There's nothing that irks me more on this blog than commenters who are annoyingly sanctimonious, taking an I'm-holier-than-thou attitude to people they feel morally superior to. So when I saw this comment about Alan Watts by Spence Tepper yesterday, it irritated me.
Allan Watts may appeal to drug addicts, alcoholics, sex addicts and fame addicts, but he would have done them greater good acknowldging his own struggles with these things. A man who fails, but struggles, openly acknowldging his struggle, and fights directly as best he can, that is a source of real inspiration. But a man who escapes his duty in a world of clever sounding concepts is no role model. Except to provide what appeals to some functioning alcoholics looking for an enabler : A clever but paper thin identify with which to paper over the windows of harsh sunlight, a means of enabling the denial. We can only look at Watts deconstruction of identity as wishful thinking and in fact the creation of an identity of freedom that in fact enabled addiction.
There's so much wrong with this comment, at first I didn't know how to respond to it. But this morning, I did, addressing myself both to Tepper and to another commenter critical of Watts, "Appreciative Reader."
Appreciative Reader and Spence, I'm planning to write a blog post tonight about what Alan Watts said about morality, since you two have what appears to be an erroneous conception that Watts' personal life contradicted his philosophy of life.
That isn't true. At least, I see no evidence that it is. So please explain in a comment why you think that Watts being married three times, having affairs, using drugs, and becoming an alcoholic is at odds with the philosophy he espoused.
I've read most or all of Watts' books, some several times. I've just finished listening to all of the audio recordings in the Tao of Philosophy section of the talks on the Waking Up app. I'm not aware of the slightest mention that Watts believed in rigid moral commandments such as the Bible and other religious texts contain.
In fact, the opposite is true. He urged people to trust themselves, and to not be taken in by the illusion that there's a Commander, a Boss, a God, who decrees what is right and good to do, or who controls people's actions. I've also seen no evidence that Watts put himself forth as a guru to be emulated. Again, the opposite is true. He jokes and plays around, not taking himself seriously, saying that he just gives talks for the money and because he enjoys it.
You two have piled onto Watts for reasons I can't understand. It's irritating when people try to kill the messenger because they don't like the message. It's fine to disagree with a philosopher's point of view, but I see no value in saying that Watts' philosophy is garbage because he had some human problems.
Are you aware of anyone who doesn't have problems? Could your own personal lives withstand a close look to see if you've overcome human weaknesses, or what appear to be human weaknesses? In part this is a sensitive issue for me because my mother was an alcoholic, along with being a strong independent woman who was an amazing thinker and persuasive talker, even though I came to disagree with her conservative political views.
The notion that someone who becomes an alcoholic or heavy drinker is amoral, a bad person, offends me. It's the worst kind of holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness to view a person as a failed human being because they drank too much, had affairs, or otherwise didn't live up to traditional standards. My family was full of flawed successful people who were interesting in part because of their flaws, not in spite of them.
It's one thing to criticize a religious leader like the RSSB guru who says one thing and does another thing. But unless you can provide evidence to the contrary, my view is that Alan Watts lived the life he espoused in his talks.
Note that my central concern isn't whether Watts lived up to some objective standard of morality, because such doesn't exist.
Sure, virtually everybody agrees that killing, stealing, and such almost always are immoral, though exceptions are common. Killing is OK in war; stealing because your children are starving is understandable.
Since Watts never did anything criminal to my knowledge, and morality in large part is a personal decision, seemingly the charge against Watts here is that the philosophical message he conveyed in his books and talks was at odds with some aspects of his life: notably the affairs he had while married and excessive drinking, which some call alcoholism.
So I did some Googling of "Alan Watts morality." The best articles I found were on the AllanWatts.org web site, a two-part series called Mysticism and Morality (see here and here). This appears to be a transcript of a talk by Watts.
Here's an excerpt that shows the foundation of how Watts viewed morality: real honesty.
You see, now, how real honesty is a genuine basis of morals. Real honesty is always not pretending that you’re [your] feelings are other than they are. We know, as we deal with situations practically, that we may have to do things that go against our feelings, and it’s the same with helping people—when you have to—whom you don’t like and you don’t want to help, but on the whole it’s rather necessary to do so. But don’t ever be dishonest in playing that you’re [your] feelings are not what they are.
Now, from this standpoint we can perhaps understand something about the deep relationship between morals and mysticism. If we go back, you see, to the experience that I described as mystical we see that it is the vision—I tried to put it, fumblingly, in the sense of the rightness, the harmoniousness of everything that you are from one moment to another.
That, in other words, human behavior—its ups and its downs—is no different in principle from the behavior of the clouds, or of the wind, or of dancing flames in the fireplace. As you watch the pattern of the dancing flames they never do anything vulgar. Their artistry is always perfect. Ultimately, it is the same with human beings. We are just as much a part of the natural order as flames in the fire or stars in the sky. But this is only apparent to the person who is honest in the sense in which I have spoken.
In other words, the person who is tied up with trying to pretend that his feelings are other than what they actually are—he can never see this, and he’s always a troublemaker. He is the original hypocrite. The person who is unbelievably destructive is the person who pretends that he is a model of love and rectitude and justice, and, in fact, isn’t. Because nobody really can be. But then, superior altogether is the kind of person I would call the ‘loving cynic’ who knows, of course, that everybody has his weakness and his price and so on, but isn’t contemptuous for that reason.
I also picked up my favorite book by Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity. Here's some passages that offer another perspective on how Watts viewed morality.
If morality is the art of living together, it is clear that rules, or rather techniques, have a place in it. For many of the problems of a community are technical problems -- the distribution of wealth and population, the proper management of natural resources, the organization of family life, the care of the sick and disabled, and the harmonious adaptation of individual differences.
The moralist is therefore a technician who is consulted on these problems as one consults an architect on building a house or an engineer on erecting a bridge. Like medicine, shoe-making, cookery, tailoring, farming, and carpentry, living together requires a certain "know-how." It demands the acquisition and use of certain skills.
But the moralist has, in practice, become much more than a technical consultant. He has become a scold. From his pulpit or his study he harangues the human race, issuing praise and blame -- mostly blame -- like fire from the mouth of a dragon. For people do not take his advice. They ask how it is best to act under such and such circumstances.
He tells them, and they seem to agree that he is right. But then they go away and do something different, for they find his advice too difficult or have a strong desire to do the opposite. This happens so regularly that the moralist loses his temper and begins to call them bad names. When this has no effect, he resorts to physical violence, implementing his advice with policemen, punishments, and prisons.
...The conventional moralist has nothing to contribute to these problems. He can point out the frightful effects of alcoholism and gambling, but that is simply more fuel for depression and worry. He can promise rewards in heaven for suffering patiently endured, but that, too, is a gamble of a kind.
...The urge is ever to make "I" amount to something. I must be right, good, a real person, heroic, loving, self-effacing. I efface myself in order to assert myself, and give myself away in order to keep myself. The whole thing is a contradiction.
The Christian mind has always been haunted by the feeling that the sins of the saints are worse than the sins of the sinners, that in some mysterious way the one who is struggling for salvation is nearer to hell and to the heart of evil than the unashamed harlot or thief.
It has recognized that the Devil is an angel, and as pure spirit is not really interested in the sins of the flesh. The sins after the Devil's heart are the intricacies of spiritual pride, the mazes of self-deception, and the subtle mockeries of hypocrisy where mask hides behind mask behind mask and reality is lost altogether.
The would-be saint walks straight into the meshes of this web because he would become a saint. His "I" finds the deepest security in a satisfaction which is the more intense for being so cleverly hidden -- the satisfaction of being contrite for his sins, and contrite for taking pride in his contrition. In such an involved vicious circle the masks behind masks are infinite.
...Where there is to be creative action it is quite beside the point to discuss what we should or should not do in order to be right or good. A mind that is single and sincere is not interested in being good, in conducting relations with other people so as to live up to a rule. Nor, on the other hand, is it interested in being free, in acting perversely just to prove its independence.
Its interest is not in itself, but in the people and problems of which it is aware; these are "itself." It acts, not according to the rules, but according to the circumstances of the moment, and the "well" it wishes to others is not security but liberty.
Nothing is really more inhuman than human relations based on morals. When a man gives bread in order to be charitable, lives with a woman in order to be faithful, eats with a Negro in order to be unprejudiced, and refuses to kill in order to be peaceful, he is as cold as a clam. He does not actually see the other person. Only a little less chilly is the benevolence springing from pity, which acts to remove suffering because it finds the sight of it disgusting.
But there is no formula for generating the authentic warmth of love. It cannot be copied. You cannot talk yourself into it or rouse it by straining at the emotions or by dedicating yourself solemnly to the service of mankind. Everyone has love, but it can only come out when he is convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love himself.
This conviction will not come through condemnations, through hating oneself, through calling self-love all the bad names in the universe. It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love.
If you still want to call Alan Watts immoral because he had affairs and drank alcohol to excess, go ahead. I just hope you'll agree with me that Watts had a view of morality that was much different from the top-down God-centered approach to right and wrong that religions espouse.
Don't apply that sort of morality to Watts, because he denied it, and it doesn't apply to him. But if you feel good about seeing yourself as morally superior to Watts, I'm sure he'd hear this with good humor, telling you to go ahead if that's what gives you pleasure.