Morals For the Sake of Morels

There is a certain flavor of religious person who assumes that anyone who doesn’t agree with their particular belief system is automatically going to do Bad Things. They think that since their religion is their own personal way of staying on the straight and narrow that everyone else is at risk of falling off into the pit of aforementioned Bad Things.

I grew up in a largely Christian rural area where the threat of a fiery afterlife was used to shape people’s moral landscape that kept them away from the Bad Things. These days I don’t believe in Hell, and I don’t really think much about an afterlife either. I figure I’ll find out one way or another when I shuffle off this mortal coil. But the fact that I’m not sweating the idea that as soon as I breathe my last I’ll be transported to a dimension of eternal torment, doesn’t mean that I think I have carte blanche when it comes to terrorizing those around me.

For one thing, I have a deep amount of empathy for my fellow human beings. I don’t relish the idea of hurting other people, even by accident, because I can imagine how it would make them and their loved ones feel. This isn’t special; I’m a social ape, Homo sapiens sapiens. It’s literally written into my DNA to be nice to other humans, especially those of my own in-group. We couldn’t exist in collectives if we were constantly attacking each other. Okay, sure, our close cousins the chimps tend to enact a lot of violence toward each other and still manage to stick together. But our equally close cousins the bonobos are a lot gentler (and hey, they use sex to resolve a lot of their problems!) and so they have just as much to say about ancestral hominid society as chimps do.

More recently than empathy, we developed the social contract. In order to have a more or less organized civilization, we have to agree to give up certain actions–like killing people who piss us off–in favor of having the authority and protection of the law of the land, to include in the case of the U.S. the Constitution. Ideally we agree on what the legal parameters are, though in practice we very obviously have a lot of work to do given the number of murders that happen among the populace–and among the police. But the social contract is still a significant force in shaping cultural morals

For myself, there’s a third factor that shapes my morals: morels. And other things that I eat, too, though I’ll admit I’ll go the extra mile to be good for morels, tasty little suckers that they are. See, I am keenly aware that in order for me to live, something else must die, whether it’s an animal, plant, or the fruiting body of a fungus. Numerous other beings die during the cultivation, harvest, processing and transport of my food.

All of the beings I eat become, in some form, part of my body. My bones, my flesh, my blood, all are created from building blocks stolen from other living beings, who themselves stole them from others, who stole from others, etc. It’s all one big cycle of taking from others that goes back to the first time unicellular beings engulfed nutrients from their dead, decaying neighbors–or swallowed their still-living neighbors whole.

Because I am human, I have a unique awareness of this cycle. A wolf likely doesn’t think about the leaves a deer ate that then became muscle; the wolf only thinks of the meal the deer’s flesh will provide. But I can actively think of the greater food web and my place within it. It’s humbling, because I know I’m only temporarily borrowing my body from this cycle. When I die, it’ll go back into feeding other beings.

I feel that I should honor the beings who died so I may live. After all, I’m in a body made of bits and pieces of their bodies. In a way, they’re ancestors as much as the beings whose many generations and procreations ultimately led to my birth. My family includes a heck of a lot of chickens, pigs and cows, some turkeys and a few ducks, and a handful of rabbits. It’s also made of several varieties of lettuce, apples, rice and other grains, bell peppers and tomatoes and other edible nightshades, mori and countless berries and bananas and cashews and so many more plant-based foods. There are fungi in my body’s lineage, like black morels and chanterelles, porcini and oyster mushrooms. And you can even count geological ancestors in there, most notably salt, but also other fundamental molecules like calcium and carbon.

So as I am made of many beings, I feel I should take the opportunity they give me each day to try to be as good a part of the world as I can. I don’t want their deaths and losses to be in vain. You know how people sometimes refer to a reprehensible individual as being “a waste of skin”? I want to be worth the skin I’ve created from molecules of cows and seaweed and porcini.

Moreover, as a being composed of the bits and pieces of many other beings, I am in a way a microcosm of the world. I can’t affect the macrocosmic world as much as I’d like, but I have a fair bit of choice over my microcosmic world. And since the microcosm is a model of the macrocosm, let me shape the former in ways I’d like to see the latter become. That means living in ways I see as being morally right, ethically correct, and in pursuit of making the world we share a better place.

All of which means my morals…are connected to my morels.

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