Ordinary Americans, I suspect, won’t have trouble with this question. They will answer, “Of course not. Many things are legal but wrong — cheating on your spouse, for one.” Most of us try to live up to some standard of behavior stricter than legality.
But is that attempt justified? A tribe of academics vociferously denies it. Members of this tribe assume frightful names to overawe their enemies — postmodernists, multiculturalists, deconstructionists — but we will call them the PoMo People, and we will say that, while they are small in numbers and mostly harmless, they represent a powerful attitudinal tendency of our time. PoMo People worship at the altar of Proteus, the shape-shifting god: they believe anyone can be transformed, benignly, into anything.
Here is their creed, as best I understand it.
First: There are no shared moral principles to which all Americans can appeal. There are only texts — the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the laws — that have been “privileged” by power.
Second: The purpose of life is self-expression to forge a unique personal identity. The purpose of social life is to provide occasions for self-expression.
Third: No legitimate limits exist to the pursuit of self-expression — except, it may be, bringing harm to another person.
Anyone who doubts the conquering force of these proposititions should say the word “judgmental” and ask whether the simple act of moral judgment feels right or wrong.
PoMo People strive to be nonjudgmental. They wish to construct personal moralities shaken loose from the rule-bound lives of their neighbors. But “personal morality” makes as much sense as “one-man football.” In plain language, morality consists of shared rules of behavior, useful precisely as a damper to personal or sectarian impulses.
The first and second articles of faith listed above give one answer to the question at the heart of this inquiry. The relation between freedom and morality is that of opposites: the more of one, the less of the other. Yet everything hinges on the third article. Can I live in utter rejection of external authority? If I do so successfully, I’m well on the way to becoming a Nietzschean Superman, a Stalin, or at least a good mafia godfather.
But what of the injunction against harming others? That formula, I think, is the grossest begging of the question. Whose harm? The pregnant mother’s or the unborn child’s? The condemned murderer’s or his dead victim’s? That of the soldier who flees in the face of deadly fire, or of his comrades who stand and die? “Tis not contrary to reason,” wrote David Hume, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” A personal and subjective morality must be indistinguishable from selfishness.
One more time: Because morality aims to bind rather than divide, it values self-control and condemns self-indulgence. Because morality is a practical rather than a theoretical discipline, it works to identify the specific situations calling for self-control, and wastes little time with abstract formulas.
In any case, consider incest, polygamy, or sex with animals — even if done voluntarily, without harm to person or beast, these specific situations are universally considered not just morally wrong, but against the law.
Morality engenders law, and law can on occasion embody the highest moral principles: in matters of justice and equality, for example. But far more frequently, we prefer a gap between power and right behavior. We’d like to succeed or fail as individuals. In fact, our history is a sort of experiment in the multiplication of individual choice. The PoMo People stand at the absurd extreme of that tendency. They believe the individual can make any choice whatever.
But our history — by which I mean the history of the English-speaking peoples, what is now called the Anglosphere — is really an experiment in magnifying the dignity of the individual, by making that individual, not government power, the protagonist in the great drama of good and evil: by clearing the legal ground around each of us, that we may discern and internalize and act on the right choice.
COMMENT: “In any case, consider incest, polygamy, or sex with animals — even if done voluntarily, without harm to person or beast, these specific situations are universally considered not just morally wrong, but against the law.”
I’d suggest reading Edward Albee’s play, The Goat or who is Sylvia. It is staggeringly funny, but more importantly it questions every one of these established moral absolutes.
PVV 1/6/05; 8:42:29 PM
THE VULGAR MORALIST RESPONDS: All I know of Albee is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and all I remember of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the phrase, “he swerved to avoid an armadillo.” But I’ll look it up.
John Barth’s Giles Goatboy plays on the same theme of taboo-breaking – all I remember of that is that it takes place in a university, which is where I was when I read it (bouncing off taboos that were more flexible than I was, I seem to recall).
Normally I’d agree that literature is the most direct pathway to understanding morality. Think Macbeth; think A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In this case, though, there’s some science at our disposal. I’d suggest reading up on Jonathan Haidt, particularly “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.” We may question moral rules, but we are in their grip neurobiologically, regardless.