Moral Crusade, Part 3

Posted on 2015 April 9


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[Continued from “Moral Crusade, Part 2”]

The Absolute Moralist feels it is his duty to decide what is right and wrong for you. . . . In the most extreme cases, he may even feel morally obliged to kill you in order to save you from your misguided lack of belief. — Robert Ringer

Just what are “morals”, anyway? The dictionary says they are “fundamental principles of right conduct”, and moral behavior is “ethical”. Okay, what are ethics? “A system of moral principles”. So morals and ethics essentially speak to the same thing — right conduct.

If you can figure out what is moral or ethical, then you’ve found a set of principals to guide your life. But if you know what’s right and good, then anyone who disagrees must be bad and wrong. Right?

In America, the Democrats firmly believe they have the correct answers and the Republicans are wrong. Republicans feel the same way about Democrats. Each side thinks the other is, not merely wrong, but stupid or evil. (In politics, “wrong and smart” or “wrong and good” never happen.) As our system of governance grows more centralized, and the stakes get bigger, this mutual condemnation degenerates further.

A lot of groups besides the two major parties have their own treasured moral tenets, and they take great pride in condemning everyone not of their beliefs. Among these are various religions — Catholicism, the many Protestant sects, a couple of Islamic faiths, three or four Jewish factions, etc. — along with a number of political movements: white supremacists, Marxists, Tea Partiers, Greens, and so on.

Back in the day, when we lived in small villages, our moral viewpoints were essentially similar to everyone we knew. Our neighbors shared, not only our language and culture and skin color, but our views on how the world began, the purpose of humans, and what to worship. Morals, alongside spirituality, were woven into the culture, so that there was no real distinction between a village’s daily life and its religious and ethical ethos. Nobody thought, “Over here is my religion, and over there is a separate code of conduct” — way of life and spirit and morals were unified into one comprehensive culture.

These codes served as “rules of the road” so we wouldn’t crash into each other. This worked well when everyone shared the same rules, but it breaks down when our standards diverge.

Today we live in a complex society, where religion and culture are separate, where conduct and ethics don’t always match. Moral influences come not from a single source, such as a unified village, but from a variety of influences: parents, friends, schools, sermons, TV shows, books, music, art. These influences are broken, fractured; they pile up inside us to form ethical jumbles. Each of us, then, has a unique mosaic of morals. And each of us is firmly convinced we’re right and everyone else is wrong.

It can get weird:

“I’m a vegan white supremacist!”

“I can’t stand second-hand smoke! It’s evil— Hey, pass that doobie over here.”

“Gays are a scourge on the planet. Men like us won’t truck with them. Now, where did I put my bra and red pumps…?”

“Of course global warming is real! Anyone who doesn’t believe that is a right-wing idiot. Please pass the tomatoes— no, wait, you said they’re GMO? Those give you cancer!” 

“We must have smaller government! But first we should bomb Iran.”

(Right, sure, okay, all of you. Go right ahead and believe whatever you want. I’ll just back away slowly.)

Within this cacophony of values, we find ourselves grumbling about others all the time, constantly miffed at the wrong behaviors of the people around us — irritated by traffic, upset with our fellow workers, impatient at the lunch counter, cranky at our spouses.

The joke is that everyone else is thinking the same of us.

No wonder we’re tense all the time. No wonder we’re attracted to groups who would impose our moral code — or something vaguely like it — onto the rest of society.

Now, a lot of simple rules are fairly easy for most people to agree with: drive on the right, stop at the red octagonal signs; don’t wander around drunk at noon; don’t slug anyone; don’t steal. These precepts are nearly universal among humans. This isn’t where the problem lies. The trouble festers elsewhere.

Even within the touted diversity of Western societies, important personal issues can be sources of conflict, such as whether we’re free to dress for worship as we choose, or if women may be controlled and gays punished, or if the rich owe the poor, or whether someone can set fire to and inhale the smoke from a particular plant leaf. Or if a religious hospital can be forced to pay for medical practices it regards as unethical. Or if peace advocates must pay taxes to support wars of invasion.

On these topics we can become fiercely partisan, moralistic, and intolerant, insisting our views are universal truths that everyone else must obey.

In a democracy, though, people with radically different ethical beliefs must agree to abide by the decisions of whichever group prevails at the polls. This leads to perpetual stress and resentment, with every faction struggling constantly to protect its way of life and dominate the others. 

The great irony of democracy is that small doses help reduce conflict but voting on every little thing increases strife.

Maybe it’s time to take a wider view of morality. If the basic reason for morals is to establish a code of conduct, and that code exists to resolve conflicts, then the essential purpose of morals is to prevent trouble between people.

The problem starts when we regard our code of conduct as morally superior to the codes of other people. Instead of trying to resolve a conflict, we try to impose our moral code on the other person. But the other person always believes his code is superior to yours. Not only does the conflict fail to clear up, it gets worse. For this reason, in the presence of the competing moral viewpoints of a crowded urban setting, a unified code of conduct will be killed before it’s born.

We need a new tool for conflict resolution, a tool that goes beyond any single moral system, that can help us sidestep these inevitable ethical squabbles. We need something that transcends everyone’s particular moral slant. Something that works for everyone.

Ancient moral systems, especially religious ones, were established by decree — “God said it, that settles it!” … “The king has spoken!” Many later systems were devised and promoted by philosophers: democracy, Marxism, Capitalism, Naziism, Zionism, the Greens, anarchists, etc. In our high-tech era, informal codes of conduct have evolved spontaneously or have been discovered through trial and error, as with Facebook etiquette, texting standards, the rules of meet-ups and conference calls and online dating. Today the crowd “votes” on goods and services by posting ratings; individuals express their disapproval of a company’s practices by refusing to patronize it; bad online behavior can get a person ostracized, while good deeds often are publicly rewarded. Virtue in the modern age has its own standards that are unpacking even as we speak.

In short, we’ve evolved from revealed law to reasoned codes to emerging norms of conduct. Instead of moral absolutes that must clash, we now adapt modern technology to help us negotiate tranquil relations between people who otherwise hold vastly different viewpoints. Instead of an imposed order, we evolve customs that file down the sharp edges of our various beliefs so that each of us can navigate the world within our personal moral canoes and bump into others without springing leaks and sinking.

It is here where we find an opportunity to shift our view of governance — from a force for good to a force for conflict resolution, from a system that inflicts one group’s moral viewpoint onto others to a system that negotiates truces between tribes.

Built into our federal structure, in fact, is a ready-made structure for doing just that: state sovereignty. The power of regional governments to write their own rules, though weakened in recent decades, still gives groups a way to set up their own communities run by their own rules. Witness the success of Utah Mormons, Texas conservatives, Oregon Greens, Nevada bettors — even San Francisco gays and New Orleans transvestites and Colorado pot smokers. Or the New Hampshire Free State Project

It can’t work, though, if we feel we must insist that everyone, everywhere behave according to our own standards. True, sometimes our side wins elections and can then dominate all those other bad groups. But sometimes they win and we must suffer under their regimes. Better to find and live with the people we prefer than try to force everyone to be the same as us.

Some would argue that allowing others to go their own evil way amounts to abandoning our own ethics. This presupposes that we can’t sail the Sea of Virtue unless everyone else is onboard. That would be nice … but they can take the next boat out. Anchors aweigh!

How hard should we try to convince others of the rightness of our cause? It may be ethical to present our viewpoint, in the hope that they join up, but it is definitely not proper for us to force our beliefs down their throats. If they won’t listen to our pearls of wisdom, they must live with their own outcomes. We, meanwhile, can continue to practice virtue in our own lives as we see fit.

The key is adaptation, not of our ethics, but of our public conduct when interacting with those who hold different moral viewpoints. Three simple rules can ease this process:

Find ways to cooperate: You may not like their beliefs about women or gays or corporations or marijuana, but nearly always you can find areas where you do agree and can work together. It’s a start, not of a campaign to convert them, but of a project to rebuild the tattered respect for our fellow citizens. After all, they do live and work alongside us, and they tuck in their children at night and worry about their parents’ health and celebrate marriages and are moved by beautiful music and sunsets … just like us. 

Find ways to negotiate: When your worlds collide, try to step back and look for anything you can untangle. If, say, a noisy church sets up shop next to a quiet neighborhood, don’t get embroiled in whether the church holds the correct beliefs or is being “selfish” — this is a waste of time and won’t achieve anything but bitterness. Meanwhile, do work with church leaders to find solutions to the noise and parking problems so that their activities become a local boon and not a blight.

Live and let live: As far as possible, let others be free to practice their own moral beliefs. They treat their code just as seriously as you do yours. Telling them they’re wrong will merely tick them off. If the neighbors hold weekend orgies but they’re quiet and unobtrusive, let them — it’s not your affair. (Pun intended.) If a corporation isn’t participating in the community to your standards — or not paying what you believe is the correct wage to its workers — you and your friends can patronize other businesses. If someone practices the wrong religion, remember that it’s not your job to police their faith: that’s God’s prerogative, and you’re interfering with Him. (After all, God doesn’t make mistakes and doesn’t need your help to correct them.) 

…Regardless of our moral standards — or how sure we are of ourselves — it’s arrogant to assume that we know what’s best for others. Much or most of the conflict in today’s societies comes from squabbles over which moral system is correct. But as long as they’re not actively interfering in our lives, their behavior is their own problem. When dealing with others, if we can negotiate a simple, practical standard of behavior when we’re together (“Don’t steal, don’t interrupt, don’t yell at others”), and refrain from the urge to correct people’s moral standards, we can save ourselves from a lot of heartache and tragedy.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan . . .     — Alexander Pope