Friday, March 1, 2013

A little heavy culture: moral foundations

What is the foundation of your morality? That is a question we rarely ask ourselves. We are more interested in moral conclusions. What should or shouldn't I do? Can I eat steak given that an animal has to be slaughtered in order for that to happen? Is it okay to have sex with this woman right now even though I don't particularly like her but I'm never going to see her again so maybe it doesn't matter?

Because we don't think much about foundations, we tend to pick them up unconsciously. To answer the first of my questions, we will incorporate assumptions about the value of life and the relative value of different kinds of life. That is a very important question but it isn't really what interests us. We are interested in the conclusion.

But the foundations we pick so casually can have huge consequences.

I knew a girl when I was in my teens whose moral foundation was the avoidance of conflict. As a little girl it terrified her to hear her parents and her older siblings argue. She hated to see their angry faces, to hear their raised voices and to think about the things they said to one another in anger. That's not a bad thing. Family members do say awful things to one another and it strikes terror into the hearts of the most vulnerable family members. And avoiding conflict is often a good thing to do. But it is something else altogether to allow conflict avoidance to become the foundation of your morality.

The girl lost out on huge chunks of life because she could not abide being around people who had conflicts. She'd withdraw from activities where conflicts were likely. She formed friendships only with meek kids who thought mostly like her. When she started to have boyfriends, she rapidly became something of a doormat because she'd concede points rather than argue them.

As I have often ranted here on the blog, our modern sexual ethics is based on a crazy moral foundation—that whatever consenting adults agree to and doesn't harm anyone is okay. No, I'm not saying consent isn't a good thing or that it isn't necessary. But it's nowhere near sufficient either. Mutual consent isn't even enough for a relationship between a customer and waitress. Watch a waitress at work and you can see how important it is for her to be treated as a human being. She wants respect and warmth and kindness from her customers. Go in with the attitude that she consented to be a waitress so she shouldn't expect anything from you other than instructions and payment and she will spit on your food before she brings it to the table.

So why do we accept mutual consent as good enough for sex? Well, we don't really. We arrived at the principal because we anted to justify things we wanted to do. We were, as I said at the top, more interested in moral conclusions than foundations. We wanted freedom to have sex more often with more people; we particularly wanted to be able to have sex without getting married first. That was the only thing we were certain of. The new moral foundation—that whatever consenting adults agreed to was okay so long as nobody got hurt by it—slipped in without our noticing it.

And now we are increasingly aware that it isn't a very good foundation. A big part of modern feminism was driven by women's growing awareness that the sexual revolution wasn't working out very well for them. And then we noticed that the "so long as nobody gets hurt" part of the equation wasn't as transparent and obvious as we hoped it might be.

I won't go on about that because I want to note something else and it is the incredible extent to which anti-racism has become the moral foundation of our politics. For it is one thing to say that racism is bad and another altogether to make the elimination of racism the foundation of your moral belief. And we have a young generation who have been educated to think of the struggles against racism as the foundational myth of our culture. They think of everything as a story of a time when everything and everybody was racist and how that began to be transformed into something new and better.

Again, the thinking isn't crazy. There was a lot of institutionalized racism around. But there is a tremendous price to pay for making a new foundational mythology out of it.

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