How We Got Stuck in the Funhouse
What is is less important to us than what ought to be. The reason is simple. We judge the one by the other.
At the elemental moment of experience, we impose a moral scale on reality. This is unavoidable. We can’t possibly stand outside ourselves. Even those who seek God in revelation must do so through the dark mirror of their humanity. Even for them, man is the measure of all things.
If morality is the judge of reality, the question would seem to be what system of morality brings the greatest justice or completeness to the trial. This has been a reflexive tic of educated persons in my lifetime: the judgment of morality, ending always in a guilty verdict and the death sentence. In the rush, a step has been missed. The old morality lies dead by our own hand, yet the superior alternative is nowhere to be found.
Those marching toward that land of milk and honey were lured into a conceptual funhouse from which they never emerged.
We can’t transcend the world to judge the world. We need a moral standard to discover a superior morality: but in that case, the decision is already made. Once I need a standard to find the standard I get lost in an infinite regress.
The fine spirits of my generation took the verdict against morality for granted, but this reflected a sense of the historical moment, the zeitgeist, and beyond that the oppositional herd instinct of the intellectuals. A positive alternative was lacking. A platform from which to condemn the old morality was lacking, so the accusers made strange gestures toward universality and science, and ended exactly where they began – appealing to the old morality they had discarded as if it were a universal or scientific truth.
German and French philosophers paved the road to the funhouse. They dismissed reality as mere convention, and repudiated convention as a mask for exploitation and abuse. But this indictment could only be derived from the most conventional of moral precepts, directly descended from Christianity. The philosophers were looking for an Artist-Tyrant beyond all morality but instead found the middle-class parson who had troubled their childhoods. They spoke of authenticity and existential freedom but they were stuck in the funhouse, going round and round.
The rest of us followed without a moment’s hesitation. That’s the seductive power of style and fashion.
How Convention Trumped Perfection, and Always Will
We have been driven to the edge of moral dementia by the uniquely modern quarrel with convention. In the past, convention was just the way things were done. To us, it’s the curse of history – a masked lie – a magician’s cloak dropped over reality to conceal the immorality of power. We think ourselves worthy of lives that are perfect and true, and we look on our existing social arrangements with a ferocious loathing.
Those who dispensed the lethal injection to the old morality intended to clear the ground for an authentic moral order. But nothing is happening. The world-historical clock remains stuck at a minute before midnight, while the new dispensation refuses to be born. Such an absurdity can be explained only in the context of history, which is to say of tradition and convention.
In principle, morality and convention differ sharply. The one aims for high ideals, the other for compromises so we can get along. Morality is absolute and universal, convention relative and local. Morality commands “You shall not kill,” but convention finds many reasons to do so.
The sophisticated and super-educated of our times, in their simplicity, believed they could rip away the veil of convention, and dwell in a world ruled by lofty ideals. Behind the veil, however, they found – nothing. That world does not exist. It has never existed.
Functionally, the gap between morality and convention narrows to the vanishing point. We are born with certain behavioral predilections. This has been called the moral sense but is really an instinct for rightness in social encounters. It resembles the language instinct in being a generic endowment “tuned” to the specific idiom of the community.
The mechanism for moral tuning is imperfectly understood, but seems to involve observation, imitation, and powerful emotional tags that convey the feeling of right and wrong in many settings and circumstances. In this manner, ought becomes enthroned at the gateway of experience.
Abstract principles play no part in the tuning process. They are supplied after the fact: that “all men are created equal” was to Jefferson a self-evident description of reality, rather than a newly discovered axiom from which all justice must follow. Once articulated, such principles get absorbed into the moral language – but the fit with the community’s ideals of behavior is always imperfect, always riddled with exceptions.
Any attempt to formulate morality, like geometry, from axiomatic principles will necessarily fail. The cause of failure isn’t our fallen state or conspiracies by billionaires. Geometrical morality must fail because ours is a deeply conventional species. If we rip away convention we slip insensibly back into convention – never pure morality. If we deny the legitimacy of history, we set in motion a tragicomedy of unintended consequences rising out of the depths of historical causation.
That describes our present condition. We have rebelled against history and failed, and now we are sick with vertigo in that funhouse of unintended effects.
Conventional Morality and the Morality of Convention
The strictures of convention must be treated with great care, not because they are right in every instance but because they tap directly into potent emotions. When displaced, these emotions can explode into nihilistic violence. The twentieth century, a long experiment in the trampling of convention, invented the killing fields and the extermination camp. The new millennium, at war with history, seems to be staggering in the same direction: we are the first to crash commercial aircraft into skyscrapers.
But this is a call to caution, not to fatalism or moral inertia. Conventions change: they must, if they are to adapt to a highly unstable human and technological environment. The break with the past is always difficult, often traumatic. Many of the conventions that have evolved since 9/11 and the emergence of social media would have been considered dueling offenses by our great-grandfathers.
The only meaningful question before us isn’t whether the old conventions were superior to the new, but how on earth we can arrive at such a judgment. The way out of the funhouse, for those who wish to leave, consists of discovering the authority or criteria that entitles us to call some aspect of conventional morality right or wrong, better or worse.
The pleasure principle and its obverse, the precautionary or victim principle, are applied by default in the public arena. Both pointed the way to the funhouse. We have been pleasured and victimized by special pleaders into a state of utter bewilderment.
Morality consists of behaviors found to be successful and right in the past. “Successful” means that the behavior binds the individual to the community. “Right” means that it moves in the direction the community has set for itself. All this is given. We confront morality from childhood as a series of tragic choices, by which we amputate our most urgent desires so we can learn to live with others.
But there are choices. Without repudiating morality or veering from the historic direction of the community, we assert ourselves. Moral boundaries fit no person perfectly: in a gray uncertain hour, each of us must cross the frontier. Many do so out of selfishness. That is almost always a false step. But morality can judge morality. Convention can oppose convention. Human nature, our native sense of rightness, will set boundaries beyond which no social arrangements can function.
Motherhood is an ancient moral ideal for women. Success in the pursuit of an interesting career is a more recent ideal. Choices must be made. Something will be lost. So long as the pleasure principle has been discarded, so long as the community’s perspective has been considered, an individual is free to wrestle with her private circumstances. Her path through the wilderness will be her own.
Independence is a necessary condition in a democracy. Sustenance is necessary for life. Dependence on government handouts will threaten personal freedom, but may ensure survival. Choices must be made. To the extent that the individual has risen above a childish self-indulgence, he is free to make a call.
The same is true of private choices like abortion and of more public decisions like a stand on gay marriage. History and the community must have their say. Selfishness can play no part. Beyond that the individual must search his private store of wisdom, and judge.
The Amorality of Government, and Who Is Responsible
Conventional morality is nothing more than the sum of such judgments. It isn’t tidy, but it allows free range to trial and error, success and failure, and so opens the way for our moral thinking to evolve gracefully with our changing circumstances. It is also morality as actually practiced in an open society, as opposed to our fond geometric illusions or the circular condemnations of the philosophers.
The top-down approach that unleashed a torrent of rights and prohibitions for political power to impose has conspicuously failed. Absolutist zeal is no match for the hardness of reality – or the digestive capacity of history. The lost highway of radical transformation dead ends in disorientation and nausea.
Morality works on a more human scale. Modern democratic government, for example, connects to office-holders, factions, and voters, never directly to morality. A president or an attorney general can act immorally. The same can be said of a bureaucrat or a voter. Government, considered objectively, is just machinery.
While it’s true that convention pertains to community, and reality, and history, responsibility ultimately must always take the form of a personal decision. The only legitimate player in the moral drama is the individual.