By Ben G. Price BenGPrice@aol.com
Without being interpreted as making a theological statement, I'd like to propose some practical guidelines to constructing a moral society. Morality starts, unavoidably, with categorization. Choices are classified as intrinsically good or bad. How this classification gets done is either subject to scrutiny or it is not. If it is not, then we can say that it is an authoritarian form of morality. If on the other hand morality and the classification of good and bad choices is based on an open and socially responsive criteria, then it can be said to be human and humane. Those who argue for an absolutist morality base their claims on an undemonstrated contact with divine or omniscient authority. Those who argue for "moral relativism" from a secular humanist perspective do not necessarily deny divinity, but admit they can not speak or judge in its name. This is a keen distinction, and not unworthy of notice.
Dogmatic morality, taking its claimed legitimacy from the supposed infallibility of deified text, dismisses socially responsible morality as being secular and base, without divine inspiration or guidance. Further categorizing it, dogmatists minimize social morality's criteria for good and bad by labeling them an "agenda," based on a mere philosophy called "humanism." Worse, non-scriptural morality is calumnized as being debased, hedonistic, relativistic, convenient, evil, and Satanic. These are criticisms based on the unsupported assumption of absolute truths.
It is not necessary to debate the existence of God to debunk the authenticity of the scripture-generated philosophy of morality. Although dogmatic moralists attempt to debunk the legitimacy of secular morality with the argument that it does not and can not claim divine authorization, the ouija board of scripture performs an oracular function that might be more respectable if it served another master than insular and hierarchic human power. True, for a secular humanist to make such a claim forces a requirement that he/she prove the negative of God's existence by some standards. But God's existence seems independent of human interpretation, unless some humans insist they are part or wholly divine in aspect or knowledge.
Claims that faith and inspired morality serves some higher purpose are backed-up by a "traditional" program of education that relies on guilt, a conditioned sense of inferiority (for those not accepting the program), and a belief in inherent human evilness. The pogroms, inquisitions, witch hunts, shunnings, and ostracisms that have laid the foundations of strong communities of believers continue to be glossed-over and forgotten. The hatred, judgementalism, tunnel vision and exclusivity of congregations claiming to teach the gospel of love seem not to rise to consciousness among members of churches who now proclaim love as their ethical centerpiece. By securing longevity, manifestly cultish practices have been permitted to claim the legitimacy of "traditional" beliefs. Thereafter, the apostles of such covens have been free to badger the whole community into "admitting" that the honor amounts to proof of resident wisdom. Allowing community standards and the definition of social morality to fall into their purview exposes all of us to a repetition of history's ugliest episodes.
The exhausting effort required of secular moralists to neutralize the hate-mongering propaganda of dogmatic moralizers has sometimes blunted what long-term good they can do. Exhausting though it may be, it is a work that must be done just to begin instituting a truly ethical social order. Because dogmatism is exclusionary and tribalistic, it fails to forward anything like a universal morality. Dogmatic morality is based on membership, and only through "conversion" are non-members granted equal ethical status to those whose beliefs define the "good."
If non-membership can be equated with "evil," then morality will be based on the relative strengths of competing groups, and the inability of individuals to withstand the judgement, condemnation, and punishment of the group. Hence, dogmatic morality must be understood to be a social rather than a divine morality. And it is one which succeeds only at the expense of individuality and the liberty to choose a lifestyle that is not prescribed by the group.
Secular morality not only exists, despite concerted efforts to define it out of existence; it is also evolving. Because it continues to change and readjust its tenets to the real world, critics find easy proof that it is both fallible and man-made. It is both fallible and man-made, and it attempts to be inclusive of many lifestyles, whether or not they have survived long enough or well enough to be considered "traditional." For some, survival is a valid criteria for morality and ethical behavior, but the youth of Social Darwinism as a philosophical standard gives it little reason to gloat: its fate remains in question. Human behavior, on the other hand, seems destined to escape the confining bounds of any punishing orthodoxy, however long-lived by myopic historical standards.
Scripture-generated morality measures the degree of good in terms of the level of obedient complicity with moral pronouncements made by high ranking officers of a congregation of believers. Social, secular morality judges such top-down moralizing suspiciously, and measures the degree of good in terms that minimize obedience and elevate real behavioral outcomes. Scriptural fundamentalists again discount this kind of morality, arguing that it matters not at all how happy, healthy, or free social morality makes people who adhere to a mutually accepted set of behaviors. Only by prefacing all behavior with psychological subservience to "faith" in the oracular interpretation of the good-book-god can there be morality in society, they argue.
The irrelevance of human suffering, and the super-relevance of a particular mind-set of dogmatic conviction is what the secular moralist finds objectionable. There are, to be sure, dogmatic forms of secular morality, and these are not far removed from the scriptural brand of morality that posits an infallible authority as arbiter of the categorization of good and bad living. So it is incumbent on those who would propose a more honest, non-authoritarian morality to offer a practical and fair system that indeed does change and improve or at least empathically adjust to the human condition, rather than an immutable codification of acceptable and forbidden actions. By design, a secular and "situational" system of ethics and morality must come into conflict with the morality of unreason that is at the heart of dogmatics in any form.
It will be justifiably observed that such a social system of ethics must itself be inscrutably more lofty than any dogmatic moral code. The more so because it will be judged on its own terms. Not by the number of faithful adherents will a human-based ethics be judged, but by the good effects brought about by those who embrace it voluntarily. Dogmatists and ideologues will argue that if everyone embraced their models of morality, then human suffering would as a result decline. But given the coercive first principles of authoritarian moralizing, such claims are self-contradictory on their face.
We might consider current social conflict and find examples where dogmatic and rational morality are at-odds over what is the core good that should be preserved and nurtured. This will be an exercise fraught with difficulty, because the wounds of the ongoing cultural struggle are not only fresh, but new ones are being opened daily. For instance, should I dare to broach the subject of abortion?
The first point to be argued brings the calamity of absolutism into sharp focus. The dogmatic moralizer disallows debate on the issue of abortion at all, by stating the case bluntly and intractably. Abortion is declared to be not a choice, but a crime and a sin. The only moral question permitted is: will you conform to the prohibition or will you not?
Secular morality quickly rejects condemnation or punishment for a violation of an authoritarian limitation on behavior. There are no a priori prohibitions or duties. All must be understood and justified in terms of their good or ill effects in the human community. If the results of a behavior can be shown unequivocally to create a social ill, then it is to be regulated in as unobtrusive a way as possible. But if in regulating it, another equally onerous social ill, or others even more severe are created, then even a modicum of regulation must be judged immoral. Some refer to this disparagingly as "situational ethics," as if context-based judgement has no moral grounding. But if this system of judgement conflicts with ouija board-style morality, the rational superiority of it remains unchallenged. And if rationality must admit to a decidedly non-divine outcome to such questions, it never-the-less enjoys the certainty that the hubris with which it decides such matters is not as great as that exercised by those who claim to speak for God.
Certainly, procreation is at the heart of society. But should society be at the heart of procreation? This is the question that must be answered before other questions concerning reproduction, promiscuity, sexual orientation, or abortion can be shown to be relevant in any moral context. Put another way, if society subordinates the sexual freedom of individuals to presumed priorities of society itself, then what are those social priorities? Are they in fact superior to the priority of individual liberty, and were they indeed chosen by society as a whole, or only by a vocal or powerful minority? And more, should even a majority establish and enforce such priorities without compelling and irrefutable reasons for setting aside the liberty that might otherwise be inherent in an individual life?
Have I overreached in suggesting that such liberty "should" be inherent to the life of all people in their individuated selfhood? Am I proposing an orthodoxy no less authoritarian than those I rebuke? As I suggested, the issue of social morality is fraught with difficulties and no stranger to uncertainties. But they are not insurmountable. The rational judgement that concludes that there in fact should be a presumption of individual liberty does not override or contradict the claim that a developing life should partake of these rights. This judgement comes not from divine inspiration, but from experience and precedent. Liberty itself is fairly well established as one of the universal goods that secular morality embraces.
Because of intrinsic ambiguities that pertain to the moral question of abortion, it is a prime case where absolutism can yield no better result than moral relativism. Whereas the life of the mother and the life of the developing fetus might otherwise lay individual claim to equal shares of liberty, the ineluctable fact remains that they are not individual but rather intrusive upon each other's independent interests in some instances. The decision as to whose interests should outweigh the others' is not obvious in any way, without appealing to pre-set rules that merely disguise institutionalized preferences.
As to the assertion that liberty should be inherent to the life of all people in their individuated selfhood, both the "pro-life" and the "pro-choice" arguments are grounded on the presumptive inviolability of this principle. The conflict intrudes on the facts where definitions requiring rational precision are challenged with arguments requiring belief in dogmatic pronouncements of preference. The question ‘what is an individuated life?' can be asked, but will it be considered and answered reasonably? Or will the unavoidably difficult fact that two lives are temporarily subordinated to a single body during pregnancy be disallowed? Will all of the collateral and contingent repercussions instead be subordinated to a codified handbook response? Or will reason, in tandem with all the complex human dimensions of emotion, be permitted to participate?
Because of insurmountable ambiguities, absolutism merely forces an authoritarian morality upon people who otherwise would be permitted to exercise the right to make such difficult judgements without outside intervention. Exercising procreative judgement remains, despite orchestrated campaigns to depose it, one of those rights reserved exclusively and individually to the people, for not having been enumerated as being in the government's purview by the U.S. constitution. This issue is not problematic only for Americans, but it is in America that abortion has been elevated to a watershed moral question that has formed a great social divide. It is one of several social questions that, because it evokes such strong opposing emotions, has become an open moral question. How we resolve it will either be open to debate or closed to debate. And it is these two modes of moral decision making that are at the heart of the so-called "Culture War" that has supplanted the Cold War in the conflict-addicted American consciousness.
"Ethic-cleansings" periodically rise up from the swamp of social decay on the methane of exhumed Puritan oratory. The promise of better times for the righteously indignant is regularly accompanied by programs and pogroms that identify a hated opposition to the agenda prescribed by the anointed community oracles. Plans are outlined to eradicate the opposition through pompously justified sanctions, prohibitions, and purges. We've seen this reactionism at regular intervals, particularly in American society. Salem witch hunts, the Red Scare, the backlash of the "Christian" right against the so-called permissiveness of the '60s. Even the sex-scandal impeachment of William Clinton falls into the same category and exemplifies just how heated the social atmosphere has become (although I would argue that from a secular humanist perspective Clinton might well have been impeached and removed for real moral lapses, such as the bombings in Sudan and Afghanistan).
I propose that the sanctimonious are guilty of conjuring dead ancestors to gain control over the living. (Is it not the practice of religious zealots to yammer the purported words of their dead prophets?) Moral rationalists are ridiculed and vilified, even cursed for not participating in this necromancy. I suggest that we as a society, in order to resolve this conflict, hold a general exorcism to see which form of moral judgement is possessed of ghosts, and which is possessed of wisdom.
Leave your silver crosses and wooden stakes behind. Put out the bonfire. Just pack your brain and be prepared to pitch it like a revival tent in the thick wood of Cotton Mather's overgrown American hate plantation. It's time to stop being slaves to the masters of divinity and take the whip of unreason out of their hands. It's time to sow the seeds of a future society on the rich soil of experience and judgement and stop throwing it into the barren brambles of ‘cause I said so-ism.