Moral Invention/ Immoral Invention
Let’s conduct a little thought experiment. We’ll use the Socratic method and start with simple questions:
Is air-conditioning good or evil?
Moral or immoral? Has the advent of air-conditioning been to the benefit of humanity, or to its detriment?
After all, air-conditioning has likely saved many millions of lives, maybe billions. The heat during hotter months on Earth have killed scores of humans since the dawn of time; still does as a matter of fact. People without air-conditioning die in heat waves every year.
Air-conditioning is also refrigeration, which has undoubtably saved countless more lives. Lives that might have been lost to food poisoning from improperly stored food, lives that might have been lost due to starvation as even the most bountiful harvest fell prey to eventual spoilage.
Yet, air-conditioning- and the CFCs that were the environmental boogie man 20-years ago when it was the hole in the ozone layer, rather than climate change, they said would kill us all- is a major carbon emitter.
Air-conditioning, and the fossil fuels needed to produce it, is probably better for human beings than it is for the environment. But there is no question that it has also saved and improved the lives of billions of people.
No air-conditioning, and thus no refrigeration technology, would also have meant no computers. No internet. No Medium.
No mass-produced music ether; early recording equipment required massive cooling units the size of small apartments. No Beatles, no Bach.
The many ways air-conditioning has changed the course of human history cannot be counted. It’s net impact, after weighing all the known good and all the known bad, cannot be calculated. It’s simply impossible. There isn’t enough available data; too many unknowns.
For one thing, the timeline is incomplete; air-conditioning might end up destroying the Earth, air-conditioning might be the very thing that makes free, safe, renewal energy, like cold fusion, possible.
And therein lies the flaw of economic moralizing. Almost every major invention of the human mind without exception has had both positive and negative consequences to humanity and planet Earth.
The automobile, the airplane, the agricultural revolution, the steam-engine.
Speaking of our good friend Socrates, he never wrote anything down at all. Everything we know about the man and his teachings was written much later by his students and their students.
Socrates never wrote anything down because he believed that writing and reading, if they were to become widespread, would spell the death of philosophy, reason and human intellect.
Socrates thought books were a terrible invention.
Writing, and reading the writings of other men, he (is said to have) argued, would mean no more organic thought, no more original ideas; no more human leaps of innovation.
Was he wrong?
What do you know, really know? If you were to add up all your practical, first-hand knowledge about the workings of the world in one column and everything you’ve learned from other people via study of their written words, what would you find?
They weren’t all right right, you know. Not everything humanity has committed to the written word has been factually correct or morally right. On the contrary, many of the things human beings have learned from books have been utterly and totally, devastatingly and horribly, wrong.
There are early medical text books that advised physicians to apply “weapon salve” to the weapon that inflicted the wound in order to cure the wound.
There are far too many other instances to mention, and just in the field of medicine, right up until today’s anti-vaxxers would are still convinced something one person wrote linking autism to vaccines was correct. Though it was long since been debunked, the idea just won’t die.
How can it? Socrates was right. The “vaccines cause autism” lie is enshrined forever by the written word.
Mistaken medical knowledge, often predicated on other mistaken medical knowledge has killed millions, maybe billions.
Because often bad ideas that stick are predicated on other extremely bad ideas, like slavery, to catastrophic results.
Even language itself can foil human intellect. Mistranslations change even the most fundamental meanings of words over time, with major consequences.
The original greek word for “sin” meant only “to miss the mark”; today’s English dictionary defines it as “an immoral act considered to be in violation of divine law”.
How might understanding “sin” to mean simply “missing the mark” have changed the religious lives and outlooks of millions over the centuries?
The English word “meditation” has come to have a connotation of a mental thought process in our modern understanding of it. I could say “I am going to meditate on that.” and you would know I mean I plan to think about it, perhaps deeply.
Yet the original Sanskrit word for “meditation” was “bhavana” which meant “cultivation”, not cogitation. Specifically bhavana meant “cultivation of the land”.
How might thinking of meditation as a cultivation of one’s mental landscape affect people who try the practice of meditation?
What about the people who try and give up because they think meditation is about thinking, or trying to refrain from thinking?
We must always remember the Yucatan Peninsula, which got it’s modern name when European explorers asked the native people “What is this place called?” whereupon the natives answered “Yucatan.” which meant “I don’t understand you.”
On the other side of economic moralizing is inventors, innovators and scientists avoiding or eschewing certain breakthroughs for fear they might harm humans or the environment.
Not only is this stifling, it is impossible. Breakthroughs are built into human DNA. Scientists, inventors and innovators don’t so much pluck their ideas from their admittedly superior minds as build on the natural progression from the last major breakthrough or defining theory in their field of interest or study.
Darwin was reluctant to publish his seminal work on the origin of the human species. He only did so when another scientist wrote to him about his own theory of evolution, which were remarkably similar to Darwin’s. Of course they were; it was the next leap in understanding.
Though he feared the impact such information might have on the public, Darwin published because he knew if he didn’t, someone else would.
The unbroken constant of human beings is our creativity, which is a genie that can never go back in Pandora’s Box.
For better or for worse, human consciousness requires us to remake our environment, experiment, create, and push the boundaries of human knowledge.
Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is immaterial.
It simply is.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)