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Book Review

I can’t remember who or what it was that led me to pick up the book Moving Beyond Duality: Enough For Us All, Volume Three by Dorothy I. Riddle. I’ve been reading it today, at any rate, and what I’m learning from Ms. Riddle is that it’s time for us all to move beyond duality; hence the name. I’m also learning the value of thinking through the logical consequences of one’s position.

This is a book of moral advice. I’m not sure it would be saying too much to describe it as a self-righteous book of moral advice. The advice it offers, of course, is that we expand our thinking beyond the necessity of black-and-white terminology that leads us to categorize persons, situations, and things in simplistic ways, leading to depersonalization, dismissiveness, and other faults.

For example:

We continually frame our experience to realistically, even though our daily life bears witness to a much more nuanced and complex existence. And even though quantum physicists and molecular biologists and social psychologists have been trying to tell us otherwise.

And,

Dichotomies, by their nature, are constructs or ideas that we create. They are not absolutes of nature.

Or as she wrote at the beginning,

Actually, duality is not a given. It is a construct, a low-effort conceptual framework we use to make sense of our experience and of our complex universe. It is an assumption that we make, the habit of thinking or perceiving that we have collectively accepted as reality. It feels true because we create two-category distinctions (either/or) so frequently. We forget that we are the ones who create the categories. We are the ones who choose to limit those categories to two.

We shall see how true that turns out to be.

I’m just as much in favor of eliminating moral errors from our world as the next liberal. Maybe even more so. I’m just not convinced that the road this book is leading us on will get us there. If your moral principle is to eliminate dualities, then you will find yourself quickly in a quandary. To wit:

Historically we have viewed nonhumans – such as plants and animals – as “things,” resources for our own use. Our position has been one of ownership and exploitation. We may have been benevolently protective, but we have not necessarily thought of them as having moral standing in their own right – or being “beyond use” bias.
Where is the boundary of care that we should maintain intact? What entities may we exclude morally? The answer may surprise you. Research is showing that depersonalization available range of plants and animals, and even of the Earth itself, is not morally justifiable.

Well it’s either morally justifiable, or it’s not morally justifiable, or something in between. She doesn’t seem too open to either the first or last of those options. It’s not morally justifiable. That’s pretty black-and-white, wouldn’t you say?

Here’s another example, where (unlike the previous) I agree with her moral conclusions, yet I find her to be oddly blind to the duality that she is expressing in them.

In present times, we can identify a range of blatantly patriarchal societies around the world, each with the theme of male domination and institutionalize, socially acceptable violence. At the extremes we see rape used as a weapon of war and the Deck Democratic Republic of the Congo with songs forced to publicly rape their mothers and fathers her daughters, I sell/Isis abducting and reading women in order to enlarge their nation, young girls being murdered by the Telegram for going to school, and over 300,000 American girls being sex trafficked in the US each world year and a rapidly growing industry (an illustration that this is not just a problem in developing economies).

If you’re willing to say with complete confidence that this is wrong, then you are speaking in blatantly dualistic terms. If you can’t or won’t say this is wrong, then you are a moral idiot. Pardon me for speaking dualistically, but I think Ms. Riddle would state it in equally strong either-or language. She says, “Dichotomies… are not absolutes of nature.” “We are the ones who choose to limit [our] categories to two.” In this case I don’t think she believes that at all.

She presents the requisite continuum of gender, describing “complete” male and female as lying on “extreme” ends of the spectrum; and yet she certainly spends a lot of time at those extremes. You’ve just seen one example, where she speaks of patriarchal cultures and men’s mistreatment of women. Men. Women. “Extremes,” she calls that language; but she uses it all the way through the book. She also says, “While there are many factors that influence the rate of violence, close to 90% of perpetrators of violence outside of armed conflict are males in the vast majority of victims are girls and women.” Again, she speaking in moral terms that I cannot disagree with, but they sure are gender-dualistic.

I’m not sure how she protects herself against the danger she speaks of soon after:

Research has shown that, in order to be intentionally violent, the perpetrator needs to view the target as it depersonalized “other,” a target available for what ever atrocities the perpetrator desires to inflict.

She sure is reinforcing the idea that males are “others.” She’d better be on the lookout. She’s about to inflict atrocities on men! Actually, in a moral sense she already has. It’s impossible to find any place in the book where males are singled out as anything but evil. That’s atrocious.

It’s also dualistic thinking in action. And I really doubt she even sees it. I doubt she sees her either-or moralism for what it is: a direct contradiction of her main thesis. Page after page, moral illustration after moral illustration, she undercuts her main point — and she’s blind to it.

Now I want to emphasize that I agree with many of her moral recommendations. I do not agree with all of them. I disagree emphatically with some of them. Overall, however, my comments here are not about her moral choices but about her moral method. As far as I can see in this book, she has taken up the intellectual virtue of thinking carefully about the limitations of dualistic thinking, and made it into a moral precept, which she nevertheless sees fit to break at every opportunity. There is no moral method here, in other words. There is only moral opinion pasted over with an intellectual veneer.

That may seem harsh. “Research,” after all, “is showing that depersonalization … is not morally justifiable…. The right of humans to deny moral standing to nonhuman entities is being challenged both scientifically and legally.” Is there a method there in science, then? No. As a source of information on moral values and duties, science makes a good source of illustrations. That’s it. That is, if you already know some values and duties, science can afford you lots of new ways to illustrate them. That’s good. It’s valuable. But it is what it is, and it is not more than it is. You cannot uncover moral values and duties through science. They’re just not in its field of study.

Lacking any coherent moral method, Ms. Riddle nevertheless gets many moral precepts right. Do not do violence. Do not depersonalize fellow humans. Do not abuse power. Do not act unjustly. Do not treat others dismissively. Do not wrongly categorize other persons, especially in support of depersonalizing them or diminishing their moral worth. And so on. These are things humans know are wrong, just by virtue of being humans. I’m learning from her, especially in her repeated cautions to think more carefully about how I categorize others. The book is very good in some ways, including especially that. As a Christian I see her expressing the moral nature God imprinted upon her and upon us all when he created us in his image.

Yet I also see her flailing in her attempts to make sense of it all without God. That’s what happens when one has moral sensibilities with no coherent way to explain them — with no foundation in transcendent moral values and duties, from a transcendent source.

She needs to move beyond the illusion that she’s moved beyond duality.

Image Credit(s): From the book cover.