MORALITY FOR DUMMIES
March 1st, 2020
Ken Eckert - Own work CC BY-SA 4.0 httpscommons.wikipedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=39984311.jpg
In the physical world humans seek out certainty in order to know where they are and to be able to navigate accurately. Such certainty can come in different ‘standard’ forms such as the universal metre measurement which went through various incarnations from the ‘mètre provisoire‘ carved in the stone wall of 36, Rue de Vaugirard in Paris in 1793, to the platinum metre and the metre now measured in relation to fixed standard of the speed of light. We also have fixed geographical triangulation points and various points de repère like lighthouses, milestones and the concepts of magnetic, geographic and geomagnetic north. Once we are sure about such things we feel confident in taking bearings and measuring distances.
There is another world, unique to humans, which we need to be able to navigate. This is the moral world. I say it is unique to humans based on the evidence that the cleverest members of the animal kingdom such as jackdaws, dolphins and bonobos have shown no evidence of fearing scandals, worrying about their reputations or setting up lawcourts. Just as much as we need to know where magnetic north is in the physical world we need a sense of a fixed point in the moral world if we are to avoid the intolerably queasy nightmare of moral relativism. One wonders how much of the modern epidemic of anxiety is due to this spectre looming so close to us in the modern world.
In the past in Western European civilisation there was a way of finding moral true north. It resided in self-knowledge. The Greek philosopher, Socrates made the statement that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ By this he intended that, in the moral sphere the first thing we should know thoroughly is ourselves. The American writer, Saul Bellow, was later to make the wry observation that this was a fine aspiration but that it was likely to lead to alcoholism. Nevertheless, true and searing self-knowledge was the basis of the conviction of sin that is at the heart of the western religion of Christianity. As Bellow observed there is nothing pleasant about this and, in the religion, it is usually equated with a process akin to crucifixion which then, mercifully, leads naturally on to the freedom of resurrection. It also confers on its initiates the enormous benefit of being in possession of moral true north. By examining your own case you have a proper perspective on morality. You also have an antidote to the besetting temptation of modern times; the readiness to accuse and judge others at the drop of a hat. You know that you are the worst person you know and that the very nastiest things, in the form of violence, selfishness, arrogance and cowardice reside in you. This knowledge is founded, for a Christian, in the immovable and eternal God himself who was instrumental in acquainting you with your own sin. There could not really be a more fixed true north. It is the true measure of all the immorality we encounter in the world.
With the decline of the Christian religion in the West and, in many quarters, even hostility towards it, this kind of true moral north that has been lost and we are plunged into the sea of relativism which is inimical to a creature still in need of moral navigation. As a result we observe, in modern society a desperate scrabble to set up new forms of true north in the guise of standards of goodness and wickedness that are generally agreed upon by majorities of similarly thinking people. What happens is that, instead of the sense of a moral absolute residing within yourself you seek such absolutes in public figures. As a result we see ridiculous gold standards of wickedness being set up in the form of Jacob Rees-Mogg (chosen as a safe bet for the sin of his various forms of privilege), Boris Johnson (privilege plus a colourful lifestyle and way with words) and Donald Trump (wealth, a certain vulgarity and confidence in his opinions). There is no doubt that, between them, they have faults – what human doesn’t – but these faults in no way equate to incontestable moral absolutes. And yet that is precisely the purpose they have to serve. This explains the undeserved intensity of vituperation and the attempts to criminalise them that they find themselves on the end of. These are really attempts to confirm them as indisputable gold standards or metre measures set in stone from which we can then triangulate a whole moral universe with confidence. We see the opposite end of the spectrum in the attempt to set up someone like Greta Thunberg as an impossibly perfect person. Of course, the real Greta in no way is fit to bear the burden of such sanctity.
Another example of this phenomenon is the treatment that paedophilia has received in recent years. Of course, no one disputes the wickedness and selfishness of paedophiles but the frequency of its appearance on our screens and the intensity of revilement expressed sometimes seems suspect. The reason for this is, I suspect, that as revilement of paedophilia is largely agreed publicly, it presents a safe moral ground where we all know where we stand. As a result we have come to like standing there quite a lot and signalling our correct disposition and goodness loudly. We know, for a moment, where we are on the map and we know we are on the side of the angels. This also explains the prevalence of vigilante paedophile hunters.
In a similar way the simplistic Marxist narrative with its easily identifiable class heroes and villains has a huge simplifying appeal that helps us to know where we stand. It furnishes us with a painting by numbers moral clarity as a kind of off the peg ‘solution,’ which releases us from the obligation to tread carefully, to the complex moral problem. It gives us permission to hate those designated gold standards of wickedness and always to support the underdog against all forms of authority.
Things deemed to be unassailable moral absolutes may be used in other ways. One way of looking at anorexia is to see young women (as it is preponderantly young women) who feel powerless using the threat of their own death to gain power over those around them. In a similar way the climate emergency is used to bully other people into doing the wishes of one group. For once it is established in an absolute way that it is a matter of life or death who is going to dare to hesitate or demur?
All of these examples demonstrate just how important it is to gain control of the framing of moral narratives. Once they are framed they can be cashed in in terms of bullying power. Hence the battles over fake news and the various 'fact checkers' and reality checkers' put forward as authorities that have the last word on reality by News organisations.
The real moral world is complex and hard to navigate. We need the compass of self-knowledge to act as a still point in a turning moral world, to know that, although Donald Trump might exhibit a brashness we find unappealing, probably did the odd dodgy deal and is sometimes economic with the truth we have no right to extrapolate further crimes from that and that, indeed, there may be unsuspected virtues within him. Who is to judge as only God himself can look into Trump’s soul. He may even be a better person than we are in the final analysis.