With the exception of 15 year old boys who’ve just read Anthem for the first time, die hard 30 year old Satanists, and ungrads who’ve just discovered existentialism, we believe that morality exists. It is possible to be moral. This is statement is as inflammatory and contentious as they come and considering that I am irreligious, perceived as something of a radical statement. I’m going to pretend that it isn’t.
If we grant that moral is something which it is possible to be, this doesn’t make matters less complicated. Quite the opposite, since now we must wrestle naked with the barbed wire of linguistic history and connotations, plus the infinite divisions of definition that we encounter with ideas which are not yet scientifically quantifiable. One man’s morality is another man’s disaster. The morality of the Catholic church, for instance, is seen by many as being a great and needless harm, a swollen infected sore, when it regards healthy sexual practices. To prevent morality from becoming a bastion for those who are most likely to abuse it, that is, to avoid morality becoming an institution, we can take a few simple concepts to mind.
Before anything else, let’s define what we mean. Morality is the seeking out and acting upon rightness. That is, to conduct oneself in a manner which corresponds with character and poise, and that does not infringe on the well-being of others. This, I admit, is still rather vague. Necessarily so.
We must accept morality as dynamic in order to absolve the theistic past it is associated with. We know, as modern humans, that since there are no Platonic Forms and no Big Other, that absolutes are not required to determine worth. What is moral changes with our knowledge and progression and to deny that is to suggest that science also does not work because it also changes, despite the fact that the structure of science makes it difficult to alter facts. No, the analogy is not perfect, but the spirit of the thing remains. Imagine that you are 7 and watching The Little Mermaid. Imagine that now you are 30 and your sentiments have changed. What if, because of strictures in place, you were obligated to feel the same way about the film between ages? How strange would this be? I do not mean to suggest that morality can be based on preference, and I urge us all to stray from moral relativity. I only mean to say that whether something is empirically justified or personally felt, change and dynamism is essential to embrace. Morality is no different, and we can see that plainly. Humiliation in the classroom was seen as an effective method until it turned out to be rather, well, immoral. We might even call that a moral discovery.
As to the science of morality, there are some who are hopeful that this can be defined. I was personally very persuaded by Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape in his discussion of brain states, etc, for measuring morality. A different perspective is taken up by Kenan Malik who wrote The Quest for a Moral Compass.
Next, and this is the really important part, we must abandon all notions of superiority. Our sense of moral and moral persons is fraught with notions of being-better-than, yet another outlet for us to bolster ourselves. We think of someone like Mother Teresa as a moral icon (Almost a literal saint. Almost!) and think of her as being righteous, pure, moral – and think her better for it. This toxic entanglement does a few ugly things. First, it may prevent us from scrutinizing “moral” individuals. Look into Mother Teresa. Read The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens, or even watch this short piece he did on her. When we make moral icons, we fail to be critical about the topic. We also, very comfortably, place morality out of reach by saying, “Well look, I can’t be like that person!” Superiority is a mental sinkhole for numerous reasons. Here we can see that it butts up directly against ideas of fluidity and dynamism and places it in the realm of demi-gods, whether they are us or some icon.
However, it also shows us that morality matters to people. This is a concept which has been mythicized, which tells us a lot.
There is an impulse that should be noticed. This impulse drives people to want to appear moral. The moral impulse is demonstrated readily on all social media platforms. This bizarre display usually goes something like this,
“Omg, did you see that a woman left her baby in the car while she went shopping? That is so wrong, she should be arrested. If I had a baby, I would never do anything so negligent. Ugh, people make me sick.”
What’s the purpose of this tirade? Seemingly it is to show that you are against dying babies – as if we were curious. Though most of us are against dead babies, there’s something repulsive about this sentiment. A kind of salivating schadenfreude, a fondant sculpture to dominance, a moment erected to betterness. They’ve selected an easy topic and pontificated as though it were novel. We may find ourselves arguing against this person. More accurately, against their wispy charade. If you look, you will find something like this on your Facebook feed every single day.
No doubt this person wants to be seen as moral. They may well be moral, they may be some kind of ethical savant for all we know, but the impulse is the be seen as moral first and foremost. This desire is so that we are held in favorable regard to those around us. We want to defend ourselves against low opinion, we want to really believe we’re good people, and people will take this route to ensure they feel protected against the bitterness that permeates culture. This comes too often at the expense of others. In a tantalizing irony, they become the reason that such defenses must be made in the first place.
We don’t need to do anything about these people except notice that they are there. If there is a goal, it’s that we reflect well and come up with interesting things to say to one another. We can look each other in the eye. There’s no need to make saints or bogeymen where there aren’t any.