Lefty: Morality is in the eye of the beholder. Some of us (are you listening, Righty?) still believe that it consists of rigid laws supposedly dictated by the bloodthirsty god of an ancient desert tribe. If they still want to believe in their myths three thousand years later, that’s fine. But it’s immoral for them to impose their moral delusions upon the rest of us. For me, true morality means taking collective action to improve life for the oppressed. It means loving our fellow humans regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation. Morality has nothing to do with the bedroom, as long as we’re dealing with consenting adults. If it feels right, chances are it IS right.
The New Moderate:
Once upon a time, our religions supplied us with all the morality we needed. And regardless of whether those morals were divinely inspired, most of their principles are still surprisingly sound. (That goes for the teachings of Confucius, Buddha and Lao-tse, too.) But what happens when ancient religious dictates lose their grip over the educated classes, as we’re witnessing in our time?
Here’s what happens: we see a great, gaping rift between the pious folks who still swear allegiance to the Good Book… and the more self-consciously “enlightened” crowd who essentially create their own morals as they go along. Of course it’s moral to love your fellow humans, but is it OK to make love in a public park? Shouldn’t we insist on moral absolutes that govern our actions? It’s a tricky question.
Most of us can agree that child abuse is morally wrong, for example. But what constitutes child abuse? If your kid sets off a cherry bomb inside the house, is it abusive to administer a few sharp whacks to the posterior? Fifty years ago such punishment would have been considered a character-building experience; today a progressive-minded witness might notify the child welfare authorities. (Naturally, that same progressive witness might also have the poor kid suspended from school for possession of aspirin.) In short, whose values do we honor?
Until the social upheaval of the late 1960s, Western society took its moral guidance from the Bible: no agonizing over values, no shades of gray; everything was laid out for us on the printed page, including the all-important ban on fornication.
Sexual morality is a universe unto itself, of course. The ‘60s liberated millions of libidos in a massive wave of sexual self-indulgence — much of it healthy, some of it excessive or downright kinky. Suddenly any private act between consenting adults was considered kosher, even if it involved buggy whips and Nazi uniforms.
Are sex fetishists immoral even if they confine their peculiar appetites to the bedroom? We’ve lost the authority to say so in public, though we’re still free to conclude privately that a lust for being handcuffed while wearing a chicken costume says something important about a person’s character.
That right to private judgment might be the key. We can’t legislate morality, but we can internalize it. We can set good examples. (When I asked a wise friend how to raise a decent kid, he told me, “Morals are caught, not taught.”) We can reject the cult of “cool” and create a culture that once again encourages honor and kindness and all the other noble virtues.
We might think we live in depraved times, but we still have the ability to recognize when something grates against our moral principles. That instinct is called a moral compass, and it comes in handy when we’re lost in the woods. I was encouraged by the mass revulsion we felt toward the Wall Street honchos who made billions for themselves while they gambled away our life savings. Maybe we’re not so close to perdition after all.
Summary: We can’t force our moral principles on others, but we can lead by setting positive examples in our own conduct.