Friday, July 28, 2006

MAKING MORALITY POLITICAL

In the opening scene of Sex, Lies, and Video-Tapes Andie MacDowell ponders for her psychiatrist the fate of a trash-filled barge cruising the high seas in search of a friendly port-of-call--a mental voyage that steers her thoughts away from a troubled marriage. In similar fashion the new electronic decalogue focuses attention on large political issues and thus allows people to ignore problems closer to home.

This new ethic puts the ego right where it wants to be--center stage. It is an ethic that demands virtually nothing of the individual and transforms matters of moral import into either personal choices or political causes. It is an ethic that turns on its head the notion that morality primarily concerns personal obligations toward others. It is an ethic that becomes tongue-tied when asked to produce a single non-political imperative that might inconvenience the practitioner--an ethic whose most significant personal prohibitions forbid self-hatred and the “imposition” of values. In other words, a person is commanded to “like himself,” no matter what, and to make sure that he doesn’t disturb the serenity of individuals whose actions would warrant censure in a morally serious culture.

A clear example of this shift from the personal to the political can been seen on an old PBS series entitled Ethics in America. These programs, aired initially in 1989, encouraged journalists, government officials, and other professionals to tussle with their consciences and an adversarial moderator while addressing various hypothetical situations. The first in this series, Do Unto Others, featured such luminaries as Justice Antonia Scalia, C. Everett Koop, and journalist Linda Ellerbe. During this program Ms. Ellerbe refused time and again to make onerous moral demands on persons involved in personal malfeasance. Concerning a young man who, with his friends, cheated on a college entrance exam, Ms. Ellerbe stated, “No, I don't believe you should turn in the other students.” About telling her friend, Carol, that her husband was cheating on her, she commented, “Are you certain she has a right to know? There's a right to innocence.” Concerning the same unfaithful man's affair with a 15-year-old girl, she observed: “This is tough. . . . I wish I had the answer to this. I don't.”

Finally, however, Ms. Ellerbe's moral juices were stimulated when she decried the judgments other panelists were making on a man panhandling for booze. Indignant at last, Ms. Ellerbe said, “The man needs a drink. . . . I would also give money to defeat the policies of the government that wants to use our money for defense weapons instead of funding houses for these people. . . . It's not up to me to judge how the man is going to spend the money any more than it is to judge how the man got there . . . if I've got fifty cents he can have it.” In Ms. Ellerbe's moral universe, cheating, lying, and adultery are nothing to get very upset about, and moral judgments directed toward individuals are verboten. But political matters constitute an arena in which nuclear rhetoric is permitted and moral judgment comes easy as pie.

According to this popular perspective--as rock, rap, and heavy metal songs declare unremittingly--world problems, as well as my own personal problems, are basically “their” fault. If I behave immorally, it's nobody else's business. But if there's blame to be borne, society and government must take the rap. Politicians and moralistic adults are the only appropriate targets for judgment--not me, my friends, or immoral individuals. This point of view is so pervasive that it is difficult to find any rock or teen-directed pop songs in which singers scrutinize their own actions or take moral responsibility upon themselves. Jimmy Buffet's “Margaritaville” was the only pathetic example I and a class of high school seniors could think of.

Under the canons of this new electronic ethic, moral stature comes cheaply. One need only attend concerts in support of media-approved causes and wear a ribbon. The trouble involved pales in comparison with the feeling of moral superiority it brings. After all, it's not like anyone is expected to give up anything or to suffer. As Van Halen's video, Right Now, suggests, it's always some old dude's fault.

Friday, July 21, 2006

WHO OWNS YOUR BODY? JOHN STOSSEL VERSUS JOHN LOCKE

“It all comes down to one simple question: Who owns your body, you or the government?” That’s the bottom-line question that John Stossel poses in “Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity.”

Stossel’s libertarian viewpoint is that you own your body and should have a right to put your parts on an organ market if you wish. The other side of the same coin says that government should butt out of transactions freely entered into by consenting adults. Accordingly, ABC’s 20/20 co-host quotes a patient needing a kidney transplant as follows: “If I make a deal with you, why is it the government’s business?”

The rest of Stossel’s utilitarian argument notes that 6,000 persons die every year while languishing on a wait-list that’s 30,000 names long. If pure capitalism can reduce that number significantly, then why not put kidneys on a commodities board alongside pork bellies and soybeans?

Before getting carried away with the notion that “the market” is the answer to every question, it would be wise to note that more fundamental building blocks stand at the base of American institutions and society—including an ethic that embraces those “unalienable rights” listed in the Declaration of Independence.

According to that document these rights come from a “Creator” and, as such, are not subject to contractual alienation. Thus, while a person can agree to work for another individual for nine dollars an hour, he can’t sell himself into slavery—not even for nine hundred thousand dollars. (In this case, of course, philosophy preceded its historical realization.) Likewise, under the doctrine of unalienable rights, individuals aren’t permitted to put their lives on the trading block, no matter what the incentives.

(Readers might recall the 2001 case where a fellow in Germany consented to be cannibalized—a contract that was discounted entirely by a retrial judge who in May upped the "Rotenburg cannibal's" 2004 sentence from eight years to life in prison.)

John Locke, a philosopher not known for religiosity, observed that humans are God’s “property, made to live for his, not one another’s, pleasure.” This comment, which has a distinctly creedal ring, puts one’s body in a different class from used Hondas or laptop computers. It also recognizes the indissoluble bond that exists between body and soul—a bond that is obscured when one reduces the former to a piece of real estate marketable by a disembodied agent.

The effects of a kidney exchange wouldn’t stop with eyes and other organs. Such markets would also alter our basic notions of who we are. The idea that life is “unalienable” has already been drastically undermined by legally transforming unwanted babies in utero into valueless appendages. The notion that human life is a sacred gift will surely collapse once the vessel within which and by which that life exists is treated as a rack of meat. Indeed, if one’s own body is imagined thus, how much less respect will individuals have for strange cuts of beef?

Friday, July 14, 2006

Book Review: IN DEFENSE OF HYPOCRISY by Jeremy Lott

If “patriotism” is the last refuge of scoundrels, “hypocrisy” is surely their first, second, and third hiding place. Nowadays, it isn’t being hypocritical that provides safe haven for unvirtuous folk but rather the practice of pinning the label on others. When it comes to sleaze, the best defense is a good offense.

Jeremy Lott’s literary response to this orgy of blame-shifting is to expose the duplicity of accusers and to argue that hypocrisy isn’t as bad as most folks think. Indeed, the author even shows how the much-maligned characteristic can create positive outcomes.

Lott’s first case in point concerns the hypocrisy charge giddily leveled against Bill Bennett when political opponents discovered that the former Secretary of Education was a high-stakes gambler. Critics were indignant that a man who presumed to tell others about virtue was engaging in a putative vice.

Instead of directing scorn at Bennett, Lott focuses attention on the duplicity of his critics—folks who ignored the fact that Bennett had never criticized gambling per se and that his moral perspective was broadly consistent with Catholic teaching on the subject. Lott also notes that these anti-moralists exaggerated their personal objections to gaming while abandoning their very real convictions about privacy rights—all in order to skewer a political opponent. An awful lot of hypocrisy, in other words, was involved in these charges of “hypocrisy” lodged against Bennett.

Lott’s remarks about Howard Dean, on the other hand, show how an individual can deliver the most damning moral judgments while claiming not to be morally judgmental. “Look, we’re not going to stoop to this kind of divisiveness,” Dean said to Tim Russert after observing that Tom Delay should resign from Congress and serve his (nonexistent) jail sentence in Houston.

As these examples indicate, the anecdote is Lott’s preferred method of inquiry. Using this technique the author comments on, among others, Newt Gingrich, Michael Moore, Britney Spears, and a cast of Hollywood stars. Special attention is lavished upon Casablanca’s Captain Renault and the sham revivalist played by Steve Martin in Leap of Faith. Unfortunately, Lott’s book is longer on examples than on systematic analysis.

Little attention, for example, is given to the proper (or traditional) definition of the word “hypocrisy.” That classic definition (as illustrated in the Oxford English Dictionary) focuses primarily on pretended virtue—not, as is common today, on failing to live up to the standards one professes. While Lott acknowledges the former definition, he effectively dismisses it by observing that distinctions having to do with motives and moral weakness make identifying hypocrisy “a mysterious, almost occult activity.”

Consistent with this definitional lassitude, Lott throws into his inquiry any permutation of deceit that strikes his fancy—keeping vices private, being polite, protecting state secrets, being inconsistent, obeying unwritten (as opposed to written) rules, and lying in order to protect innocent victims from tyrants. Nor are these variegated activities analyzed systematically. Instead, the author alternately condemns and defends a concept that has been stretched beyond recognition. Thus, Lott says near the end of the chapter on Bill Bennett, “…the whole episode was shot through with hypocrisy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

A more careful presentation might have focused on the reason that Francois De La Rochefoucauld’s 17th century view of hypocrisy (“the tribute that vice pays to virtue”) strikes many people today as odd. It might have noted that modern societies, suffused with existentialist clich├ęs, no longer presuppose the objective view of virtue that informed the French nobleman’s dictum. In its place stand only personal beliefs to which one may, or may not, be true. Consequently, consistency and authenticity are prized above any “real” morality. Being “true to oneself” or “to one’s own beliefs” is cherished—not being, or pretending to be, virtuous. In such a context, Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to follow the Pharisees’ teachings, but not their deeds, has little resonance. What does resonate in modern ears is that gladly misconstrued injunction, “Judge not!” (I should note that Lott offers some helpful exegetical remarks on the aforementioned biblical passages.)

This philosophical retreat from objective morality also explains why those who vociferously denounce hypocrisy are pleased with a “saint or shut up” standard for moral discourse—a rule that creates a society in which, as Lott rightly observes, morality is easily “shouted down.” Such ground rules also satisfy the druthers of those who seek social transformation via political means. Indeed, both neo-Marxists and mall-rat Sartreans are happy to embrace the popular proviso that allows anyone to denounce the personal foibles of moralists—and moralists alone.

One can at least be grateful for the insights that In Defense of Hypocrisy does contain. Despite the fact that it is neither topically focused nor philosophically sophisticated, the book does serve to undermine the popular presumption that hypocrisy (broadly defined) is the worst of all moral failings and to point readers in another direction. What exactly that direction might be is material for another book.

Friday, July 07, 2006

ACADEMICS AND LINGUISTIC OBFUSCATION

My favorite example of academic pretense involves a spoof instigated in 1996 by Dr. Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University.

Sokal was concerned that a good deal of what passes for scholarly discourse in the humanities was nothing more than leftist politics gussied up in ostentatious language. So the good professor proceeded to put together an article comprised mostly of gibberish but punctuated with assertions that would warm the hearts of partisan intellectuals.

The title of this piece was “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Its thesis was that gravity was merely a social construct arising from phallocentric hegemony.

Sokal submitted the article to a prominent, peer-reviewed journal, Social Text, whose editorial board was sympathetic to its warrantless conclusion: “the content and methodology of post-modern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project.” Not entirely to Sokal’s surprise, the article was published.

Not long ago I was reminded of Sokal’s ruse when I attended a seminar at a local university. The “topic” was the loosely-defined discipline of phenomenology. It was easy to see, at least for someone with more than a layman’s knowledge of philosophy, that most of the professional energy going into this enterprise was devoted to verbally decorating a few unspectacular ideas.

One after another, speakers put forward syntactically complex propositions shrouded in jargon (“intertextual narratology”) and punctuated with leftist dogma (e.g. using the word “fascist” to describe any position to their political right). Two-dozen adults were pretending (not very well) to congratulate each other on their brilliance while painfully enduring one plodding presentation after another.

The obvious value of using words only a few folks understand is that the practice gives initiates a sense of superiority over the hoi polloi (the masses). The practice thus fosters the illusion that jargonistas possess insights that extend far beyond those of Joe Sixpack, Bonnie Businesswoman, or Peter Politician.

Like the Gnostics of old, for whom the secret word Abraxis held the key to reality, these pitiful polymaths are unwilling to present ideas without linguistic enhancements. They pretend, instead, that intellectual precision requires them to speak as they do.

Hollywood actors, deprived of makeup, don’t look so hot. Similarly, plain speech makes many ideas seem awfully quotidian (i.e. ordinary)—even refutable. Clarity of speech also raises unpleasant questions—like why we pay handsome salaries to folks whose words represent little more than Marxism in post-modern terminological drag.

One of my best graduate-school teachers, Ivor Leclerc, was a model of clarity. He castigated instructors (especially theologians) for employing muddled jargon. Sokal’s article would never have passed muster with him, nor would he have been caught dead pretending that a tarted up pig was a white stallion. Such pretense is pervasive, however, among academic Wizards of Oz who hide behind the smoke and mirrors of superfluous neologistry (i.e. unnecessary, made-up words).