A Tale of Two Moralities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Everybody knows the first part, but nobody finishes the paragraph.[1] We are living in another such period of extremes, and importantly, perceived extremes (if, in fact, there was ever a time in which we did not live within and amongst the extremities of experience), one of profound promise for the future and of deep pessimism as our knowledge and social systems develop at a breakneck pace with changes in technology. This is overwhelming and forces us to decode and integrate all this new information into our value systems. Some things have not changed in 300,000 years, like the survival of our species always prodded into our conscious and unconscious minds by the promises and fears of pleasure and pain. Much of our group and individual behaviors derive from those two places, urging us to productive, procreative behavior. They are universals, and mutual experiences of pain and joy tie us together in communities, friendships, and families. The Covid-19 pandemic, while causing massive amounts of suffering throughout the world, has promoted political and social disunity in the United States – I offer no metrics, but I don’t believe this is a controversial statement. I don’t think people shared the same experiences regarding lockdowns, wealth accumulation, raising children, or personal grief. How could we when the nature of the shock, placing a tax on physical contact, necessarily impacted people of different economic statuses differently? During this most recent period of disruption and dislocation, technological innovations and the primacy of “social distancing” highlighted and enhanced our involvement and dependency on the internet. Communities of increasing sophistication developed by computer science experts and populated with regular citizens are prominent and a gateway to disintermediation and civic and economic democratization and decentralization. While over the last few decades, the physical state of the people of the world has improved in material ways – as it has almost continuously since the Renaissance – an ugly inequality the pandemic highlighted was the depressing increase in so-called “deaths of despair,” deaths caused by suicide, alcoholism, or drug use and addiction. One of the reasons why there was an increase in these deaths is that changing social circumstances and technological advances leave us unhappy in many ways, and I think this is almost always the paradox of progress.

Contradiction walks with humanity through any development, in any era. Our present age of contradictions is both personal and social. As technology becomes more specialized, intricate, and complex, the more the majority of people must rely on automated processes or expertise to harness the technologies. At the same time this is happening, trust in those processes and expertise is waning. We are: more free and more controlled, more educated and more ignorant, more contented and more unhappy. What is more, as these gulfs open up between us, and often within us, our sense of morality changes as well. Communities attached to moral changes fade and bloom, sometimes with stunning speed. With unlimited information decreasing centralized control and certainty about the future, these groups sometimes grow more certain in their beliefs. As former moral imperatives are rendered obsolete, the moral conviction of the new groups may grow. As apathy and ignorance grows, political and social conviction grows as well. As individual expression is unshackled, people seek familiar spaces in which to fit their views.

Online communication is intensely public, always curated, and responses can be thought about before they’re distributed. Social pressure is never far away from us, since we are in the digital panopticon when participating in the new public square. At the same time as our division seems to grow more heated even as the underlying principles lack depth, the punishment for deviation from the new principles is more severe, since deviations can rarely escape notice and social censure.

As new issues which are unaddressed by old moral commitments increase in salience, new patterns emerge. A rise in the spread of “misinformation” raises questions of the costs which the collective must pay to allow such openness. Increased understanding of the complexity of dynamic systems and psychology reveals formerly hidden inequalities tied to race, and other ethnic or social features which provoke bias. Globalization promotes prosperity in the world, but what of its economic harm at home? Many of these questions lead to fundamental political policy disagreements, but so much of our conflict skirts the edges of these issues. Both the word “moral” and “ethic” derive from concepts related to appropriate conduct in public society (a favorite pastime is looking up the etymology of words, it can be wonderfully revealing about the connotations of words, and how we think). This etymology provides us with an intuition that morals change when the mass of people shift their beliefs. Community morals are habitual, they are a learned behavior, not an innate one.

Over time we have come to expect an unrestrained freedom of speech, for example. This has caused a conflict involving the spread of so-called misinformation as I mentioned above. The term “free speech” is a kind of anachronism. We are using a term from the 1700’s to mean something entirely different than what “freedom of speech” meant to those who framed the idea in our Constitution. We are accustomed to a wild license the Founding Fathers never would have recognized. Freedom of speech, in the way we mean it now, means: being able to express almost any idea that is not specifically criminal without being subjected to public censure and “deplatforming,” much less legal sanction!

An ironic process occurred whereby the ability to debate the scope of regulation of speech for the good of the community was curtailed by formal legal sanction which made static our modern sense of free speech. Judges stifled debate, disallowing fundamental discussions about the nature of free speech. That is not to say our current definition of free speech is bad, just that even such deeply held values as this are changeable over time, and even those values are subject to larger frameworks of universal understanding.

All of these frameworks and their structures of value come from the organization of our communities. Our old tribal identities are failing, so we create new ones, especially ones that are mutually intelligible over the internet, where ethnicity, race, religion, and nationality are less important markers and where people can maintain multiple identities at once. Ambiguity, decentralization, and information-overload feeds common linkages by allowing people to pluck a sense of certainty out of “too much information” by finding evidence that conforms to almost any group view.

As all these traditional links of community are shorn away, people revert to more primitive expressions of group solidarity, namely: collective suffering. Much of this suffering forms from oppression, or a sense of victimhood, which can have social benefits.

I think we are going through a period of moral illegibility and changed communication patterns which compel the creation of new communities.

A visual display of a Twitter network, showing people crossing between different clusters – different communities

Our associations grow smaller and more local by the day, but the broader social groups that remain are the fumes evaporated from more substantial ideas. The Church’s creed of “Love Thy Neighbor and Thy Enemy” replaced by the creed of prosperity gospel and anti-abortion politics, the capitalist injunction to serve the greater good through individual prosperity and industry replaced by “number go up,” the principles of a restrained government which protects citizens from subjective reasons for imprisonment, dispossession of property, and execution reduced to the freedom to not wear a mask.

Emancipation from the ages-old oppressions of arbitrary government – government which obtains its authority on the principles of birth, force, or the supernatural – and poverty, vacates the vitality of our broad communal associations, and masses of information inhibit the growth of new, broader ideals. This social anarchy is anathema to our biology and to governments. As the chaos from the base of the social pyramid grows, the more force will be applied from the apex. I don’t think it is random that we’re seeing a rise in autocracy around the globe. This dual movement, one of simultaneous freeing and constricting social influences, accompanies improvements in communications technology.

The invention of moveable type in Europe helped enable the Reformation, as Luther’s ideas spread throughout Europe – provoking rebellion, and in turn, enormous forces of repression. French Revolutionary ideals were distributed through innumerable pamphlets, newspapers, and even in letters from an increasingly literate populace to one another, while that same literary explosion contributed to the social uniformity and contagious fear that permitted the atrocious War in the Vendée and the Reign of Terror. Radio helped to create a society with flourishing national entertainments and an outlet for bold and imaginative artistry and dissemination of knowledge of current events, while allowing the development of monoculture and proving an invaluable aid to government propaganda. Social media helps oppressed citizens organize an Arab Spring, and enforces rigid social controls. With each successive, more immediate, more immersive, more personal advance in communications technology comes a stronger direct linkage to broad social and public affairs for each individual. Crime in San Francisco makes an emotional impact on a person in rural Vermont, or a law in Texas is reviled by a person in Los Angeles. Or the experience of a person in Australia is widely shared in the United States as evidence of dangerous COVID policy, and a racist incident in Wales gets a magazine story in the US. It makes sense that such a broadening of perspective would generalize emotional reactions.

Never have so many people been so free to invent and live in their own moral codes, or to live by the fruits of their own intellectual labor, but few people are able to stand entirely in their own view of the world. People will seek out community, even if it is not an apparent motivation to themselves at all. Our social interactions are always ambiguous and layered. The confident newcomer enters a group and boldly greets others, making conversation and telling people about themself. Everyone knows that this is both a genuine attempt to learn about and introduce oneself to others while simultaneously being an act, a method of securing social support from others. People exist on different levels: the person we see, the person we believe we are based on our own internal psychology, and the person we don’t know. We contain multitudes, the endless pathways of our mind unfurling into dark territory – virgin terrain even to ourselves.

And even as the world becomes connected in more complex ways, with identities not limited to one group or another, a paradox exists wherein our perception of there being fewer dominant ideologies increases.

Americans are now convinced that we are polarized (and of course, politically, we are), but this perception is more important than an actual fact, if it is indeed true. People may not even know themselves, let alone others, and most of us are far too complicated to be crammed into one of two social-political groupings, and far too uncaring or ignorant to have coherent political ideologies. Popular pundits and politicians reinforce this view by taking individual actions or beliefs of individual people and forcing them to be representative of a supposedly coherent whole – part of the cherry-picking process enabled by endless flows of information. Social media and the internet exacerbates some of these dynamics whereby hidden communities, with loosely held beliefs which are broadly applicable and do not preclude participation in other communities, are created and strengthened.

Seeking out “independent” centers of thought to combat mainstream orthodoxy hides the development of new communities with their own orthodoxy. For instance, in combating the groupthink of the “liberal mainstream media,” there is a covert community of “conservative” morality and analysis of climate change. There is a robust and widespread “contrarian consensus” about the harm caused by restricting the use of fossil fuels. Take the rising popularity of the “Doomberg” account on Twitter and Substack, who explains in clear, imaginative terms this contrarian consensus view of climate-change influenced fossil fuel policies.[2] The same can be said of the intelligence and law-enforcement apparatuses of the United States’ government. When Glenn Greenwald or Matt Taibbi focus their efforts on elevating conservative-grievance-politics talking-points (e.g. that the riot at the Capitol was not a big deal), they are feeding a view of the world which girds a community that often transcends our two political parties. Many of the arguments are true, or at least true in parts, but leave out reasonable counters. Commentators often grow upset about big tech censorship of conservatives, but almost every single day the top pages shared on Facebook are dominated by conservative pundits. This may not prove anything at all, but it is just as fit a data point as any made by an “independent.” These “independent” positions are nothing of the sort. They are not iconoclastic, they are, in fact, the stable views of a large community often based around grievances toward “elites” and crimping of personal freedoms.

New moral groupings can be found in almost any community touched by or reliant on the internet. Take a financial market-focused community on Reddit, whose popularity has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, r/wallstreetbets. I would argue that it is bound together as much by posting screenshots of losses (they even have a term: “loss porn”) than by the huge gains. A perusal through other new financial subreddits (ones focused on meme-stocks AMC or GME for instance) reveals a lot about the not-immediately-apparent glue of these communities. Noticeable there, again, is the focus on group suffering and persecution. Reading or listening to more traditional financial groups, like value investors, also yields the same focus on suffering and group-wide value judgments.

People talk a lot about fear and greed, and behavioral errors, and the madness of crowds, but I see a lot of moral judgments in markets.

It is immoral for Tesla to get bid up (go to zero).

It is immoral for people to short (ape in to) AMC and GME.

It is immoral for people to claim that BTC is going to zero ($100K).

It is immoral for commodity prices to increase (decline) exponentially.

In the broad culture and political strife which we perceive manifesting in political polarization, morality and suffering are prominent. Though I submit that this strife is still not apparent as being more about community rather than policy issues.

What we are witnessing in the fear of critical race theory, or the conviction of white Americans that they’re being discriminated against, or anti-vaccine hyperbolics claiming there is a coming genocide is not idiocy or irrational fear, it is a set of intertwined signals of common persecution and suffering based on a specific moral code (one based around ideals of autonomy) which enhances group cohesion. On the “liberal” side we see a similar set of signals of group suffering, based around moral ideals of equality, wherein you see the conviction that racism is at all-time highs, that minorities and low-income workers are being especially economically oppressed, and that global warming is going to drive of us to the edge of extinction because of capitalist greed.

Again, these ideas of moral purity attained through suffering and bonding through persecution are not new, they are ancient, as old as human beings. The development of new moralities is a perilous endeavor, however. There is great danger in periods of such social anarchy. George Orwell reviewed Hitler’s tome, Mein Kampf, in 1940, offering a valuable and prescient insight (highlights mine):

Also [Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

There is so much moral virtue and camaraderie in suffering, it is so powerful that it can be irresistible. The abstractions of the internet have created a possibly new way for suffering and persecution to be manufactured.  We don’t have to look far to see the emotional and moral appeal of the new American conservatism of Donald Trump[3], from his inaugural address (highlights mine):

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes, starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment — it belongs to you…

…The forgotten men and women of our country, will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public, but for too many of our citizens a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge, and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

We are one nation and their pain is our pain

A Trump Rally in Mesa Arizona, notice the sign: Jobs vs. Mobs

Of course, there is truth here just like there is truth in the critiques of the independent journalists and the financial communities. There are people who are struggling, who are deprived, who are robbed of their potential. But the basis of the group identity he is claiming as the base of his sovereignty is shared suffering on a massive scale, the group he’s speaking to, the MAGA crowd, is being singled out as being burdened especially by the persecution of “elites.” Despite Trump’s brutal ignorance and depraved vulgarity, he repeated this effective message over and over in his campaign rallies, the mere content of which was too often ignored in favor of his buffoonish and risible statements regarding his many personal enemies. The value of this in the era of information overload is that anyone can claim they are part of the oppressed grouping, MAGA could be accepted by anyone, anyone can be a victim in one of these areas if they choose to identify themselves as such. And then it can be backed with barrages of statistics, or infinite cherry-picked examples. It is impossible to pin down the suffering of the group exactly, it is a feeling, a perception. It is amorphous and non-dependent on any outward marker of group-affiliation, like age or race.

As for the group based around the morality of equality, here is a quote from antiracism activist Ibram X. Kendi, in response to the question (paraphrased), what does a version of America look like where a person’s character matters more than their race? (again, highlights mine):

Well, what it looks like for me as a black American is that people do not view me as dangerous and thereby make my existence dangerous. It allows me to walk around this country and to not believe that people are going to fear me because of the color my skin. It allows me to believe, you know what, I didn’t get that job because I could have done better on my interview, not because of the color of my skin. It allows me to — a country where there’s racial equity, a country where there’s racial justice, you know, a country where there’s shared opportunity, a country where African American culture and Native American culture and the cultures of Mexican Americans and Korean Americans are all valued equally, that no one is being asked to assimilate into white American culture. There’s no such thing as standard professional wear. There’s no such thing as, well, you need to learn how to speak English in order to be an American. And we would truly not only have equity and justice for all but we would somehow have found a way to appreciate difference, to appreciate all of the human ethnic and cultural difference that exists in the United States. This is what could make this country great, in which we literally become a country where you could literally travel around this country and learn about cultures from all over the world and appreciate those cultures, and understand even your own culture from what other people are doing. There’s so much beauty here amid all this pain and I just want to peel away and remove away all of those scabs of racist policies so that people can heal and so that we can see true beauty.

This is a radical redefinition of what it means to be American (or perhaps, what it meant in the past), far away from dictates of the Constitution, or the primacy of democracy and capitalism. These new tribes, based primarily around suffering, are not anything like our old tribes, despite using such an ancient point of communalism. What is interesting about Kendi’s take here on his ideal community is that, even though it is centered around both the equality and autonomy of different racial groupings, it is an attitude that literally anyone can adopt: one of antiracism. So like MAGA’s tribe of persecution, antiracism’s tribe of equality is available to anyone who wishes to adopt it. Also, due to the appeals to structural and systemic racism, almost any policy or circumstance can be claimed to be racist, even if there is scant evidence. It is a completely inclusive group of choice, united solely by its conviction that the current government and policies of the country, and the beliefs of citizens, are inflicting pain and suffering on minority groups and the non-wealthy.

These new moralities competing with one another are both so broad and distant from more rigorous versions of their pure ideological ancestors and actual considerations of specific allocations of scarce resources that they promise complete inclusiveness. How easy is it to say online (or in a text, for that matter) “We have to stand up to the elites to prevent people from suffering?” That sentence could be used by both the autonomy and equality groupings to signal support of moral virtue, a commonality of suffering, and inclusion in an ideological tribe. What’s more, the generalities and distance of these communities from the actual, specific policy decisions that their moralities imply allows people to exist in other more focused or local groups, since there is no necessary exclusivity.

BLM protest in Stockholm, Sweden, highlighting the multiethnic nature of the movement

As seems to happen so often with large disruptive events, the unexpected tragedy of the pandemic hit our collective society at its most vulnerable points. It strained trust in governing institutions, projected wealth inequality in harsh relief, and disrupted the flow of goods and services in the global economy. There is no guarantee of quick relief from the pandemic, and there is no “normal” to which we can go back. And change is not going to decelerate. Every time communications technology improves, it becomes more intimate, it enables more individuality, setting us at opposition with our own selves and our innate, incontrovertible, inextinguishable yearning for a place in a community. There is opportunity here, as in so many other technological disruptions, for the creation of new morals and new morality which are precipitated by new social or political challenges. Reimagining our communities in new constructs of morality allowed for the destruction of slavery, the condemnation and curtailment of genocide, the alleviation of poverty, the right to education and so many wonderful innovations that were not innate in novel technology itself. New moralities also aided Totalitarianism, Imperialism, global conflict, and other evils of societies and government over the centuries.

I think, when political ideology and policy preference are understood, most often, as moral signaling centered around group suffering, our bitter cultural disputes become more rational. Instead of imputing irrationality to people, or stupidity, or malevolence, we can understand how our conflicts are often driven by the simple, persistent need to alleviate the anxiety and loneliness of social and moral homelessness in a time when mass amounts of communication is conducted in a virtual setting.

It is astonishing and poignant that, through all our advances, our unavoidable frailty and pain and willingness to sacrifice and suffer for one another remains such a powerful binding agent, giving purpose and meaning to our lives. As the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities are famous, so are the closing ones, relating a character’s thoughts about his own impending sacrifice of his life for the betterment of others:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”


[1] Not a bad metaphor for our contextless information society, eh?

[2] An excellent read by the way, I recommend it heartily: @doombergT on Twitter, https://doomberg.substack.com/

[3] My juxtaposition here is not meant to compare Donald Trump with Hitler, just to show the appeal and bond which suffering creates

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