Aug 2012

Little Town on the Moral Landscape.

We are on a space mission to revisit that strange twin sister earth that orbits exactly opposite us and behind the sun. It is a mirror world where the letter R goes the other way and toothbrush bristles are on the other side of the toothbrush.

On this earth, people evolved from squirrels with large foreheads and opposable pinkies. They live in vast metropolii just like we do. Our mission’s goal is to bring back a summary of the squirrel people’s morality to our earth. We have invisible drone aircraft with cameras that can zip through the streets of any Squirrelville unnoticed. Teams of scientist will inspect every fly-by and we can make lots of fly-bys. We won’t need to draw any conclusions on the first pass.

Each pass shows dozens of little stories playing out that demonstrate anecdotal examples of Squirreltown morality. We see murders, the elderly being helped across the street, child labor, team sports, rule by law, acts of charity and acts of violence. We observe rage, affection, cruelty, selfishness, altruism and sacrifice. The data accumulates quickly in the orbiting ship’s 5000 hard drives. So quickly, that drive space is running out and our inspection teams will need to start summarizing the existing observation data to free up space for more passes. Someone needs to decide between how many more passes we make and how many summarizations we want to end up with. Unfortunately, the choice is moot.

A massive explosion in the galley has seriously damaged the ship’s interior and destroyed all but one of the hard drives. The Captain decides that it is time to limp home and the team must immediately summarize squirrel morality down to one drive. Oxygen is leaking out of cracks in the hull. The last drive is making scraping sounds. The crew is freezing to death. The team produces one last processed print-out of a single page before the power fades away. The team leader tears off and passes the paper to the captain by flashlight and falls dead. Almost back to earth, the space-suited captain heads for the escape pod. The pod door opens with a whoosh that blows the paper out of her hand and sends it spinning down the scaffolding toward a large fireball emerging from below.

When the rescue team reached the charred pod floating in earth-orbit, they made the sad discovery that the pod had quickly lost power and the captain froze to death hours ago. Inside the icy tomb, her last act of life was to scratch three words in the frost where she died. She was awarded several posthumous medals and her space suit was given a ticker-tape parade. Teams of inspectors spent decades writing books about what they assumed was the Golden Rule of the Squirrel People. Later, there were books about the first books. Eventually, speculation about squirrel morality filled 5000 hard drives again.

The worst debate was over why she used a number as an abbreviation. Some say she was dying and in a hurry. Others say it meant something else. Everyone is too scared to go back so, her grim and brief message of “DO 2 OTHERS” will have to do.  It was so similar to our own Golden Rule that some thought we had finally found the prized universal morality. The one that all other moralities would simply have to surrender to. No one surrendered and after a flurry of righteous violence, the earth was destroyed.


Why can’t your morality fill ten phone book-sized volumes with details and exceptions and nuances and be open-ended with debate and revisability? Is it because of something to do with reality, or could it be because of your brain? Maybe it is a fault in the way we look at things like blurriness or double vision or some other limitation.

No culture can imagine making such a vast and detailed morality portable. As in, condensed enough to pass from one entire generation to the next via learning in one lifetime at a time. The only way to ensure that, is to distill morality down to a few rhythmic phrases that can be learned by the least of its members. The Gold Standard of all moral summations is The Golden Rule, which, in its most popular parlance, holds the record with just two beats. Top that.

There was something about the way the squirrel-people perceived their world that made their morality boil down to “Do unto two others as you would have two others do unto you.”