Moral order and personal freedom

February 15, 2010

The relationship between culture and the individual used to be thought of as one of command and obedience.  Individuals, it was supposed, internalized the rules of behavior then acted accordingly:  they became “cultural dopes.”  In Moral, Believing Animals, Christian Smith rejects this crude causal model – though he appears to do so mostly because it is old-fashioned, which in sociology seems to be worse than falsehood.

For whatever reason, Smith is correct.  We are not cultural dopes.  In some ways, at some level, we are free.  The question is how to reconcile this freedom with the invasive power of culture.

I can think of no better way to start the search for answers than by leaning on the insights in Smith’s book.  Human beings, he maintains, are primordially moral animals, and culture is moral order.  Every culture elaborates a number of high-level narratives – the operating system of moral order – which constrain and orient social institutions and private life alike.

Moral order, Smith makes clear, is external to the individual.  We encounter its narratives in infancy and are enmeshed in them until we die.  These narratives are the offspring of history in a particular environment which includes, notably, other cultures with different narratives.  They not only guide the individual’s actions but provide the framework of his  identity – of his being this person rather than that, us instead of them.

“There is thus nowhere a human can go to escape moral order,” Smith writes, “no way to be human except through moral order.”

In consequence, moral order also exists inside the individual – and it is here, in the strange and fertile landscape of subjectivity, that the most interesting transformations occur.  A mismatch necessarily develops between the external and the subjective moral order.  There are many reasons for this, but the most important is that the individual is not a cultural dope.

Internalizing a narrative isn’t like taking a pill.  Rather, as Smith observes, the individual reflects on what is given, judges it, negotiates with it, modifies it to accommodate the secret visions of his subjective life.  In the end, he articulates his own personal narrative, a story he tells himself about himself, which is nested in the larger narrative of the moral order but never wholly coincides with it.

The possible distance between the individual’s narrative and that of his culture depends very much on time and place.  A Spartan male who wanted to become a lounge lizard probably didn’t live to adulthood.  An avowed homosexual in Saudi Arabia will likely end up in prison or worse.  But even the most inflexible moral order must allow some space for accommodation to basic human needs, if it is to endure:  the alternative is growing disaffection and ultimate defection from the master narrative.

A vast number of implications follow from all this; I will touch on two that strike me as interesting.

While the old idea that morality is a kind of fraud perpetrated by the ruling classes seems implausible, standing on the high ground of a moral dispute confers significant emotional and material advantages.  There can be no doubt that, in Smith’s words, “moral order empowers.”  At the same time, we have seen that moral order must, to some degree, remain open, flexible, and accommodating.

The combination of power and accommodation means that every moral order is a fiercely contested space:  every individual will wield every available lever of influence to arrange this  space to his advantage, subjectively and objectively.  The same is of course true of institutions and groups.

In the aggregate, this struggle represents the dynamic state of communal wisdom.  The moral order is received externally, and appears “finished,” but in fact is evolving at the same pace as the understanding of the moral community.

The obvious example is the moral order sanctioned by the God of Israel:  out of Egypt, a God of hosts; with the prophets, a God of mercy and righteousness; and at the Sermon on the Mount, a God of pacifism and forgiveness.

The second implication follows from the first.  Morality is a shared narrative about right behavior, but it is also a battleground of contending visions and interests.  In neither case is it “owned” by any particular group, or written down for the ages.  The most prestigious keepers of a culture – the medieval papacy, say – are themselves constrained by it, often in ways that hobble and hurt.

The fact that it exists primarily inside subjective human heads endows moral order with a peculiar sort of instability.  The imposing command-and-obey model of culture, noted above, yields to a more open and vulnerable structure.  Moral order requires our assent to endure.  This, I suspect, is among the most powerful factors bonding us to a way of life.

History generates some stability, however.  Custom, tradition, and ritual perpetuate, over centuries of change, the core narratives that orient a people to a particular moral direction.  The lifetime of an individual can – I’m tempted to say:  must – affect the course of this journey, but barring the rare moral genius or monster, it will do so by inches rather than miles.