Dec 2010

Morality: The Short Answer


In most discussions on the nature of things, I tend to side with the scientific community. However, I think the scientific community may have served us badly in one regard. For more than a century, they have been selling the public on the notion of the wonderful short and simple answer. There is the much publicized pursuit of a single equation that unifies the four atomic forces. E=mc2 was promoted as five simple characters that led to the atom bomb. Science seemed at its best to us when it revealed something straight and simple like F=MA or Maxell’s Laws of Magnetism.

Anyone who is really familiar with any of these subjects knows that behind those equations lay a mountain of detail and nuance a mile wide and high. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people out there who believe that if they type e=mc2 into their computer and hit enter, they’ll leave a smoking crater.

It’s important to remember that a mountain of nuance is there behind the short answer even if one cannot personally account for it all. Even a scientist discussing their favorite subject, if asked for increasingly deeper detail, must eventually reach a point in their explanation where they must rely on one of three things: someone else’s trusted testimony (or many trusted else’s’), or, acknowledging that further detail, while definitely there, is yet unknown or un-describable, or, on one of the many basic and transparent assumptions we all make daily that, while unproven, are a fundamental currency of social exchange.

It is the third option about which modern science’s emphasis on brevity for its own self-promotion has not been helpful.

It has long been believed that there is an essential “truthiness” in ideas that can be expressed in short concise words just like a math equation. Ideas shine when they can be clearly seen in a quick and rhythmic burst of English or even better in French or Latin. Science has reinforced this idea by presenting E=mc2 as the epitome of smartness, which has further encouraged the public to equate smartful truthiness to anything that can be winnowed down to a few words of pure unadulterated wisdom like, “We eat so we hunt”. Such ideas are often described as “something you know in your gut” or “just feeling right”.

I think it’s time to reveal that the reason these short answers “feel right” is simply because they “don’t hurt”.

Before anyone leaps to the assumption that I’m referring to stupid people, let me clarify that this has very little to do with anyone’s innate intelligence. Intelligence, like a quick wit, is fast. This is something different and much slower that we do in our heads aside from being smart. It is commonly referred to as “thoughtfulness”.

There is no subject that reveals the function of thoughtfulness more than morality.

Forget the lofty ideals of equality for the nonce. Forget the brotherhood of mankind.

It’s all about the rhythm.

Without our capacity for rhythm, morality would be in big trouble.

Rhythm is our ancient primate ability to sequence. As in, putting one thing after another while hanging on to the previous thing. The brain we grew up with, evolutionarily speaking, is good for four or so. Beats, that is. Anything more than that, for example, seven beats, is perceived as two rhythms of four and three (or, as two rhythms of three, with an irritating moment of avant-guard weirdness). It remains, to our generation, the way we like to hear things. If you doubt this, turn on the radio and hit scan.

The rest of you, consider these questions…

How would you know what your morality was unless you could describe it to yourself?

How could you know you will have the same morality tomorrow unless you codify it in words that will still be there when you wake up?

What if you couldn’t do either of these things?

Then all you need is a drum and a Short Answer, like the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule is the single most popular Short Answer of all. It is used as an all-purpose replacement morality for those who profess a certain religion but don’t actually know beans about it. For example, when asked to name one of the seven sacraments, one professed Roman Catholic answered with a blank look. He then explained that Christianity is the Golden Rule and that’s all he needs and the rest of that stuff is for squishy emotional weaklings and double-digit IQ types.

For many religious people, being religious does not involve the mile wide mountain of nuance that truly describes Roman Catholicism. Even those with quadruple-digit IQ’s or no emotions at all find the nuance far too exercising on top of everything else they have to know.

Even the Golden Rule can be exercising for some. The meaning is pretty easy, but what about the words themselves? It is usually recited or just referred to as “Do Unto Others”. You don’t often hear the extended version these days. For example, here are actual and sober responses to the question, “What is the rest of Golden Rule?”

“Do unto others as they do to you.”

“Do unto others as… you would wish them to…. do…. to do….. to do to you.

“Do unto others… as before… they did unto you.”

“Do unto others… as doing others is…. shit.”

What is the problem here? This isn’t just testing their memory. Everyone seems to remember “something” just before they answer. The real test is to say it. Don’t these people have any sense of rhythm? It’s as if they were asked to hold out a heavy bucket of water and their arm quickly gave out.

The irony is, as short answers go, the Golden Rule is a bit of a toughie. There are dozens of wordings worded in every way from legalese to poetry. Most lean toward the short and punchy. Punchy means that it has a good beat. I’ve chosen a very short lyrical version that has something like the lilt that people try to recall. Even this one is tricky. It has one more drumbeat than we tend to feel comfortable dealing with. This Golden Rule has six beats. People screw it up trying to turn it into four, or four then one.

Do unto others as they would do unto you.

As you read that, your internal sense of rhythm wants to hear one, two, three, four, one. Four beats that resolve on a new and final beat one but that’s not a proper recitation. If properly spoken by  Patrick Stewart, there’s an unspoken beat that breaks the phrase into two rhythms of two and three. Like this…

Do unto others (stop) as they would do unto you.

That’s one, two, then a rhythmic de-correlation (a stop), then one, two and a resolve on a final one. Why? Because, while we like four beats, we like two beats even better. So, we do two beats twice and together, they make a stuttering rhythm of two. In the hands of a master, it musical.

For the rest of us mortals, we use the comfy and abridged version.

Do unto others.

That’s two beats. Anybody can do that. That’s why it’s Golden.

There’s a reason why this has anything to do with morality that goes way into our past. The reason is that for most of the humans that have ever lived, reason has not had anything to do with morality. Rhythm has.

Morality isn’t about the Rules of the Universe. It’s more like seeing how long you can hold a heavy bucket of water with your arms straight out. Morality was the reason we built drums. 

The story of morality is the Story of the Short Answer.

The very first Short Answers were to short questions. We could ask two to four beat questions and get two to four beat answers. There was an equilibrium. But that was back when our ancestors lived on the ground floor of the same world of random violence and death as our primate cousins and everyone else. Then the equilibrium was destroyed by the arrival of the Smart Ass. Also known as the Wise Guy, this gifted few had the innate ability to hold the bucket of water straight out nearly forever and think through ten beats, twenty, a hundred… and make long complex questions and get long complex answers. Strange thing was, they weren’t really any smarter per se and seemed to like the same music and have the same sense of rhythm as everyone else.

It was as if, when we all thought about things, we held a bucket full of the ideas we were thinking about. How many ideas can we put in the bucket at once and still have the same bucket? What we could say and what we could ask depended on what was in the bucket at any given time. Because of our deeply innate sense of rhythm and the ease with which we handled small numbers, we tended to put no more than four ideas in the bucket at a time. Any more than that became a new bucket with only the most recent or loudest four in it.

The Smart Asses were the first to realize that the bucket could hold a lot more than four if you really wanted it to. They were the first to notice that almost everyone had their big bucket moments and that some people had better buckets than others. Just like holding the water bucket, and even worse for everyone, the more time you spent being a Smart Ass and the harder you worked at it, the easier it gets. A really good Smart Ass can inspire others to learn to develop their own innate Smart Ass abilities.

The reason this is relevant is the way in which the Smart Ass emerged in the social group and how morality followed in his wake. What was the big deal? The Smart Ass makes you look like a fool. How? By asking a longer question with more breadth and more coverage than you did. Of course, not being a Smart Ass, you don’t have a long answer and your short answer wimps like a woody in winter. For many generations, the Smart Ass population was regulated by violence and death in the dark of night. Then one day, something incredible happen. Some Smart Ass came along and invented something so fucking brilliant that it would change everything…

The Short Answer to the Long Question.

The really big ideas and inventions found in the Long Answers that had previously been trapped in the mind of the Smart Ass were unleashed. He didn’t have to share the whole Long Answer, just the parts that make everybody do what needs to be done and at the right time. After polishing his charisma, a smart Smart Ass could inspire others to do ambitious things by breaking up the Long Answer into a series of Short Answers. Knowing that no one can see the ten beats ahead to the goal, the Smart Ass would always describe the goal as two beats ahead. Any more than that would not motivate anyone, except another Smart Ass. For the common folk, bite-sized pieces of the Long Answer would be served up in appetizing rhythms of two, three, four and, the extra yummy four and one. All they knew is that they were knowing more than they knew just by knowing what to do now and what to do next. That’s two beats. Two beats is Golden.

As long as The Long Answer that The Short Answers added up to was lying around intact somewhere, the Short Answers would mean something greater than anyone could know or need to. It meant that silver-tongued Smart Ass was walking around with something very valuable inside him. It was… the Way.

For the Smart Ass, it was Golden. He could see the eagerness with which we polished the Answers with an Eternal Shine. We like to do things together. We really wanted this.

In summation, from this simple beginning sprang brevity, the bullet point, the essential facts and the lie.

Sprang… is a poor choice of words. More like… pounded.

Drumming was already a part of our lives but the first drums were used as typewriters and ticker-tape machines. Why did we make them soft? So it would be easier on our heads.

There was a time when, if you were going to say something beyond just blurting something out, you needed to indicate that you were doing so... that these blurts are in a sequence. That meant establishing a rhythm that you demonstrate visually and with a punctuated sound. Our established primate rhythms had priority and the blurts or “words” had to fit them. Nothing else would qualify as a “statement”. Our modern speech would be considered “bullshit”.

Drilling something into our heads first referred to the rhythmic repetition used to speak to our most innate learning ability. Our primate minds can then remember the way something was said as a preliminary and separate process of learning from grasping the meaning of what was said, which may come much later, or not at all.

After a lot of repetition, words in a rhythm became a single act of recall, and that meant a rhythm of words could be a beat in a larger four beat sequence. Now we could have four-beat lines in a four-line verse. You could know this verse (or at least store and repeat it) without having to know all the words at once. All you have to know to recite it is an ongoing sequence of “the thing now” and “the next thing”. Words in rhyme gave an easy hint to our aural memory and soon, verses could be songs. Now we’re talking.

Of course, someone had to have the mental bucket-holding muscles to design the sequences and they likely grew with use, as did the sequences. Thanks to the inventive use of The Short Answer, any schmuck could get a glimpse of The Long Answer as long as they learned how to sing the song and dance the dance that codified the Sacred Golden Information. 

At this point in our social evolution, politics and song and dance had not yet diverged.

The Smart Ass went from being the wise guy who knew it was going to rain and put his shit away to becoming the ringleader of activities that likely included a lot of nonsense but obviously must have included activities that built irrigation for farming, described lots more things that enhanced our language, turned cooking into traditional holiday recipes and turned fighting into warfare.

So changed were the lives of everyone that they forgot that these were wise guys and smart asses, and gave them a new name… The Leisure Class… because that is all they asked for. And that was the last time those wise guys ever told the straight truth. “No leisure, no long answers. No long answers for me, no short answers for you. I’m the anointed one who hears the Great Cosmic Rhythm and breaks ups all the songs into little pieces of four or two. And for that, I need peace and quiet. I’ll let you know when it is showtime”.

So, we (the Shorts and the Longs) made a deal, and I’m sure you can guess the rest. For brevity, I will skip way ahead to Modern Society, which, considering how long we’ve really been around, should be everything after 4000 BC.

It should be no surprise that some Smart Ass somewhere decided that if they can figure out how to keep the crops yielding bountifully, there is no reason they couldn’t manage the mating habits of a large community of over-sexed primates whose mating season can be defined only as now. Again, the strategy was in the Long Answer but the sliced-and-diced pre-baked Short Answers were all Homo Humpious had time for. The first morality was served short-stack.

The essentials were much the same as today; where it can be, and what happens when it’s been somewhere else. Living by the Short Rules of Where’s it been, buddy?”, and the Long Strategy for Population Growth they were based on, made it the property of the state.

Enforcement was the same as ever- brute force –but with a difference. This was organized violence that you could have expectations about. It worked. The people really wanted it. It is easy to look enlightened when you have only the random brutality of Nature to be compared to. If watching violence and death didn’t work, there was always violence and death.

Fear and Intimidation were not alone, and are, alone, not enough to account for the amazing achievements of our ancestors. None of it would have happened without inspiration and the optimism it inspires. The best knew how to keep a balance of forces.

To keep things as simple as possible, all the Short Rules about sex, sharing property, access to common assets and the necessary fealty to The Golden Source of All the Answers We’ll Ever Need, were lumped together into one predictable and public system of terror, violence and death. 

For thousands of years now, the Longs (a chosen few of them, anyway) manage or “rule” the Shorts with a “morality” in a repeating cycle of formats that goes like this…


The Chosen Protectors of the Long Answer seclude themselves in geometrically un-natural enclosures to find the peace that enables their Long Thoughts. Contrary long thoughts and long thinkers are “discouraged from further thinking” by a further application of a “morality”. A loyal staff, trained in the maintenance of peace and quiet, share an exclusive glimpse of the Big Answer in a direct contact buzz from the Big Cheese. The Chosen One who hears the Golden Long Answers becomes the vessel and keeper of the group’s ambitions and livelihood… of What They Are and their Way of Life… and is treated as priceless. The vital info they can preserve makes them more valuable then those who can’t.


New social systems are developed that spur growth and quickly overwhelm the Chosen Few. Long thinking and the necessary bucket muscles for it are trained into a trusted Few More by a variety of bizarre sequential rituals. Long Thinking begins to spread into the larger community outside of the Holy City, which tries to regulate it with a “morality”. “God” first emerges as “that which chose the Chosen One”.



Heredity-based leadership fails as a reliable source of Long Thinkers… forced bucket-muscle training for children makes Long Thinking go viral through the whole community… and a Glorious Golden Age quickly spawns the Beatnik Generation. Everyone leads lives that are Long about some things and Short about other things. The Chosen Few have only an endless string of imaginative lies to distinguish themselves from the ruled. Everyone knows the Golden Rules but no one remembers where they really came from or has any idea what those first original Long Questions were. No one remembers what the Big Show was originally for, but it, and “morality” get grandfathered in as “religion”. God, in our modern sense, first appears. The boys in the Holy City get to keep the Golden Pointy Party Hats and, the quiet, contemplative and costly leisure they need to keep them balanced on their heads.

Once this point is reached, society becomes a ticking time bomb as its best thinkers try to figure out how our brains work before everything turns to shit. Large, disillusioned populations continue to depend on complex systems that require a critical minimum amount of thoughtfulness to function. Thoughtfulness is squandered on discussions of “morality” and on designing new and more complex systems to discourage thoughtfulness. Expectations fall, confidence wanes, and millions of frustrated primates pound against the structure of their society in a desperate effort to smash their way out of it.

Until finally, society loses its resilience to misfortune, and fails. Recommended Primate Population Density drops significantly and everyone scatters. Left behind and forgotten, are the Golden Party Hats, which, hopefully, will provide a vital clue when the next pod of drum-beating monkeys tries this again, and reaches their moment of crises.

While we are no longer a society based on haves and have-nots of thoughtfulness, we are still effectively divided by the duration of our thoughts. There are those who live with the Short Answers and those live with the Long Answers. Those who dwell in short time frames and those who dwell in longer time frames. Even in identical circumstance, they experience their lives differently.

If you’re a Short Answer person, Long Answer people seem to drone on long after you’ve gotten it and you’ve haven’t the patience to wait for them to stop before your response makes you feel like you have to explode, and their lack of spontaneity and constant look of being lost in the distance make you want to explode harder.

If you’re a Long Answer person, Short Answer people seem to interrupt you a lot and then only address the first half of your sentence and later, remember only as many syllables as it takes to make any minimal phrase at all- leaving you feeling alone with your “complexities”.

If you like a morality that you can see the reasoning in from one end to the other without any gaps or unexplained leaps of faith, you could fill your many bookshelves with it.

One’s morality can only be as complex and nuanced as the vocabulary from which it springs. Or pounds.

If you like your morality rhythmic, then you’ll live by four-beat wisdom. Why else would Short Answer people deride something (like the Health Care Bill) for having too many pages? Why else would a vast collection of complex details be called a monstrosity?

Yet, such wisdom-ettes as the Golden Rule are presented as direct short-answer descendants of the Original Great Long Answer of the Cosmos. Also known as the Universal Morality. The Whole Universe within your reach.

Are they kidding? A full description of the mountain of nuance behind the universe’s morality would be a daunting task. It would take tens of thousands of college professors, each lecturing continuously for five million years, to even begin to describe it.  Besides, remember what Albert taught us about perspective? Most of the Universe hasn’t even happened yet as far as we are concerned.

We still live in a world ruled by Short Answers. We’ve long since changed the Long Questions that led to those Short Answers. The new Long Answers are the facts our complex systems depend on and most accept them while still accepting the old Golden Short Answers. They remain accepted because their Glaring Glorious Shiny Goldenness hides the mile wide mountain of bullshit behind them.

Enough of this. We can have short answers only if we can all see the long answers and the long questions they came from. If the Shorts don’t understand why, then later when it’s quiet I’ll think up a quick punchy slogan that I can paint on a sign and wave at them from youtube to explain.

What do you want? Do you want a morality? Spare me the crap about rape and pillage. What do you really want?

Didn’t you say you wanted a morality? Well, fine.

That’s the short answer.