Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ian Welsh Explains It All For You, Again

On Morals and Ethics.

At the link above, Ian Welsh covers The Basics of Ethics and Morality. Every now and then, a reminder is necessary. How we deal with the Other is often a fundamental aspect of Ourselves, and if we at least try to approach the Other on terms that would be pleasing to Ourselves were the shoe on the other foot ("Do unto others" and all that), we're probably going to be in a moral and ethical "good" space. It doesn't mean we will get our way or that we are always right or even that we will receive forgiveness for our own sins.

All it really means is that we try to live as if our lives had some meaning beyond our selfish desires and their momentary gratification.

It's not a hard concept, but it is one that many (including this author at times) need reminding of.

So, Ian has put it in as clear and concise a statement as I've seen recently. And it jars in a way because it is so out of step with the morals and ethics -- so called -- of the predators among us who sincerely believe their time has come and they are liberated to do whatever, to whomever, whenever they like. Ian's vision is like some crystal object out of an antique shop. Beautiful. Decorative. Useless.

And that is not to denounce or condemn his vision at all. In fact, in my view, he's got it right. And doing the right thing, even when it doesn't get you "something" right away, should be normal. But it's not. More and more it is marginal to the point of abnormality.

And so the Fall ensues. As Ian says:

When I hear those who believe in the greater good who want to torture other people, think prison rape is just or who like the idea of making other people crawl and beg, I know they have stared into the abyss too long. They aren’t necessarily indistinguishable from the evil they fight, but they are walking that path.

Yes, they are. They don't necessarily become the evil they believe they are fighting, but they have lost any moral or ethical compass. Further:

At the same time, an insistence on complete moral purity is a road to evil of another kind, it is the road that leads to a man like Robespierre. And a strange part of the route to this evil is a refusal to accept petty human failings (like adultery, for example). A refusal to see that a person who has once done wrong, may still do much good. A refusal to believe that those who have done evil, can be redeemed.

It's my own view that for far too long far too many Americans have limited their consideration of "morality" to other people's sex lives. This is supposedly due to the Puritans' rigid sexual codes, but I think it is more about people's innate need for -- demand for -- gossip and rumor about others and rendering judgement thereon. It's more about human nature and how human nature is shaped by social norms. Sex sells, in other words, and it sells because it is a root interest, in the DNA of the species. In American society that interest and gossip and rendering judgement became the defining measure of "morality" in the Victorian age, in a kind of nostalgia for the colonial era, especially the moral certainty of the Puritans. The Victorian era was a highly disruptive period for most Americans, and uncertainty was the ever-present rule. So to find stability, Americans adopted certain elements of "morality." Dominated by other people's sex lives. Adultery should not be a matter of other people's judgement, nor should it even be discussed in the context of "evil." But here, Ian does it, probably unconsciously, and certainly not deliberately.

Demanding "purity" in public life leads directly to Robespierre and all the many permutations thereof, though not necessarily to the guillotine; no, purges seem sufficient these days. The problem with "purity" is that no one can ever be quite pure enough. There is always someone ready to denounce rivals as impure. Go figure.

But there must be some kind of limit:

I will submit that what must not be tolerated is people who allow themselves to take pleasure in the pain or degradation of other people. What was wrong with George Bush Jr. was that he was a sadist, a man who enjoyed other people’s pain. And worse, he was not sickened by his own sadism, but embraced it, and saw it as his right.

Indeed, this should be the absolute, if there are to be any absolutes at all, and this is where our ruling class and its courtiers and retainers have utterly failed. It's not ultimately a matter of Bush's or Cheney's failures or those of any of the other moral/ethical monstrosities who have been in charge over the years. It is about the failure of post-modern governance to do anything about it. In fact, to categorically refuse to do anything about it, while fiercely punishing even the slightest transgression of the most obscure law among the Lower Orders.

So we come back to what we can control:

In this we come back to the maxim “if you aren’t good, just act good”. Character and personality are built up in part by habit. Kindness, generosity, love, are habits as much as anything else. Your mind is great at justifying whatever you do. Do evil and it will justify it, do good and it will justify that, and over time you will become a better person inside your head, inside your soul. Fake it till you make it.

Habits must be learned, and the best way to learn is through example. The problem we have today is that there are so few decent public examples, and if you don't have them in your own life, you're shit out of luck.

Which is another reason why reminders are so useful.