We have moral needs – most of us anyway. This is the claim of the U.S. philosopher Susan Neiman, director of the Einstein institute in Potsdam, Germany. She writes:
[Moral needs] include the need to see our own lives as stories with meaning – meanings we impose on the world, a crucial source of human dignity – without which we hold our lives to be worthless... Demands for moral clarity ring long, loud bells because it is something we are right to seek. (Moral Clarity, p.4)
Whatever influence presses upon our thinking, our morality is our decision. It is a matter of drawing a line across which we believe others should not go and the same line or another line across which we do not want to go and which we do not want to go – a line we may cross out of impulse, followed by regret.
Our decisions are ours despite being social creatures and our minds being to some extent cultural creations. In small, ancient tribal societies, people were more uniform in their attitudes than they are in today's huge and diverse societies of millions. Today we choose whether to adhere to the faith of our parents or some other faith or no faith at all. And we have a greater freedom to be different than have peoples of numerous centuries past. Neighbors tend to leave neighbors to their religious and other preferences so long as it does not intrude on their lives.
In early authoritarian societies community absolutes were established regarding sexual acts, property and religious worship. Property owners wanted their ownership protected. Women were the property of men. And monotheists contributed to enforcing the moral certainties of their faith. In ancient times adultery was punished by stoning to death. It still exists in some tribal Islamic societies where what they know of Western freedoms are derided as godlessness. During the Middle Ages in Europe, authoritarianism gave rise to the burning of people at the stake and the murderous crusades against heretics. It gave rise to Ferdinand and Isabella and their Inquisitor General, Torquemada, and it gave rise to the Dominican priest of Florence Italy, Savonarola. And all of this was the morality of that time.
In modern societies are cultural traditions that outline what is ethical and what is not. These cultural traditions give to some of us a vision of morality as a means to personal salvation. Some of us believe that it is not proper for a man and woman to live together without having been married by their Church, or the state. Some of us believe that it is not proper for a married person to have sexual relations other than with one's spouse – a view that was not common among Europe's aristocracy, including its kings, or presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy.
Into the 21st century some people complain of what they call permissiveness. But even parents they consider permissive want their daughters to be happy and treated well as children and into adulthood. And with morality being about how people are treated, despite the new attitudes toward sexuality, people attached to other people maintain moral concerns.
The individual in a "permissive" environment becomes the artist of her own life with her ability to make choices. The choices she makes becomes her morality and not the business of her neighbors – while some who would want to choose for her might call this moral relativism. And the choices she makes depend upon what she has learned about people and from her mistakes.
Some of us believe in the "good nature" of our children. Some of us believe, as the ancient Taoists did, that we can rely on our good nature and allow our impulses. But for all of us, impulses are not always self-serving. Life is a series of choices sometimes made in an instant. We have all seen or heard of examples of devoutly religious people letting themselves go astray. Some excuse their behavior on being human. But being human excuses nothing. Because we can choose, we are responsible for what we do. Some people of faith are well aware of the dangers of impulse and try to protect themselves from it by a more intense faith. Some of us believe that believing in impulse adds to its dangers and that we can better protect ourselves from it by awareness and education.
The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, believed that the way to reality was through intuition rather than reason. He criticized the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that our wills are autonomous and that we ought to act in accordance with what is good for society. Our behavior, he held, ought to rise from a moral foundation of reason. Bergson believed – intuitively perhaps – that Kant was naive about the human psyche. Bergson wrote about two kinds of morality that are a part of a life force (élan vital): morality based on unchanging religion and morality that is dynamic, both of them the product of this life force. Bergson believed that we experience psychic tensions if we deviate from fundamental morality and that we can return to that fundamental morality – love – effortlessly.
Some described as postmodernists see Bergson's view as metaphysical nonsense, and some pity philosophy students having to wade through and make sense of his writings. Postmodern ethicists are closer to John Dewey (also not an easy read). Dewey wrote of humanity advancing its moral choices by learning through experience what is beneficial and what is harmful – moral pragmatism. We achieve moral progress and maturity, wrote Dewey, when we reflect upon our own value judgments in regard to what we and humanity in general are doing.
In the twenty-first century, independent people being adult and making moral judgments contrasts with a clan of hunter-gatherers participating in group think. Seeing people improving their ability to make independent moral choices through education stands in opposition to the idea that religion is necessary in making moral choices. About independent thinking, Susan Neiman writes:
Those who view religion as necessary for morality reduce us to the moral level of four-year-olds. If you follow these commandments you'll go to heaven, and if you don't you'll burn in hell is just a spectacular version of the carrots and sticks with which we raise our children: If you clean up your room you'll get the cookie, and if you don't you'll stay inside. (Moral Clarity, p. 14)
Neiman separates herself from a morality that is bargaining – like the pagans in ancient times who hoped that his gods would protect him if he sent them a gift of some kind, perhaps the soul of someone sacrificed.
Neiman also separates herself from what some people derisively refer to as Dewey's moral pragmatism. She writes that "sometimes morality and self-interest part company." And she separates herself from the idea that the basis of morality is that which maintains civil order – obvious, I must say, in looking at Syria in April 2011.
What, then, can one base one's moral beliefs upon? Philosophers are asked to define the words they use. But in deciding what the right thing to do is, we have no great and final book of rules to refer to – no absolutistic source with which to escape our own thought processes. We have our own educated judgment and values drawn experience and our understanding of the collection of circumstances that we are living with.
We need an awareness that benefits from modern communications improved upon through education – an education that gives one the tools for independent and aggressive thought mixed with a sense of human decency. The education part is what causes many of us to see the errors in judgment that we made when we were younger. And, in my opinion, we can mix the education part with suspended judgment – an attribute that was slow in developing until the rise of science.
This is not about science, however. And "decency" will be left undefined. What people think of as decency may differ from person to person and differ with circumstance. Treating people in general with decency differs with our desire to take freedom or maybe even life from a criminal. Some of us will consider decency as freedom from enslavement, freedom to think and to pursue opportunity and happiness, freedom from whatever robs a person of his ability to maintain the sense of dignity that comes naturally to a lot of people.
Many of us have the sense of decency lacking in the piggish mob of Egyptian men who tore at the journalist Lara Logan. And most of us dislike seeing a conceited ass look down his nose at common people, or a common person finding opportunity to elevate himself at the expense of persons delegated as inferiors – as were Jews in Germany or Blacks in the U.S. in the mid-1900s.
You may hold to a different sense of decency – which those of us who are not philosophically relativistic will think inferior to our own. Some of us are anti-authoritarian like the late John Dewey. But Dewey allowed himself a perfectionist ideological mode that did not serve morality well. Dewey supported U.S. involvement in the First World War on moralistic grounds. After that war he believied he had made a mistake, and he urged the U.S. Congress to draft legislation to abolish war. Then on moral grounds he opposed U.S. entry into World War II – against Hitler. Philosophers live with the possibility that their attempts at mental perfection leave them as open to poor judgment as the rest of us.
You might prefer to believe in a morality based on what you consider solid absolutes and an all-encompassing formula for action – while what is being said here is that no such morality exists. What is being said here is indeed negative. It is in opposition to the notion that we should surrender to our primitive impulses. It is in opposition to the notion that all is right that advances the Fatherland, that all is right that serves the struggle against the enemies of the working class, that all is right which is done in the service of "God's laws" or for the glory of God, and that all is right that advances Islam. It is negative in holding that no source can be taken as absolutely without error. It is positive in its asking us to rise above our mental laziness, to look, accumulate specifics and to chew on our options. And it is positive in asking us to subordinate religious and political ideology – however self-serving – to what is commonly called our better nature.
In advocating measure, it also allows for rejection of the tense and emotional moralism that we occassionally observe in someone merely discussing issues.
Copyright © 2010-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.