in something larger than itself, the natural world, and by extension the cosmos at large, but that in another sense, humanity is isolated and must develop this principle of balance within itself. For humanity, Moral Design comprises a volunteer system.

In a practical sense, Moral Design is the imperative for acting truthfully in the situations posed by social organization and complex historical developments. In short, it is the basis of ethical response. It is the framework that determines all beliefs about the purpose of the human adventure. What morality might have been in prehistory is a complex question. Unfortunately, the general notions of harmony with Nature and the larger cosmic order — paradigms of morality derived from ancient cultures such as the Egyptian and Indian -- do not seem to address the moral dilemmas that arise in history, but that may be because we cannot enter into or recapture the spirit of those ancient perspectives...

Today, and for a long time now, many people accept the principles of morality ready-made, predefined by their millennial-old religious traditions. The belief behind this consensus is that “God dictates morality.” Clearly, there is no point in working morality out of your own spirit if the formula for it has already been provided by a superhuman agency. In this view, Moral Design is not participated in by the individual, it is merely adopted. (See glossary on participation.) Morality does not depend on the interior conscience of the individual, but on a contract between humanity and God, the creator.

All ancient cultures developed beliefs about morality. Perhaps the most sophisticated philosophy of Moral Design occurs in the I Ching, a Chinese manual of divination. (See Sidebar) An endowment myth says that the primordial ancestor Fu Hsi, imagined as a kind of angelic monkey with wings, discovered the six primary trigrams in patterns on the back of a tortoise who emerged from the Yellow River after the last great flood receded. From 1500 BCE down to the time of Confucius in the 6th century BCE, the system of ethical commentaries attached to the oracle became more and more elaborate and refined. The morality encoded in the I Ching is purely secular, humanistic . It accords closely with the ethical code propounded by Confucius in his main works, the Ta Hsio, “The Great Digest,” and the Chung Yung, “the Unwobbling Pivot.” These writings express the perennial notion that human morality has a ritualistic function: to practice goodness and correct judgment is a rite that insures the alignment of humanity to the natural order. This conception, expressed at a high level of intellectual sophistication in philosophy of the I Ching , is identical to the moral orientation of indigenous peoples such as the Hopi Indians of the American southwest. The Hopi believe that their rites and dances must be performed in a correct and consistent way, otherwise the balance of natural laws will be upset.

In common with indigenous peoples who survives today, many ancient cultures represented their beliefs about Moral Design in mandalas (geometric-symbolic designs) of great complexity and beauty. (Navajo Sand Painting, Pollen Clan.)

The charm of the Chinese ethic consists in the way it blends practical, even homely insight with sublime principles. In the Ta Hsio (13.2), the continuity of culture is expressed by the simple observation that an artisan carving axe handles must use an axe fitted with a handle by a previous artisan who knew how to fashion axe handles, and so on into the indefinite past. The Ta Chuan, the “Great Treatise” attached to the I Ching, says that “the advantage of boats and oars lays in providing the means for communication.” It relates the ancestral know-how (techne, see Technology) of scooping out tree trunks to make boats to the act of cultural dissemination by which different peoples around the world share their experience. This is a commentary on Hexagram 36, appropriately called Dispersion.

The fundamental idea of the I Ching is said to be contained in Hexagram 42, Increase. The Great Treatise says: “Increase shows an organic growth of personality that is not artificial and hence furthers what is useful.” Here, in a phrase formulated about 1000 years BCE, is the essence of the Human Potential movement that appeared in the USA in 1960s. This movement represents the final flowering of the Humanist philosophy of the European Renaissance. It survives today in a range social and philosophical currents loosely labeled as “secular humanism.” This outlook rejects the belief that humanity needs to believe in a creator god to be morally guided.

In conventional faiths, people commonly believe that God protects them and guides them along a path of personal growth to ultimate fulfillment. In the ethics of the I Ching, the principle of Increase -- defined as “a sacrifice of the higher element that produces an increase of the lower“ — is inherent to the polarities of the cosmos. Hence it illustrates the principle of Eternal Conflict, as do many of the ideas inherent to the Chinese oracle. Increase comes to expression in human nature when human growth leads a person to be useful to the larger whole in which he or she participates. Thus the end or aim of the “organic growth of personality” is transpersonal, consistent with the moral trajectory described by such pioneers of human potential movement as Abraham Maslow. This is a totally secular conception that can stand on its own, independent of any beliefs or suppositions about how superhuman powers might influence human affairs.

Native-mind traditions have strong moral codes based on beliefs grounded in their direct contact with Sacred Nature. In the Stoic philosophy of the late Greco-Latin world, morality depended upon the careful use of reason and the effect of character influence, both factors of purely human provenance, rather than on a set of commandments said to have been dictated by a remote father god. Pagan spirituality was deeply humanistic in its assertion that everything human beings need to live truthfully and harmoniously can be discovered in human nature. Scholars have identified Socrates in the West and Confucius in the East as the two seminal representatives of this outlook. The most clear and complete expression of Pagan humanist ethos is found in the Meditations of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who lived in the 2nd Century CE.

Native-mind traditions present many scripts in which Moral Design is given to humanity by members of other species. Indigenous folklore is rich in tales of wild and wily animals who perform deeds that become exemplary for human behaviour. This is precisely the role of the Dreamtime ancestors in the Aboriginal myth of Australia. Comparative mythologist Mircea Eliade defined the purpose of mythology as providing exemplary forms of behavior, precursors of Moral Design. The ancestors who exhibit the behavior to be imitated by the entire tribe are usually magical, superhuman, or they may be tricksters whose activity is paradoxical and seemingly immoral, judged by conventional standards. Native-mind morality is often difficult to understand for those who have not lived in the traditions from which it arises, but one thing is eminently clear about it: symbiosis, the interdependence of all species, is basic to the native-mind view of right and wrong.

Pagan morality presents similar difficulties for civilized people raised in monotheistic faiths. (Note: throughout, the term “pagan” denotes the pre-Christian culture of the West, consisting of an ensemble of values and views that closely resemble those of indigenous peoples. Roughly speaking, paganism is the indigenous way of life developed in the more complex sociocultural setting comprised by the cultures of the Mediterranean and ancient Near East.) Greek gods like Hermes and Zeus who seduce and deceive can hardly be taken as models of moral behavior, yet there exist in the same pantheon of pagan deities specific female figures who were revered as guardians of social order. Goddesses like Dike and Themis represented the divine embodiment of social conscience. All civic and social rules were said to have come from these divinities. In pagan religion moral life was rooted in reverence for these imaginary yet sensuous figures. We might imagine the morality-endowing goddesses as Jungian archetypes, entities who inhabit the collective psyche. This approach accords with the Humanist view that the capacities required for Moral Design are innate to human potential and thus do not have to be dictated from on high by a remote non-human Other. They do, however, have to be brought into conscious knowing by ennobling figures, symbols, exemplars. In the view shared by pagan and indigenous traditions, morality cannot be legislated or inculcated, but it can be exemplified and inspired.

Pagan gods and goddesses imagined to confer moral awareness produced the same effects as animal powers or totemic animals in North American indigenous religion. Among the Oglala Sioux, the Badger Society is a tribe who believes it has received moral guidance from the badger. The strength and tenacity of the animal, with its impressive claws, showed these people how to behave as formidable warriors. The badger's digging skills translated imaginatively into the capacity to find curing secrets in nature, and the members of this clan were especially so gifted, but because the badger is a small animal, compared for instance to the bear (totemic animal of other Lodges), the cures they were good at finding were usually for children's illnesses. Obviously such imitative behavior (termed sympathetic magic by metahistory forerunner Sir James Frazer) can only occur in a society that lives in close contact with the sacred animals from which it acquires its moral and intellectual profile.

Many races and nations in the Western world derive a sense of identity from natural and animal associations. The capital of the Swiss Federation is Bern and it totem animal is the bear. Such associations, often cued by linguistic allusions, are by no means trivial. This Swiss tradition stretches into prehistory, for bear-worshipping clans lived in the caves of the Alps tens of thousands of years before larger social groups appeared in that region. Curiously, the bear held sacred by the Swiss, who are known to be a nation of bankers, also appears as a totemic animal on Wall Street. Totemic ancestors may seem like a long stretch, but animal symbolism permeates many scripts that define both racial and national identity: the eagle in the USA for instance. (The totemic animal originally suggested by founding father Benjamin Franklin was the turkey.) Even in modern societies not oriented to Nature-oriented, the presence of power animals remains strong, although exactly how these symbolic creatures contribute to the moral orientation of the people is obscure.

If there is Moral Design in sexuality or sexual relations, it seems to have been reduced to the simple formula that “sex is for reproduction.” This belief is strongly endorsed by the Catholic Church for whom sexual pleasure is ranked among the seven deadly sins. Sexual pleasure and the sometimes mad chemistry of sexual attraction would appear to threaten social order, but not necessarily so. The belief that sexual freedom can contribute to sane and harmonious social order became a legitimate item of social debate due to the research of anthropologist Margaret Mead, who studied cultures in Polynesia in the 1930s. It was ardently adopted by advocates of “free love” in the 1960s, but the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s has seriously disrupted this debate. Fundamentalists have proclaimed that AIDS is a curse sent by God to punish sexual immorality. This notion comes directly out of the Old Testament where Jehovah inflicts plague on his people for succumbing to the temptation of pagan sexual license. Thus TV evangelists in 1990s bellowed out Old Testament condemnations of immorality, as if they were reading straight from the original script — which of course they are.

Sigmund Freud developed a baroque sexual script based on the belief that “Eros disrupts civilization.” He concluded that sexual desire (Eros, libido) must be suppressed, sublimated, and re-channeled to produce a stable society. His rebellious student, Wilhelm Reich, countered with the belief that “repression of natural sexual behavior corrupts society.” The appeal for sexual freedom or social-sexual permissiveness developed hand in hand with the Feminist movement from the start of the 20th century. The liberation of sexuality throws the entire notion of Moral Design into doubt, so firmly is society based on the strict regulation of sexual relations — or at least on the pretext of such regulation.

Programs for Moral Design are constantly being proposed by politicians to solve social problems. All these attempts are based on the belief that “control produces harmony.” For instance, the issue of the control of drugs is constantly debated. Is it moral in a society to prohibit certain drugs or to tolerate them in a controlled manner? Conflicting beliefs about such issues are scripted in sociological dramas that unfold daily in the world press. Those who represent themselves as guardians of social order are continually introducing laws and rules to control behavior, but the success of these programs is pitifully small because morality depends on inner consent and ultimately cannot be imposed or legislated from without. Thus the Humanistic belief, “morality arises within,” conflicts squarely with the belief that social morality must be legislated and enforced by penal codes. An extreme example of the fusion of religious and political scripts to control social morality occurs in the case of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The resulting policies of social control contributed to complete annihilation of the moral fabric of the country. During the campaign to overthrow the Taliban, a UN agency reported (not surprisingly) that nine out of ten Afghan women suffer from severe mental problems.

By far the most prevalent belief to occur in political scripts is “government solves problems.” Politicians are constantly occupied in acting out scenarios that verify this belief. The actual results of their problem-solving negotiations are less important than the spectacle of their good intentions. The belief that “politicians serve the public interest” conflicts with the equally widely held belief that “politicians merely manipulate the public for their own benefit.” No matter what is actually achieved, the expectation or hope that a politician will uphold Moral Design for the community or nation seems to be one the public cannot live without. The dilemmas involved here are purely secular. Even though politicians are obliged to appear as people who hold strong religious views, politics does not refer to religion for solutions. The problems of Moral Design in modern society are weighted entirely on the side of human choice and responsibility in which divine authority plays no role. Neither does the ancient bond between humanity and Nature factor into the situation. Hence there is a kind of moral vacuum at the center of modern life.

Suggested reading: Moral Design

The I Ching, translated by Richard Wilhelm, is an ancient Chinese book of divination that contains many profound reflections on the nature of chance, change and choice.

Voices of Our Ancestors by Dhyani Ywahoo is a modern summation of the sacred wisdom of the Cherokee peoples. It describes in an exemplary fashion how native-mind cultures conceive the link between humanity and other dimensions, as well as how they define of the moral responsibility of humanity relative to the earth, revealing a unique balance of magical and moral factors.

Homo Ludens by Johanna Huizinga is a scholarly study of the essential role of play in the maintenance of human society and the creation of culture.





Sacred Nature
Moral Design




Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.