Robert Pirsig is the best selling author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. He is also the author of another book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. I've read both books. Most recently I finished reading Lila... for the third time. I can't say there are many if any other books that I have read three times in my life, but this one was definitely worth it.
Furthermore, as I have a much clearer intention of writing my own book, in this reading of Lila... I allowed myself the freedom to underline and write comments in the margins. Because of this, I feel I digested these ideas much more thoroughly than in the first two readings. In addition, over the past couple of weeks I have been very intentionally bringing these ideas into conversation wherever appropriate, and I am finding more and more instances where Pirsig's perspectives do have relevance.
So, to offer a brief summary:
In Lila... Pirsig challenges the "subject-object" metaphysics of scientific materialism replacing it with his "Metaphysics of Quality". In this "Metaphysics of Quality" he sees the first division of reality being between "static" and "Dynamic" Quality. Furthermore, he sees reality sub-divided into what he calls "patterns of value" that exist at different levels; i.e. there are Inorganic Patterns of Value, Biological Patterns of Value, Social Patterns of Value, and Intellectual Patterns of Value. There is an implicit evolutionary hierarchy here as well as "moral codes" that exist at the interfaces of each level. For instance there are certain "moral codes" that guide the interactions of biological patterns of value with inorganic patterns of value. As expressed by various cultures around the world, there are "moral codes" that guide the behavior of individual biological organisms within various societies (and this could actually be said of non-human as well as human societies, although human societies tend to be the most diverse and complex). As exemplified in our "Bill of Rights", there has been an advance in recognizing the place of "Intellectual Freedom" even in the midst of a Society - for instance, with Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion.
About half way through the book, Pirsig points to the Victorian era as representing the last point when "Society" was seen as the highest expression of human development. To know if something was moral, all one had to do was answer the question: "Does society approve?" With this guideline, both biology and intellect were seen as subservient to the prevailing social moral codes.
However, during WWI this "virtuous and noble" Victorian society saw fit to send millions of its young men to their deaths. With the introduction of the Gatling Gun, the casualties were enormous and gruesome. Those who survived were left to question how such a "virtuous and noble" society could be so willing to sacrifice so many of its members. In addition, there was an increasing shift away from those social moral codes as the perspectives of scientific materialism framed the world as not having, nor needing any kind of moral codes to guide it. Everything was seen to be happening by "chance," or the seemingly random assembly of molecules that eventually led to the appearance of complex human beings. Furthermore, since neither a "moral" nor a "society" could really be studied, like a scientist studies a microbe under a microscope, then these were essentially disregarded as having no real "existence" at all, let alone any "value".
Therefore, the generation that followed WWI embraced Intellectual Freedom over social moral codes and traditions. In order to determine if something were "good" one needed only to appeal to one's intellect and the "proofs" provided by science, including anthropology. For instance, if free sexual exploration as teenagers was "good" for Samoan society, than it could be "good" for every other society as well. Pirsig sees the shift of the power base from the Old Victorians to the New Intellectuals exemplified in the election of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the first president to have also been a university professor.
It is from the rising Intellectual Class that the ideas of social engineering via socialism and communism came into vogue. And from Pirsig's point of view, WWII was really a war between the Old Guard of social moral codes and social authority (represented by Fascism) and the New Guard of Intellectuals and scientific materialism dominating society. And the New Guard ultimately won that battle.
From my point of view, the development of the atomic bomb, though pursued for military reasons, was also a pursuit of the intellectuals and the scientists, again without any regard for the moral implications of their work. It was only after their success, and the use of the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that those moral implications became much more obvious, especially to Robert J. Oppenheimer. He became a voice against the use of the weapons later in his life, a challenge to the New Intellectual and Scientific Elite, and he was branded a traitor as a consequence.
(Even to this day, many people question the MORALITY of ever developing, let alone using the atomic bomb. But keep in mind, scientific materialism cannot consider morals. The scientific method provides no tools for observing or studying morals. Morals are beyond the purview of science as we currently know it. The "morality" of creating atomic weapons was never at issue, only the facts of the science of creating them, and who could discover those facts and implement them first. If we are going to let the assumptions of scientific materialism guide us, this is logically where they lead.)
By the '60's and '70's a new rebellion took place. This time it was initiated by fairly well-off and fairly well-educated young men and women who not only continued the attack against "society" and "social moral codes" started after WWI, but also began to attack the Intellectuals and Intellectual Institutions that had grown up since then. The new answer to the question "Is it right?" or "Is it good?" - became "If it feels good, do it!" Interestingly enough, as Pirsig points out, many of these young people began to steer their lives towards adopting the social patterns of Native Americans; i.e. more gentle rearing of children, simplicity, speaking directly, and being closer to nature, among other things. However, he also goes on to point out, that this kind of "laid back" approach to day to day life does not "fit" well in an urban setting, where there are other expectations - like being on time to do a job where other people are depending on you.
I guess the most important take home point I got from reading this chronicle was this: The revolutionaries of the '60's and '70's made no distinctions between biological freedom and intellectual freedom. I have realized that "If it feels good, do it!"is the most primitive motto of all individual biological organisms. However, even within the first colonial organisms, some of that individual biological freedom had to be sacrificed for the benefit of living more safely and securely within a group of similar individuals.
That most basic pattern of sacrifice of individual biological freedom for the benefit of being part of a collective has replicated itself throughout the evolutionary tree. In other words, some of the most primitive single cells that organize themselves into colonies "understand" that complete "biological freedom" is not "moral" if you want to live in a group with others like yourself. And yet, back in the '60's and '70's this "moral code", that even the members of a Volvox colony could understand and value, got thrown out the window and was replaced with the idea that every individual should be free to do whatever they want, no matter how it affects the people around them. In other words..."If it feels good do it!" and following that - "survival of the fittest"...
So here we are roughly 50 years later, and if you judge by that particular moral code; i.e."if it feels good, do it," and "survival of the fittest", then the Big Corporations and the Big Governments and the Most Powerful Countries are also the most "moral". Hey...they're just "playing by the rules"! Everyone has decided those old Victorians were idiots and didn't have any clue about how to be part of a society. Furthermore, the intellectuals got off track since they could not see a "moral" or see a "society" in any kind of meaningful way, and, consequently, they had nothing to offer to replace the social moral codes of the Victorians.
Now our technology has completely outpaced our Moral Maturity as far as evolutionary progress is concerned. As I listened to Noam Chomsky speak recently on "Security and State Policy", I completely understood why, when it comes to Security of the Society - i.e. the Majority of the People living in this country (for instance), none of our leaders really care if we get blown up by terrorists, as long as They don't get blown up by terrorists, as long as any of their financial backers and corporations do not get blown up by terrorists. They have no sense of being Part of a/Our Society, or accountable by any "moral social codes" that include all of the rest of us. They are just doing their own thing for themselves, while they feed off the rest of us, and off the rest of our labor and intelligence.
However, if you can imagine that a "society" is a real thing. That we are part of a society that is simply a different level or type of "organism" or "pattern of values" to use Pirsig's term, then the 1% are like a cancer that has been growing and growing and growing, building more and more avenues/blood vessels through which to channel the resources of this society/organism to themselves.
There are some people out there who are thinking, like many medical doctors think about cancer, that we're going to have to "radiate the entire body" in order to kill off the cancer. Those are a lot of your violent revolutionaries and apocalyptic thinkers. Of course, such a violent and radical approach risks killing the body itself. Violent revolution can be that kind of "chemotherapy", in that it can destroy the "innocent/healthy" cells as well as the "cancerous" ones, and there is a very good chance that the patient will die - that the patient will not have enough functioning parts left to survive after the cancer is gone.
In his books, Paul K. Chappell writes about violent approaches to resolving major conflicts as being similar to using amputation of a wounded leg to prevent infection rather than antibiotics. He asserts that the key is better understanding. Just as medical doctors have made progress in understanding how the body works, so they know it is better to give antibiotics rather than cut off a leg, so the populations of the world must better understand the nature of conflict in order to find a more precise way of dealing with it that does not involve violence.
Interestingly enough, (and I think without really knowing it) Chappell has offered a new version of a "social moral code" that we might aspire to, especially in his book, Peaceful Revolution. And knowing Chappell somewhat personally, I'd say he would have probably been quite comfortable in Victorian society! I will not say that he has All of the Answers, but a lot of his work certainly points in a general direction that I feel needs to be considered seriously, especially in light of Robert Pirsig's ideas as well.
One of the strategic instructions of Chappell's work centers on the teaching of Sun Tzu in The Art of War: Never attack your opponent at their strongest point. Our government in combination with the current corporate powers, has the most highly trained and technologically advanced military and police forces in the world. Consequently, to try to dismantle any of that through violent revolution would be devastating for all concerned. Again, that is more like the "radiate the entire body to destroy the cancer" approach. And in this case, the cancer has a much stronger immune system than the body itself. Instead, as Chappell suggests, we have to attack them at the level of their Moral Authority, where they are weakest.
However, in order to do that, as a society, we have to be functioning with a Higher Moral Code ourselves...and that means we have to understand the difference between "biological freedom" and "intellectual freedom". We have to fully understand that we cannot have total "biological freedom" and be part of a stable, sustainable, society or world for that matter. Consequently, when we say we want more "freedom" we are going to have to be very, very clear about what that means. From my point of view, that needs to mean we want more "freedom" to create new forms of society and community that are not at the mercy and threat of the political and financial "cancers" that have grown up in our midst.
Think of the movie,The Wolf of Wall Street. This movie epitomizes the ideas of "survival of the fittest" and "if it feels good, do it". Those ideas make up the (biological) "moral code" we are actually functioning under, especially here in the West and it is the same "moral code" we have been exporting throughout the world for decades now. However, if that really is the "moral code" we have (mostly unconsciously) agreed to in this society, ever since the revolutions of the '60s and '70s, then those who manage to survive the longest and make the most money to "do whatever makes them feel good", are the MORAL VICTORS here!!!! And we have NO RIGHT TO BE COMPLAINING about them!!!
Furthermore, if the people who want to challenge them only want to displace them so a New Group can continue to survive at the expense of the rest of society, then that means that those "displacers" are Not Representing a HIGHER MORAL CODE. Such displacement of the current powers that be without a Change of Moral Codes is NOT GOING TO MAKE FOR ANY FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE for society, and that means for Most of the Rest of Us and for the World!...
Really take some time to think about that...
...However, if each of us is willing to recognize that, no matter how loosely we may be held together right now, we are already a part of a Society of Humankind. And to actually make those bonds stronger, we have to recognize that there is a Different Moral Code to guide our behaviors as part of this Society. That Moral Code means giving up at least some elements of our "individual biological freedom"; i.e. to "do whatever makes me feel good," or "reproduce as many babies as I want to, with or without a partner, with or without the means to support them," or to "eat as much crap as I want to even if my bad health negatively impacts the people around me and the medical system that supports us," or to "consume all kinds of resources that I really don't need just because I can," or "Let me speculate in the stock market for short-term gains at the expense of long-term financial stability", etc., etc., etc. If we can collectively move beyond the biological moral code of "if it feels good do it" and "survival of the fittest", and once again find our path to a new, and actually, More Intelligent "Social Moral Code" then, and Only Then, will we be in a position of Moral Authority over those elements of our society that are currently in power - elements that are clearly not functioning with anything like a Social Moral Code except maybe "Honor Among Thieves"!
And, maybe, hopefully, we can turn this mess around in time, and help to renew the other critical component of our survival here - the Earth itself, upon which ALL biological organisms and societies and free thinkers depend.
You cannot have Biology without the Earth, you cannot have Society without individual biological organisms working cooperatively to sustain it, you cannot have Intellectual Development without a Society that is there to educate its members and to give them the tools of self-discipline to regulate their biological drives so that they can be productive and contributing members to that society, and you cannot have Intellectual Freedom without a Society that understands that without it, there can be no New Ideas that help to keep Society moving forward.
I am grateful for the society of which I am a part, in spite of its obvious problems. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had for gainful employment that have allowed me to sustain my biological needs and to further my education. I appreciate the technology that is available to me to continue to expand my knowledge of others ideas and to communicate my own.
And I am grateful for all of the people in my life who read my blogs, who are critical thinkers and communicators themselves, and who are doing whatever they can to make the world and this society a better place for all of us to live and grow and develop our full potentials as human beings, both individually and collectively.
I have hope for the future, knowing what I know now. But I do feel a certain Urgency in spreading these ideas, as the clock is ticking for how long we can keep going down the path we are on. I would hate to see all that we have managed to create here "go to waste" when so much of it can be salvaged with a fairly simple shift in understanding; part of which again, is understanding the difference between biological and intellectual freedom and the critical role a healthy, functional, society plays in mediating between the two.
I welcome your questions and feedback...