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Rifkin on Morality, Part 2

February 4, 2012

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Excerpted from The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, by Jeremy Rifkin:

“Immanuel Kant made the rational case for the Golden Rule in the modern age in his famous categorical imperative.  Kant’s imperative is in two parts.  first, ‘act only on that maxim that can at the same time be willed to become a universal law.’  Second, ‘Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.’  Although Kant eliminated the self-interested aspect of doing good that was so much a part of most religious experiences, he also eliminated the ‘felt’ experience that makes compassion so powerful and compelling.

…Kant argued that the senses were not trustworthy guides to moral behavior–feelings, emotions, and passions are much too subjective and arbitrary to establish universal moral standards.  Instead, he argued that his categorical imperative is an articulation of a universal moral code that is applicable at all times and under every conceivable circumstance, independent of the empirical situation.  In other words, pure reason, detached from emotional subjectivity, dictates one’s moral duty.  The moral person is cool, detached, disinterested, and driven by reason and moral obligation rather than emotion and passion.

Even Freud in his masterful frontal assault on rational consciousness felt compelled to introduce a disembodied moral mechanism to oversee what he considered to be the irrational libidinal impulses.  The introduction of the idea of ‘the unconscious’ wreaked havoc on the older idea of a rational mind acting dispassionately as a governor of human agency.  Human beings, he suggested, are ridden with primeval libidinal drives–this is the realm of the Id, where the pleasure principle rules.

Although Freud argued that the reality principle and ego formation are quickly introduced in early infancy to hold these powerful forces at bay, he nonetheless felt compelled to introduce a third structure, the superego, as a disembodied moral authority to govern social behavior.  The Superego, the mind’s moral authority, exists independently of the body’s corporeal experience and acts as a universal moral compass, much like Kant’s categorical imperative.

In all three stages of human consciousness–theological, ideological, and early psychological–moral authority is disembodied, at least in the mainstream orthodoxy.  The reason is that bodily experience is considered either fallen, irrational, or pathological.  The result is that throughout history, a schism exists between people’s bodily experience on one hand and our moral prescription on the other hand.  It’s as if our bodily experience has to be forced, molded, and cajoled to adhere to our moral codes.  In other words, the implied supposition is that human nature is at odds with morally correct behavior and needs to be ‘whipped into line’ figuratively as well as literally.  This is the is/ought gap our philosophers constantly allude to, the idea that it is impossible to bridge the divide between the way human behavior ‘is’ and the way it ‘ought’ to behave.  As long as embodied experience is considered to be irrelevant or at odds with moral laws, there will always be a gap between what is and what ought to be human behavior.”

Continue to Part 3


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