Monday, October 04, 2004

The Four Virtues

Spirituality + Hierarchy = Religion

OK, so if you take away that element of hierarchy, can spirituality alone perform the critical task of societal regulation? Maybe...

My current (working) theory is that an ethical/spiritual model will be the most effective way of ensuring a sustainable, peaceful, wealthy society without resorting to hierarchy. I've boiled down my theories into "four virtues", meant to be short and easily remembered, but broadly applicable and, hopefully, with some hidden depths. Disclaimer: very much a work in progress

I.

Own only that which you must presently use, for all else is deceit. Use little, as virtue is derived from experience, not consumption.

II.

Simplicity is virtue. The most beautiful form of simplicity is the elegant circle of self-sufficient consumption and creation. In all forms of accounting, do not consume more than you have already created.

III.

Virtue is found not in secrecy or in the constraint of freedom, but in acknowledgement, and accepting responsibility for all costs of one's actions.

IV.

Understanding the universe of connection is virtue. Connect with space through silence. Connect with time through experience. Free yourself from ego through awareness. Protect transcendent beauty.


Perhaps a little cryptic, but I'll follow up with where I'm going with this in the comments.

13 comments:

Jeff Vail said...

As promised, I'll explain what I'm thinking in each of the four virtues.

The first virtue:
"Own only that which you must presently use, for all else is deceit. Use little, as virtue is derived from experience, not consumption."

It's actually three concepts, all grouped around the interesting use in our culture of the abstract concept of ownership--and the resulting feeling of entitlement to consume anything that we "own".

First is my concept of ownership-by-use. "Modern" civilization seems to accept the abstraction that a person can "own" something--a plot of land, some one else's house, shares in a company, etc. This abstraction is the glue that holds together the hierarchal structures in our civilization. Without ownership, there can be no hierarchy, no centralization, no stratification, etc. We can see this in the remnant hunter-gatherer groups that do not recognize the concept of abstract ownership. What they do exhibit is the concept of "ownership-by-use". This is an ethical control that one should only assert "ownership" over something that they must currently use to meet their basic needs. If we can begin the transition from abstract ownership to ownership-by-use, we will break down the centralized, hierarchal, stratified institutions of society and begin the return to a more egalitarian life.

Second is the simple instruction to "use little". This is the first mention (the second virtue elaborates on this concept) of the merits of moderate consumption. It also provides the guidance for how much one should "own-by-using": little. It does not suggest harsh self-deprivation, but rather the realization that:

Third, the joys of life are "derived from experience, not consumption".

Use little, experience much, do not assert ownership unnecessarily. This is an introduction to the depths of the first virtue, and the start of the return to a society that is compatible with our genetic ontogeny.

Jeff Vail said...

This "four virtues" risks presenting the image of carlos castaneda teaching econ 101, or "The Celestine Polity". That's life. I apologize in advance.

And now, on to the second virtue:

"Simplicity is virtue. The most beautiful form of simplicity is the elegant circle of self-sufficient consumption and creation. In all forms of accounting, do not consume more than you have already created."

Again, forgive me, but have you ever seen an episode of "Cribs" or "Pimp my Ride" on MTV? If not, count yourself among the lucky ones, but IF YOU HAVE... then you should immediately understand where I'm going with this. Call it "conspicuous simplicity" if you will.

But back to the concept of the second virtue, simplicity is the necessary ethical opposite of the over-consumption that drives our civilization. Specifically, the elegant simplicity of self-sufficiency. We must strive to achieve more and more loaclized self-sufficiency, both by localizing production and reducing consumption. This is the key step on the path towards establishing a rhizome world (as opposed to our hierarchal civilization). Rhizome is egalitarian, networked, sustainable. The main focus of my book "A Theory of Power" is the historical critique of this concept: Rhizome vs. Hierarchy. Rhizome can be beautiful: that is what you see when you look to nature.

The final sentence, "In all forms of accounting, do not consume more than you have already created", attaches two more key concepts to the principles of self-sufficiency and rhizome. First is that the vaunted free market system of economic allocation does indeed work extremely well--IF AND ONLY IF the true nature of all costs are accounted for, as the impact everything and everytime. When making decisions, we must make them with the awareness of all externalities, all "hidden costs" (that are usually in plain sight, but we prefer to ignore them). Polution, loss of genetic capital, unsustainable use of environmental resources, impact on the mental health of people we have never met, etc. Only when all costs are accounted for in price can the free market provide "virtuous" guidance.

Finally, the instruction to "not consume more than you have ALREADY created" provides guidance to "save first, THEN spend what you have saved", rather than to enter the cycle of perpetual credit, growth and inflation that is the basis of the modern economic model. Elegant stability, not perpetual growth MUST be our goal, if we are to live sustainably, peacefully and with fulfilled ontogeny.

Anonymous said...

First word, third Virtue is "virtue" not vitue.

Great start - Will read regularly.

Jeff Vail said...

Aaaahh spelling... comment, and it will be corrected. Not my forte in the first place, and now I'm handicapped with a blog that doesn't have a built-in spell checker. I suppose I could compose each post in Word and cut and paste, but that would limit the spontaneity of the blog?

Jeff Vail said...

And on to the third virtue:

"Virtue is found not in secrecy or in the constraint of freedom, but in acknowledgement, and accepting responsibility for all costs of one's actions."

First, "Virtue is found not in secrecy". Anything that you are doing, that should be done, can be done with full disclosure. Any action that is virtuous will actually benefit from a full and constant exposure to the scrutiny of everyone. Who knows--it might even let someone else provide feedback that illustrates a possible improvement. It also touches back on the concept of ownership: secrecy, as a form of intellectual property, is not accepted. Any information that is of value should be shared freely, as this prevents a relapse into the hierarchy of ownership, and ensures that the information provides its maximum benefit though open access by the entire community.

Second, virtue is not found in "the constraint of freedom". 'Do what thou wilt, shall be the whole of the law' (Crowley). No action should be proscribed that is not itself a "constraint of freedom". In other words, you can't MAKE others act in the way you want them to, and they can't MAKE you. But you're welcome to lead by example...

Third, the "acknowledgement, and accepting responsibility for all costs of one's actions." Ultimately, this comes back to not proscribing the freedom of others. Be aware of the true and total costs of any action (how it impacts others), and then take responsibility for ameliorating those costs--so that you are not constraining their freedom. For example, you'd like to divert a stream for irrigation. You must account for the fact that your neighbor downstream fishes there. Not only account for the cost of the loss of fish for your neighbor, but take responsibility for it: if you can't ameliorate the cost (provide for another source of fish), then you're placing a constraint on your neighbor's freedom, and therefore you must not divert the stream. Remember: you do not OWN the stream, and you should not assert ownership-by-use as it is constraining the freedom of another.

Finally, this virtue offers guidance in the area of punishment. Punishment in the form of constraint of freedom is worthless: it does not take responsibility for the cost of the act that is being punished. Instead, follow the model of most tribal people, and impose a sanction (such as "the silent treatment") that is contingent upon the offender taking responsibility (making up for the cost) for the offending action. This can be tricky: how does someone "make up for the cost" of murder? It's a long discussion, but the ethnographic record demonstrates that tribes do have an effective way of dealing with all forms of transgressions--even murder.

The third virtue is critical, as it provides the groundwork for a society that can enforce its own norms without the "assistance" of hierarchy or a state superstructure.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece - I like it very much, particularly your detailed explainations! I'm glad that I read into them deeper, because I was thrown off a bit by your first line - the premise:

"My current (working) theory is that an ethical/spiritual model will be the most effective way of ensuring a sustainable, peaceful, wealthy society without resorting to hierarchy."

I started to think - was there ever a hierarchical model, even as a last resort, that ensured a sustainable, peaceful, wealthy society? Surely the one we're working under now is a bust on all three counts. Maybe you know of some other examples that fit the bill...

Anyway, I get your drift. Thanks again for your thoughts.

-Jim C.

Jeff Vail said...

The Fourth Virtue:

"Understanding the universe of connection is virtue. Connect with space through silence. Connect with time through experience. Free yourself from ego through awareness. Protect transcendent beauty."


To start with, in order to explain the importance of these virtues, and to prevent the gradual reversion to hierarchy, it is necessary to maintain an ongoing discussion of the nature of the universe, politics, psychology, etc. That nature is one of connection. I go into this in much more detail in my book...

"Connect with space through silence". Meditation, contemplation, awareness, spirituality, call it what you want, but our evolutionary development has instilled in us a deep desire for connection with nature, a strongly spiritual side. If it is not dealt with in a sustainable, healthy way, then it manifests in hierarchal religions like Catholicism or Consumerism. This must be prevented... go jogging, take a walk in the woods by yourself, try classical meditation. There is no one right way.

"Connect with time through experience". There's two points here. First, our life is worth living because of the experiential, not the material. See my entry "Vernacular Zen" for a longer discussion. Second, we live a time-binded existence here on Earth. Meaning in time is necessary--tradition, family, seasons, festival, etc. Understanding and working with the experiential is critical to a healthy existence.

"Free yourself from ego through awareness." Back again to building a defense against hierarchy. I cover this in depth in my book, but the ego is the harness at which point the selfish-meme of society attaches to and controls humans. If we are to break free of that hierarchal pattern, and establish a sustainable pattern that fulfills our ontogeny, then we must break free of ego. Awareness of the nature of ego, combined with a connection to "silence" and "experience" is the key to this transformation.

Finally, "Protect transcendent beauty." We also have a genetically ingrained desire to connect with something greater than ourselves. Lest that become some manifestation of hierarchy, we must appreciate the importance of the nature in our back yard, our family, tradition, place. The extreme mobility, the itinerant nature of modern life breaks down the stability of place in the human past, paving the way to humanity becoming nothing more than massed cogs in the machine. Place is another break on hierarchy. More importantly, place--both physical and psychological--is what makes us truly wealthy.

Cody Umland said...

    anarchists also call "ownership-by-use" a possession. by "localizing production and reducing consumption", should we donate our junk to Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army, and Goodwill and shop there instead of buying new, overpriced clothing/furniture? also, should we get pick up trucks and salvage usable junk from curbs and notify our organizations before putting usable junk on our curbs? "impact on the mental health of people we have never met" is an interesting cost that internet users don't mind spending liberally.
    to check your spelling, you can get Firefox. Then, you can get Spellbound 0.6.0. Third, you can use Firefox to blog, and before you post your blog, you can use Spellbound to check your spelling. Firefox also makes surfing safer and helps innovative and free open source software.
    "Anything that you are doing, that should be done, can be done with full disclosure." Yes, as FUGAZI said, "out in the open we're wide open". to me, that has always meant a pride of being radical in the public eye in a big way. unlike my fellow anarchists, i don't go break a bunch of laws. a lot of that is because of the Seattle riots of 1999 anyway. i do what i can right in the open because i don't want to be paranoid anyway of the nsa and fbi spying on me. i think it's a good idea, though, to wear some sort of mask at a demonstration because we know the government takes pictures/video of demonstrators for their files.
    "[. . .] secrecy, as a form of intellectual property, is not accepted." yes, that's a whole other topic besides security culture. that deals with the condition of a lot of people to desire elitism. i enjoy staying down to earth and still being impressive.
    i wonder how our ancestors dealt with irrigation. i'm not sure if irrigation is uncivilized or domesticated. tribes didn't have much murder before surplus, did they? yes, we definitely need alternatives to authoritarian relationships.
    "[. . .] was there ever a hierarchical model, even as a last resort, that ensured a sustainable, peaceful, wealthy society?" good question. "[. . .] to prevent the gradual reversion to hierarchy", I think we need to identify what makes hierarchy and then, don't do those things.

Anonymous said...

These are some rough rules that seem to make sense given how I was raised. I like reading your articles and just thought I'd pipe up with a world view and poor explanations for it.


1. Do not impose your will upon others any more than you need to or than they and those indirectly affected are willing.

This rule covers an awful lot of active immorality, things that are immoral because you do them. For example, stealing, killing, adultery, rape, the crimes that society seems to deem worst.

2. "All God's critters got a place in the choir" - everyone belongs everywhere if they ostensibly exist so you should make a place for other people to exist comfortably when you can help them. The need to belong does not receive enough recognition for its influence on society.

This theoretically addresses passive immorality, letting other people die by not taking action although I am unhappy with it.

3. Spirituality is ultimately subjective. It primarily provides peace to people through some sense of belonging, alleviated guilt, or comfort related to death.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this all just expanding the Golden Rule - "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Bill Maxwell said...

In the spirit of spirituality as a guiding ethic:

1.
To each new thing, born or created,
It is taught the truths for all to follow
Listen as the first ones did and remember.

2.
This is the Law.
Honor the Earth that is our mother. From her all things grow
That feed us, clothe us, heal us, and give us breath.
This is the law - Honor our Mother

CHORUS
Honor our Mother.

3.
Honor the Great Creator and Its Will upon the world.
Know that we are a part of creation, not apart from it.
This is the law - We are part of creation.

CHORUS
We are part of creation.

4.
Honor your brothers and sisters, the community of life.
We come from the same seed, their rights are ours as well:
To eat, to sleep, to live, to love, to play, to dream, to die.
We are all linked through the power of creation
Our fate is one.
This is the law - Respect life.

CHORUS
Respect life.

5.
In Unity, there is strength.
As friends, family, and community
United in faith and hope, we are strong.
Part of the greater whole,
Part of the worldfire
This is the law - In Unity, strength

CHORUS
In Unity, strength.

6.
In Diversity, there is strength.
The strength of the world
Comes from a cycle of life that feeds each other,
That supports each other,
That grows with each other,
Now and forever.
This is the law - in diversity, strength

CHORUS
In Diversity, strength.

7.
This is the final law, the Law of the Circle.
For life to continue
For time without end
When you feast, so must your brothers and sisters.
When you starve, so will your brothers and sisters.
This is the Law:
Take what you need.
Leave the rest.

CHORUS
Take what you need. Leave the rest.

Jan Steinman said...

"Own only that which you must presently use, for all else is deceit." This seems contrary to the notion of savings, which I believe is a virtue. Perhaps the thin line between "saving" and "hoarding" is what provokes you to write this.

I have a small building full of "stuff" that will be useful to me or others someday. If someone needs a widget, and I have one, I go out to the barn and get it for them. I have four diesel vehicles that I've converted to biodiesel. I can't use all four at the same time, so they sit idle most of the time. But they are an available resource for someone. And certainly the Salvation Army is filled with stuff that they own, but don't really "use".

Another example: storing and preserving food. Is not saving grain from the harvest for the winter "owning not for present use?" What about the strawberry jam sitting on the shelf?

Permaculture teaches us to "catch and store." If we build a pond, are we claiming ownership of water that should instead be running out to sea? If the water sits there, is it in present use?

I can understand the sentiment here, but I feel this virtue requires some careful re-wording. I think what you're railing against is hoarding and ownership for status -- if so, be clear about it!

octopod said...

jan steinman: I think part of the point of that virtue was the distinction between keeping and owning. Saving grain from the harvest entails, under our present system, ownership; however, under the model of ownership-by-use, this is not ownership but stewardship. That is, you're not using the wheat, but you've voluntarily assumed some responsibility over it, such that people should ask you if they want to use it. Does this make sense?