What Is Morality?


2013-03-17 – The right wing has realized a weakness in its pro-corporate politics: the old argument that free markets will make you more prosperous doesn’t work with the middle class after decades of middle-class stagnation and increasing inequality between the middle-class and the infinite rich.

So they are ramping up a new argument: capitalism is dictated by simple morality. And they have a raft of books and position papers coming out to make the case. So, even if you aren’t doing well under the current free-market regime, you should take comfort that it is the moral thing. Presumably, God approves.

The problem with this (fallback) position is that it has a particularly odd view of what morality is. You and I understand this, but the intellectual muscle of the Republican Party apparently does not.

Let me prove it to you. I’m going to give you several pairs of statements. As you read them, pick one from each pair that seems to be a moral-type statement. The other one is not.

  • It is good to eat whenever you want.
  • Eat until you are satisfied, but then control yourself.
  • When you see an attractive person, have sex with them.
  • Don’t have sex with an attractive person until you are committed to them.
  • If you see a cool toy, it’s yours.
  • You have to pay for it.
  • If someone gets in your way, kill them.
  • If someone gets in your way, turn the other cheek.

It’s not a hard test. The first of each pair tells you “if it feels good, do it.” The second expresses limits. The second of each pair is a moral-type rule. (By the way, I say moral-type rather than moral. I’m not debating individual moral rules here.)

If you don’t believe this, look it up in the Bible. With rare exception, moral rules put the brakes on our natural urges. They don’t tell us to speed them up.

This is not to say that natural urges are bad. It is only to say that natural urges can go too far. It is the nature of moral regulation to rein that in. Some moral schemes are more limiting than others, but they all express limitation to some degree.

So now comes the right wing to turn this upside down. They no longer see the tension between the creative urges of the “job creators” and the damage caused by their rampages. Morality, according to them says take, take, take and never have to say you’re sorry.

Well, I’m sorry. I don’t buy it.

And I believe in free markets and capitalism. But not as a sham front for theft and mayhem. Regulation is the nature of morality. You can debate how much or how little. But prohibitions against theft and fraud and murder might be a good place to start. This kind of framework used to be okay for a wide range of political beliefs. Republicans as well as Democrats could agree on this. But some Republicans now find this too constraining.

There is plenty of room for people to pursue their dreams, even when morality puts the brakes on. But our right wing only talks about people pursuing dreams. But the only dreams they respect are the dreams of their puppet masters.

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