The Quality of Mercy
Most people’s knee-jerk response to a question of external ethical systems (are good and evil relative or absolute?) is that morals are human-derived and cultural. On the one hand this is true— in humans everything except fear of falling is learned and therefore culturally derived. On the other hand it is false. All human ‘laws’ are actually justifications: because you have transgressed/ been convicted /are guilty, society as personified by myself or my nominees is justified and right in this punishment. As is most always the case when justification is employed, the justifiers (or ‘right’) are scraping up a bunch of quibbling props to allow them to behave badly towards the guilty party (the ‘wrong’). ‘In this case’, ‘Ordinarily I wouldn’t’, or ‘Now you have forfeited the right’ are all just politer circumlocutions of ‘I know I am acting wrongly, but’ because at heart you know you are dishing out to someone else what you wouldn’t eat yourself. On the gripping hand, it is the impulse towards kindness and consideration, towards mercy— the kernel of ‘nice’ inside the shell of ‘right’— that defines good.
The other knee-jerk response is that (as the absence of light is dark) evil is merely the absence of good and, like moral systems, exists only inside the human mind. Sad to say, belief in Incarnate Evil is an integral part of my world view. Although light (again physics intrudes unpleasantly) has odd properties, it is, however, a real thing— measurable, stable, and part of the external world. We see poorly ‘in the dark’ and cat’s eyes see ‘better’ (more effectively) in low light but the light is the same; the difference is in our equipment, the rods and cones in our respective eyes. If we typify humans as= ‘moral’ and cats as ‘amoral’ then it is our differing ethical equipment that allows the distinction.
Part of our equipment is extrapolation— if a cat wants to sit where another cat is sitting ze will use stern looks, pushing, threats (both auditory and physical), and finally whacking-on-the-noze. Humans sometimes use this same cascade but the civilized expectation is for request and negotiation before pushing. Humans can teach cats with moderate success to not scream and whack in the presence of humans. The cats are employing an external moral system in exactly the same way that many humans do— ‘if I am seen to be doing what is forbidden I will be punished’— the guilt lies in discovery.
Cats extrapolate slightly— if they are not aware of humans they will scream and whack freely, although they will stop and pretend no whacking was occurring as soon as they realize their mistake. Humans do this as well (although they do not break off their fights to groom) but humans can carry this one step further if they choose. Humans can place themselves in the other point-of-view. ‘I would not want to be stuffed in a trash can by someone twice my size‘ ….. ‘perhaps being twice the size of someone does not justify pushing them around’. Cats (as far as I have ever seen) never do this, humans sometimes do.
This extrapolation, the assumption of commonality, is the first step of goodness. Nothing in it actually supports Right Action— if a bully fully and unreservedly expects to be abused by those larger than ze than any action is acceptable. As well, if I like cilantro than I am completely justified in making everyone to whom it tastes like soap eat it too. Giving other humans the choice of self-direction is the other side of ‘moral law’. Free will is everything’s birthright. Not that every being gets to keep their inherent free will; since it is the fulcrum on which everything pivots it is under attack constantly.
On the one hand, systems and individuals try to grab up the free will of others— my laws, my beliefs, my culture, my ‘more powerful than you’ allows me to dictate your behaviour, your beliefs, your right of possession. On the other hand, people constantly tell themselves lies— the laws I live under, the beliefs taught to me, my powerlessness/ unworthiness constrain my thoughts and actions against my will. People search long and hard for ‘masters’ who will accept the responsibility of taking away the power of decision from their followers.
But first, their followers let them.
On the gripping hand, when someone takes away another’s free will by force or when someone denies themselves their own birthright and gives their will to another, they are choosing. When they choose to act (or decide not to act, only the other side of the labrys) their action reverberates— they define how they want the world to be, they pick their own rightness or wrongness, and they inform the Gods and make an offering of that action. It seems a ridiculous weight to put on ‘throw down the wrapper/put it in your pocket for later disposal’ but everything counts. The lie that ‘this is trivial, when it’s important I will make a different choice’ is one of the oftenest-told. A little thought will almost always indicate right action. (sigh) It’s almost always the (slightly or immensely) more difficult action.
The prime directive (don’t be a douche) and the first law (everybeing has free will) are the ideal that underlies not only all human moral systems but also, to some extent, are reflected in the Gods’ interactions with us and each other–and so they are neither culturally learned nor human based.
Sometimes when I discuss my archaic beliefs I am informed with pious condescension that “the Gods are not human”, by which the people I am talking to generally mean ‘the Gods can use dictatorial force and pre-emptive actions and make arbitrary demands if They want to‘. And of course They can because They are not human and are much more powerful than we as well as being largely inscrutable to us. Sometimes our powerlessness and incomprehension seem to make us unable to tell Them ‘no’ when They ask with Their Large Voices (and sometimes we go crazy or die with the ‘no’ on our lips) but They always ask. Examination of multicultural lore shows us this.
The Father of Lies and His Minions, the crafty lying F***ies, have to obtain permission from their victims. They, the ultimate free-market capitalists, unhesitatingly tell lies about their offers but if they can convince people that rotten husks and stagnant water in a hovel is a magical feast in an other-world castle, they will honestly come through with the husks and water. Like robber barons throughout time, they will laugh through the cigar smoke and assure each other that those poor folk do not feel things as they do (I’m not a douche and you’re not one either) and that if only they weren’t so stupid and not-really-like-us they would be one-of-us (only everybeing we give ‘being’ status to has free will). Even Yahweh, the toughest game-show-host ever, is playing ‘let’s make a deal’ with Abraham.
This we read in lore; what is undocumented belief on my part is that the Good Gods (not Those who act with demonstrable ethics, They all do, but Those who act for the betterment of Their acolytes) are more powerful than the Not-Good UnGods. And that They are aware of and amenable to an on-going communication (as in ‘I speak to You who have often spoken/ Let the bond between us be unbroken’). When I am threatened by Evil or by my own stupidity, often the Good (although fairly demanding) Goddess to Whom I am dedicated will nudge aside the worst outcome:
The Hand of the Goddess over me,
The Gods between me and harm.
Let it be so; so let it be-
Your power works the charm.
Judith O’Grady is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’). She’s also the author of God-Speaking.