Friday, April 19, 2013

More Books I've Read

I will have to say this about Bakersfield: It has a good library!

These are just two of the more than dozens of non-fiction books I read here in my exile in Bakersfield,

First: "The Moral Lives of Animals," by Dale Peterson.  This is a serious book about the roots of morality in the animal kingdom--and thus a book about the roots of human morality there. There are instincts and feelings so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we often conclude that they have sprung up by our own efforts, or at the very least we conclude wrongly that the resulting morality is what separates us from our soul-less brothers and sisters. As a matter of fact, Peterson argues, this is what joins us to them.

Now, lest anyone think that the book is a peon to the wonderful meaningfulness of evolutionary thought, that perhaps the animals are the ones who get it right, that if we learned from them we would all be better off, let me assure you this is not Peterson's argument.  The book may very well have been titled "The Immoral Lives of Animals," for all the examples he gives of the brutal struggles and actions of animals against their own kind.  The conclusion: morality, no matter how deep its roots, for us is always a matter of choice.  And I don't mean by that a choice about following a moral code however devised or revealed; I mean a choice in the concrete about whether to do the right thing or not.

Second: The above leads right into the second book I read: "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster," by Rebecca Solnit.

Solnit's book is an extended argument against the tendency of media and common wisdom to focus on the breakdown of social mores in disaster--the most recent example being the one or two incidents of armed people in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.  This she contrasts with the many recorded efforts of people who rushed into disaster to help and give aid--all the way from the great San Francisco earthquake to the attack on 9-11.

But what I found even more interesting is her treatment of the academic study of the subject.  She says of Charles E. Fritz, a pioneer in the field, "[his] first radical premise is that everyday life is already a disaster of sorts, one from which actual disaster liberates us." And then she quotes him, "Disaster provides a form of societal shock which disrupts habitual, institutionalized patterns of behavior and renders people amenable to social and personal change."

Here, then, we see the central message of the two books: morality is clearly a matter of making the choice to do or not to do the right thing--at the very moment the choice has to be made!  We are aided in this not only by the teachings of Jesus and his followers; we are also helped by the roots that bind us to all of life on earth, and by the examples of those who act unselfishly in the midst of attacks against that life.

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