On Our Moral Certainties
Because we live in our society, in our time, we cannot avoid exposure to the dominant moral atmosphere and the tenor of discourse around us. Growing up in a peculiar kind of social environment, the things that are considered “normal” in that environment inevitably come to feel normal to us too — and that includes the things about which we have reservations, or even objections.
There is no way to escape such influence. It is delusional for even the most reflective, mature adult to imagine, “I’m pure of the surrounding poisons, I have only healthy and rational attitudes and beliefs which I developed from my own independent reasoning, and therefore I am not susceptible to falling into any idea or behavior that might be questionable or contradictory according to my own consciously chosen standards.”
Like it or not, all of us are deeply — most of us decisively — formed by the world around us. It is impossible not to be so formed, inasmuch as so great a proportion of what we have accumulated in our hearts and minds came to us pre-rationally, most of it in childhood, and the sheer multitude and magnitude of all that accumulated input guarantees that a soul’s “contents” can never be completely catalogued and assessed, let alone self-edited to the point of assuring that every thought, every judgment, every emotional response, answers to a precisely identified and rationally justified principle or personal discovery. This spiritual unfathomability ensures that in spite of our best efforts at independence, many of our reactions, and even our ideas, about endless numbers of things, are guided, in whole or in part, by particular people and general social trends encountered daily while growing up, without our even realizing we were learning anything at all, let alone everything.
What can we do about this? The answer is education, of course — by which I certainly do not mean schooling, which is merely the systematized, institutionalized instantiation of the very social-intellectual trap I have just been describing. Schooling in the modern sense, far from helping us out of the mire of inherited thought, actually dries and hardens that mire around us. Schooling, to simplify, is not education, but rather education’s undoing. (If you want the unsimplified version, I wrote the book on that subject.)
The reason we read classic literature, talk to our elders (personal and civilizational), and study history and philosophy, is precisely in the hopes of slowly, falteringly, digging ourselves out of that abyss of “other people’s ideas” in which we have been encased from childhood. We can never dig ourselves completely free, perhaps, but the effort is worthwhile for each brief glimmer of light we find, or at least intuit, as the sediment is shifted by our spade. Those glimmers, in fact, may be the reason we are on this Earth — not a Sisyphean labor at all, but a test of our willingness to accept the truth within Plato’s myth of crossing the river Lethe, and the heavy burden of “recollection” that constitutes the essence of a thinking life, i.e., a fully human life.
That is one reason I get frustrated when progressives in the academic world, for example, teach classic literature as if the chief lesson to be derived from the great tradition is that “Americans were racist back then because they had slaves,” or “Societies were sexist back then because women couldn’t vote,” and so on. Those who demean the people of the past so confidently — reducing a whole civilization to its errors, identifying great men by what they failed to see — are naïvely assuming, at a minimum, that their own attitudes and beliefs are all “the right ones.”
Classical Athens, home to the first, and many would argue the greatest, true democracy, was also a slave economy in which women were very deliberately excluded from political activity — which really meant something in a time and place more comprehensively political, in the fullest sense of that word, than any subsequent civilization has been. Does this prove, as the neo-Marxists would have it, that even the greatest nations of the past were fundamentally flawed, if not evil? Or does it rather entice us to shake ourselves free of the moral presuppositions and prejudices of our own age, in search of a more profound and nuanced understanding of human life and society, i.e., of ourselves? How one answers these questions reveals whether one has learned to question one’s most comfortable assumptions — the first rung on philosophy’s ladder — or whether one has instead chosen to protect oneself against the pain of self-doubt under the warm blanket of progressive self-certainty.
Even if we wish to congratulate ourselves on having rationally overcome specific widespread blindnesses of the past, the most “progressive” lesson we have any right to glean from looking back at historically prevalent but now abandoned norms, such as slavery, is that every society, even a great and beautiful and powerful one, will live in the fog about many things. Hence, when you are living in a similarly befogged world — as you have no justification for assuming you are not — many terrible, stupid, or evil things around you will likely appear normal to you; and even if you should begin to doubt the ultimate truth or value of some of these learned biases, it may be difficult to grasp how wrong they are, for the most basic and emotionally persuasive reason of all: “Everyone does it.”
So today, we in the advanced world do not sanction institutionalized slavery anymore. Good for us.
On the other hand, one-third of our marriages end in divorce — and we justify this historical destruction of the original and longest-surviving social institution, the family, by saying, with all the assuredness of the modern rights theorist, “People should be allowed to fulfill themselves, and not be constrained by past choices.”
Today, around the world, there will be approximately 125,000 abortions — in one day! And we justify this unthinkable mass murder of generations of new human beings by saying, with progressive moral righteousness, “Women have a right to control their bodies,” or “People shouldn’t be forced to ruin their lives just because they made one mistake.”
And those are merely two of the more obvious cases. We must not fool ourselves with such extreme examples, however, into imagining that we could not multiply them endlessly, right up and down the scale of our assumptions and cherished “beliefs.” We could, and easily.
And so, securely cocooned in our age’s pseudo-scientific, pseudo-rationalist vocabulary, we blithely ignore the effects of the general social atmosphere around us, conveniently perceiving it as merely the neutral, default background of our life and thought, rather than the obscuring foreground it is. Thus, we live our everyday lives in this world of meaningless relationships, treating ourselves and each other like animals, reducing our political existence to the cathartic equivalent of yelling at the television (rather than just turning it off or switching to a better channel), viewing other people as pleasure toys that we may use for our fun, to scratch an itch or kill an evening, and then throw away in favor of a new toy when the game becomes boring, killing babies by the millions annually to make our lives more convenient, drinking ourselves into dispirited numbness, defending our world’s panoply of mindless distractions and moral tranquilizers as “harmless amusements” — and say, as we fall asleep under the passive stimulus of the flashing imagery on the screen, “Life is normal, people have never had it so good.”
And then, years later, we will wonder why life feels so pointless, why we are so disappointed with what we have done, why we don’t seem to feel much like getting out of bed in the morning these days.