Jan 20, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the Immorality Loop

The Paris massacre was deeply disturbing, but not so much as the response. In the chaos following such emotionally charged and morally ambiguous events, it is helpful to have some heuristics for deciding whether subsequent action inflames, or pacifies, the underlying situation. Hence, this article.

There follows an outline of two conceptual metaphors described by the distinguished cognitive linguistGeorge Lakoff.

Conceptual metaphors are ways of conceptualising one domain of experience in terms of another. They are fundamental to our understanding of the world and our ability to cope with complexity. We use them routinely and often unconsciously.

The two present metaphors – The Moral Accounting Metaphor and The Well-Being as Wealth Metaphor – are of particular interest because their structure (if not the language) seem universal to Homo Sapiens and, possibly, some primates.

This suggests moral bookkeeping – that is keeping track of who owes what, to whom, and why – may be underpinned by neural hard-wiring, and could have some relationship with the evolution of the prefrontal cortex: a brain region associated with sophisticated social species, and which seems ideally equipped for such a function.

Indeed, there is a strong argument that the success of money is because it maps onto these deeper structures, with the work of sociologists such as Mauss and Diamond showing us intermediate stages in traditional societies, past and present, which blur the boundary between trade and social bonding.

Nevertheless, albeit fascinating, the complications associated with capitalist economics sharing the same conceptual foundations as morality and happiness are beyond the scope of the current article. The point here is that the two metaphors, as follows, are probably fundamental to everyone’s experience of the world.

Well-Being as Wealth Metaphor: Humans universally associate well-being with wealth. Morality is conceptualised in terms of financial transactions. We speak of a moral act as a gain, a benefit, profitable, enriching; and an immoral act as a loss, a cost, worthless, spiritually impoverishing, with the overall objective of balancing the books. Well-Being as Wealth underpins the Moral Accounting Metaphor.

The Moral Accounting Metaphor: The Moral Accounting Metaphor is more complicated and best illustrated by an example. So let’s imagine two “unities”.

1. Unity 1 and Unity 2

Either unity could be any living system that uses Moral Accounting: you, your family, business, community (place or belief based), nation, and the relationships between them.

However, let’s keep things simple for the moment and pretend I’m Unity 1 and you’re Unity 2.

First, our ground rules: the 2 Principles of Moral Accounting:

1. Positive Action (Principle). Moral action is giving something of positive value. Immoral action is giving something of negative value.

2. Debt-Repayment (Principle). It is moral to repay ones debts and immoral not to.

Moral (Positive) Action: So I’ll begin by doing you a favour – a moral act according to Positive Action.

I feel good, but now our books aren’t balanced. You owe me according to Debt Repayment. But that’s OK because the next day you return a favour of a similar value,  satisfying both principles in the act.

3. Positive Response

Now we both feel good, because the books are balanced. So let’s go round again!

4. Virtuous Cycle of Mutual Balancing

And again…and again…and so the morality cycle turns: the thread by which the fabric of society is held together, with or without love, but better with it.

But what if you renege on your debt? Or it’s an unfair exchange? Or I enjoy holding you in bondage? Then we’ve both transgressed basic principles and our well-being must suffer at some level as a result – resentment, envy, pride –  because balancing the books is the name of the morality game.

Immoral (Negative) Action: OK now let’s imagine that, out of the blue, I do you a disservice. An immoral harm, which violates the Positive Action Principle.

6. Negative Action

In the heat of the moment, justifiably outraged, you see two options for a response. Both present you with a moral dilemma.

Option 1 is that you turn the other cheek. Whilst this is a moral response, in that it satisfies Positive Action, it also contravenes Debt Repayment because you now owe me a negative act.

7. No Response - Negative

Your Option 2 is to strike back. If you’re a legitimate authority, it’s retribution: punishment, prison, a military response, and so forth. If just you, it’s revenge. This time you fulfil Debt Repayment but breach Positive Action by committing a negative, and thus an immoral, act.

8. Debt Repayment - Negative

Thus both your options leave us having contravened basic moral principles and with our relationship remaining out of balance, all at the expense of our well-being.

What’s worse, is that I’m now faced with the same dilemma. Either I walk away, cheek stinging, breaching Debt Repayment without resolving the situation. Or I retaliate, potentially setting in motion a vicious immorality loop without end, where each turn adds to our shared baggage of immorality and spiritual self-harm.

9. Vicious Cycle of Immorality

Psychological Strategies for Coping with Immorality: The consequences of immoral dynamics for the human spirit are so onerous, we’ve developed a host of psychological coping strategies. When we walk away, we often cut off communication, negating the possibility of further transgressions, but also of reconciliation.

15. Cut off communicatino

If we choose revenge, we frequently dehumanise our enemy, rendering them terminally blameworthy, stupid, insane, broken, rotten or evil, and rewrite our narratives accordingly. Only by doing so, can we come to terms with the moral horror of eradicating them completely – our only hope for release from the immorality loop and, surely, the deep underpinning of such behaviours?

This strategy is often characterised by the disproportionate response which seeks to stamp out the threat of retaliation but, inevitably, adds interest to the debt to be repaid at some point in the future. Harm escalates.

16. Disproportionate Response

By either route, we frequently seek to recruit allies and, being a social and empathic species, we are usually successful. This tendency of immorality loops to draw others into their fearful vortices is a quality long capitalised upon by the unscrupulous as a fast-track to power.

16. Recruiting Allies

Lastly, we surrender our moral responsibility to an authority, and hope they are not unscrupulous.

However, nothing can change the fact that, according to fundamental principles, these options and strategies can never heal the problem. Each turn will only ever make things worse for our soul and world.

So can we ever make peace? Happily, yes. Again we have two options.

Peacemaking Actions: 

Option 1 is that I do you a good turn, one which acknowledges my immoral behaviour. According to Moral Accounting, my negative act means I owe you. Thus, my reparation satisfies both Positive Action and Debt Repayment and, providing you receive my gesture, our books are balanced once more.

10. Restitutive Justice

Restorative justice leverages this dynamic. It is unsurprising that in traditional societies, where immorality loops can mean cultural suicide, this is a popular approach for serious crimes.

Diamond describes a typical case of manslaughter in a Papua New Guinean tribe. The offender goes into hiding till emotions have cooled. Then, at a ritual facilitated by elders, they are brought face-to-face with the victim’s family, to hear of the pain they have caused. The offender then makes an apology (from the Greek “apologia” – “a speech in defence“), helping the victims to understand why the crime was committed. Finally, the offender makes an offering,  an atonement (from the Latin “adunare” – “to unite“) which has been collectively agreed beforehand to be proportionate to the harm – money, goods, work in kind. Almost identical processes can be found in indigenous cultures worldwide, including the weregild of the Viking and early Germanic tribes.

Recent US research has shown that judicial processes which foster such a dialogue show the highest rates of victim satisfaction and offender accountability. The Moral Accounting Metaphor explains why.

Option 2 is that you forgive, or pardon, me.

Interestingly, although both these words stem from the Vulgar Latin “perdonare” – to give, or remit, thoroughly – the root is the Latin expression “per donare” which meant solely to give unconditionally.

This would makes sense in Moral Accounting terms, where forgiveness is conceptualised as a Positive Action that you give wholeheartedly to yourself and, by so doing, redeem my debt to you, and balance our books.

This conception of forgiveness as Positive Action also remedies an unreturned moral act, for by giving the original favour unconditionally to you (and, in effect, to myself), I also leave you without obligation to me and, thus, balance our books.

Considering that forgiveness represents the only option by which a victim can resolve the spiritual cost of immoral acts and loops through personal action alone, it is hardly surprising the concept is central to all the major religions.

But how does all this help with complex tragedies like Hebdo, and their chaotic aftermath?

Because Moral Accounting suggests questions by which we might assess the morality and impacts of our personal responses in such situations, and those of others, to ensure they aren’t fuelling an immorality loop.

Heuristics for Assessing the Moral / Immoral Impact of a Response: 

1. Has an immoral act elicited the offence? Is the response reinforcing that immoral act?  Seeking to understand a crime from the offender’s perspective is not to condone it, but according to restorative justice, it can inform the responsibility of subsequent actions.

For example, vigorously promoting the Hebdo cartoons in the interests of free expression is counter-productive because it adds interest to the eliciting immoral act – that is the publication of content which is deeply sacrilegious and offensive to Muslims – and thus it can only fuel the immorality loop.

A positive restorative response might have been for authorities to acknowledge the indecency of the material (a Positive Action) and distance themselves from it, whilst also articulating clearly why free expression is important.


2. Does the response involve, or is it encouraging, retribution or revenge? Is it disproportionate and in the heat of the moment?  The shock and horror of the Paris massacre goes without question. Nevertheless, it still involved a relatively small group of offenders and victims. In the time since, a wave of anger and fear has driven retaliatory attacks against mosques across France and Europe, expanding the scope of the immorality cycle and the future debt repayments.

3. Is the immorality cycle serving powerful interests? Are either side ‘recruiting allies’ using emotional rhetoric which dehumanises and promotes retribution? Are you surrendering personal responsibility to their interpretation? For a situation which necessitates a cooling off period, powerful interests have been very quick with inflammatory accusations over Hebdo, often with a racist undertone. The official response seems, at best, ambiguous in efforts to draw a clear distinction between Islam, the peaceful religion, and Islamism, the radical ideology. At worst, it is actively encouraging confusion. Why?

The Paris attacks follow a century of brutal Western exploitation of Islamic countries and their fossil fuel resources. The War on Terror in recent decades has resulted in a colossal drain on the public purse in times of austerity and essential service cutsenormous wealth and power creation for the instigators, and the deaths of over a million civilians. Murder is always an immoral act, regardless of where it occurs.

Inarguably, the chaos and disempowerment resulting from such actions has played a central role in the rise of Islamism. If public outrage surrounding the Paris massacre is used as justification for stepping up overseas looting, and destroying trust and freedom at home, then Moral Accounting indicates more violence on our doorstep will be the inevitable result. Clearly, such responses also play directly into the hands of the Islamist recruiters, and this may very well have been the underlying objective of the Paris massacre.

In short, subscribing to an interpretation of a crime by those profiting from the immorality cycles which elicited it, is to reinforce the horror, their power, and surrender your responsibility for peacemaking. Beware of the emotion and the propaganda, and their motivations.

3. Is there any opportunity for victims and offenders to disclose pain and perspective face-to-face? Restorative justice isn’t an easy process, but it is a Positive Action which can balance the books, and it has a long proven track record.

10. Restitutive Justice

4. Can I forgive? Remember, to give unconditionally requires no-one but you.

It may be that you can’t. And that’s your prerogative. The aim of this article was not to deliver a sermon, only to show that, essentially, Moral Accounting always boils down to two choices – two futures – and that biology and cognitive linguistics suggest these are universal to all of us. Stated simply, your response should depend on which future you want to build.

In one future, immorality spirals, our relationships remain forever out of synch, and the toll on our society and spirit can be catastrophic. In the other, morality and reciprocity rule, our books are always balanced, and social integrity and well-being result.

As we’ve seen, the latter demands mindful, dispassionate responses which demonstrate personal responsibility, empathy with the enemy, restorative justice and, most of all, forgiveness. In a troubled world, this is the difficult road. It is also the only one that will ever make things better.

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