Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Force of Morality

Nov 12, 2004 2:38 pm

The Force of Morality

While many Kerry-supporting"blues" are blaming evangelicals for Kerry's loss (as if the social-conservatives were the only reason for the Democrat's denouement) and some Bush-supporting"reds" are busy denying that religious-right voters have any real electoral power (I still find it odd calling states backing the party of Joe McCarthy"red") ... it is certainly true that the Culture War is heating up. In this regard, the election was only a symptom, not a cause.

There are many ironies in this culture war. Some conservatives of a pro-war vintage are claiming that the"blues" are fear-mongers for focusing on the evangelicals; they suggest that Bush's war stance is the reason for his victory. Such a writer as Christopher Hitchens, in fact, has so downplayed the dangers of domestic fundamentalism, that he's recrafted Bush's re-election as a"secularist victory." Secularism is relative, I suppose, given that Hitchens does note correctly another irony: that some antiwar advocates, who are incensed over the domestic fundamentalists, are too busy downplaying the dangers of fundamentalism abroad.

Now, granted, the sword-wielding Islamic fundamentalists, who seek to cut off the head of licentious Western civilization, may share something with the domestic fundamentalists. But these jihadists make our domestic variety look like pansies by comparison.

Still, despite the vast differences between them, fundamentalists of all stripes seek to use the power of the state to bolster their own particular vision of morality. Jerry Falwell has already spoken of reconstituting his Moral Majority for the 21st century (yes, that's 2-1, not 1-2). Criticizing some of his conservative compatriots for belittling the fundamentalist electoral achievement, Falwell was elated that"more than 30 million evangelicals 'voted Christian' [on] Nov. 2, when 116 million Americans cast ballots. He predicted the number of evangelical voters will jump to 'at least 40 million' in 2008." And Bob Jones 3rd, president of the college bearing his name, wrote a letter to President Bush saying:"In your reelection, God has graciously granted America—though she doesn't deserve it—a reprieve from the agenda of paganism."

What is being heralded is a"moral revolution" that is attacking American"indecency" and"perversion," the kind of"perversion" that Falwell once said was a critical factor in bringing about the tragedy of 9/11 (something with which the jihadists might agree).

Nevertheless, if this were just a revolution requiring a battle over ideas, we'd all stand a better chance if we debated the issues rationally, while barring all groups from using state power to forge their ideological battles.

One of those battles took place yesterday. Last night, as I reported,"Saving Private Ryan" was to be preempted in various markets because ABC affiliates feared indecency fines from the Federal Communications Commission. Initially, it was reported that 65 ABC stations, in markets as large as Boston, Dallas, and Cleveland, would refuse to air the film. As it turned out, a little more than 20 ABC affiliates declined to show"Ryan." All of this is a long-term consequence of the FCC's war on"vulgarity" in American media, following the Janet Jackson nipple controversy. (At least some people have retained a sense of humor through all this: Dolly Parton, in concert last night at the Theater at Continental Airlines Arena, actually cautioned that she could be a lot more nasty than Miss Jackson:"If I pull a Janet Jackson, I'm gonna take out about four rows.")

Ironically, Brent Bozell, of the Parents Television Council, who mounted the post-Super Bowl protest and who applauds the FCC's fining of the indecent on TV, himself protested against this"Ryan" blackout.

Too bad Bozell! You rubbed the FCC bottle, the genie popped out, and now, you're not likely to stuff it back in. This is now creating a stultifying atmosphere for American media that is far worse than any possible fines the FCC can levy trying to force people to be"decent" and"moral."

But you can't force anybody to be moral. Genuinely moral choices are moral because they are choices, not decisions forced on people at the point of a gun. The precondition of any moral revolution is a simple maxim, one that must serve as a basic minimum for any rational discussion of values:"Leave your guns outside." As Ayn Rand said in For the New Intellectual, even people who disagree over the nature, function, and purpose of moral values must stop equating"the power of physical compulsion with the power of persuasion." That's not likely to happen, however, as long as groups, of whatever value orientation—be they right-wing religious fundamentalists or left-wing"secular" do-gooders—choose to ram their agendas down our throats.

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Jason Pappas - 11/13/2004

Great story. Yes, I selected only one theological approach and singled out its failings. There are many others, some which see no conflict between faith and reason, which have been influenced by Hellenic thought. These and others, we will certainly have common ground.

Most of all, however, is the essential goodness and common sense of most Americans (and I hope most people everywhere) who, on a one-to-one level, sense the appeal of fairness and rights. As I said, that was a great story.

David Uctaa - 11/12/2004

And I have duly quoted it:


Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/12/2004

Thanks Aeon and Jason for your comments, as always. Yes, Jason, what you say is consistent with what I mean.

Let me tell a true story, however, which suggests that a framework of morality-and-choice need not be lost even on a religious person.

Some years ago, my home was visited for many consecutive weeks by a group of Jehovah's Witnesses. They kept coming back, ringing my doorbell, the Watchtower in hand, because I had this uncanny ability to listen to what they were saying, to treat them respectfully, and to answer their every concern.

At one point, they were going on and on about the immorality of prostitution, gambling, drug use, homosexuality, and so forth, and I said to them: "So, you believe that everything would have been okay if human beings had simply not questioned the ways of the Lord, right?" Yes, they answered: "Follow the way of the Lord. He provides everything for us. We got into trouble when we started questioning the path He had designed for us."

"Then you believe that all sin is emergent from human choice, right?" Yes, they answered, saying something about Original Sin, and eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

"So that means that if people, who have the ability to choose between good and evil, are to find salvation, they must choose to walk the good path, right?" Yes, they answered.

Then, we got into a little discussion of individual rights. They were even willing to admit that the freely chosen practices of prostitution, drug use, gambling, and homosexuality among consenting adults were not in violation of anybody's individual rights, even if such practices contributed to the degradation of humankind.

"So ... how can you be in favor of any laws prohibiting such actions among consenting adults, even if you perceive these actions as immoral? Wouldn't you say that this only creates a society of moral hypocrites? People who will continue to practice the very vices that you admit are not in violation of other's rights, but who will continue to circumvent the law to choose evil? Wouldn't you say that it's better, far more preferable, from a moral perspective, for people to choose to turn away from such sin? Wouldn't you say that it's better for people to choose a moral life, one consistent with what you hold to be godly, rather than to be forced upon that path? Shouldn't the moral path be in one's heart, rather than imposed by the government?"

Yes, they admitted, that makes sense.

Well, after several weeks of encounters with these people at my front door ... the Jehovah's Witnesses, on the verge of accepting a libertarian political principle, simply stopped coming to my home. It seems I talked them to death, instead of vice versa.

Of course, my response was a bit more humane than the response given by my Uncle---who was awakened from sleep at 6:00 on one Sunday morning. Looking through the peep hole, he saw it was the Jehovah's Witnesses, who told him that they were there to preach the Truth. To which he responded from behind the door: "Go away! WE WORSHIP SATAN HERE!" They never returned---and, in terms of saving time, it certainly was a lot more efficient than my method. :)

In less anecdotal terms, let me say the following: In a very abstract sense, of course, one can "force" someone to commit a moral act insofar as we can evaluate certain actions as objectively moral, irrespective of the motivations that inspire the action, irrespective of the integration of that action with a person's moral framework. Plenty of people, inspired by a sense of "imposed" duty, may act in ways that affirm life in an objective sense. But that does not develop excellence of moral character, constituted by chosen moral practices, rather than stipulated by institutional writ. It only develops people who might be very good at "doing the right thing," who simply follow orders or laws or commandments for any number of psychological, emotional, or even cognitive reasons, but who never quite grasp why it is the right thing to do ... because they've never bothered to check the premises of right or wrong action.

It seems to me that, at the very least, people of good will, coming from different moral perspectives, ought to lay off trying to force others to be moral. Especially if their goal is to develop people of integrity, people whose actions and values are integrated in the development of a genuinely moral character.

Counseling services of every variety recognize the wisdom of this principle enunciated, it is said, by Lao Tzu: "If I keep from imposing on people, they become themselves."

Maybe, just maybe, it might be possible to convince moral crusaders of every persuasion ... to go to counseling. :)

Jason Pappas - 11/12/2004

I don’t disagree with your conclusion (who would here?) but let me ask about your reasoning.

Chris you say: “But you can't force anybody to be moral.” Now, if you want to claim that you can’t force anyone to commit a moral act, then that seems questionable in some senses. But if you want to say you can’t force anyone to be of moral character, then that seems plausible. This is especially true if you hold that character has to be cultivated by practice so as to develop the ability and dispositions that constitute a moral person. I assume you mean the latter because you could have said: “you can’t force anybody to commit an act required by morality.”

Chris continues with: “Genuinely moral choices are moral because they are choices, not decisions forced on people at the point of a gun.” True again but I must assume what I want to believe you are saying.

First let me point out, this can be lost on the religious persons that believe morals are stipulated by a supreme being and motivated by eternal damnation. After all, what’s a threat of a few whacks in the head compared to eternal damnation? It just added motivation of a similar sort.

So if you mean whether or not the actions or choices are a reflection of the character of the actor, a forced action implies neither moral achievement nor moral blame on the actor. Indeed, he’s denied his humanity - the possibility of being a moral being. And as a consequence, the cultivation of excellence of character, which requires the practice of initiating moral actions, is stunted if not completely destroyed. Thus, it is not a choice, nor an action from one’s moral nature, nor an action that has moral implication for the actor.

Is that what you mean, consistent with what you mean, orthogonal with what you mean, or contradictory to what you mean?

I had a few moments to reflect on what you wrote.

Aeon J. Skoble - 11/12/2004

Chris, this post was even better than usual. This line: "Genuinely moral choices are moral because they are choices, not decisions forced on people at the point of a gun." is eminently quotable.