The Whatever School of Morality, Part Two

The Whatever School of Morality, Part Two

Part One of this essay explained that WhateverMorality is the belief that good and evil, right and wrong, are whatever we wish them to be. Also, that though people who have this view believe it makes them more tolerant, it actually has the opposite effect. It invites people to hurl insights at those who disagree with them, call them names, and accuse them of everything from hating the country to deliberately causing chaos. That odd contradiction raised questions about what caused it and why those involved have clung to their position long after it proved mistaken. Part 2 will probe these questions.

To begin with, the idea that morality is personal and subjective, rather than objective and universal, is part of a broader belief that we create truth and reality rather than discover them. That broader belief reinforces the idea that morality is personal. Both deny the value of seeking answers to life’s questions outside ourselves and instead direct us to look within ourselves. This inward turning diminishes our interest not only in the ideas of people around us but also those of past generations. After all, why take any interest in other people’s ideas, past or present, when we believe we possess all the insight and wisdom we need? This perspective makes it difficult, if not impossible, to have either the humility or the curiosity the ancients believed essential to learning and insight.

In the mid-twentieth century, Humanistic Psychology advanced two ideas, one of which had been influential well over a century earlier. The older idea was that feeling is more reliable than thinking. It once again became a force in education and popular culture and changed the focus of problem solving and decision making from logical analysis and examination of evidence to spontaneous emotion. Those who advanced this idea failed to understand that emotion is by nature changeable, so today’s reaction to a problem or issue may be very different from yesterday’s—may even contradict it. In any case, being guided by emotion rather than reason makes it difficult to explain our views to others in a meaningful way. When they ask why we believe as we do, all we can say is “because that is the way I feel,” and that is unsatisfying to them, frustrating to us and a barrier to mutual understanding and cooperative effort.

The other idea that Humanistic Psychology promoted in education and the general culture, with astounding success, was that self-esteem is essential to achievement and maintaining it requires rejecting all criticism of our opinions. I say the success was “astounding” because until that time it had been universally understood that our view of ourselves can be too favorable or not favorable enough, and that neither view is desirable. It was also understood that most people are more apt to think favorably of themselves than unfavorably. For example, when Christ spoke of loving our neighbors, He did not say, “Love yourself and then love your neighbor,” but instead “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the assumption being that loving yourself is relatively easy but loving others takes effort. Even earlier, the ancient Greeks and Romans expressed the danger of thinking too favorably about ourselves in the myth of Narcissus. (To my knowledge they did not feel the need for a contrasting myth about thinking too little of ourselves.)

Let’s pause for a moment to grasp how mutually reinforcing all these prominent beliefs have been and how powerfully they have shaped millions of individuals, and in doing so altered our culture. I’ll express them in a single grouping:

I have the power to create my own truth, reality, and morality so I don’t need to hear what other people believe; nor should I be guided by the views or rules handed down to me by others. My feelings are more reliable than my reasoning or other people’s, no matter how learned or respected they may have been or are. I must keep my self-esteem as high as possible by resisting whatever might reduce it, including any self-questioning and other people’s criticism of my values, opinions, and behavior.

Even a brief scanning of that paragraph suggests that its message invites disinterest in the experiences and insights of our ancestors rather than interest, intolerance more than tolerance of other people and their views, conceit more than humility, disharmony more than harmony. Yet as if these were not enough negative influences on our culture, there is another influence to consider, a fundamental one that was overlooked by the intellectuals who advanced these ideas.

For most (perhaps all) of our history, we humans have suffered from an attitude so subtle and deep-seated than many of us are unaware of it. I call it the mine-is-better attitude. It is first observable (to others) in early childhood in statements such as “My mommy is prettier than your mommy,” “My teddy bear is cuddlier than yours,” “My tricycle is faster than yours.” As we grow older, we stop our childish talk, but continue to harbor the underlying attitude about our ethnic group, church, political party, news sources, and especially about our opinions. (Ironically, we can also envy certain things about others, but seldom if ever their opinions. Think of it, have you ever envied someone else’s opinion or political affiliation?)

In generations past, when reason and logic were considered more important than feelings and people were taught to seek, not “their truth,” but the truth about right and wrong, wisdom and foolishness, they understood the need to evaluate their own opinions as well as other people’s. This understanding helped them control their mine-is-better attitude, be willing to consider views other than their own, and engage in meaningful discussion and dialogue.

In the present age, however, with feelings having displaced reason, truth having become a matter of opinion, and self-esteem having triumphed over self-improvement, the legions of individuals who have embraced these changes feel, in a real if unstated way, infallible. That feeling explains how they can claim to be working for tolerance and harmony while producing intolerance and disharmony. It also explains why they are unable to acknowledge their mistakes and modify their view.

For several reasons it is difficult to determine how such people internally process the consequences of their efforts and people’s reactions to those consequences: the process is largely felt rather than thought; it can vary according to context (education, government, science, and so on); and it is seldom expressed in words. Nevertheless it is possible to make an educated guess about the process. Mine is that it proceeds as follows:

My statements and actions, including my procedures and initiatives are based on my opinions, which constitute truth; thus, there can be no legitimate reason for disputing them. I realize that other people have their own opinions that may differ from mine. But because my opinions and truths are better (wiser and more profound than other people’s), they cannot be wrong, nor can they produce negative results. Those who say otherwise are lying and therefore pose a threat to our nation. For this they should be shamed, forbidden from repeating their lies, investigated to determine the full extent of their offenses and, if necessary, imprisoned.

When this progression of feelings occurs, the individuals or groups are strongly inclined to defend their actions and castigate those who challenge them, thereby creating greater intolerance and disharmony in the society. Moreover, such harm is bound to increase as the number and influence of the individuals or groups increases. For example, the danger may be moderate if a few influential people in a local school district, news bureau, or government agency are involved, and considerably greater if those involved are at a state or national level.

The greatest danger, of course, will occur if many people at all these levels experience the progression of feelings described above, resulting in a “perfect” philosophical and sociological storm. Given the events of recent years, that storm has already engulfed us.

Copyright © 2022 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero