Sunday, November 13, 2011

Right and Wrong

Matters of right and wrong can hardly be settled in a brief essay, but developments in recent years, and even days, have made me consider the problem, however superficially. Let us concede first of all that the doctrine of cultural relativism is true: values, matters of right and wrong, very considerably from one culture to another. As this is so it means that what is considered right or wrong is culturally determined just as all values are. Put aside for the moment the deeper, more profound question of whether or not there might be rights and wrongs universal to all members of the human species. This is, of course, an interesting philosophical and even scientific question, but for practical matters of everyday life is largely irrelevant. The culture in which you are born and raised determines what your values and ideas about right and wrong are going to be. But as this is true, it is also true that values can change over time so that something that was once considered right or wrong can vary over time. We have certainly seen such changes in American culture over the years, especially (but certainly not only) with matters having to do with human sexuality.

Who, for example, even fifty years ago, would have considered Gay marriages as right? And certainly no one would have expected to see explicit sex acts in movies, and words that were once absolutely taboo are now used every day on television and even in everyday speech. Even so, at any given moment in time people generally know what is and is not permissible in their own culture, what things are prescribed and proscribed (even though there can be some variation and all people might not agree all the time, as in the case of abortion, for example). It is difficult to speak for all Americans as there are so many different ethnic and religious groups and sub-cultures. I doubt, however, there are many Americans who believe sex between a man and a boy is right (permissible). Speaking to the case of Penn State, the assistant coach that actually witnessed the boy being raped knew it was wrong, even though he did nothing about it at the time. He did, however, report it to his father and then subsequently to other officials at the University. In ancient Greece, and currently in at least one Middle Eastern country, such sex acts are rather common and apparently considered right (or appropriate). I’m not sure about rape, but I suppose even rape might be permissible during wartime and even expected. The fact that the witness did nothing to intervene is separate from his knowledge that the act was clearly wrong and needs to be dealt with at another time.

If we can take it as given that values vary from culture to culture, and also that values can change over time, I believe this behooves us to consider the changing values in the United States, that, I am sure, are vastly more important to our lives than sexual aberrations. You may be familiar with Max Weber’s famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he argues the rise of capitalism would not have been possible without the rise of the Protestant Ethic (that valued secular work in ways that had previously not been so valued). But it seems to me that Capitalism itself, has its own ethic, that has been influencing and changing our culture and our notions of right and wrong for some time now.

When I was a boy, living in a small Northwestern town, that I believe was not out of the mainstream of American culture, I learned that certain things were right and others were wrong. In the spirit of Protestant/capitalism I learned that one valued hard, honest work and education, that bullying was wrong, hitting or kicking people when they were down was wrong, lying was wrong, women wearing pants was wrong (or at least very questionable), speaking publicly about sex was taboo, certainly homosexual sex, married women should stay at home and take care of their families as that was right, violence was permissible only in self-defense, killing was wrong (except during wars), human dignity and fair-play were important, and I suspect most of the same values my peers were learning, some subliminally, some intentionally, and all being transmitted to us extra-genetically. We also learned that we should help the needy if at all possible, and that greed (one of the seven deadly sins) was wrong.

I believe that the ethics (or lack of them) in our version of capitalism, acting over time, have had an insidious influence over at least some relatively large segments of the American population. Many of our citizens have become obsessed with “profits” and the related greed that seems to accompany that obsession. This can be seen in those who in recent years have reinvigorated the spirit of Ayn Rand, and also in slogans such as “Shop until you drop,” and “He who has the most toys wins,” or even the more blatant “Greed is good.” Perhaps more significant of the acceptance of the Capitalist ethic can be seen in those on Wall Street putting signs in their windows boasting of being part of the 1%, or drinking champaigne and mocking the demonstrators. Capitalism is basically cannibalistic, consuming those who cannot adequately compete. This can be seen in modern day Republican culture that wants to write off the poor as useless parasites, refuse them unemployment insurance, minimum wages, health care, food stamps, and claims they are not poor because they have (empty) refrigerators. Everything they do is designed to destroy the poor and the middle class, while at the same time giving more and more to the obscenely wealthy and the corporations already bloated with profits. I find it virtually impossible to believe that one of the Republican candidates recently actually said that those who don’t work, shouldn’t eat! I believe these attitudes are directly attributable to the ideas promoted by those who have seduced us into the misnamed but disastrous “free-market capitalism,” and convinced us that “socialism” is such an evil as to be unthinkable. Many seem to believe that capitalism is not only right, but is the only good economic model, and there is nothing wrong with more and more capital handed to the “haves” while taking more and more from the poor and the middle class. They insist we should have more of it. These were not the values I was taught as a child. I sincerely hope they are not now the values of the majority of American citizens. I cannot help but wonder if all Republicans have come to believe what they are doing is right. I suspect that at least some of them must realize that what they are doing is actually wrong, but do it anyway, either because of greed or because of pressure from the Tea Party and the corporations they represent.

"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas."

― Karl Marx

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