The Morality of Normality

Last month, President Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial telling an audience that included survivors of the U.S.’s 1945 atomic bombing that technology as devastating as nuclear arms demands a “moral revolution.” He went on to say that technological progress without equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us.

"People's Fukushima Radiation Mask," by Surian Soosay (License: CC BY 2.0)
Title: People’s Fukushima Radiation Mask, | Author: Surian Soosay | Source: ssoosay | License: CC BY

As the use of atomic energy attests, technology is amoral. It can be applied for better or for worse. I can use Facebook to stay connected to my friends, or I can use it to bully, demean, or expose people I may not like. I can Google any question I can imagine and instantaneously get the opinions of thousands of people around the globe. And while some of the opinions may be unhelpful, hateful, or even harmful, I may also uncover a gem of truth in the noise. I can use my iPhone to take pictures, get directions, hail a taxi, pay a bill, and talk to people anywhere in the world; or I can use it to avoid meaningful, face-to-face, conversation.

The problem is that, too often, people see technology as an end in itself, and not as a means to enable human, organizational, and environmental revolutions. If we start with the largest context and form deductive requirements for each of those, we may be able to envision what a moral revolution would really look like. And when being normal is also being moral.

"Windfarm," by Master Wen via Unsplash.
“Windfarm,” by Master Wen via Unsplash

Ironically, when I searched the web for “moral revolution,” I found a website describing a company that promoted the “naked truth about sexuality.” Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly propose liberating ideas about our sex lives. It suggested instead that religion is the best source of truth. Oy!! Let me not get distracted.

In the media section of the New Criterion, there is an article by James Bowman titled “The morality of normality” (March 31, 2012). I found it when I used Google to see if anyone else had written about this particular subject.

In the article, Bowman reflects on the work of Alfred Kinsey, who suggested that the idea of “normal” confers social sanction and social approval.

“Everybody’s sin is nobody’s sin,” was Dr. Kinsey’s watchword in counting up all the different kinds of sexual behavior considered sinful which he found to be within the bounds of mathematical normality. In short, anything that was normal had to be moral just because it was normal. And that, precisely, summarizes the major theme in this post: Just because something’s normal, that doesn’t mean it’s moral. But, to be clear, this post is not about sex. It is about the three moral revolutions that need to take place if we are going to avoid a catastrophe even worse than Hiroshima.

The chart below outlines the moral revolutions that need to occur to change the environment in which we live, the organizations in which we work, the lives we are living, and the technologies we are using. I will make the case that it has become all too normal to abuse the environment, exploit workers, exclude groups of people, and misuse technology. The fact that these behaviors are now part of our normal existence doesn’t make them moral.

  Normal Moral
Environmental Callous Abuse Sustainable Development
Organizational Exploitation Engagement
Human Exclusivity Inclusivity
Technology Misuse Enablement

In my mind, the first revolution to question the morality of normality needs to be an environmental revolution. Clearly, the markets are benefiting a few of the wealthiest citizens of the world, but inequality and slavery continue to grow. A recent article indicated that 45 million people are now enslaved around the world. And the marketplace is just one aspect of the environment.   We are not exactly doing well with climate change either. Global warming, extreme weather, increasing CO2 levels, and rising oceans all provide compelling and alarming testimony that our current practices are not sustainable.

It seems that abuse is a “normal” expectation in today’s world.

In the book, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari summarizes the two million years of human history on this planet, focusing specifically on the 200,000 years that Homo sapiens have evolved here. He makes the point that in our relatively short stay, we have done more to violate the environment, kill other species, and abuse more animals than any other species in the planet’s four billion year history. More importantly, he suggests that the primary distinguishing factor between us and other species is our ability to imagine things that don’t exist and to create myths and belief systems that enable mass cooperation and culture change. Since we can’t evolve fast enough biologically (DNA patterns) to change the current, calamitous course, our only hope is to imagine and create new norms and values that protect, preserve, and sustain the environment.

Other animals can procreate, but we are singularly unique in our ability to generate.

The only question is what are we going to generate—healthy, productive systems or violent, destructive systems? It will require a moral revolution to change the environment to one that focuses entirely on sustainable development.

One of the major themes I derived from the Sapiens book was that humans have gone from free foraging, to frustrated farming, to frenzied freelancing. I’m not sure that constitutes evolution or devolution. What it means is that the earliest humans formed small bands of tribes for hunting and gathering. They roamed from Asia and Africa all the way to Australia in one direction and through Siberia and Alaska in the other direction, ultimately populating North and South America. The extent of their pioneering efforts is staggering. And I’m sure they did a lot of staggering along the way given the length of their travels and the severity of the obstacles they encountered—think ice, snow, and very large predators.

Once these nomadic tribes discovered farming they were essentially bound to their lands because of the amount of work it required to clear, plant, weed, and protect their fields. While farming enabled larger communities to form, it also set up the conditions for manipulation and exploitation. The ruling classes organized large groups of populations and then took the profits for themselves. The farmers were trapped by the demands of planting and tending to their sheep, cattle, goats, and chickens; they were periodically devastated by droughts, fires, or floods; and, to top it off, they were taxed heavily to support the leisure class. If that isn’t frustrating, I don’t know what is.

Postcard of Berlin, Connecticut | Source: Miami University Libraries - Digital Collections Fast forward to the present.

Instead of 90% of people working the farms, we now have 90% of the people essentially living their lives as frenzied freelancers.

The psychological contract has changed from loyalty for security to opportunity for development.

Workers no longer have job security. If economic conditions change, they get laid off. If technological disruptions occur, their jobs are automated. When globalization results in free trade agreements, some of their jobs go to the lowest wage-paying countries. While all of these changes are going on, people keep working harder and harder in more confined spaces. Chickens are raised in cages, cows are confined to constricted feeding areas, and humans are placed in small cubicles and expected to stare at their computer screens all day. I know this because I spend a lot of time walking around office environments. I’m always amazed at how many people can be packed into such small spaces and how little movement I see in any of the cubicles. People sit transfixed by the data on their computers and rarely even look up. There is clearly no dancing in the hallways or singing at the water coolers.

Thus, the second revolution to question the morality of normality needs to be an organizational revolution. In a previous post, Engagement or Exploitation, I asked whether it was accurate to describe work environments as engaging or exploitative. Based on the above, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I’m leaning toward the latter. What I see is not so much leaning in but leaning over the desk studying word documents, spreadsheets, or PowerPoint presentations. Many organizations are making genuine attempts to create healthier, more innovative work environments, but I expect to see a revolt before I see a real revolution.

To me, a revolt is a protest against the current situation without having a plan for what happens on day 1 if you win. For example, Occupy Wall Street (#Occupy) and Black Lives Matter (#BlackLivesMatter) are revolts. A revolution requires a comprehensive, integrated system for replacing the existing order once you overthrow it. For example, the agricultural revolution and industrial revolution replaced the old system with entirely new ones.   A revolt without a system is only one more step on the march of folly.

According to the Sapiens book, in order to achieve a revolution, there needs to be a new imagined order. In 1754, Hammurabi imagined an order that was built on social status. There were “superiors,” “commoners,” and slaves. The Hammurabi Code consisted of 282 laws, with scaled punishments such as “an eye for an eye” based on your social status. Thus, if a superior killed another superior’s wife, his own wife would be killed. If he killed a commoner’s wife or a slave’s wife, however, he would be levied a fine. In order for this order to “work,” people needed to believe the system was decreed by God, as they were led to believe by Hammurabi.

The good news is that humans can imagine systems that result in revolutionary changes that seem normal. The bad news is that these systems are sometimes evil, and people still believe they represent what’s right and true. The challenge is to generate new moral systems that completely change the existing order, but that means that people need to change their beliefs. This requires an organizational shift from exploitation to fairness, engagement and development—not an easy challenge.

The third revolution to question the morality of normality needs to be a human revolution. To address the challenges of this revolution, I will refer to a book, The Captive Mind, published in 1953 by the Polish writer and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz.

The Captive Mind draws on the author’s experience as an underground writer during World War II and his position within the political and cultural elite of Poland. The book discusses the intellectual allure of Stalinism and the temptation to collaborate with the Soviet regime among intellectuals. Milosz addresses the deadening of the intellect caused by Western consumerism. He outlines the practice of paying lip service to authority while concealing personal opposition.

The book elaborates on the idea of “enslavement through consciousness” and assesses the fate of the Baltic nations.

The book is described as a devastating study that totally discredits the cultural and psychological machinery of communism.

My reason for referencing this book is to point out the insidious nature of beliefs and how difficult it is to imagine a new social order built on inclusiveness vs. exclusiveness—the heart of the third revolution. In our current environment, it is seen by a high percentage of people as fairly “normal” to refer to Muslims as terrorists and to Mexicans as rapists. And, just this week, the people of Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. To me, the primary reasons behind the vote were sovereignty, immigration, and anti-elitism. UK citizens outside of London wanted to return to the way things were in the past. I guess that means a return to imperialism, colonialism, and exclusivity. Second, middle class workers saw the flood of immigrants into the UK as a threat to their well-being. Third, the “non-London” people rebelled against the elitism and political correctness of the establishment class.

The problem is that Brexit represents a movement to slide down the scale from interdependence and collaboration to independence and competition.

A moral revolution in the human domain requires just the opposite—moving from independence and self-interest to collaboration and interdependence.

What really needs to happen in a human revolution is for people to think, relate, and believe differently. What I am proposing is a revolution that would replace our desire for exclusivity with a passion for inclusivity based on the belief that we all come from a common source and that we are all in this together.

All three of these revolutions (environmental, organizational, and human) constitute a moral revolution. Raising the issues of morality and normality demands some attention to the idea of what’s evil and how we respond to evil. After all, discussions of morality usually revolve around what’s good and evil. To me, evil is limiting goodness and good is being fair, compassionate, open, welcoming, and inclusive. Responding to evil presents more daunting challenges. Our “normal” way of responding to evil has been to take violent, military action to destroy the evil force. This approach hasn’t worked out so well. For example, the US response to 9/11 and more recent terrorist events has been to destroy Al Queda and ISIS. The result has been that we have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the process while terrorism has metastasized. Just like cancer, it shows up anywhere unannounced.

Perhaps the solution is to focus more on the suffering of the victims than the perpetrators of the crimes.

That doesn’t mean that we give up our fight against terrorism; it just means that we focus more on helping people who have been the innocent victims, e.g. educating girls in the Middle East. But responding to evil will need to be the subject of later posts.

So, President Obama was right in calling for a moral revolution that was equivalent to the technological revolution that brought us the atomic bomb and the Internet of things. The moral revolution will need to be enabled by technologies that promote personal connection, inclusive communities, and meaningful conversations. The only way to make these revolutions more than revolts is to imagine a future of sustainable development, full engagement, and welcoming inclusivity. In order to give our imaginations a chance to transform reality, we need to change our beliefs or let go of the beliefs that block progress. As Homo Sapiens, we have unique capabilities to imagine new norms, values, and beliefs. Thus, it is in our power to create a moral revolution. In order to do that, however,  we need a new normal—one that is moral and substantiated by evidence.

In closing this post, let me be clear…and a little provocative. Just as being normal does not necessarily mean being moral, the converse is true as well: being “abnormal” does not mean being moral either. In my experience, however, I have found more value in “abnormal” sources (outside three standard deviations from the mean) than from “normal” sources (squarely and surely under the Bell curve) of perspective and possibilities. To paraphrase the famous Japanese film director, Akira Kurosawa, in a world gone mad, he who appears crazy may be sane. I know there is a fine line between genius and insanity, but “normal” thinking is not going to produce the revolutions we need to survive and thrive. I would rather cast my lot with the apparently crazy. It may be our only hope.

Also published on Medium.

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mary alice fox
mary alice fox

It seems we take two steps forward and one step backward since the dawn of time. You are tireless Rick.


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