Monday, April 30, 2018

Morality ... Now what?

Since the municipal election in my hometown in 2014 and since the USA election of Trump in 2016 there has been extensive talk about morality.  Some would say the cause is more than evident and thus warranted; others might equally well advance the "plus ├ža change" argument.  Certainly in politics at any level the issues of propriety are never out of focus.  Whether you characterize morality as a distinction between good and bad behaviour or just plain decency, the topic admits to no end of debate.  Inevitably each side discloses some thesis which is founded on the conviction of another higher source.

What was initially thought to be elemental analysis turns out to be poorly disguised self-serving political pretence. But there are other contexts in which morality has retained its fundamental appeal unperturbed by the vulgarity of ulterior purpose.  The questions are in fact virtually inarguable and the responses have the appeal of a child's fable. The suggestion abounds that the specific failures of the politicians have unwittingly become the general illumination of the masses.  Take the "Me Too" campaign to promote the rights of sexual harassment victims, a movement which many have effectively credited to the lasciviousness of Donald J. Trump.

Though thanks to Trump the political vernacular has taken a precipitous descent into lurid entertainment, the public nonetheless preserves its personal isolation from the machinations of its grandstanding representatives. It has become pat observation to denigrate politicians for their putative selfishness and to accuse almost any advocate of being in the pocket of some secret financial manipulator. Meanwhile the less dramatic daily issues of morality are on-going and mostly attract little if any attention.  Indeed therein lies the first problem with the more private discussion of morality; namely, does anyone really care?

Consider for example the dismissive comments about "little white lies" or "minor corporate fraud".  The issues within our personal lives seldom rise to the importance of political public broadcasting but they nonetheless have potentially a greater and more immediate impact on our well-being.  While I may be quick to condemn a famous Hollywood personality for sexual assault, I am less inclined to chastise a neighbour for having failed to inform a corporate supplier of an error in his favour on a monthly account.  Where exactly do we draw the line on moral culpability? Has morality been hijacked by religion?

Years ago I had a client who mystified me by detailing the value of his deceased mother's estate.  The object was to report the value of the estate for probate purposes upon which the Government of Ontario levied a tax. Normally clients gave a ballpark figure only (and usually considered to be on the low end).  But this particular client itemized everything almost to the penny.  My reaction was to suggest the detail was both unnecessary and unexpected (though he was unmoved in his mission).  Clearly the propriety of even small economy was important to him.  He was - I should add - devoutly religious.

I have since discovered however that religion is not always the only path to decency. Very often it is the guidance of equivalency which outweighs the mantra of religion - people like to treat others in the same manner that they hope to be treated themselves.  By turning the tables on conduct we promote sometimes unexpected results. Naturally this posture assumes a certain view of the universe which extends beyond mere personal gain (though, like Hedonism, it is a state of mind which needn't necessarily exert excessiveness for compliance).

It doesn't help the examination of morality to inquire whether the issue is merely one of importance to the adjudicator; that is axiomatic. What is relevant however is whether the observance of moral conduct (whatever it may be) has any legitimacy. If one argues that personal satisfaction is the primary goal of existence, then I suppose it makes sense to conclude that one should do whatever it takes. Such a proposition does little to authenticate the particular moral issue but it certainly condones the resulting behaviour.

Getting back to politicians for a moment, the other theme I've noticed evolving with the global "conservative" movement is a growing acceptance of what some people choose to vindicate as "saying it like it is" as though there has suddenly awakened an adoration for the most palpable visceral expositions. This entails something which is a far cry from the normal debate about what constitutes moral behaviour.  In the animal kingdom we willingly acknowledge the superiority of instinctive over intellectual culmination. Whether humankind is entitled to the same privilege is not so clear to me - even without considering the interpolation of religion.

The ultimate test of morality is whether we're prepared to accept that of others. It is not unpopular at the moment to discredit many factions - especially religious and republican - as deranged and purposively harmful. If this is illustrative of the general disposition to compete with the opinions of others then the question of morality boils down to little more than yet another political dispute (perhaps subject to the same assessments of bias and self-interest).

If one is entirely baffled by this inquiry then the only way out of the conundrum is to do precisely what one considers valuable or necessary for whatever reason.  This at least minimizes the blitheness of popular thinking of any description and has the advantage (perhaps questionable to some) of encouraging one's inner sentiments. Does one follow one's own path or the well-trodden path of others?

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