Tag Archives: morality

James Frey: A Lesson of Honesty in Writing

In 2003, James Frey published a widely acclaimed memoir, titled A Million Little Pieces, about his experiences as a young addict struggling to rehabilitate his life back to sobriety.  It is a dark and engaging account of the depth to which a person can fall as his inner demons–in this case, manifesting externally in the form of crack and booze–brings him to a crossroads in which the next handful of decisions could literary be the determining factor between life or death.

Needless to say, the reading public responded very well to the book, and Frey was heralded not just as a great writer and storyteller, but as somewhat of a hero for those who have been affected by the horrors of addiction (either personally, or vicariously), for whom he served as an eloquent communicator to the general public on how to emphasize with their less-than-sober counterparts in society.

As time went by, praise and attention continued to grow, and Frey’s star shined bright enough to even warrant attention from Oprah Winfrey’s coveted Book Club (surely, the hallmark of any author serious about actually selling her or his book in the industry).  Around this same time, however, a different sort of attention was also creeping up and casting a more accusatory shadow over Frey’s spotlight.  Eventually, after much push and pull, and pontificating about integrity and trust, it was revealed that a large chunk of the details concerning Frey’s lived experiences in the book, were not lived experiences at all.  Although we don’t know exactly to what extend things have been fabricated in the faux-memoir, we do know that just about every event detailed that ought to be verifiable (i.e. police records, specific people and interactions, etc.) simply aren’t.  So much so, that the book nowadays sits in the fiction section of your local bookstore, and serves as a case in point of a literary forgery.

Despite all the controversy, it needs to be said that James Frey is actually a decent writer, and A Million Little Pieces is not a badly written book, and given his knack for storytelling he has gone on to write several subsequent works that are equally engaging and enjoyable (though, since the incident, he has wisely kept both feet squarely within the realm of fiction; showing that a person truly can learn something from a degree of public shame).  Thus, the question I’m more interested in concerning this entire mess isn’t really about Frey’s stand alone role in this matter, but rests more on the issue regarding the extend to which the writing world (writ large) has a professional obligation to maintain honesty with its readers?

The question should be an easy one on first sight, for who would say out loud that writers need to be free to unabashedly lie to their audience?  This is especially true for writers whose prose rests in the realm of non-fiction.  Yet, although certainly true, I think just repeating a platitude on this matter does little to really convey the seriousness of an incident like this.

Sticking with the example at hand, I read Frey’s book after the drama had already unfolded, and was never in doubt about the faulty veracity of its claims as one might have been if they came to the work under the ruse of it being an honest memoir of a person’s private struggles.  I can see how someone who had become emotionally invested in the story of the flawed-yet-persistent person fighting to gain back some semblance of meaning and sanity in his chaotic life, would have felt more than a little betrayed on hearing that this “real” person was a mere sensationalized character in one authors hopeful attempt at circumnavigating through the competitive hoops of the publishing world.  They felt duped, and rightfully so, because in a very clear way they were.  And this one experience could very well sour the public and harden a cynical attitude towards the apparently appalling lack of a rigorous vetting process on the hands of publishers more concerned with making a buck of off people’s empathy, then researching on whether the “real-life” story they’re selling is in fact bunk.

This is where the responsibility lies, in my opinion.  The literary world as a whole has an obligation to at the very least accurately promote the product they are selling.  And to do so prior to publication, not post-public outcry, which (let’s be honest) will still push sales by virtue of secondhand curiosity alone.  I accept that I’m naive in my thinking to expect a business to prioritize integrity and honesty over financial imperatives, but seeing as how–if I’m inclined to share an opinion on the matter–I feel obligated it be an honest one; be it idealist, if it must.

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The Birth of Kratocracy

Some words die in the course of their usage; others before they ever really get a chance to experience life.  It can be presumed how at least a small fraction of these aborted etyma possess within them the potential to contribute to the greater understanding and advancement of human expression.

Of course, this sentiment certainly does not possess universal application across all fields of study.  As, for instance, when it comes to fields like politics; where words are very much meaningless to begin with.  Add an -ism; concoct a series of phonetic abbreviations; maybe combine some neutral sounding words to disguise egregious breaches of national and international law as passable acts of justice (e.g. “enhanced interrogation techniques“, “Due process and judicial process are not one and the same“).  The notion of allowing concrete definitions of terms or phrases into their diction would be toxic to political agents, as it would force them to speak and obey the same language as the rest of society.  A move counterproductive to their career interests, since it might serve to give the impression of accountability for one’s words, and the subsequent actions they bring about; a cruel demand on a group of people whose professional existence consists of purposefully rendering words unintelligible.  Among such personnel the only Gospel is “Babel”; the walls of which shan’t ever cometh tumblin’ down, for they stand too high for those from-out to look in, and for those from-in to look out.  In this context, it’s foolish to expect people who don’t occupy the same stratosphere to hear one another’s voice, yet we still insist on debating endlessly why there exists this loss in understanding between man and statesman?

And what is there to understand, really?  Why must there always be either some deeper meaning to a system, or an ominous conspiracy?  Why isn’t it enough to simply acknowledge that people who reside in the same atmosphere will have their perspective shaped by similar interests?  And in such a situation, what need is there for anyone to conspire about anything when everyone who reaches the same elevation already understands the nature of things just by virtue of having climbed the path?

In a kratocracy, where governance (both political and its financed-proxy) rests with those who are strong enough to seize power through force or cunning, the primary order of business that is expected of every person is to understand who it is you stand under, and follow rank accordingly.  In a kratocratic system, words must remain elastic in their meaning, so that–whenever convenient–the word of law can serve as a mere compilation of semantic loopholes (at least, when applied to the kratocratic lawmakers and financiers themselves).  Anyone who actually makes it up the ranks in this system will understand all of this by fiat; conspiracies and secretive motives are pointlessly redundant in a political order where sabotage and manipulation are not corruptions of the system (hence calls for reform carry little pressure), but inherent attributes of it that get openly rewarded with wealth and power.

Consider the following:  Everyone says they hate the smear ads put out by politicians against their opponents, just like everyone says they “hate” the obscene tabloids that litter the magazine racks of every store.  In other words, the majority of the people who say they detest gossip and mudslinging are obvious liars, on account that if such underhanded antics were truly as universally despised as people claim them to be, this sort of behavior would have fallen into disuse long ago.  But it hasn’t, and it won’t.  Because sabotage and manipulation, as long as they are not pointed out as such, are perfectly decent kratocratic virtues.  Virtues that only become indecent at a lower atmosphere, where the oxygen is too dense to support them.  Up on higher elevation, however, where the gravity of things like ethics and moral conduct don’t appear to weigh a person down as heavily, a different mode of reasoning applies.  None of this is devious or deceptive, as we all passively sanction this disparity for those who occupy seats of authority (both political and by its financed-proxy).  Partly because (as mentioned) we know our rank and don’t really bother to inquire too deeply into the matter, and partly because Babel is much too high up for any of us to strain our necks far enough to really care about what’s going on up there anyway.

The true cunning that sustains a kratocracy is the relatively little effort it takes to sustain it.  Simply draw a few lines in the sand, throw out a few provocative token issues around and behind said lines, and–voila!–watch people preoccupy themselves with these “life or death” topics, and whatever narrative is needed to keep the engine running smoothly will pretty much assemble itself (with the occasional minor tuneup here and there).  Again, no conspiracy needed, since even the people who get caught up in the small-scale politics of the whole thing notice that there is something more important operating around them.  But they don’t care, because as long as they focus on the pet-issues they have adopted as their personal identity, they can say how they’ve done something.  Whether or not its something relevant to challenging and eradicating the source of their cause’s woes is anybody’s guess, because what really matters is the comforting feeling of taking action it gives them.  Thereby, the beauty about a kratocracy is that it allows a person to feel both powerless and powerful at the same time–creating inner dichotomies is the mainstay of cunning authorities.

The Dichotomy of the Martyr and the Satyr:

It’s easy to be oppressed.  In fact, to a growing number of people, this appears to be their primary goal in life.  Observe a group of individuals some time, and watch how–sooner than later–the conversation will descend into a pity-fest of grief and sorrow.  It starts with one person retelling a great trauma in her/his life, and how s/he overcame it.  Which, of course, will cause another person to quickly improvise her/his own tale of painful woe.  Then a third will jump in to match both of the previous life stories with her/his own dose of personal despair.  And around, and around, the self-deprecation goes [where it stops nobody knows–if it ever stops at all, that is].

The assumed purpose in conveying one’s trauma to an audience of equally pitiful (in the sense of being full of pity) onlookers, is to humble oneself by demonstrating the extent of one’s suffering before the cruelty of life, and voice one’s opposition against the systemic source of one’s miseries.  The actual purpose is to elevate one’s sense of self-importance not through any positive accomplishments achieved, but through the sympathies and pities of one’s failures and setbacks.  And if that is not the intent, why go out of your way to rehash matters that are causing you so much apparent pain?  Why would you wish to publicly place yourself (even if just mentally) back in such a situation, unless you gain some–perhaps subconscious–satisfaction out of doing so?  Why would you want to aggrieve others through your anguish, when they cannot feasibly remove your distress for you?  Then again, is removing the trauma really the goal in this mindset?

I may be out of the loop here, but as a general rule oppressed people don’t have the luxury to freely voice grievances about their oppression.  (If they did, how oppressed could they possibly claim to be?)  If they speak of it at all, they do so with the intent to reform, or revolt against, their oppressors, and possibly replace its authority with something more desirable.  People who merely speak (freely and without any evident restraints) about their supposed oppression as a means of gaining acknowledgement for it, are not in the business of either challenging or changing any wrongs in society; what they seek is to attain recognition through metaphorical martyrdom.

Naturally, this martyr complex cannot go wholly unchallenged among the greater public.  And the most biting reaction it will bring about is–what I would call–the Satyr effect.  People who use their past grievances as a means to promote a self-righteous indignation about their person will emit two leading responses: 1. Pity (the desired reaction by the would-be martyr), and 2. Ridicule (i.e. the Satyr effect).  The Satyr sees her/himself as a counterbalance against the overblown austere tone of the martyr.  So, s/he mocks, and ridicules, and uses sharp wit to get the message across that the martyr’s concerns are due little more than a jolly laugh or two.  For her/his part, the Satyr sees her/himself as a hero who speaks the hard truth to the world, and puts a humorous check on the antics of both the authorities and the martyrs of society.

In reality, the Satyr serves the greater purpose of empowering both, by giving them a tangible source to validate their dubious claims of oppression (in the case of the martyr) and benignity (in the case of the authority; who else but a benevolent power allows itself to be mocked mercilessly?–is the popular adage here).  The Satyr can’t admit this, as it would be an acknowledgement of the fact that s/he is simply a byproduct, who exists strictly in reactive form.  And reactions by definition only respond to the products that create them, they do not operate independent of them.  Thus, the Satyr’s image as a hero for truth, and voice for real change or reform, is as unfounded the the martyr’s claim of oppression; and just as self-aggrandizing.

The dichotomy of the martyr and the Satyr are linked together by default.  Where the first appears, the second will follow, and with the advent of the internet age, the rate at which these mindsets spread increases tenfold.  In recent time, they have also become the desired responses by which the modern generation has decided to combat the ills and injustices of the world; unaware of just how helpful this is to the very authorities they claim to be challenging.  This is why, together, the martyr complex and the Satyr effect will ensure that the 21st Century goes down in history as one serious joke.

Reenter kratocracy:

In a kratocracy, you are not oppressed–not really.  If you are among those who fit the personality type, you will be made to feel the wholly illusory role of the oppressed martyr.  Not for the purpose of inflicting any unnecessary pain (or any real pain, for that matter), but to keep you content and docile by giving you the exact dose of self-righteous persecution you crave in order to make your person feel important enough to be faux-oppressed by a “greater” power.  Having tied your self-worth to the “oppressive” system you whinge about, removing this system will be unthinkable as your martyr identity (which is your whole identity) is dependent on its continued existence.  Additionally, you will be too preoccupied with your own unresolvable issues to bother caring too deeply about anything else going on around you.

In a kratocracy, the Satyr–the cynic, the comedian, the witty social commentator–is neither combating nor undermining the governing system by ridiculing its unjust, hierarchical structure.  As the Satyr, you’re actually having the (unbeknownst to you) effect of desensitizing people to the wrongs of the power structure you’re working so hard to mock.  Humor breeds comfort, and comfort breeds content.  It is true that, in feudal days of yonder, it was the Jester who could only speak the brutal truth to the ruler.  Yet, can anyone name a single jester who has ever overthrown a single ruler by virtue of possessing this great privilege of critical commentary?  No, and no jester ever will, because–no matter how much the Satyrs of the world wish it to be otherwise–jokes, even intricately insightful ones, do not have an iota of influence on an authority structure’s hold on power.  (Disagree?–Name one Bush joke in the previous decade that actually had the effect of countering the man’s unwise policies.  Or, for that matter, a single insightful jab at Trump’s lack of qualifications for high office in slowing down his presidential election.  Can’t think of one?  Exactly.)

Kratocracy:  governance by those who are strong enough to seize power through force or cunning.  What could be more cunning than a system where even a presumed defiance can be utilized and converted back into the service of the authority being defied?  Now, at least, it has an identifiable name; a most acidic move against an entity that depends on the elasticity of words and definitions to survive and operate.

Limits to my Empathy

Whatever source or imperatives a person wishes to attribute to her/his personal ethics, I believe the one thing we can all readily agree on is that the ability to empathize with others–i.e. being able to see an issue from another person’s perspective–is an indispensable component of any practical moral framework (unless you want to be clever and claim that your moral framework is not to have any empathy towards others; to which I say, touché good sir/madam, but I hope you’ll still agree that it would be best for your continued existence if other people at least feel some level of empathy towards your person, especially when they decide not to callously kill you on sight).

Like most people, if asked I would rate myself as a very empathetic person.  I would even compile a list of all the empathetic things I do for others in my daily life, because, in some sense, being selflessly courteous is often accompanied with the selfish interest to be acknowledged for one’s good deeds (even if we go out of our way to deny and suppress this egocentric impulse to our conscious selves).  I also happen to be of the opinion that when it comes to people who are not afflicted with any sort of crippling mental disorder (referring to those who honestly lack the mental faculties to have any reasonable degree of responsibility for their actions), just about everyone is empathetic to a large extent (though the means by which this empathy is expressed often various from person to person).

No, I do not believe that people are inherently good and generous.  Nor do I believe that we’re inherently bad or apathetic.  I see human behavior as largely adaptive to its varied environments.  This means I see no necessary contradiction in a man being a loving husband and father in one instant, and a murderer in another; different situations (different environments) tend to yield different results and behaviors for many of us (albeit such overly dramatic dichotomies in behavior are rather rare for most of us).

When I see someone hurt on the street, I’ll offer my help.  When I see stray cats or dogs wondering around hungrily, I’ll leave food and drink on my patio for them to find.  I empathize with parents who wish to see their children come home safely at the end of each school day.  All of this is innate, instinctive, to my conscience.  However, it’s also all local to my existence.  Because when I see a TV ad urging me to make a small, financially negligible, donation for a starving child oversees, I do feel a deep concern for the bruised faces shown on the screen, but I never feel any great moral obligation to make a donation.  The fact that a large portion of the clothing and luxury items I enjoy are assembled by exploited workers, in ethically questionable conditions, makes me cynical of the economic system I’m contributing to with my purchases, but it ultimately doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the luxuries any less (and purchasing more when I need to; thereby directly sustaining the vicious cycle).  So, while I actively care about moral situations that lie in my immediate proximity, I only abstractly care about all the more numerous moral dilemmas that lie outside of my personal interactions.  Which is to say, I don’t really care at all, because to only empathize with something on principle–without being willing to engage the issue in question with real, tangible solutions–is the equivalent of doing nothing at all (other than to inflate my egocentric sense of personal impeccability).  I’m aware of this moral shortcoming on my part, and the ethically indefensible position of my “apathetic-empathy”, yet, I still don’t really care enough to bother changing my behavior.  In truth, I only care about the fact that I don’t care about not really caring on any meaningful level.  And, although it sounds self-serving to say, I’m convinced that this is a common sentiment among most people (in particular those of us residing in what is commonly referred to as the first world).

My point isn’t to encourage people to do more about the sufferings and injustices in the world.  In my honest opinion, quite a few people who care strongly about a humanitarian issue end up becoming so engrossed in the presumed righteousness of their position they let their empathy and passion cloud their objectivity and rationality (I offer the various sociopolitical movements of the 19th and 20th Century as an example of this problem).  I simply want to acknowledge a fact about my character that, while not admirable in any sense, appears to be impermeable to any sincere change.  And I haven’t figured out yet, whether or not I really care about this fact.

Utilitarianism vs. Common Sense

Utilitarianism is a simple ethical theory that a lot of people fail to understand.  The reason for the confusions appears to result from approaching the philosophy either too broadly, or too narrowly.  Thus, I think its useful to take a look at the core points of utilitarianism, in order to get a clear analysis.

In simplest terms, utilitarianism is the ethical theory that actions are to be judged right and wrong solely by virtue of their consequences, and right actions are those that produce the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness.  With everyone’s collective happiness being counted as equally important.

The main line of objections one hears deals with the claim the utilitarianism conflicts with moral common sense.  An argument that best illustrates this line of reasoning is known as the McCloskey Case.  This case uses a hypothetical example to illustrate its point:  Suppose that a utilitarian finds himself in an area that has a great deal of racial strife.  Furthermore, suppose that during his stay there, a black man rapes a white woman, causing a violent backlash to ensue against the black community in search of the culprit.  Now, if the utilitarian has the option of testifying against a particular black man (any black man), who happens to be innocent, in order to end the racist backlash and prevent further violence against other innocent people, by the reasoning of utilitarian standards he would be required to allow the conviction of the innocent man to produce a greater balance of happiness over unhappiness.  Here, the McCloskey case attempts to show how doing something that would otherwise be considered morally wrong, is acceptable by the principle of utility, as long as the good consequences that result outweigh the bad (such as bearing false witness against one innocent man to prevent the death of dozens of innocent men).  However, common sense dictates that it is still wrong to let an innocent man die on the grounds that it conflicts with our ideal of justice, which requires us to treat people fairly and in accordance to the merits of the particular situation.  Thus, as an ethical theory that places the demand for utility above the demand for justice, utilitarianism cannot be right as it conflicts with our moral common sense.

A related (less dire) objection against utilitarianism is based on what one might call backward-looking reasoning.  Here, you’re asked to imagine a scenario where you promised a friend you’d meetup with him later in the day, but as you prepare to leave you remember that you could instead spent the time reviewing your school work for the upcoming test.  By utilitarian standards, it is argued, you are justified in staying home and breaking your promise, because the consequences of you getting a better grade outweigh the irritation your friend might feel for being stood up.  Once again, the case can be made that this conflicts with our moral common sense, as most people would want to affirm that your obligations to keeping a promise are not something that can be so easily escaped just for a small gain in utility.  The argument maintains that because utilitarianism places such exclusive concern on the consequences our actions will have, it limits out attention only on future results.  But, normally, most people think that past considerations are also important, like keeping a promise to a friend.  Thus, utilitarianism seems to be faulty, because it excludes backward-looking considerations.

These objections have prompted utilitarians to respond with several rebuttals in defense of their ethical theory.  The first line of defense denies that utilitarians conflicts with moral common sense at all, as the examples given don’t sufficiently discredit utilitarianism because one could easily argue that acts such as bearing false witness (per the first example above) and breaking promises to friends (per the second example) don’t result in good consequences.  Thus, these acts would not be done or endorsed by utilitarians.  Lying under oath can get you in trouble with the authorities, and delay the capture of the guilty culprit.  Not to mention, broken promises lead to broken friendships.  Merely because one thinks that a particular action will have the best result, it is not possible to be completely certain, and since experience shows the contrary, utilitarians would not condone such behavior.  The best response against these utilitarian defenses is that it’s fundamentally weak, as it assumes that utilitarianism and moral common sense must be compatible because morally right decisions always yield good consequences.  But it is reasonable to assume that in at least some cases it is possible to achieve a good result by something moral common sense condemns.  Therefore, attempts to reconcile utilitarianism with moral common sense fails on principle.

A much better rebuttal made against the claim that utilitarianism conflicts with moral common sense is for utilitarians to just bite the bullet, and say, “Yeah, it does.  So what?”  After all, there is nothing inherent in the notion that a matter which follows in line with our common sense is necessarily correct.  Common sense would also tell us that the sun moves across the sky, as was once believed, but we now know to be false.  The impression that the earth is flat and stationary can also be defended rather easily just by appealing to common sense, but that still doesn’t change the fact that the planet is spherical and rotating on an axis as we speak.

As to the qualifier concerning moral common sense, a similar approach can be made.  For centuries, white people in American held it as a point of moral common sense that they were superior to other races.  Does appealing to common sense make them right?  What about a sexist male, whose moral common sense tells him that his misogyny is justified by the superiority of men over women?  These are not hypothetical examples; people like this actually do exist, and they do appeal to their moral common sense to vindicate prejudices the rest of us repudiate as absurdly wrong.  So, a utilitarian could easily argue that in certain circumstances it is quite appropriate (even necessary) to question whether it is our moral common sense that needs to be discarded in favor of utility.

The Impact of Moral Prohibition

People have a tendency to define morality strictly by altruistic terms, focusing on empathy and compassion in regard to the moral relationships we share with others.  But, to me, this is a very myopic view on moral values, which ignores the fact that human beings do not seek to simply elevate particular positive attributes we consider to be moral, we also seek to shape the moral compass of others to align with our own image of what is to be deemed good and bad.  The implementation of prohibition and imposition are inseparable from our species’ moral practices.  It is not enough for us to hold to a particular moral standard, others must recognize the superiority of our personal values, too, and thereafter adopt it as their own standard, or face some degree of punishment (either in this life, or an ascribed next one).  Morals built around human sexuality are the clearest example of the prohibitory nature of human values.

Take, for example, homosexuality.  It would be one of the gravest of understatements to say that, historically, we heterosexuals care about the sexual practices of gay individuals (we are apparently absolutely obsessed with it!).  Even though, technically, it has no binding affect on us, we have convinced ourselves through various moral inferences that somehow the sexuality of gay men and women is of the utmost priority to maintaining our own sexual “purity.”  Why?  Because it conflicts with the moral standard we have accepted, and, therefore, it is seen as a challenge to our values.  Many self-appointed moralists will shriek for hours on end about the perversity of homosexuality, and the need to “cleanse” it out of human consciousness, lest we want to witness every moral framework of society crumble before our very eyes.  Employing roundabout arguments that hold no real practical application to morality:

“Homosexuality is clearly immoral.”

“Why?”

“Because human sexual anatomy has clearly made opposite genders sexually compatible for the sake of reproduction.  To do otherwise would be unnatural.”

“Even if we concede to the first part, how does that make homosexuality unnatural and/or immoral.”

“Well, if the point of sex is to reproduce, sexual relation that negates this will lead to less reproduction among the species, making it unnatural; thus, it poses a survival risk to humanity, which makes it immoral.

“Homosexual relations are not novel, but extend back to antiquity, and across the animal kingdom (including other members of our Great Ape family), and it has caused no detriment to human survival.  In addition, on a planet that houses now 7 billion members of the human species, the greater threat to human health is increased overpopulation, not underpopulation.  Furthermore, by your standard of what is unnatural and immoral, the fact that I wear glasses to correct my naturally weak eyesight is not natural, either.  Would you, therefore, conclude that wearing glasses is immoral, because it is also unnatural?”

“No, because wearing glasses has no adverse affect on human survival.”

“Sure it does.  If my myopia is genetic, then my children can inherit the adverse trait, contributing to its spread into the greater human population.  One could argue that good eyesight can be quite salient to the survival of humanity.  Thus, for us near-sighted individuals to procreate, and pass on our poor vision, is a negation of something that is vital to human survival; hence, by your logic, it is immoral.  Not only that, but the fact that we wear glasses is itself immoral, since it is ‘unnatural’ to begin with.”

“Having poor vision is hardly crippling anymore in today’s age, and wearing glasses is not immoral since you did not choose to be near-sighted.”

“Worrying about human procreation is also redundant in a world inhabited by 7 billion people.  And by what measure did gay people choose to be gay, and how does this relate to morality?”

“You can choose who you have sex with.”

“But you can’t choose who you’re attracted to.”

“No.”

“And is there not a direct line between who you’re attracted to and who you want to have sex with?”

“Yes.”

“So, how is being gay a choice?”

“Look, I’m not saying that being attracted to someone of the same sex is itself immoral, just that to engage in homosexual relations is not a natural expression of human sexuality.”

“My disagreement with you on the natural vs unnatural part is irrelevant in this discussion, since my greater issue lies with how you arrive at the conclusion that having gay sex is immoral.”

“It is simply my belief that it is so.”

“How does your personal belief and preference translate to a universal moral framework?”

“Well, I didn’t say it was universal.”

“But you didn’t qualify it as subjective, either.  Meaning that you see your moral values as the ideal standard for others to follow.”

“Yes, I think ideally people shouldn’t be having sex with the same gender.  You obviously disagree.”

“Again, my disagreement is irrelevant.  I’m question the part in which you are trying to overextend your personal preferences to human morality.  I would even go further to say that even if homosexuality did somehow cause some adverse affects on our current social conduct, you still have not demonstrated that it is by definition immoral, rather than simply undesirable to the current societal structure we happen to reside in.”

“Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

“I don’t agree with that.”

If such arguments seem lackluster, it’s because they are.  I deliberately chose to discuss the morality of homosexuality because it is (at least, here in the American South) the primary example of how people tend to blur the distinction between what they might consider to be personally displeasing and what is morally wrong.  For the sake of complete disclosure, the above scenario is one I know too well, since it was only a few years back that I was (much to my present shame) openly engaging in circular reasoning similar to the hypothetical person above [though my former homophobic stance didn’t rest on morality, as much as my idiotic cultural indoctrination that heterosexuality was the more normal mode of sexual expression, maintained through the stubborn fervor of adolescent arrogance]; realizing my error in thinking was only hard for as long as I bothered to construct faulty premises to support a prejudiced conclusion.  Once this was pointed out to me, I had no choice but to tuck my tail between my legs and admit that my stance rested on nothing more but my acceptance of the mores of my cultural upbringing, and since I had in childhood never bothered to accept the prevalent values of my surroundings, it was downright baseless to continue upholding this one.

Much of what we deem moral is determined by both internal preferences, and external influences.  It is also within our nature, as humans, to consider our personal moral preferences alone as insufficient standards on which to judge the actions of others, thus we are forced to create a greater authority for the origin of our moral values than ourselves, because we must convince others of the superiority in our way of thinking.  In that, we profess not to be arbitrarily determining what is right and wrong, good and evil, but are merely vassals of a higher virtue that deep down everyone innately recognizes.  Until, of course, we change our minds about something, then our new stance totally becomes the new higher virtue that everyone recognizes (no matter if it completely contradicts the innate virtue we were previously sure was the moral standard).  We can’t just empathize through altruistic gestures, we must also prohibit that which is dangerous to our moral framework.  Otherwise, how is it to reign supreme?

Practicing Self-Scrutiny

Genuine self-scrutiny is a personal virtue that is much easier preached than practiced.  Usually the furthest most of us are willing to go is a relativistic acknowledgment that differing opinions exist to our own and that, all things considering, we would be willing to change our minds if these alternative viewpoints were to persuade us sufficiently.  But, in my opinion, this sort of tacit relativism isn’t much in the way of self-scrutiny.  To self-scrutinize is to actively challenge the values and ideals we hold dear to our person–to dare to shake the foundation holding up our most cherished beliefs, so to speak, and test if the structure on which we house our beliefs is sturdy enough to withstand a direct attack.  In contrast, the aforementioned acknowledgment that differing (and potentially equally valid) views exist to our own is a very passive stance, as it strictly relies on an external source to come along and challenge our own position(s), with no actual self-scrutiny being involved in the process.

Up to this point, this very post can be rightfully characterized amongst the passive variant; i.e. it’s me (an external source) attempting to challenge you to question the manner by which you view the world around you.  Although there are occasionally posts on this blog in which I sincerely try to adopt opposing stances to my own, the truth is that I do this primarily to better strengthen my own position by being able to effectively understand what I’m arguing against.  This, too, is not self-scrutiny.  And it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.  To truly self-scrutinize I would have to pick a position–a value, an ideal–by which I orientate my worldview around, and mercilessly strip it to its bone.  The frustrating part of such a mental exercise is the inevitability of having to rely on generalizations of my own opinions in order to be able to paraphrase them thoroughly enough, without getting trapped in a game over meaningless semantics.  The important thing to remember is that the points I will be arguing over (largely with myself) in this post are admittedly stripped of their nuances regarding obvious exceptions and impracticalities, so as not to lose focus of the underlying principles that are being addressed.  Consider this a disclaimer for the more pedantic-minded amongst my readers (you know who you are).

First, it would be helpful if I stated a value by which I orientate my worldview around, prior to trying to poke holes into it.  Above most else, as long as I can remember I have always valued the egalitarian approach to most facets of human interaction.  I truly do believe that the most effective and just and fair means for society to function is for its sociopolitical and judiciary elements to strive for as equitable an approach to administering its societal role as possible.  In this view, I also recognized that this can more realistically be considered an ideal for society to endeavor towards than an all-encompassing absolute–nonetheless, I still see it as a valuable ideal for modern society to be striving towards.  Additionally, I should clarify that I do not necessarily claim this personal value of mine to be derived from anything higher than my own personal preferences to how I think society ought to be.  Yes, it is subjective, as it is subject to my desires and interests, however I would argue that this is true of just about any alternative/opposing viewpoint that may be brought up.  Furthermore, the merits and benefits I believe to be implicit in my personal preference of an egalitarian society (though admittedly subjective) are (in my opinion) independently verifiable outside of just my own internal desires.  In short, I value egalitarianism on account that, because I have no just and tangible means by which to sift through who merits to occupy which position in the social hierarchy we all live in, I consider it important that (if nothing else, at least on the basic application of our political and judicial proceedings), we hold all members of society to an equal standard.  Moreover, not that it matters to determining the validity of the egalitarian viewpoint, but I’m convinced that the majority of the people reading this will have little trouble agreeing with the benefits of such a worldview (though probably more in principle, while leaving room on disagreement on the most practical means by which to apply said principle in the social framework).

Now, the immediate issue I see arising with this stance of mine is the objection that genuine egalitarianism can easily lead to outright conformity–especially enforced conformity–as a society built on the model of complete equality might find it difficult to function unless it actively sets out to maintain the equality it’s seeking to establish.  It is a harsh fact that large-scale human interaction is not naturally egalitarian; meaning that left to their own devices there is little in historical evidence to suggest that a complex society of people will not diversify themselves into a multi-layered hierarchy; thereby instinctively creating the social disparity that the egalitarian mindset it aiming to combat.  The most obvious response would be to insist that egalitarianism simply means that the basic functions of society (i.e. the law) have to be applied equally, and that as long as measures are upheld in society, the system will self-correct to its default setting.  Yet, this outlook is only convincing as long as one is inclined to have faith in the sincerity of the application of the law, in terms of holding all in society to an equal standard.  This also brings us to the issue of who is to be the arbiter warranted with upholding the principles of an egalitarian system.  The judiciary?  The policymakers?  And does this then bestow on these individuals a set of authority (i.e. power and privilege) that thereby creates a disparity which in itself violates the very premise of a truly egalitarian model?

“In a democratic society, the authority rests with the people in the society to ultimately decide on who is to be the arbiter(s) to ensure that equality is being upheld in said society on the people’s behalf.”

But to maintaining social equality by means of representative democracy brings us to the issue of having those in the minority opinion be subject the to whims of the majority.  And is this not also in itself is a violation of what an egalitarian society ought to be striving for?  When we play out the potential pitfalls of every one of these concerns what we end up with is the realization that, in practice, egalitarianism seems to only function when applied on a selective basis.  Complete equality, across the board, on all matters, has the serious consequence of either ending up in a social gridlock (rendering all manners of progress on any issue impossible), or coercion (negating the benignity that is ideally associated with egalitarianism).

I’ve heard it said how in this sort of a discussion it is important to differentiate between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity; that the latter is the truly worthwhile goal an egalitarian ought to be striving for in order to ensure a just and fair society.  I’m not sure this does much to address the primary issue at hand.  If there exists no disparity in opportunity, but we reserve an inequity in outcome, than will it not be the case that you will still end up with a select number of individuals occupying a higher role in the social hierarchy than others?  And once the foundation is laid for such a development, is it not just as likely that those who end up occupying a higher role could put in place measures that will be of greater benefit to themselves, even at the expense of those who fell into lower social roles (i.e. meaning that even though in this model all opportunity was equally available at first, the caveat that different people can have different outcomes–fall into more or less favorable social conditions–leaves open the issue of what safeguard is there that those who manage to rise high enough will not manipulate matters to their advantage in society; including stifling the outcome and opportunity potentials of future generations; therefore, undermining the whole egalitarian ideal on which the system was meant to be founded on).  If the rebuttal is that in a truly egalitarian society measures would be in place to prevent this, we fall back to the question of who exactly is to be the arbiter warranted with upholding the principles of an egalitarian system.  Thus bringing us full-circle the line of inquiry mentioned in the preceding paragraphs.

These are objections that, even as someone who considers himself an egalitarian, I have a lot of sympathies with.  Mainly because I don’t have any way to refute them without appealing to a personal intuition that these concerns are not endemic to an egalitarian model and that it’s ultimately feasible to avoid such potential pitfalls.  However, I have to also admit that I’m not entirely sure of this myself.  This problem brings me directly to the confrontation of what do I value more in society:  the principle of equality, or the autonomous individual?  The threat that removing all disparity that exists between all individuals might lead to a stifling of the distinct individuality of people is something I believe is worth worrying over.  What good is a world where equality is triumphant but reigns on the basis of enforced sameness?  Not to mention, what will happen to the human ingenuity all of us in modern life dependent on for our survival as a society?  The prospect of attaining personal achievement is necessitated by one’s ability to standout above the fold, and create something unique and distinct from the common.  The possibility that this drive will be held in suspect in a completely egalitarian world, in the name of preemptively combating all forms of perceived inequality, no matter how unpleasant it might be to my core values, is not something I can dismiss simply because it’s inconvenient to my worldview.  Essentially, I believe that it would be unwise to simply brush off the point that a world safeguarded to the point where no one falls, is also potentially a world where no one rises.

When I started writing this post I had a standard set of points I knew I would raise to fulfill my interest of demonstrating a genuine attempt at unrestrained self-scrutiny.  I know that some readers might wonder why I’m not doing more to combat the objections I’ve raised here against my own egalitarian perspective, and the simple truth is that it’s because I understand my desire for egalitarianism to be practical and feasible rests almost entirely on the fact that I want both of those things to be true, because it would validate my presupposed worldview.  Nonetheless, I do understand that reality does not dependent on my personal whims and wishes.  In all honesty, having actually reasoned out the premises here, I’m left wondering, if for the sake of practicality we will undoubtedly always be forced to be to some extend selective with our approach to egalitarianism, why do we (I) still even bother calling it egalitarianism at all?  Perhaps there is a term out there that more honestly fits what most of us mean when we seek to uphold what we refer to as egalitarian principles.  That, however, is a wholly separate discussion to my intentions here.  My goal was to hold my own views and values to the fire and see where it ends up.  In that goal, I think I’ve gone as far as this medium allows…what results from it will take a bit more thinking on my part to figure out.