by Miki Kashtan
The term “moral anguish” came to me one day as part of my ceaseless efforts to make sense of how we human manage internally the experience of having our needs met at the expense of others, either passively or, even, by inflicting pain or suffering on others.
The actual felt experience of moral anguish as I understand it is entirely different from shame, guilt, or defensiveness. Having experienced it myself and seen and accompanied others, I know it to be soft, wrenching, and entirely open-hearted. I experience it most acutely whenever I hear what the people who rule the state of Israel, where I am from, either actively do to Palestinians (home demolitions, evictions, military excursions, and direct killings of people of all ages) or tacitly condone by doing nothing to prevent or intervene with ongoing and escalating attacks by Jewish settlers in the West Bank on Palestinians. My intuitive sense is that the open-hearted version is not a common experience, because it’s so painful that we do a lot to avoid it.
Even when we try to avoid it, or when we believe that what we are doing is “the right thing,” we still may suffer from the impact of our actions or inactions on others. One particularly intense example of this is what happened in the Milgram experiments. Almost everyone who talks about them focuses on the fact that people obeyed the horrific instructions given to them. My own learning from these experiments was different. When I saw footage of the experiments, what I noticed was how much the people who were administering the (unbeknownst to them fake) electric shocks visibly suffered while doing it. So much so, that these experiments were part of what led to the establishment of internal review boards in the US that check to see if this or that research is ethical. Another very intense example is that during World War II, one of the reasons for the shift to using gas chambers rather than mass shooting was that the psychological impact on the shooters was so great they regularly needed to be replaced. This framing and these tidbits have quite a bit of significance in terms of beliefs about human nature. To imagine an experience that could be called moral anguish and be described in the way that I do it requires us to part ways with prevailing beliefs.
We have been deeply trained to believe the theories of human nature that sustain capitalist patriarchy, most pointedly the homo economicus model which posits the following about us:
- We are motivated by self-interest and an insatiable desire for more. When left to our own devices, we only care about ourselves and we lack capacity to orient to the common good or to others’ needs.
- We are challenged to reach agreement when we differ and we lack capacity for mutual influencing. We require control in order to collaborate.
- What we want and what we feel cannot be trusted.
This theory of human nature is very deeply entrenched and appears accurate when we observe what people do. This is because the logic of exchange that permeates capitalism and patriarchy, the institutions that exist, and the way we are socialized all create certain ways of behaving, and it then looks as if we are functioning in alignment with human nature. This has a chilling effect on attempts to create change: however imperfect or flawed the current system may be, it is assumed to be the best possible, and there is no alternative, because this is simply how humans are.
The maternal gift economy paradigm, as I understand it and have integrated it with the basic premises the underlie the practice of Nonviolent Communication1, rests on a very different theory of human nature:
- We are motivated by a finite set of basic needs (physical needs, freedom, connection, and meaning) that are fully satisfiable. When we can see ways of meeting those needs that are not at cost to others or the whole, we will prefer them.
- When we experience sufficient trust in life, we actively take pleasure giving to others and it brings us into interdependent relationships.
- When we orient to these needs – our own, each other’s, and the whole – we have extraordinary capacities to integrate and find solutions that work for everyone.
- As we walk closer to rather than further away from our feelings and needs, we are more likely to respond with full choice.
Within the existing systems that make this possibility invisible and reinforce the other view, it takes a rigorous spiritual practice to believe these assumptions given that we don’t see much of this way of being around us. Once we are able to make the shift, we then see everything differently. This includes behaviors or attitudes that appear to reinforce the prevailing beliefs about humans. Just as much as those who uphold the “selfish gene” theory that is the deepest layer of the homo economicus model struggle to explain caring behavior and other orientation more generally, those of us who subscribe to the “biology of love” theory that I associate with the homo donans model must be able to explain anything from defensiveness to violence from within the view of humans as motivated by the same basic needs regardless of age, culture, sex, political beliefs, or any other differentiation within the human population. Given the data at our disposal, we have a steep uphill climb to do if we are going to be able to make coherent statements about any of these phenomena. Steep doesn’t mean impossible, and I have done quite a bit of research, informal experimentation, and writing on the topic, enough to convince me that all forms of violence can be explained systemically (e.g., by reference to exchange-based relationships baked into all aspects of society) and even individually (e.g., through the internalization of patriarchal values and outright trauma) without having to resort to innate aggression or selfishness.2
Rather than focusing on what makes it possible to engage in violence, exploitation, and other forms of domination or cruelty, here I want to focus more narrowly on why we so fiercely avoid feeling the full anguish that I believe we would if we opened to it, the significance of the choices we make about what to do instead of opening to moral anguish, and what we can do in at least some of the contexts where this may come up.
The moral weight of our times
From everything I have heard about matriarchal societies of the past and the few remaining indigenous, peaceful, collaborative societies of the present, I have a sense that significant experiences of having some people’s needs attended to at the expenses of others’ needs would be quite rare. Within such contexts, where significant impacts on each other were uncommon, our evolutionarily given capacity for moral anguish would likely be commensurate with the give and take of living together in small, high-trust communities, and would be enough for ongoing learning about how to grow overall capacity to care for everyone.
This is not so in the societies that we live in now, in which a small number of humans command so much access to resources that they can essentially determine what the lives of the rest of us will look like. And that is not the end of it. While 1% of the world population has access to about 50% of the resources of the world, the next 10% have access to about 40% of the resources, and all it takes to be part of this swath of the population is to have access to $100k; not millions.3 The 25% of the world’s people who live in the global North control 80% of the resources and benefit in multiple ways from the domination and exploitation of the global South, individually, and collectively.
While very few of us make the active decisions that lead to these disparities, massive numbers of us benefit from them on the material plane. If there is any merit to my assumption that we suffer when our needs are met at the expense of others, this would be cause for massive suffering. This is what I am referring to here as a moral weight: if we fully opened our hearts, more of us would be exposed to potential moral anguish more often than we can probably tolerate experientially as human beings.
This means that the suffering is likely going to be experienced differently, such as in the form of depression, alienation, isolation, or rage; as massive amounts of numbness, which include theories that justify the disparities to make them tolerable; or as addictions (which are quite prevalent among the very rich) that are aimed to distract us from what we would otherwise experience. And none of this is meant as an exhaustive list.
Moral anguish and “white fragility”
One of the areas where we can apply this insight about the moral impact on us from getting our needs met at the expense of others is by shifting how we make sense of responses by white people to impacts shared by people from racialized groups, ranging from defensive reactivity to displays of guilt or shame. A growing tendency these days is to explain this phenomenon using the term “white fragility.”
Because I have already written about the complexity of these experiences elsewhere4, in this post I want to focus primarily on what the lens of moral anguish can do to support us in responding to situations in which our own and others’ moral anguish may be at play, which is likely often.
What I see is that when we are not in relaxed openness to experience moral anguish, we are likely to be reactive when confronted with the impacts that our actions or our systemic social location have on others. This means, again, that instead of active, open-hearted pain, we are likely to experience guilt and shame, both of which emerge from patriarchal conditioning, and then react to them with defensiveness or justification to avoid the discomfort.
And all of this has absolutely nothing to do with being white, or male, or Christian in any essential way; only with being faced with the essential dilemma of having access to privilege which brings with it both comfort and so much to grapple with.
Within the context of manufactured scarcity that our modern economies are, most of us who have access to privilege are attached to it within a sense of scarcity, because we carry within us the message that our true needs cannot be met and that all we can have are the substitutes that privilege offers: success for purpose, convenience for joy, security for community, money for freedom, and more.5
This means that what I would think of as our evolutionary moral response is intertwined with deep forms of attachment to how things are, and the tear between the two is beyond what most of us would know to navigate. This combination of anxious attachment to the privilege simultaneous with the knowledge that it comes at the expense of others is what I am seeing as the source of the phenomenon that is usually labeled as “white fragility,” a term I have never seen lead to togetherness in difficult moments. The challenge I have with this term is threefold. First, because I don’t believe there is anything specific to being white that creates the moral and emotional challenge. I have seen people of any group react in similar ways in similar circumstances. Second, because I hear in the term itself an enactment of separation and judgment. And third, because I find it specifically painful that fragility is framed as a problem which, to me, is completely rooted within the patriarchal disdain for vulnerability.
I want our species to survive. I want us to restitch ourselves together and reweave our human fabric. I want us to realign with our evolutionary makeup; to inhabit, viscerally, our inherent vulnerability; to embrace our interdependence and need for others; and to orient, again, to the radical simplicity of orienting to needs, both our own and each other’s, as it was in the past, before patriarchy.
For this, we will need to figure out, collectively, how to restore togetherness even in moments of extreme challenge. This includes the moments in which systemic impacts are happening and those directly or indirectly responsible for them are unable to receive the information within them because they have been avoiding the moral anguish that is evolutionarily inevitable. Without opening our hearts fully and experiencing the anguish, we are way too likely to defend and see shame as the only alternative. Neither of them would ever lead anyone to the depth of shift needed to un-attach from access to privilege and recover our capacity for maternal gifting and other orientation, without which we only change who is in power, if that, and never the rules of the game. How we get there and what moves we can make is another piece for another time. And a few notes is all I can include here.
Although we don’t have any precedent, on any scale, of any group or empire peacefully releasing resources, none of the involuntary shifts in power have ever created the kind of realignment with life that I am envisioning and longing for. At present, as we are facing the likelihood of social and environmental collapse, a true grappling with the impacts of exponential accumulation and instrumentalization may become available to many more. And as the new pathways of committed nonviolence are solidifying in small pockets, it may be that a peaceful transition may still happen.
It seems clear to me that one key element of making such a transition possible is that seeing the systemic nature of our predicament can relieve us of individual guilt and make room for more capacity to feel the true anguish which, once experienced, creates pathways to empowerment and movement. My intuition is strong that understanding and orienting to the delicacy and significance of moral anguish is key both for those of us who want others to take in their impact on us, and for those of us who would need to open to the full grief and tragedy of what has befallen humanity from the perspective of having access to privilege. Creating togetherness across this immense divide is one of our tickets to having a future.
2 See the chapter “Whence Violence” in my book Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness: Transcending the Legacy of Separation in Our Individual Lives, my article “The Freedom to Disobey,” and my blog post “What Does It Take to Reach People? The Power of Perspective Taking as a Bridge to the Soul” for some examples.
3 Many people attribute to themselves less comparative access to resources than they actually have. This blind spot, very common in global North countries, can in itself be a pathway to avoid the moral anguish that would come from actually confronting the immensity of disparity that exists in the world today.
5 See the chapter “Facing Privilege” in Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness.
Homo Donans word images by Leslie Becknell Marx with permission
People walking on path, public domain photo on Piqsels
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