15 July, 2008

On morality

The concept of morality seems to have been confused in modern day language. The fact that there is a group which is ludicrously labeled ‘the Moral Majority’ in my country would lead one to believe that everyone else who is not blessed to belong to that group has no morality whatsoever, that we belong instead to the ‘immoral minority’. I use the term ‘minority’ only with tongue in cheek to contrast their pompous name and I suspect that, in the final count, there are more of us than them.
Normally, when one is accused of being immoral, it is because ones actions have been contrary to the established mores of a society or a particular group. The particular person or persons who have engaged in the deviant behavior are outside the boundaries of what the larger organization has set for ‘good’ behavior. Quite often, the restrictions that the deviant(s) have ignored are sexual in nature. Both Orwell and Rand described eloquently the amount of control a society can exert over the individual when the society is in charge of determining proper sexual etiquette.
Since pretty much anything that leads to sexual gratification other than that which can lead to procreation is considered sodomy, I will freely assume that the majority of sexually active adults have committed it, which makes us all criminals. Though sodomy laws are categorically ignored, at least for heterosexuals, it should give one pause to consider why the law is there in the first place. What would cause a government to want to be able to label someone a criminal who has done nothing more than perform oral sex on his or her partner? To convict of a crime even the recipient of that oral sex is ridiculous, but it is, by law, possible. To label someone as immoral, however, for whatever reason, is a misnomer; it is quite impossible to be immoral.
The word moral, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, has four primary definitions. They are:
1. Of or relating to the principles of right and wrong.
2. Capable of right or wrong action
3. Probable but not proved (as in a moral certainty)
4. Perceived or psychological, rather than tangible or practical (as in a moral victory)
In the movie K-Pax, Kevin Spacey’s character says something to the effect of, "Every creature in the universe knows the difference between right and wrong." He says this with such a beatific smile on his face that one cannot help but to get a warm fuzzy about the nature of the universe. However, upon further reflection, it is clear that it cannot be a true statement unless we adjust slightly our definitions of right and wrong.
Every creature in the universe does seem to know what to do in order to survive. The plant does not reach towards the sun in an aesthetic appreciation for the beauty of the sun; the plant does so because it instinctively knows that it needs the sunlight to live. It is true that every creature is born with the instinct to survive. It is in the plants nature, indeed the nature of every living creature, to try and survive. Seneca said that a "happy life is one which is lived in accordance with its nature."
I submit that few could argue that happiness and survival when paired together are not a good thing. Therefore we could say that what promotes life is right action, and what discourages life is wrong action. However, most animals cannot make a choice between doing something that is good for their life, and something that is bad for it. Animals are controlled by their instinct and their environment. They have no choice but to live in accordance with their nature, unless Man trains them otherwise.
Man is a moral animal. This does not mean that he is good, it means that he is capable of right or wrong action. Only Man is capable of choosing wrong action. But our ability to choose to do that which is bad for our own life, which technically should be wrong, allows us to embrace our true nobility. We can choose a higher value than our own individual life for which to dedicate ourselves. We can rise above our instincts and place our life on the line for our children, our beliefs, our nation, or a stranger in need of help.
Some of the most gallant acts that Man has ever performed were in direct contradiction to what was best for his own individual life. On the other hand, some of the most heinous crimes committed by Man against each other were not directly bad for his own life, but for the species in general. We could alter our definition of good and bad to include that which leads to the survival and success of the species as a good thing. But choosing to rise above our instincts for a higher purpose does not make us moral. The ability to choose is what makes us moral.
The phrase ‘a moral certainty’ refers to the fact that mature people understand that most things they know to be true stand at least a minute possibility of being wrong. Having a moral certainty legally means that you would act on the information as if it were a fact. The difference is that ever since Columbus proved the world was not flat, and Galileo was proved correct that the Earth indeed revolved around the sun (contrary to the claims of the church that had burned him to death for daring to question them), reasonable humans have admitted that knowledge is, at best, flawed. Isaac Bonewitz codified this concept in his "Law of Infinite Data" which most people recognize as, "The more you know, the less you understand."
The devil once went for a walk with a friend. They saw a man ahead of them stoop down and pick up something from the ground. ‘What did that man find?’ asked the friend. ‘A piece of truth,’ said the devil. ‘Doesn’t that disturb you?’ asked the friend. ‘No,’ said the devil, ‘I shall let him make a belief out of it.’" ("The Devil and His Friend," p. 39, The Song of the Bird, Anthony de Mello) People who refuse to acknowledge that they might be wrong have a certainty which can only be called immoral, because only a god could claim infallibility. Alfred North Whitehead said it this way: "All truths are half truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil." (p. 193, Peripheral Visions, Mary Catherine Bateson) It is ironic that these are the people that insist that someone else’s behavior is immoral. But even having an immoral certainty does not make someone immoral, because they still have the ability to choose between right and wrong.
A moral victory is defined as an intangible victory rather than a practical one; it is fighting a losing fight because of the principle of the matter. Unlike a Pyrrhic victory, in which a victory is not worth the cost, a moral victory is a defeat that is worth it. For instance, if my lady’s Honor were offended by the Hell’s Angels, and I challenged them to fisticuffs, I might get my ass kicked, but I would have won on principle. I would have had a moral victory. Sometimes you have to fight a losing battle just because it needs to be fought. I would not, however, say that my victory is intangible. I believe that Honor is very tangible. I can feel it every time I look in the mirror, provided I have earned it. Honor is the shield of all other virtues. Rob Roy MacGregor said that "Honor is a gift one gives to themselves" and though that gift may not be taxable, it is still something that I hold dear.
Standing up for my lady’s Honor or laying down my life for my Brothers or my beliefs is only possible if I have a moral code. A moral code is a value system that is based on a hierarchy of values. In Ryukyu Kempo, for instance, we were taught the value system for the use of violence. Based on a samurai motto, it was:
1. Walk away before you cause pain.
2. Cause pain before you injure.
3. Injure before you maim.
4. Maim before you kill.
5. Kill before you are killed.
6. If you must kill, make it a clean kill.
A value system rates what we hold to be good (the benefit) from highest to lowest, and rates what we hold to be bad (the cost) from lowest to highest. Though we can not always predetermine that our actions will adhere to our code, thinking clearly about what we hold to be true prior to our beliefs being tested will give us maximum prospect to act in accordance with our values. It is mental training, in an effort to program ourselves to do the right thing. Nevertheless, it is still up to us to choose what is the right thing.
We have to decide what to value before we can choose the best right, or to choose the lesser of two evils. I used to think the world was made up of black and white issues. Some would argue that the world is made up of nothing but shads of grey, and I can understand that assertion. It does not give us authority for moral relativism, though. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and if you can’t decide, you have to go back and check your premises. Because the grey, if we look close enough, is actually made up of pixels that are only black and white. We just have to make the effort to think about it. Many people allow their religion to dictate what they think is right or wrong. Some people never consider it at all. As the esteemed lyricist Neil Pert said, "You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."
The inability to decide between what is good and what is evil would preclude our ability to make a choice about it. The difficulty of choosing does not remove from us the responsibility to choose. If we could not choose, we would not be capable of right or wrong action, we would only be capable of action. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden knew nothing of Good and Evil until they tasted of the forbidden fruit. They were incapable of choosing, and so they were incapable of right or wrong action. They were the most immoral beings ever written about. I hesitate to call them human. All of us have a choice. We may choose poorly, and we may make mistakes. We may choose to do what everyone else believes is the wrong thing. (Even if a million people disagree with you, there is still a one in a million chance you are right. The question is, do you feel lucky?) Going against the mores of society may make us pariahs, and it may even make us criminals, but it does not make us immoral. We may choose to do the wrong thing, even though we know it is wrong, because it is our choice. And it is our ability to choose which makes us moral creatures.

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