Wednesday, December 14, 2005
On this day:

Morality and civilization

"Everybody has sex, and instead of cowering behind this morality, lets talk about it and get it out in the open."

What annoyed me about that statement by the University of Alabama's aspiring Dr. Ruth (which I quoted on Tuesday) is not the idea that we should talk about sex more openly. That's a matter that's open to debate.

The thing that got me is how it belittles traditional morality, portraying it as a repressive and irrelevant relic of a bygone era. Now, if this viewpoint were held exclusively by a lone sex columnist at the University of Alabama, I wouldn't have made such a big deal of it. Sadly, though, that's not the case. What once was an idea associated with the rebels of the counterculture is now the prevailing orthodoxy on our college campuses and among the "cultural elite."

The cultural left says that the rejection of antiquated notions of morality will mean liberation for the masses, but nothing could be further from the truth. A commonly-accepted code of morality is the glue that holds society together. Traditional morality is "traditional" for a reason; it represents the collected wisdom of the ages. In the words of Edmund Burke, society is "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." The moral code we have inherited is an essential element in that partnership, and to destroy it would destroy the principal foundation of civilized society. For a society like ours - which is both civilized and free - the consequences would be devastating, as Russell Kirk stated eloquently in The Conservative Mind:

When faith in a transcendent moral order, duty to family, hope of advancement, and satisfaction with one's task have vanished from the routine of life, Big Brother appears to show the donkey the stick instead of the carrot. A powerful new element in society hopes to play the role of Big Brother, to manage all human concerns. ...

Such a New Society will require a New Morality...But moral systems are not constructed readily by social engineers. The old religious and ethical imperatives demolished, compulsion must take their place if the great wheel of circulation is to be kept turning. When the inner order of the soul is decayed, the outer order of the state must be maintained by merciless severity, extending even to the most private relationships.

"Liberation," indeed. When individuals in a society lose confidence that their decisions - and those of their fellow citizens - will be honored so long as they follow a moral code that is commonly acknowledged and respected, then someone has to step in to fill the void. In a modern, secular society, that "someone" will inevitably be the government.

I'm gonna finish up this post with a passage from British author C.S. Lewis, who seems to be on everyone's minds these days for some reason. Lewis's insights on the subject of morality - what it is and why it is needed - are pretty convincing. The following is from Book III, Chapter 1 of Mere Christianity.

There is a story about a schoolboy who was asked what he thought God was like. He replied that, as far as he could make out, God was "The sort of person who is always snooping round to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it." And I am afraid that is the sort of idea that the word Morality raises in a good many people's minds: something that interferes, something that stops you having a good time. In reality, moral rules are directions for running the human machine. Every moral rule is there to prevent a breakdown, or a strain, or a friction, in the running of that machine. That is why rules at first seem to be constantly interfering with our natural inclinations. When you are being taught how to use any machine, the instructor keeps on saying, "No, don't do it like that," because, of course, there are all sorts of things that look all right and seem to you the natural way of treating the machine, but do not really work.

Some people prefer to talk about moral "ideals" rather than moral rules and about moral "idealism" rather than moral obedience. Now it is, of course, quite true that moral perfection is an "ideal" in the sense that we cannot achieve it. In that sense every kind of perfection is, for us humans, an ideal; we cannot succeed in being perfect car drivers or perfect tennis players or in drawing perfectly straight lines. But there is another sense in which it is very misleading to call moral perfection an ideal. When a man says that a certain woman, or house, or ship, or garden is "his ideal" he does not mean (unless he is rather a fool) that everyone else ought to have the same ideal. In such matters we are entitled to have different tastes and, therefore, different ideals. But it is dangerous to describe a man who tries very hard to keep the moral law as a "man of high ideals," because this might lead you to think that moral perfection was a private taste of his own and that the rest of us were not called on to share it. This would be a disastrous mistake. Perfect behaviour may be as unattainable as perfect gear-changing when we drive; but it is a necessary ideal prescribed for all men by the very nature of the human machine just as perfect gear-changing is an ideal prescribed for all drivers by the very nature of cars.