Monday, March 16, 2009

Right and Wrong

Immorality is behavior that willfully sacrifices the interests, needs, values, and feelings of others for the sake of one’s own. Cheating on a spouse is immoral in the same way as underpaying employees in order to increase personal profits.

In many cases, immorality is relatively harmless. Not inviting your sad-sack friend to your party, knowing that, though he would appreciate the invitation, his presence would bum you out, is immoral—but it’s not likely to hurt him much and may please you and the other guests greatly. I can’t see much good in having too many scruples over such matters, but they do, in truth, meet my definition of immorality.

In the United States, we have few laws against immorality—and we shouldn’t have any, except when such behavior clearly threatens the common good—and in those cases, because the laws would impinge drastically on the liberty and free will of individual consciences, the burden of proof should be high.

Of course, in America, talk of morality is usually confined to the issue of sex, because Americans are uncomfortable with sex for pleasure, given our puritan, peasant, and pioneer value systems. In most Americans’ minds, the only conceivable justification for sex is procreation within the legal and religious institution of marriage.

Over the years, make-believe moralists have stretched truth and credulity alike in claiming rubbish such as that homosexuality poses a threat to children and society at large or that a woman who chooses to end a pregnancy is, in every instance, committing willful murder. Matters of personal conscience have been exaggerated as threats to national security or as the Holocaust redux. Thus, we have laws designed to curb or totally block certain behaviors that have no real or reasonable impact on the public or the common good.

Since such laws sacrifice others’ interests, needs, values, and feelings only to benefit the prejudices, hyper-sensitivity, and scruples of those who demand those laws—and ban or limit activities that have no effect on the lives or safety of those not directly involved, such laws are themselves immoral.

We hold money, however, in high esteem. What people do with their money (or for their money) has been somewhat less regulated than what they do with their gametes.

As a society, then, we have generally tolerated liberties in the use of money that we have not tolerated in the use of our bodies. No doubt, many who would defend companies’ right to reckless downsizing, for the sake of the bottom line and on the basis that owners can do with their properties what they damn well please, would oppose a woman’s terminating a pregnancy even if she does so because pregnancy poses an economic hardship on her and, in the long run, on the potential life she carries.

What, then, is morality? I like to think it is not just the avoidance of immorality. In my mind, morality means to make room for the interests, needs, values, and feelings of others. Morality, though, does not require me to sacrifice my own interests. Morality obliges me only to benefit others to the extent that it is in my power to do so. It means to give as good as I intend to take … to strive to profit others, not just myself and my own kind.

Unfortunately—and this is the way the world has always been thus far, to its own detriment and to the retardation of social progress—the moral are sitting ducks for the immoral. At the heart of immorality is the desire to take advantage of others’ good will and basic decency, to turn a profit on them, to bust their cherries, and, most insulting of all, to blame the victim for not realizing that this is the way the game is really played.

Somehow, progress occurs: slaveries are abolished, human rights affirmed, cruel and unusual punishments made somewhat less cruel, witch hunts cease, tyrannies collapse, liberties increase and spread. The individual life, dedicated to do right, may suffer "slings and arrows" and "the spurns / That patient merit of th'unworthy takes," to cite Prince Hamlet, but history and society are better for it.

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