Written by Phil Guarnieri Thursday, 13 March 2014 00:00
What is morality; is it inborn or acquired and does it reflect only the mores of time and place? When man began to discover a variety of customs, laws and institutions that existed around the world, the idea of relativism was born and the question of morality became much more complicated.
Friedrich Nietzsche believed that there is no right and wrong, only the strong and the weak. Some of history’s most horrific regimes grew fat feeding from the very trough that sought to produce an aristocracy of Supermen. Even Nietzsche would break under the Gnosticism he preached, signing the final, pitiful letters of his truncated life as “The Crucified.”
The question is really about value judgments; is there a right and wrong way of living and who determines it? We live today at the crossroads of Athens and Jerusalem, the former saw the world as a question to be answered and the latter saw the world as something to be redeemed. With this summons, it was only natural, inevitable and human to make moral judgments. What human beings ought to do, ought not to do and what they may either do or not do crystallized under the rubric of this culture and the accumulated experience of the race, of which man’s spiritual dimension played an indelible part.
But modernity is an alluring mistress; the unconventional, instant gratification and untethered individualism became the new creed in a rapidly secularized world. Time does not, as James Madison hoped, bestow veneration upon tradition. Situational ethics triumphed, allowing people to be their own priests and moral arbiters. Pope Benedict XVI called the new morality “a dictatorship of relativism,” where only one’s ego was sovereign and master.
While murder and theft were still resolutely condemned, there was a new subjectivism in terms of interpersonal relations triggering an epidemic of broken families, wayward children and the feminization of poverty. Divorce became commonplace and millions of aborted fetuses gave stark testimony to what occurs when convenience replaces morality. Not making moral judgments has been a disaster as segments of our culture began to resemble more and more the flotsam of civilization. Yet even amid its smoking ruins, the exuberance of the sexual revolution continues to cast an ever wider net in the interest of nihilistic, self-liberation. I think of Seneca: Rome is dying, yet it laughs.
Sleuthing for the culprits offers no mysteries; they are palpably identifiable. The withering of the family structure is paramount; but, paradoxically, affluence is another for it emboldens selfishness, a god upon which the forces of capitalism are only too happy to serve, whatever the venue or disposition of the consumer. Exacerbating these pathologies is the striking absence of distance in the contemporary world. Technological progress, for all the good it has wrought through the Internet and the whole gamut of social media, has gushed forth a mighty river where antithetical attitudes, heretofore shunned, have swept over our civilization.
Prevailing attitudes are forged by a hubris believing that the most advanced point in time represents the highest moral development. The cultured, especially the young, live on sight and sound rather than the platitudinous homilies of patrimony which they’ve come to see, as Montaigne described it, as being creased with wrinkles and growing long, gray whiskers. Changing the world and embracing the latest truths can be iconoclastically thrilling, but the twisting tectonic plates below cannot create a foundation upon which a community can successfully cohere. We need anchorage that does not shift amid changing tides.
So we come back to the question on whether a universal moral code or sense is intrinsically human. The answer, I believe, must be yes otherwise it would not be possible to act morally. Such an absence would render all our actions a result of blind instinct. But it is also true that society influences and nurtures the moral sense, like moisture and sunlight nurtures a budding plant. The common denominator for humanity is the inherent need to identify with the emotions of others. In his “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Adam Smith wrote that however selfish a man may be, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interests him in the fortune of others, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.
The pillar, however, upon which such tutelage rests is not reason alone. The continent nestled below the rational mind, an abyss percolating with irrational forces and impulses, where man is engaged in a Darwinian struggle with his own nature, needs more than the lonely sentinel of reason to stand guard over his own nature. In his Farewell Address, George Washington, the Deist, understood this only too well when he declared that of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. To think otherwise is to neglect tapering the wind that shorn the lamb.