Thursday, January 20, 2005

Morality and Text

Morality is an endlessly contentious and entangling issue. We can find several examples daily where the general concept of morality becomes critical in assessing a particular political issue. One current example of this is the inauguration ball expenses of George W. Bush, but the debate over a courthouse representation of the Ten Commandments and national discussions of providing values based teaching in public schools also illustrate the ubiquitous concern with morality – as well as how morality is communicated, by whom, and in what context.

Such concerns, debates, and discussions are by and large beneficial. Morality, ethics and values – as they apply to individual behavior, organizational activity, and societal conduct – are a proper focus for virtually any subject, so long as the discussion doesn’t deteriorate into self-righteous posturing and finger-wagging. Wouldn’t it be enlightening, and even entertaining, to consider the policy issues of our day from moral standpoints?

The issue of Gay Marriage, for example, has not actually been treated from any such standpoint, to my knowledge. It’s easy to hear the shouting and stomping that “marriage has always been between a man and a woman” or that “Gay Marriage is a matter of Civil Rights,” but the underlying moral issues inherent in both claims are actually far more important and interesting than the claims themselves.

We never seem to talk about how following or departing from tradition – what’s “always been done” – makes our society morally improved or worsened. At least, we never get any examples or case studies. Likewise, we rarely get discourses that put rights, who grants them, and who protects them, in the context of the moral standards we hope to achieve and maintain as a society.

What do we get instead? Position after position and opinion after opinion. Moral grandstanding, in other words.

Personally, I believe in the concept of a “moral bottom line,” a cultural net gain or loss influenced by our actions, behaviors, and policies. The moral economy is encoded in official laws and programs, as well as social customs and traditions. It is driven by daily contests and decisions made in homes, synagogues, schools, offices, and on TV and the Internet. It is administered by authorities in the courts, police squads, legislative bodies, and religious organizations. But what anchors morality to the individual and collective consciousness is the perception that morality derives from G-d. Whether it actually derives from G-d is unknowable and probably irrelevant.

But the point is that morality works as a textual formation, as a perceived product of a perceived transcendental force. If morality ceased to be understood as such a product, it not only would cease to have a spiritual resonance but also would fragment individuals from each other, from their communities, from their society, and from their government. This, I think, would make the moral economy poorer.

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