Mechanics of Terranism, Meditations

Moral Categories

Is a soul more important than a spirit?

I’ve been struggling with the structure of my moral system, particularly the distinction between souls and spirits. In my experiment with a moral argument concerning bestiality, the two categories served me well. They allowed me to distinguish between different forms of consent available to different kinds of creatures. Using this distinction ennobles the animal above an object, but understands their limitations in human society. Consent matters for them as fellow Terrans, but the limits on their self-advocacy put narrow parameters on what their consent is worth. This allowed me to say that “bestiality is rape” regardless of the context.

But there might be some undesirable consequences to this system. The one I’m most concerned with is a moral hierarchy with souls at the top, and spirits below having lower moral worth. What makes this most concerning is that the distinction between a spirit and a soul depends on their capacity for magic; which in practice is determined by their capacity for communication. If you have limited capacity for communication, you are probably a spirit, not a soul. To be clear, I use the word capacity here to differentiate between a person who cannot communicate (like someone with a language barrier), and someone who is incapable of it. But this brings up its own problems.

The example in my mind is a Terran who, under the strictest interpretation of the spirit/soul distinction, decides a human with special needs is of lower moral concern because they are a spirit and not a soul. Such an interpretation of this system appears to be very likely. My own interpretation of my system identifies a human with limited cognitive function as a spirit, not a soul. Whether that state is due to a brain injury or a genetic disability, my system, understood in good faith, would identify them as a spirit, not a soul.

I don’t like that conclusion. I feel it could lead people down dangerous paths, especially if the hierarchy is more important to them than anything else I say. While I could just say, “treat all beings with dignity and respect,” that does not change the structure of the system. My goal is to create a system that provides a good structure. Platitudes matter less to me, they should reflect the logic that comes before, not stand apart from it.

Part of the issue is that these doctrines of the soul and spirit come as a result of what I feel to be true observations about reality. The souls of our world, those who can influence emergent systems of magic, have enormous power over the world. There is a dramatic power differential between an animal with systemic backing and an animal without one. It’s the reason why the mountain lion that attacks a human always dies; even if they exert some agency or power, it is always trumped by larger magical systems the animal cannot begin to understand. That magic can mobilize physical power the animal could not have anticipated at the point of their attack. The scales are simply not balanced. My concern is that a person would begin to believe that this observation of reality is a goal of justice; that the power differential between souls and spirits is the way things should be.

Perhaps I need to re-examine my doctrine, or at least update it. This problem of moral categorization lies in-between two goals of mine. The first is to develop a theology that can recognize the power humanity wields over the planet. The second goal is for that theology to prescribe responsibility to that power. When I developed the soul and spirit, I believed it served both those functions well. It recognized the power that human societies have over the planet, and provided a way of looking at non-human entities as more than objects. I want this theology to encourage people to spend time noticing animals and other spirits like trees and fungi. I was holding onto the provision that all creatures are spirits, including us, to encourage empathy between species. But lately, I’ve been worried.

Categorization does a lot for determining behaviour. The way I see it, categories are a large part of the systems which trump platitudes. For example, Christianity doesn’t recognize a soul in animals, and so therefore animals aren’t worthy of moral concern beyond what the God-fearing human feels compelled to extend. God certainly views them in a lower moral category if the Old Testament is to be taken in good faith. The way the text categorizes humans as separate provides that moral allowance. “Thou shalt not murder,” is prescribed to souls, not the bulls offered up as sacrifice. I felt that providing an intermediate and far-reaching category of spirits would help soften that contrast. But I worry it would justify looking down on those members of humanity that most need help. The way we think about animals influences much of how we think about ourselves and the planet. We could just be animals, or animals could be just like us. Our justice follows whatever we decide on.

When I first started writing this theology, I was inspired by occult traditions. I wanted to develop a magic that works. I saw magic as the means by which freedom of will could be achieved, since I no longer believed such freedom could be administered by the Christian God. Through magic, a person could have some power beyond just reacting to what chaos threw at you; you could shape change. In order for this idea to work, I determined that magic had to be imminently social, a conscious and deliberate interaction with the network. You had to be connected. Exploring this idea brought me to define a soul and spirit that, when explored, revealed connections to the universe which could be utilized for magical practice. The goal of this system was to provide a reason for agency in a mechanical universe. Naturally, since my goal was to create a system for understanding power, my definitions centered around it.

But now that I’m trying to develop a moral system, I’m seeing a limit to these definitions. If my basic moral units (soul and spirit) are defined according to their access to power, what kind of morality is possible? One that is obsessed with power and divides the world according to it? It’s possible that this could function well and do what I want it to, but it behooves me to be cautious. I want a moral system that encourages the “ecological thought” as Timothy Morton puts it, a system that honours the future, and that seeks harmony and sustainability. I want a theology that doesn’t just understand power, but works to distribute it responsibly across the planet.

I need to take stock of my moral convictions. In case of future amendments, I’ll put up the current edition of the Tenets here:

  1. You should treat other souls the way yours should be treated.
  2. You should not act upon a soul’s body against their consent.
  3. You should resist the marginalization of any soul.
  4. You should advocate for liberty from tyranny for all souls.
  5. You should build or shape institutions to be healthy and just.
  6. You should cultivate ecological and economic health.
  7. You should not cause any spirit to suffer.
  8. You should conform your facts with the scientific method.
  9. You should embrace values from your sincere spiritual experience.
  10. You should align your actions with love and reason.
  11. You should take responsibility for your mistakes and successes.
  12. You should speak in good faith.
  13. You should uphold goodness over the word of the Tenets.

Tenets 1 through 4 speak about souls specifically, and tenet 7 identifies spirits specifically. Tenet 7 applies to most things you would encounter in your day-to-day life, aside from your toaster. Tenets 1-4 apply only to souls. I know when I wrote these that “soul” in my mind was practically a synonym for “human,” but after some time getting used to my own system, I realize this is truly not the case. Tenet 2, concerning consent, may not necessarily apply to a spirit. My own essays about bestiality, then, might not follow from a reasonable interpretation of tenets 2 and 7, i.e., if the spirit is not suffering and they are not a soul, then their consent does not matter. But it is because their consent does matter but is inaccessible that bestiality is rape. While filled with good intentions, I don’t believe these tenets provide the structure I was looking for in a Terranic moral system.

This makes me wonder about my philosophy behind these tenets in the first place. At the time, I compared my project to the 10 Commandments of the Old Testament and decided on a few restrictions I wanted to use, the primary one being positive language. The 10 Commandments are prohibitions with the exception of the fourth, commanding in positive language to keep the Sabbath day holy. I wanted my moral system to be structured around approval and positive language, rather than negative language and prohibitions. I thought a moral system should be structured around guidance towards goodness, rather than avoidance of evil. Interestingly, it is the two prohibitions that I included in my tenets that are giving me the most trouble today, probably because they are the most clear. A prohibition is far more exact than approval.

Interestingly, they may also be less demanding. I read an interesting essay a while back about how the positive version of the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you want to be done to you,” is actually more demanding than the negative version, “Do not do to others what you would not want done to you.” The negative version only requires you to not harm, while the positive version requires you to help, which tends to be more demanding. It’s the functional difference between saying, “don’t be an asshole,” and “be a saint,” each of which demands different levels of effort. It may be easier to avoid evil than it is to do good.

Is one better than the other? In practice, they’re probably the same thing. Choosing not to steal a loaf of bread is part of someone else going out of their way to feed you. Choosing not to use fossil fuels is part of using renewable energy. Choosing not to murder is part of being given security. I should try to reflect this in the new tenets.

To bring it all home, how can I navigate the soul and spirit categories? Perhaps this moral problem is inevitable given that there is a significant power disparity between them; after all, I’ve defined them around their access to power. I’m interested in making sure that this disparity is not conflated with superiority, but is that possible given the structure of the idea? Is this the best way to define the building blocks of a moral system? Should I not re-center the definitions around rights, characteristics, or destiny?

Here’s what I’ll meditate on in the coming year or more:

  1. Evaluate the definitions of soul and spirit. Currently, they are defined around their access to magical power. My definition of magic is stable. I won’t be manipulating soul or spirit indirectly through my definition of magic.
    • Should soul/spirit be defined around magical power? (occultism uses this one, which I was inspired by when I first started this project)
    • Should soul/spirit be defined around rights?
    • Should soul/spirit be defined around destiny?
    • Should soul/spirit be defined around physical characteristics?
    • Should I drop souls/spirits altogether?
  2. Rework my moral tenets.
    • 50/50 prohibitions and approvals?
    • Specificity or generalizations?
    • Should all tenets apply to spirits?
  3. Can the tenets resolve my concerns with souls and spirits, or should something else change?

Material I plan on reading to help me through these questions will be:

  1. The Beauty of the Infinite by Hart
  2. The Crooked Timber of Humanity by Berlin
  3. How to Be Animal by Challenger
  4. Responsibility and Judgement by Arendt
  5. Braiding Sweetgrass by Kimmerer
  6. Flesh in the Age of Reason by Porter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s