1.18.2011

Modern Morality

At least once a day, whether in or out of class, some professor or student laments the present condition of the world and how nobody does anything adequate enough to positively change it. The disease and violence, we are told, permeates all places and peoples, and, while our world cries out in need, we in the west are largely blind to, and partly or wholly responsible for, the majority of these ills. What lies at the heart of all these problems? Mankind, of course. And in the heart of man lies a greed and selfishness that is unparalleled by any other sentient creature on this planet. Because of this, it is man who must bear the burden of healing the world, and not merely the little world of his own neighborhood or even his own country. There is only one world, after all, and splitting it into pieces based on ethnicity, religion, or any other reality is an outmoded and irrational relic of a regressive and oppressive past. Thus, there is no demarcation of responsibility, only an infinitely expanding sphere of obligations from one person to another. In order to fulfill this universal moral obligation, we need only to realize that it exists and then simply act accordingly. Awareness, then, is the only real catalyst for improvement. Man must be drawn out of his little cave, forcefully if necessary, and see the suffering, the injustice, the lack of rights, and the unadulterated inhumanity that surrounds him.

This ethic of global responsibility, though, has moral implications that many know, perhaps only implicitly, but few are ready to admit. A law-abiding father who raises his children well and is a good husband to his wife would be considered, in ages past, either the most essential or at least a vitally necessary component to a good society, if there is such a thing. The ethic of global awareness, though, has no use for particular relationships. It assumes, like the modern nation-state, that all societies are made up of only two essential elements: individuals and the legal structures (read governments) that give meaning and shape to their lives. This is why activists of every sort are constantly attempting to alter the laws of the land while taking for granted the idea that ethics and law are coterminous and therefore the laws that governments enforce must be changed in order for the world to truly progress. This is also why political activists have become our modern day saints and martyrs. Just as Christianity has its saints, so too does our modern ethical system allow for certain figures to be deified and immortalized because of their dedication to the cause of global awareness and global social change. There is an important distinction, though, between the saints of old and the men and women who are lauded today.

Many, if not most, of the saints of Christianity were not known as saints during their lives or even in the centuries after their deaths. Alternatively, modern men like Martin Luther King or Gandhi already achieved a type of pseudo-celebrity status during their lives. What they were doing was known to the world, and the world looked on in admiration of their extreme moral courage. The reason for this difference is that Christianity, along with the rest of the world before the Age of Enlightenment, judged a man based on how he lived his personal life. The word ‘personal,’ in this sense, does not mean simply private; it represents an implicit acceptance of man’s inability to treat the whole world with the same moral goodness that he treats his wife, his friends, and his children. This is in direct contradiction to a modern ethic that treats a man who fulfills all of his personal obligations as either a complicit agent in an immoral global structure or as both an oblivious and irrelevant moral actor. We are all within the Matrix, and it is only those of us who are dedicated to the general welfare of humanity in the abstract that have swallowed the red pill.

At this point we should ask ourselves a question: By what ethic should a man live? It may not seem, at first, that the ethic of global responsibility and the older, more conventional morality of fulfilling particular obligations are in conflict, but if we look at the types of people who exemplify the modern ethic we will undoubtedly see a discrepancy. Celebrities of every stripe, for instance, are mostly known for their talents. They are also known for the myriad of causes that they all champion. Everything from disease curing to government overthrowing has at least one celebrity that is the face of the campaign. They give exorbitant amounts of their money and time to whatever particular ethical problem needs remedying in the hope of “making the world a better place.” Nobody, though, in his right mind would seriously consider looking to a celebrity for his moral formation. We all know the reality of their lives: drugs, adultery, greed, tragic deaths (sometimes at a very young age), and an arrogance of a caliber not seen anywhere else in society, except for maybe politics. Coincidentally, politicians also happen to be high on the list of adherents to the ethic of global responsibility. These people never tire of telling us plebeians about how we never give enough, that is, when they aren’t busy lying, cheating, or spending their riches on lawyers to defend themselves against charges of almost every nature.

I am not disputing that the world is filled with evil, it is. It is also filled with good people who do not attempt to “make the world a better place” but instead try very hard to behave justly and charitably toward the people who are close to them. The ills of the world are too complex for one man or group of men (governments) to fix, and very often the attempt to do so has left many people worse off. Most people implicitly understand this. It is time for the moral philosophers to understand this as well.

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