What is the relevance of morality today? Eden Collinsworth enlists the famous, the infamous, and the heretofore unheard-of to unravel how we make moral choices in an increasingly complex—and ethically flexible—age.
To call these unsettling times is an understatement: our political leaders are less and less respectable; in the realm of business, cheating, lying, and stealing are hazily defined; and in daily life, rapidly changing technology offers permission to act in ways inconceivable without it. Yet somehow, this hasn’t quite led to a complete free-for-all—people still draw lines around what is acceptable and what is not. Collinsworth sets out to understand how and why. In her intrepid quest, she squares off with a prime minister, the editor of London’s Financial Times, a holocaust survivor, a pop star, and a former commander of the U.S. Air Force to grapple with the impracticality of applying morals to foreign policy; precisely when morality gets lost in the making of money; what happens to morality without free will; whether “immoral” women are just those having a better time; why celebrities have become the new moral standard-bearers; and if testosterone is morality’s enemy or its hero.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
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"A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."
—attributed to William James, nineteenth-century American philosopher, psychologist, and author
It began as a lively conversation.
That was before disagreement made itself known and caused tempers to flare. Manners were breached. One person stormed out of the room. Another was reduced to tears.
My mother—European by birth and old-world in her convictions—was an extremely correct woman, the kind who became confused when someone who didn’t know her well nonetheless called her by her first name. When I phoned to debrief her about my friends’ bad behavior, she was embarrassed for me.
“And this took place in your apartment?” she asked, trying to get her bearings. “What on earth caused such a scene?”
“We were talking about morality,” I told her.
“I can’t imagine why you would encourage that kind of discussion,” she said, more accusation than query.
“It wasn’t me” was my childish claim before ignominiously placing the blame on my dinner guests. “Someone said something, and the next thing I knew, it was out of my control.”
Always and immaculately in control, my mother told me that it is the obligation of the guests to ensure that the host has no regrets for having invited them but it is the duty of the host to make sure the guests are not made uncomfortable in conversation. The fault, she informed me, was entirely mine for allowing provocation to introduce itself at the dining table. Bad behavior should never be given an opportunity to declare itself, she said, and not to lose sight of the broader issue, she reminded me that moral conduct must always hold its ground.
My mother was right.
But how is one sure what constitutes bad behavior, given the shifting tectonic plates under that defining issue? More fundamentally, where does one find solid moral ground on what is proving to be the porous bedrock of our twenty-first century?
“Civility clears a path toward morality” was how my mother concluded our phone conversation, as if it were all I needed to know.
No single generation can claim a peerless contribution to ethical behavior, but in my mother’s time morality was a rule book: some parts enshrined as decent behavior; others, implicit. Sins were laid bare and bad behavior had far-reaching and lasting consequences.
That is no longer the case. What were clearly designated ethics have been blurred: in politics, with our leaders, for whom we have less and less respect but are willing, more and more, to accept that their bad deeds have mitigating factors; with the Wall-Street-take-all mentality in business, where it has become difficult to define cheating, lying, and stealing; in popular entertainment, with morally prismatic antiheroes operating in a stylish gray zone; and in our daily lives, whose churning technology grants permission to act in ways we would not necessarily act without it. For the first time in history, we have the skills and the knowledge to modify ourselves, both biologically and digitally, yet we struggle with the fundamental conceit of living successfully in the here and now with our fellow humans.
In this unsettling era, moral variables are being shaped less by ideals than by global markets, so perhaps we should remind ourselves who is holding the checkbook. In the 1920s, British firms owned 40 percent of the global stock of foreign direct investment; by the 1960s, America had assumed the mantle. Despite its growing pains from recent state-dictated reforms, China—whose economy in the last twenty-five years has quintupled—is likely to be next.
The population of China is 1.3 billion (compared with America’s 318.9 million). Its culture—formed over two and a half millennia—embraces a Confucian perspective, which is in stark contrast to the linear rationalism attributed to Western belief. Confucius’s analects concentrate on the practical rather than the theoretical; they advise against reducing morality to a universal truth. Unlike the West, where Judeo-Christian ethics designate a nonnegotiable right and wrong, the Chinese do not adhere to absolutes. This means that one in five of the world’s current population believes that there is no single way of being wrong and many ways of being right.
Where does that leave the rest of us?
We in the West would like to believe that individual freedom determines our choices, but in reality we are ruled by our culture and the prevailing time in which we live. Since he was old enough to understand my words, I tried to teach my son the difference between right and wrong, but the plain fact is that his take on morality wasn’t instilled by me as much as it was dictated by the profound changes during the course of his life: changes brought about by advancements in technology and science I don’t fully understand and my mother could not have imagined.
Are these changes pointing us in the right moral direction? I’m not sure. I asked others. It turns out that most of them aren’t sure either, and I decided that the question was worthy of more investigation. I thought that, if I spent a year trying to discover where and how morality is changing, I might be able to chart where it’s going.
I’m not an obvious navigator for this kind of exploration: a peripatetic career has moved me in disparate directions, none toward advanced academic degrees. And although I have lived in different countries, my life has unfolded in cities. Those who live in cities have a tendency to circulate within the confines of their socioeconomic class or occupational orbits, so there’s a good chance I have a narrower outlook than is ideal for what I’m proposing to do. That said, I shall do my best to avoid prejudices, marshaling the facts as they are, not as I wish them to be.
Here are a few more disclosures: I admire those of faith but believe that religion should be kept far away from as many non-spiritual things as humanly possible. I have an abiding affection for the offbeat, but I aspire—however imperfectly—to civility. I can’t imagine an absolute moral man or woman, nor can I understand why anyone would wish that state of absolute being. In fact, I’m inclined to agree with Henry David Thoreau, whose suggestion is not to be too moral a being. “You may cheat yourself out of much life so,” he warned.
From this information, you are likely to decide that I’ve wandered to the far ends of orthodoxy and that this makes me a willful person. That could be. But mine is not the kind of willfulness that challenges the necessity of morality or the purpose of ethics. Nietzsche—the “God Is Dead” nihilist—insisted that “man has connected all things in existence with morals, and dressed up the world in a garb of ethical significance. The day will come when all this will be . . . utterly valueless.”
I’m sorry, but no. Morality is at the core of who we are, and ethics enable us to function in societal groups. So, no, my intention here is not to argue whether there is a need for morality but to map its landscape.
Perhaps you are already of one mind or the other about what constitutes moral behavior or—like me—in possession of an inward sense of what is fundamentally good or bad but not sure how either applies anymore. For the purpose of this endeavor, we might think of ourselves as flaneurs, strolling down the broad avenues of history, pausing to ask the ethical standard-bearers how they judged good behavior. We have begun this journey with a question, and there’s no guarantee that we won’t end with one, but along the way it seems only fair that we give bad behavior an opportunity to explain itself.
Table of Contents
Part 1 Confronting the Unreliable Provenance of Morals
1 Wherein I Begin with the Definition of the Word 9
2 According to a Convicted Murderer, It Has to Do with Character 16
3 A Neuroscientist Explains the Evolutionary Origins of Morality 27
4 A Brief History of Mankind's Attempts to Rein in Bad Behavior 40
Part 2 Morality's Scorecard
5 The Editor of the Financial Times Provides a Cost-Benefit Analysis of Principles 51
6 Instructions on How Not to Cheat 61
7 Pros and Cons of Doing the Right Thing 72
8 The Law: Tools of Control, or Instruments of Enlightenment? 79
9 The Political Function of Ethics 90
Part 3 Sex as Moral Provocateur
10 Monogamy (Not So Much Anymore) 101
11 The Screen as a Siren 116
12 Testosterone: Morality's Enemy, as Well as Its Hero 127
13 Immoral Women: Or Just Those Having a Better Time? 138
Part 4 Taking the Bother out of Morality
14 Celebrities as Standard-Bearers 149
15 Reality Redefined 158
16 The Web Wonders What's So Great About the Truth 163
17 Ethically Sanitized Warfare 171
18 Immorality's Black Sun 182
Part 5 The Future, or Something Like It
19 The Moral Vagaries of Making Babies 193
20 Mapping a Post-gay Culture 198
21 Is It Progress if We Barter with Ethics? 205
22 Programming Morality in Robots (They'll Show Us How) 211
23 So Who, Exactly, Gets to Set the New Rules? 224
24 Wherein I Conclude by Looking Forward 232
Notes and Additional Reading 245