Article 43


The Collapse Of Western Morality II

image: tear gassed kid

(Why) America’s in a State of Moral Collapse
What Happens When a Nation’s Taught to Think What’s Right is the Enemy of What’s Good

By Umair
November 26, 2018

I spent a gentle and quiet Thanksgiving with family, watching Christmas movies and overeating - away from the internet. Yawning and checking the headlines this morning, I was startled, horrified, to see the picture above - toddlers being tear-gassed. I asked myself what many of you probably did: is this who we’ve become? Or is this, perhaps, who we always were?

What a moral abomination - ATTACKING CHILDREN. Is there anything lower? And yet that’s hardly the only one - what the world regards as moral abomination has become a gruesome habit in America, a grim feature of daily life. Here’s a shocking yet somehow unsurprising statistic - 40% of Americans struggle to pay for basic medicine. School shootings, opioids, suicide, depression, an imploded middle class, the swelling ranks of the new poor - everyday American life is an endless list of the kind of stuff that would make dystopia blush. What links all these things?

America’s a nation in steep, profound moral decline. It “gasses those kids” - while making its own do “active shooter drills.” What kind of society lets this happen? How did America become such a society? I think it happened because America’s moral muscles atrophied to the point that it became a moral weakling - unable to shoulder any kind of weight, to act with much humanity, decency, or goodness, towards itself, or others. Now, I don’t say that to judge or condemn or shame - but to observe gently, and to maybe point a way forward.

(Moral atrophy shouldn’t be a surprise - Americans have been taught, maybe indoctrinated, not to care for one another, that they are only their “productivity” and “utility,” seduced or compelled into a kind of survival-of-the-fittest CULTURE OF CRUELTY, overworking and undervaluing themselves and each other, which is the inevitable result of a history of exploitation, slavery, segregation. It culminated in the apocalyptic every-man-for-himself ideologies of neoliberalism and predatory, which imploded back into the supremacism they were born from. But I’ll return to all this.)

Let me explain what I mean, by way of an example.

Americans are told that the only case they can make for things like immigration and refugees is an economic one - hence, endless repetition of the fact that refugees become immigrants, who set up businesses, and create jobs, and XYZ percentage to GDP and so on. Very well, they do. But that fact alone doesn’t convince the unpersuaded, does it? It seems to elide, to miss, to evade something deeper, more crucial, truer - about the heart and soul of a people and a nation.

What is always left unmade - what perhaps cannot be discussed in America - is the moral case. The truly moral one = not just why acting in everyones best interest is right, but why it is good. Good for us all. Not just right - at our own expense. Do you see the difference? Think about it. Aren’t we told precisely the opposite in America? What’s good for everyone is whats bad for us. But is it really true?

What we don’t discuss - what we aren’t allowed to discuss, really - is how morality, true morality, as in humane and caring acts of kindness and decency, not Darwinian-Nietszchean survival of the fittest - dramatically alters the fortunes of a society, betters the prosperity of a nation, in profound, lasting, and transformative ways. Do you see how foreign and alien it is when I speak this way? It is as if this is something that we can barely bring ourselves to even conceive of in America today.

Why is that? Why cant we make the link between what is moral being genuinely good for us, not just right at our own expense, exactly? Why are we always more or less told to believe, in America, that what is right and what is good are polar opposites? I’m asked by mainstream American thinking to believe, for example, that my greed, vanity, contempt, and selfishness will somehow lead to the best for everyone. In other words, I should never use my moral muscles - that way, everyone will be best off. Whatגs right is the enemy of whats good. But does that bizarre, twisted, convoluted logic seem to have worked out for America to you?

Let us think about what happens if a nation accepts refugees. Not to its economy, per se - but to itself, its deeper capacities and capabilities, all the things that underpin an economy, which is just stuff. That act of care confirms, strengthens, and expands its capacities for empathy, generosity, humility, courage, truth, wisdom, and gratitude. It extends and commits it to freedom, to justice, to equality, for all. It is an act that builds moral muscles, in other words. But what do moral muscles allow - or maybe compel - us to do?

The growth of all those moral capacities, empathy, generosity, humility, and so forth, in turn, make it much more likely that such a nation will act humanely toward itself, too. Those moral muscles will give it the reason and the power both to develop systems like universal healthcare, childcare, retirement. They will help steer it away from inequality and injustice and bigotry and resentment, and towards the opposites. And if a nation has universal goods, like healthcare and retirement and so on, then humane acts, like accepting refugees, will probably reconfirm its commitment to them, as well, by testing the limits of its own goodness, the power of its moral character.

Let me distill the three key lessons. One, humane acts, by testing us, by strengthening us, and by empowering us, build moral muscles in three ways. And there is no other way to build moral muscles, really. Two, using moral muscles builds moral strength. But leaving moral muscles to atrophy makes a nation morally weak. Three, we can only really act as humanely towards ourselves as do to others, and so when we act humanely to others, it confirms and tests, expands and strengthens, our own moral strength, too.

Now. If all this is not just idle theory, but truth, then we would expect to see something particular happening in the world. Those nations with things like universal public goods would also have the most humane policies towards refugees and so on. And that is very much the case. Scandinavia, for example, has the worldגs most expansive public goods, which underpin the worlds highest quality of life җ and also, mostly, the most open stances towards refugees. Many of these are the most moral societies in the world  by that I hardly mean they are perfect, but I do mean that in them, people treat each other with greater respect and decency than elsewhere. Not just theoretically, but genuinely ח socially, economically, politically. You would be quite right to say thats changed in a place like Denmark җ and Id say that stance towards refugees indicates a weakening of moral muscles that will have effects on society itself, too, corroding its humanity towards itself in the long run.

So the link seems to be true in the real world, too - humane acts build our moral muscles, and make it possible for us to act humanely towards ourselves, too. When we do things like accept refugees, we are in a sense going to the moral gym - and making sure we are morally strong also ensures that we have the power and strength to treat each other humanely, too.

You would be right to say that I am suggesting nothing different than Jesus or Buddha or the prophets said thousands of years ago. So why are Americans taught that they were wrong, essentially? That what’s moral must come at their own expense? That whats right is the enemy of what’s good - not that what’s right is whats good? Do you see my distinction? It’s a subtle - but I think a crucial - one.

Let me put it another way. Why are Americans never taught any of this? That there’s a moral case for humane acts җ like accepting refugees  not just an economic one? Why does the kind of discussion above ח that links real world morality to economics and society, and produces a more sophisticated account of the prosperity of a nation  never really take place?

The reason is that Americans have been confused about what morality is for a very long time now. For example, in America, it is perfectly acceptable to label selfishness, greed, spite, and cruelty merely as “different kinds of morality.” But a sensible, thinking person should reject this approach entirely. Me thinking your kids are not really people or denying you healthcare or turning a blind when your kids are shot at school is not moral in any sense of the word - and so if we accept such stances merely as different moralities, we undermine the idea of morality to the point it has no meaning whatsoever. It may be something that elevates my status within my own group - it in no sense is it moral, because what I give to my own, I merely take away from yours.

At minimum, performing one’s moral duty as a citizen of a society is to imagine, to learn about, to reason towards, how to care for all  not just some, those of your own tribe, race, color, creed, religion, place, or stratum. When I put it to you that way, it should be much clearer where America’s problems stem from. It struggles to reach the mature morality of a developed nation, because it has never really built moral muscles to begin with. Americas moral horizons never really expand beyond the idea of caring for your own tribe or group - that is the toxic residue of centuries of slavery and segregation, which resulted in a social philosophy of almost pure atomic individualism, bitter competition, and power, money, and status as the prizes to be won. The idea that ones moral duty as a citizen is to care for all - how could it ever develop in an America that was segregated until the 1970s?

But today, that failure to develop moral muscles has left America in a state of moral collapse. It is having a kind of implosive blowback  only having been taught to care for themselves, or, at best, their own kind, Americans are left unable to build a truly modern society.

And yet at the same time, Americans are;t often offered a perspective of themselves that goes beyond economistic - mere cogs in a capitalist machine, not truly moral agents. But being true moral agents is what forging a genuinely better society - a more decent, humane, caring, courageous, and wise one demands. How can mere cogs in a capitalist machine ever do it? That is why cases for human actions which only analyze economic consequences are badly deficient things. They are well intentioned, but they donҗt ultimately help a society build its moral muscles. If the only reason I am helping you is that I will grow rich - then I am not acting morally at all, I am still just a self-interested automaton. But if I am helping you because it is by helping that you that I help all, of which I am a part, then I am a moral being, who can reason morally, think morally, and act morally, too. Do you see the difference?

The atrophy of their moral muscles has left Americans weak where it counts most. Not just economically or socially or politically. But morally. One of the great lessons of the last century is that morality and prosperity go hand in hand. The riches and wealth we gain from exploiting others come with a curse - they cheat of us modernity itself. But modernity’s riches - societies wealthy in the most beneficial goods of all, like healthcare, education, retirement, which then engender trust, meaning, belonging, and purpose - cannot be had any other than by building one’s moral muscles.

How strong? So strong that it is each ones first duty to lift up all.


Posted by Elvis on 11/27/18 •
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