Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Carpe Diem and All That

I can’t stop thinking about it : morality. I feel silly thinking about it. I attained adulthood in the late 60s. Morality was eschewed. Morality, that is, as I had come to think of it up to that time. I associated it with stiff, prudish, self-righteous dogmatists, WASP-ish Presbyterians with neatly mown lawns and fat, tidy incomes. Morality was an obstacle to the pursuit of individual freedom, to self-realization, to the pursuit of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. In short, the pursuit of happiness. That fiendishly elusive lotus of enlightened well-being, that chimerical divinity of hedonistic redemption. It was the driving force of the Me Generation. The true meaning behind Jack Nicholson’s irreverent grin. 
Redemption, indeed. As if redemption can be found through self-serving, uninhibited pleasure. Well, it can to some extent. I believe Blake was correct when he said You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. Amen! Right on! Live for today! Do it! Go for it! Carpe diem and all that!
But no. I would not want to argue a case for redemption through naked impulse and if you can’t be with the one you love love the one you’re with and all that sixties claptrap which did not work. People just ended up divorced and hating one another.
My concept of morality was completely wrong-headed. I won’t go so far as to demonize hedonistic behavior the way Chris Hedges does, but his emphasis on self-sacrifice is the truer course to happiness, as much as I hate to admit it.
Morality does not exist in nature. When a lion brings a gazelle down, killing it with brutal, merciless efficiency, there is nothing immoral about it. That’s what a lion does. That’s how a lion survives. Morality does not enter the equation. Nor more than morality has anything to do with a hurricane, tornado, tsunami, earthquake, or volcanic eruption.
Morality is a human invention. It is designed so that people can live harmoniously in a community. When morality breaks down, community breaks down. When community breaks down, morality breaks down. And sooner or later you  have people killing one another  in the streets. A president who kills innocent people. A president who kills from a distance. And smiles and jokes about it.
Unless you’re on heavy drugs, sleepwalking, or living in a cave, I’m sure you’ve noticed that our world is falling apart. There isn’t much holding it together at this point, despite the comforting illusions created by technological wizardry, computers, iPods, Smartphones, Facebook and Twitter. There is a simulacrum of community. But real communities occur in much smaller places. Actual rooms with actual tables and chairs. And actual flesh and blood people making an effort to be courteous. You don’t find that much anymore. Remember the last time you were at a social gathering ? Were you introduced to other people ? Were you interrupted in mid-sentence ? Did you feel accepted ? Did you feel that people were listening to you ?
Or how about the last open mic you attended : did everyone stay to hear you read, or did they get up and glide nonchalantly to the door after their husband, wife, nephew, niece, son, daughter, buddy, lover got done reading ?
I’m not trying to be depressing. I’m trying to write something for people who, like myself, are a little perplexed by what’s going on, and feel some comfort in expressing and reflecting on it. There may be no answers, but pondering these issues is strangely comforting. I don’t know why.
R.M. Hare, in his earlier books (The Language of Morals, Freedom and Reason) regarded moral judgments as those judgments that override all nonmoral judgments and that the person would universalize. This account of moral judgments naturally leads to a view of morality as being concerned with behavior that a person regards as most important and as a guide to conduct that he wants everyone to adopt. He emphasizes, however, that there are no antecedent principles. That is not what he means by universalize. Life is far too complex and diverse for that. What he means is that as we grow older, our moral development consists in making our moral principles more and more specific. I know, that does sound a little muzzy, doesn’t it? The important thing is to try. If the impulse is there to do the right thing, and act out of kindness rather than dogma, the chances are you will do the right thing, and feel good about it.
Maybe. There is no guarantee. The golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is simplistic, but true. Though I do wish my neighbors subscribed to it more often.
I am far from being a moral person. Had I acted on any number of impulses, I would be in jail right now. When morality doesn’t work, the law often acts as a reliable deterrent.
Unless, of course, you’re the leader of a powerful, war-like nation. The law don’t mean a thing. You make up your own law. You make up your own reality. The citizens of these nations tend not to be very happy. Case in point: Syria.
Or Bradley Manning. Here is a supremely moral guy who acted out of a very high principled stance and is now in solitary confinement in a military prison. Weird what can happen sometimes when one person’s morality conflicts with another person’s need to hide the truth.
And who doesn’t envy, at least occasionally, the sociopaths? People who act freely, uninhibitedly, do bad things to other people to serve their own interests with no remorse, no guilt, no ugly emotions at all. Shit! I wish I could do that sometimes.
But I can’t. Something in me holds me back, urges me to do the right thing. Or try to do the right thing. Most often the emphasis is on try. I heard a great line by Dylan earlier today that sums it up nicely: Lots of things can get in the way when you’re tryin’ to do what’s right.

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