Oh No! Not Another Lecture on Semantics!

Ah, yes. My diatribe on the “moral high ground” has awoken the sleeping giant known as my good friend Ivan Hentschel. This is a good thing because I’ve been trying to get Ivan to send me a post for about two years. I knew sooner or later I’d piss him off enough to get one out of him. Here is his response to my article in its entirety without editing, as promised.

Dearest Deb:

I know in my heart that you mean well, but I think it is high time for us all to have some linguistic nit-picking (Chomsky will probably disagree with me, but I don’t care much), some dispelling of myth, the discard of some preconceptions and misconceptions, and, in so doing, run the risk (horrors!) of discourse and discord.

Change the way you see everythingI wish we would all stop misusing the world “morality”.

The concept of “morals”, or of “morality”, only came into being after the genius Emperor Constantine decided that mixing up religion (Christianity) and government was a good idea. To this day, aided by that monumental faux pas, the government of the United States has made a mockery of the concept of the separation of church and state. Before this philosophical and linguistic creation of morality was invented by both religious leaders and governments flatulents, the notion of “right and wrong” had its’ grounding in ethics.

Ethics come to us from the Greek ethikos, meaning (more or less) the “character of man”, also having to do with higher ideals, the “ethos” of our existence and, peripherally at least, the equanimity of all human kind. (And if you run to your dictionary, you will find far too many definitions that explain “ethics” in terms of “morals”, which is ass-backwards and very misleading).

Morality is a concept designed to homogenize both group-think and assert crowd control, define acceptable public behavior and promote the contribution of funds to religious and civic organizations. It “sanctifies” marriage, family units, promotes useful propagation and heterogeneity (while creating homophobia) and establishes cultural norms. Morality has long since failed to have any solid ethical grounding. In fact, it is possible to be moral and unethical at the same time. Think Rick Santorum.

Religious and political leaders (and pundits, idiots and gossip-mongers) have long touted the benefits of “moral” behavior to accomplish their respective goals of both fund-raising and group accordance with ideas and trends. As such, they have branded many activities and behaviors as “immoral”, or “against” morality. Simply translated, this means that being immoral indicates your bad luck to have gone against someone else’s notion of what is acceptable to the conditioned masses , on the whole. If you disagree with a religious mandate/teaching, you are immoral (and therefore BAD). If you transcend some inane and antiquated state law concerning sexual behavior, rape or abortion, you are being “immoral”. “Immorality” has simply come to mean going against the grain. Or the Tea Party. Take your pick.

The concepts of what may be moral or immoral is very helpful to religious and political conservatives, fundamentalists, “causes” of one form another and enterprising societal opportunists. I would suggest that this is both dangerous and misleading, because the notion of “morality” has given birth to other notions in such ludicrous gray areas of thought that they have us speak of purgatory (a thoughtless, blurred never-never land of mental vacuity), or untenable “compromises” and “middle ground” that such resulting total indecisiveness ultimately leads to a condition which, in my opinion is far worse: amorality. And amorality…a complete absence of any morals (and therefore ethics, in a purer sense)…is a dreadful state of affairs in which to be. The term “compromise”, for instance, was originally intended to mean (from the Latin) “With promise”, thereby implying a better and more equitable solution to a quandary down the line. Today it simply means that we have put off any meaningful decisions, whatsoever. We have sponsored a-moral behavior by avoiding issues, altogether. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” falls in there somewhere, perhaps.

(If you really want to have some fun, try thinking about the phrase, “The courage of your convictions”, right now. Do you have the courage of your own convictions to make judgement calls on others you feel to be “immoral”? Do they feel same the same about you? Your behavior? Your homosexual brother? You may soon discover that anyone who practices a prejudice, or any form of sexual or racial bigotry, is, in reality “a-moral”, by virtue of their use of arrogance, assumed superiority and guilt . )

At any rate, I would suggest that we resurrect and re-invigorate discussions of ethics and “ethical” behavior. And while the line between moral and immoral behavior is at best vague and unclear (depending upon the courage of your convictions…ha!), ethics can and is quite another matter. There are fewer available shades of gray in ethics. Simply put, you are either “ethical” in your thoughts, actions, opinions and behavior , or you are not: in that case you are “un-ethical”. And there are no discernible variations of “un-ethical-ness”. I have heard people describe someone as “marginally unethical”, or “on the edge of unethical”. One cannot be “sort of” unethical, or “verging on the unethical”, if this behavior is not in the ultimate best interests of the “character of man”. It is much more like the situation with sexual activity and pregnancy: you cannot “sort of” have sex and then “sort of” be pregnant. Either you did and are or didn’t and aren’t. Dedicated moralists, however, would debate the issue to death and make both ludicrous and obscene observations, like Tod Aiken and “legitimate rape”. There is legislation in CA right now, that says rape is not rape if you are not married and some bean-head lawyer is defending his client with this legislations as his rationale. THAT is amoral.

Morality (and its’ corollaries) is fraught with religious mythology, canonized abstract beliefs and primordial, neanderthal logic. It can be (and is) seeded in chauvinism, haughty disdain for the less fortunate, self-serving pity and just plain one-sided thinking. Enough, already. Stop it.

Which brings me to the “moral high ground”. There is no such item, never has been and never will be. And, as such, the U.S. has never held that position (since it does not exist and morality is a merely a fabled concept.) But inasmuch as this country has such a strong tradition and culture of (Caucasian) Judeo-Christianity, “moral” behavior and forthrightness have been claimed and boasted about, nearly since the country’s inception. At the very beginning, the pilgrims brought along their Calvinism, which strongly advocates the “Christian work ethic” (Not “ethics”, mind you but a discipline) as a “moral imperative”. Well , much of what they imparted to later generations may have been religiously doctrinaire and high-minded, but not all of it (like dunking witches and public stocks) was either moral or even perhaps ethical. Public shame and human degradation, embarrassment, scarlet letters, sexual denial and the rest of that lifestyle may even be construed as immoral or even amoral, and it was certainly nowhere to be seen on an “ethical plane”.

Moral ground is squishy and uneven. An ethical plane is a flat surface you can count on. Moral ground can easily give way, beneath you. An ethical plane can carry you to new heights.(ugh)

There is simply no way to use “morality” as a measuring stick for the events in the history of this country, or any other. By many estimations, “morality” never entered the minds of slave traders or owners, the founding fathers had no trouble ranking human slaves as “three-fifths” of a person, and no white man, especially those in the U.S. Army ever thought twice about exterminating native Americans by the millions. By the commonly accepted standard, there was nothing “moral” about dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan, and our current methodology for exterminating civilians in the middle east with drones is nowhere on the moral evaluation scale that I can find. In fact all of those actions and public policies may well be immoral and probably downright amoral. Worse than that, they are all unethical.

Far worse than feigning a humility of false morality, our country has never set down a baseline for societal, political and social ethical behavior. Morality is quick to make judgements about any action, race, cultural expression or other human behavior which falls outside the status quo of the over-arching religious sentiment of this (until now) predominantly white, caucasian male-dominated society. Ethics, by its’ very nature of being about the character of man (meaning everybody), is blind to race, creed, idolatry, age, gender or economic status. The founding fathers stated that all men were created equal, but only out of deference to notions of morality. Had they been “ethical” in their pronouncements, they would have included persons of color, women, children, the poor, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden and anyone that the group that a “moral” spokesperson would have considered second-class. The Mohawks were good for building the Manhattan skyline, the Germans were great when we needed machinists for the coal mines, and the Chinese were terrific labor for laying down the railroad (or doing laundry), but the wrath of someone’s “moral” god would surely come down upon us if we treated those groups “ethically”, otherwise. (How many Polish jokes have you heard?) Typically, moralists have a ready trove of snide remarks and slanderous phrases in their back pocket. How ethical.

So can we stop end the endless misuse of the concept of morality? Can we stop pretending that morality is a viable concept and that this country somehow has ownership of it? Can we please remember that a much more equitable, even-handed and just vision and system of “ethics” is a much better thought paradigm to which we should aspire?

Talk is cheap and talk about morality is even cheaper. Discourse and exploration of ethics is a far more worthwhile pursuit. And moralists carry some other inherent dangers in the genetics of their thinking. First of all, disavowing the available discussion and ethical inquiry which would help mankind move forward and better themselves, moralists are social recidivists and great fans of nostalgia. They always want to go “back” to something and to re-create and imaginary past which was never as good as it might be remembered. The right-wing… political conservatives in general… and especially the Tea Party gang should learn to see the dangers in dragging society backwards, when we have so many resources available to make life better for everyone, and to do so “ethically” and evenly. Teaching creationism as science is as ass-backwards as defining ethics by using the terms of morality. Allowing (or even encouraging) old white men to make (moral?) decisions about women’s bodies and biology is upside-down thinking, reverse intelligence and counter-intuitive to basic logic. It is stupid and unethical. All too sadly, many higher courts seem unable to escape the bondage and influence of “moral precepts” and then seem unable to embrace “ethical” determinations.

Strictly “moral” thinking is a form of mental inbreeding: eventually its’ by-products and eventualities are stunted ideas, mentally deficient, logical failures and ethical rejects. Proponents of “strict morality” are like two close cousins who marry: their philosophical offspring are never something you would want keep around.

Lastly (I know: finally!), morality is rife with emotion, and emotion blurs lines, clouds vision and propagates bad judgement. To an extent, Nietzsche went after this problem in “Man and Superman”, but it is still quite evident (and easier to understand) in our modern culture, with the mythology and fable associated with our own “Superman”, the “Man of Steel “ of comic books and movies. Even Superman has his problems with his emotions and ethics, when he elected to spin the earth backwards a few hours, in order to save his lady love. That act may have been heroic, but it was laden with emotion and certainly failed in the ethics department.

We run the risk of turning our lives into one giant morality play, because it is easy to swallow, nostalgic and entertaining (In the middle ages, morality plays were the standard entertainment fare of the day). Think of that risk as living through a continuous replaying of the episodes of “Walker: Texas Ranger”, or “General Hospital” (minus any lewd behavior). The President and the Congress have turned daily political life into a non-stop kabuki theatre/morality play and has done so with such thoroughness that we have ignored the fact that almost everything they do is either unethical or lacking in any ethical consideration, whatsoever. Think Mitch McConnell.

So let’s ditch this “moral ground” stuff. It doesn’t exist and we are kidding ourselves about any value it is supposed to possess. I don’t want the POTUS to swear on a Bible (that error-ridden morality guide), I want him/her to sign a goddamn bloody code of ETHICS.

And Deb, if you edit this tome for your purposes, I will consider any modifications (beyond correcting typos) to be unethical.

And the difference between moral and being a moron is only two letters.

Categories: Ethics


2 replies

  1. How would the idea that “morality” being a creation of the Constantinian era square with, say, the Book of Leviticus from centuries before?

    Isn’t your definition of morality almost exactly what was being attempted there? Not a simple book of rules to govern a society, but rather a list of micromanaging by God putting a divine stamp on things that are obviously local customs?

    In other words, Leviticus (and Deuteronomy) take things that are basically simply mala prohibita and try to pass them off as mala en se.

    • Good response…and complicated. And also largely semantic, in nature, perhaps (and my latin stinks). Morality was not “created” by the Constantinian crew. I never said that. They just merged religious “law” (Leviticus and Deuteronomy are books of religious “laws” and procedures for practices of worship; there was no ‘civil” government when they were composed… religion was the government, so to speak) with civil government and Christian piety, and we have been stuck with the convergence of church and state, ever since. Once that happened, the greco notion of “ethics” was overshadowed by “morality”, which was a tremendously powerful cultural influence and was reinforced by government edict and threats (been crucified, lately?).Thus, morality sought to combine civil duty with religious conformity. I don’t think (?) you will find the word “moral” anywhere in either of those two OT books. “Leviticus” basically means “law”, by the way, and Deuteronomy is named that because it is the “second” book of laws. And laws are not moral guidelines, nor are they ethical precepts.

      And I would suggest that god never put “his” stamp on anything (gods, be them he, she or it, don’t have stamps, except in mythology). People simply appropriated and applied the implied holy power of “godliness”. And everything in those two books were written by men..made-made laws, right?…. (maybe a few gals, but I doubt it) who were attempting to put an order to and control over a collection of previously chaotic and pagan worshiping practices, i.e, sacrifices and golden calves and all that. And at the time of Constantine, various forms of paganism and followers of Greek mythology were still a threat to emerging Christianity. Constantine’s action was a large government smack-down on non-conformists and set a benchmark for status quo behavior.

      Ethics stand apart from religious concepts of morality, with unique notions of good and bad, right and wrong, evil and punishment, and does not guilt or shame in its’vocabulary.

      The U.S. is supposed to be a secular republic, but our money still says “In God we trust”. And since bankers handle all of our money, which kind of banker would rather have: a moral church-goer who practices grand larceny and usury, or an ethical one, who keeps his cards (and your money) on the table?

      Pat Robertson is “moral”. Bill Moyers ( a baptist, incidentally) is “ethical”. Which one are you inclined to trust more?


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