Sunday, March 18, 2012

Morality in the 21st century is an optional extra

In the year 2012, who can we say are humanity's role models? Our politicians? Hollywood celebrities? Religious leaders? Writers? Musicians?
Until the middle of the 19th century, the answer for most of humanity was a simple one: God, Allah, Buddha, or whatever divine figures were relevant to your culture. After a moment's thought, a person may have thought of a living religious figure (priest, imam, or whatever), and then they may have thought about secular humanity, and the leading figures of the time: in the 19th century, where the vast majority of humanity did not experience democracy or free thought, so the moral role that a politician had, even less a "celebrity" was of little relevance to most people's lives.

In 2012, the only parts of the world where religion still holds a significant role in morality are the Middle East/the Muslim world, Africa, India and "Middle America". In all other parts of the world ("liberal" USA, Europe and the rest of the "developed world", China, Russia and South America), humanity is either indifferent about religion's role in morality or ignorant.
So, where does the agnostic rest of humanity get its morality from?

As China is the most populous of these "agnostic" parts of humanity, it makes sense to talk about them first. China gets its morality from Confucius. While Chinese people are atheists and their government officially Communist, their moral philosophy still is based on principles established more than two thousand years ago. The basic premise is "know your place": to conform with the rest of society; see yourself as one part of the seething mass of society as a whole; respect and listen to your elders; maintain the system and hierarchy. These key principles have been used to maintain social and moral order in China ever since, and are a key part of the Chinese mindset. When Westerners go to China and feel like they are in Mars, there is a good reason for this: because the people have maintained an ancient conservatism. They are not interested in democracy (or most of them) because they see it as dangerous; part of this is government-speak, but part of it is also genuine truth.

The morality of the rest of the "agnostic world" could be summarised, for the most part, as an extension of the morality of modified versions of the Capitalist free market. Some parts of the world are more concerned about "society" (such as Europe), whereas others are more concerned about the morality of the "individual" (such as the USA and Russia), but they all broadly adhere to an obedience to moral principles of Capitalism.

You might wonder why I rank Russia and the USA as morally equivalent. It is because since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has replaced its "social" morals with "individual" morals, to such an extent that there is effectively no real safety net against poverty in Russia; as is the same in the USA. Furthermore, this "morality of the individual", in both the USA and Russia, has resulted in a ruthless corruption of society.
In Russia, that corruption permeates almost every level of society, from the top to the bottom. In some parts of Russia it is worse than others (as is the same for much of the rest of the former Soviet Union), but this corruption means that "individual morality" becomes a moral black hole: if no-one follows the rules, then individuals have no incentive to have a "moral code": the only rule is "me".
Many Russians have fled to the USA, which they see as an ideal market-place to put into practise the "dog-eat-dog" psychology they have honed in corrupt-individualist Russia. Although corruption is not as endemic in the USA as Russia, USA has corruption of its own kind, just by another name. It is true that Russians move to the USA because there are objectively fewer hurdles to opportunity (such as low-level corruption), but the USA has its own atrophied elite as it Russia; it is simply older and a little more diverse, including dozens or hundreds of established families that have the real power in the country - the medieval Republic of Venice operated on a similar level for hundreds of years. The fact that a black man with a Kenyan father can become the American President may be an inspiration to others, but it is also worth noting that for all Barack Obama's good intentions, he had to gain the financial support of the elite in order to become a viable candidate. In other words, it suited many of the elite's plans that an articulate, smart black man become President. Why this is, is worth thinking about.

I'll return to the question I asked at the start: who are humanity's role models? Apart from China (which I've already discussed), the average human being in the developed world has very few real role models. I've just mentioned Barack Obama: as it happens, I am quite a big fan of his, but there are important things to remember about his time in office. Apart from restoring some of America's lost respect around the world, at home his achievements have either been stymied by his political enemies (supported by those in the elite who are against him), if not blocked entirely, as well as him receiving continual insults and slurs. It's fair to feel sorry for him in that way, and I do. And yet, because of all this, the financial crisis has gone by with few real lessons being learned, as well as the banks responsible effectively getting away with mass fraud, while at the same time, the average person suffers more than at any time since the Depression in order to pay for it. It's enough to make a decent person's blood boil.
The living role model that most people in the world would agree gives humanity the most inspiration is probably Nelson Mandela. It's worth remembering the reason he was imprisoned for nearly forty years: because he was promoting civil disobedience and strikes by the black population to get equal rights. In other words, he was following the same strategy as Gandhi. Thus when he was released from prison and became President of a free South Africa, the black population expected everything would become better. But it didn't happen, and still hasn't, really. Yes, they have equal rights under law as the whites, but their decades of poverty through lack of opportunity still mean that most of them are effectively second-class citizens, through circumstance if not by law. And also, when Mandela took power, the white elite pressurized him not to do anything else too radical that would frighten away the rich whites from South Africa, so another opportunity was lost. I wonder what kind of conversation Mandela and Obama would have about these types of harsh lessons in political reality.

And forgetting politicians, what about others, the celebrities, who have taken the place of role models? The problem here is that the media are wont to build up celebrities for their own ends, and then when celebrities demonstrate that they are (shock, horror) all too human, knock them back down. In other words, the necessarily symbiotic link between the media and celebrities feeds a selfish, amoral cycle that is fed into our senses on a daily basis.
So if the media are amoral, and most famous people are amoral, and the capitalist elite are amoral, where are the moral guardians?

A footnote here worth mentioning is that the European court just gave the green light to "kettling" by British police. It is also worth remembering that in the UK, as I understand it, you should ask permission from the police to have an organised protest. So in the UK, people can be detained in the open air without human rights for hours on end without charge; at the same time, there no automatic right to freedom of protest.
That's just worth remembering what Syrians are dying for: the same rights that the UK took away. Hypocrisy? Who would have thought it?

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