LS Re: Relationship between intellect, society & biology.

Ant McWatt (
Tue, 18 Aug 1998 16:54:51 +0100

On Mon, 17 Aug 1998 10:22:22 +0300 "Jonathan B. Marder"
<> wrote:

> Hi Ant,

Ant wrote:

> >However, I was wondering why you still thought Pirsig's
> >approach to morality in Chapter 24 was (still)
> >problematic.

Jonathan wrote:

> I'm not going to post this to the Squad because I think I already stated
> my position fairly exhaustively in my posting of 6th August (attached
> below). It's a bit long-winded, and maybe I should have spent more time
> writing it, and maybe should have looked for better examples, but you
> should be able to get the gist ...

17th August 1998

Hi Jonathan,

I've already read your post of the 6th August; it's just
that your comment in brackets of your re-posted mail of the
12th August i.e.

"I think this may give some justification for the way
Pirsig ranks morality in Chapter 24 (though I still find
his approach to be problematic)."

made me think you had still some additional problems with
Chapter 24 despite my attempt to answer your queries in my
post "In nothingness there is a great working" of the 12th

However, it's clear that you feel that your original query
has not been answered satisfactorily. So what I'm going to
do is try to explain what I think Pirsig means as society
taking moral precedence over biology by going through your
post of the 6th August.

> Remember in ZAMM where Pirsig describes a lecture on one of Plato's
> dialogues, where there seems to be something wrong in the explanation?
> Well, that's how I feel about Chapter 24. Something is wrong in there,
> and I can only partly put my finger on it. One of the most important
> messages I've derived from Pirsig is that if something FEELS wrong, then
> it IS wrong, either in explanation or in comprehension.

Yes, I think thats a good point. If Dynamically
there feels to be something wrong, then almost
certainly there is. Pirsig is only human and falliable
and, as Pirsig mentions in my post of the 12th August the
four static levels are just a practical device i.e. they
are contingent and subject to revision.

> Some time back, when I was going on about morality and DQ/SQ, someone
> noted that I took an essentially "human" view. Looking back on the
> various discussions, I see that this is true of all of us, whether we
> talk about driving, the evils of Nazism or the delicious taste of
> chocolate. I suppose that is natural, considering that the first value
> judgements we ever make as babies are completely egocentric. At the
> other end of the spectrum, some of the most profound declarations about
> moral principals are also primarily focused on the rights of the
> individual e.g. the US Declaration of Independence or the UN
> Declaration on Human Rights. I believe that man's survival instinct lies
> at the centre of all this.
> Sojourner's essay on the "Giant" talks about how we allow ourselves to

I thought that was a pretty good essay.

> be become part of corporate entities, the basis of Pirsig's social
> level. In my previous post to the LS, I discussed how social
> organisation evolved to serve the biological level - I don't think
> there's any real argument on this. Almost every social value I can think
> of can be linked back to a biological purpose (actually, I'd welcome
> some good counterexamples).

I can't think of any.

> Similarly, Pirsig himself states that
> intellect evolved as a tool in service of the biological level - man's
> survival.

I'm sure he says social level here though reference me the
quote from Lila if you are right and I'll look at it again.

> When Pirsig talks about Society taking precedence over
> Biology, what does he mean?

As far I see it he is getting at degenerative activities
such as drugs, drink, adultery, even gambling which feel
good BIOLOGICALLY but if taken to extremes (e.g. if everyone
took LSD every day) would result in society falling apart
and, in consequence, seriously threaten the intellectual
level. For instance, why do you think no works by
Protagoras survive, why did the art of making glass
become lost? This is because unless you have relatively
sober and self-controlled people to run offices, factories,
the power and transport system, farming etc society won't
work and the intellectual level, in turn, will not have any
protection against biological degeneracy. To quote Pirsig
from Chapter 24:

"Today we are living in an intellectual and technological
paradise and a moral and social nightmare because the
intellectual level of evolution, in its struggle to become
free of the social level, has ignored the social level's
role in keeping the biological level under control."

e.g. What's the best way to control football hooligans?

Talking nicely to them, taking some time to explain why
they shouldn't be kicking the head in of a fan from the
opposing team or is the use force better, in the form of
police in riot gear? I know which method I'd feel safer
with at a football match.

> As I see it, most social values are values
> of the COLLECTIVE. One doesn't settle arguments by violence because the
> overall damage to individuals outweighs any gain. The basis of these
> collective values is integration of individual rights, society in
> service of biology. But when we talk about society taking on an identity
> of its own, we are talking about the evolution of CORPORATE values -
> flags, anthems etc. These values become far removed from any
> "biological" purpose they may once have had. Is Pirsig really saying
> that these corporate values should take moral precedence?

Yes and no. Yes, they should moral precedence over
biological purposes and no, they shouldn't take moral
precedence over intellectual purposes. I don't think
Pirsig specifically had corporate values in mind when
writing chapter 24 though it's clear that a corporation is
going to be more profitable/effective if all the people who
work within it co-operate with each other. Corporate
values only become immoral/fascist when they overide the
intellectual level. This "yes and no" answer is what I
think Pirsig was attempting to explain in Chapter 24 i.e.
Intellect over society, society over biology is correct
morally but not intellect + biology over society which is
what has been tending to happen in Western societies.

> that these corporate values should take moral precedence? I believe that
> is a path towards Fascism, and I don't believe this is Pirsig's intent.
> Thus, I come to the conclusion that full attention to the full ensemble
> of individual rights within the collective must dominate social and
> intellectual morality. I'm going to illustrate this with a couple of
> examples:-
> 1. In the 1960's the USA spent an enormous sum of public money to put a
> men on the moon. At the time, dissenters claimed that the money could be
> better spent to serve the community (education, health etc.). The only
> counterargument I ever heard was that the technological innovation from
> the space projects would ultimately prove worthwhile. Nobody justified
> the project on purely "intellectual" grounds. It seems that everyone
> assumed that "good to the community" took precedence.

I would guess that the US and USSR space programs of the
1950s/1980s had a lot to do with the Cold War so from an
American point of view it was very important for security
reasons to keep up with the Soviets. It's no good having
the best education and health schemes in the world if you
can't defend your country. (Having said this, and
following F.S.C. Northrop's example, if the Americans and
Russians had spent more time and resources attempting to
understand each other in the 1950s/70s they would have
saved their respective taxpayers billions).
> 2. Commercial television programming is designed to attract the greatest
> possible number of individual viewers. Because the primary motivation is
> advertiser satisfaction, little regard is paid to individual viewer
> satisfaction. To have the average viewer content with 4 hours excellent
> viewing per week would be considered WORSE than having everyone watching
> 12 hours of low-grade stuff (as long as they keep watching!). I would
> argue that in this context, using public resources to provide an
> alternative (public TV) is moral, because it primarily serves the
> collective of individuals rather than the corporate identity of the
> community.

Well, I think the executives at the BBC would like to
hear that! Moreover, because the BBC sets such a
relatively good standard the commercial channels have to
try harder. However, I think that Pirsig would argue that
public TV is intellectually better (e.g. it has more
documentaries) than commercial channels which tend to appeal
to the lowest common denominators (e.g. porn channels). For
me, the "collective of individuals" in a society seems to be
the same as the "corporate identity of the community" which
is not very helpful in sorting out moral quandaries.
> Coming back to Pirsig, he talks about morality in the resolution of
> conflicts BETWEEN levels. I am talking about morality resolving
> conflicts WITHIN levels.

That's fair enough Jonathan though more difficult
intellectually to resolve.

> The morality of the biological is in Society
> and the Intellect.

Though, I don't understand what this comment means.
Firstly, you have the inorganic level below the biological
to be aware of and secondly, it seems very confusing to
state that the morality of the biological is in society and
the intellect. For me, the morality of the biological
seems to be in the biological itself and in comparison with
the other levels. What you have written here seems to be
unnecessarily confusing things!

Anyway, I hope the above is some help in sorting out
exactly why you feel something is (Dynamically) wrong with
Chapter 24, Jonathan.

Best wishes,


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