the new morality: perspectives (pt. 2)

In the last post, I defined the terms “social virtues” and “personal virtues.”

While guarding against a reactionary response that would disregard social virtues altogether, I hope to show why personal virtues deserve renewed attention.

The key insight of the new morality is a crucial one: that in order to treat all people justly, it is imperative to see them, and ourselves, within a vast context of social factors that have been unjustly contrived by history. Without that context in mind, our biases inevitably influence our judgments in ways we’re blind to.

While social virtues can be highly useful in redressing culturally entrenched injustices and creating a welcoming social environment for diverse people, they fail to compose a complete ethical system. We must be careful not to overemphasize them at the expense of personal virtues, for at least three reasons:

  1. Viewing people primarily through the lenses of systems and categories of identity can rob people of their individuality and neglect other aspects of their humanity and personality.
  2. In “real life,” in the constant and mundane interactions between persons, it’s personal virtues that actually improve relationships and promote well-being.
  3. The new morality of social virtue is subject to all the same flaws of any moral system that is imposed on people, including Pharisaicalism and harsh distinctions between law-keepers and law-breakers.

For points 1 and 2, consider the case of my friend, Raven. Among other things, she is a black transgender woman recovering from drug addiction and experiencing chronic homelessness. In terms of systems of oppression, she is socially disadvantaged in nearly every possible way. She is also a Christian believer who loves to sing and make other people smile with funny stories and kindness. According to her, these latter characteristics are at least as important to her sense of self as the former ones, and probably more important. An awareness of social virtues is necessary for me as a white cisgender woman to engage her with utmost respect, informed by the recognition that she has lived her whole life in a social world with little room for her in it. However, this awareness alone is not enough. In fact, it would be an unfair underappreciation of her humanity to view her exclusively through the lens of oppression; in this way I would rob her of her personhood despite my good intentions. To treat her with true justice, my interactions with her must also be characterized by the personal virtues of humility, “brotherly kindness,” good listening, and, ultimately, “agape” love. Love in this sense requires a comprehensive attempt to truly know and understand her, rather than seeing her merely as a matrix point of social injustice.

Consider another case: my friend, Brett. He is a white, straight, middle class male with a college degree. In terms of systems of oppression, in stark contrast to Raven, he is socially advantaged in nearly every possible way. In our cultural context, social virtue almost obligates me to “open his eyes” to the myriad ways the world has positioned him for success. Yet, it is still important for me to approach him with the personal virtues of respect, good listening, and, ultimately, the same “agape” love I have for Raven, because otherwise I rob him of his individuality in the same way I was tempted to rob Raven of hers. Things like his complicated relationship with his father and his aspirations to enter the ministry have to do with who he really is, more so than his lucky social positioning. Again, as with Raven, love here is the personal virtue that requires a comprehensive view of his personhood, beyond his categories of identity, even if I’m opposed to the systems and patterns from which he disproportionately benefits.

Balancing social and personal virtues in this way is admittedly difficult. Focusing exclusively on personal virtues would fail to account for the immense discrepancies between people like Raven and Brett. Personal virtues alone would leave Brett unchallenged in his position of relative ease, and they would leave Raven unaided with the heavy burden of finding a place for herself in a society not built for her. This would be a grave injustice. Yet, social virtues alone eventually rob both individuals of their full humanity by neglecting their personalities, their beliefs, their character, and their choices from discussions of their “identity.” Most real people, especially those untrained by the new morality, view these dimensions of themselves as more central and more inalienable to their personhood than the categories of identity typically highlighted by social virtues. Thus, both types of virtues are necessary for a more well-rounded ethical system.

Perhaps the biggest danger of elevating social virtues at the expense of personal ones is that it lends itself to Pharisaicalism and overly hard lines between “good guys” and “bad guys.” We saw this in the aftermath of the last election, for example. Using social virtues as an absolute standard, progressives drew hard lines between “bad” Trump supporters and “good” Trump critics, ultimately exhibiting the same prejudice and class-based discrimination that they claimed to condemn. This is the downfall inherent in any strict moral system. It creates Pharisees who define the rules of the moral game so that only they and their imitators can win it, and then they punish those who break the rules. In the old morality, the sexually promiscuous were the “bad guys” while those with good families were the “good guys,” even if the prostitutes were generous and the family men were racists. In the new morality, the patriotic conservatives are the “bad guys” while the social activists are the “good guys,” even if the conservatives are kind and the activists are selfish in their private lives. Both the old and new systems focus on a narrow set of moral values that only their architects can police, ultimately to the neglect of other equally important values. Such Pharisaicalism leaves out many well-intentioned people and embitters many others.

To move forward, we must first recognize what social virtues are and what makes them distinctive from competing moral frameworks. This new morality has provided us with vital insights into the patterns of injustice in our society, and many of those insights should be preserved. But, we must also guard against the inherent dangers of any moral system that becomes increasingly condemning and myopic over time. And, we must recover personal virtues as fundamental for individual character development, healthy human relationships, and the ultimate well-being of communities.

the new morality: definitions (pt. 1)

As I and my generation have come of age in the past ten years, we have brought about significant changes in how we define ethics in American society. We’re still in the middle of those changes, and it may be premature to start commenting on them already. Yet, as someone with experience in both of America’s ideological worlds – raised in conservative suburbia, then educated at large public university and now surrounded by urban progressives – it has become important for me to try to understand what is driving the emerging definitions of right and wrong, and to decide where I stand in relation to them, especially as a Christian. I think one of the most paradigmatic changes happening is the shifting of emphasis from personal virtues to social virtues.

In part 1, I’ll try to define these terms. In part 2, I’ll look at some of the dangers brought about by the new morality and argue for a more balanced relationship between the two types of virtue.

By personal virtues I mean moral values that every individual ought to practice, thought of as universal and not considered in light of who the individual is or what part of the world they are interacting with. These are the virtues that religion and philosophy invented: patience, self-control, generosity, kindness. They are what a person has when he or she is a “good person.”

By social virtues I mean moral values that, unlike personal virtues, do not aim at individual character development, but rather at the perfection of social systems. In practice, they depend on who an individual is in the world, and who they’re interacting with, centering around categories of identity including race, sex, class, sexual orientation, gender (non)conformity, geography, politics, religion…etc. The socially virtuous person is the person who acknowledges what we refer to as patriarchy, white privilege, and heteronormativity and who recognizes the harm these cultural systems have inflicted on people in certain identity categories.

In response, the socially virtuous person seeks to reject and replace these systems with the virtues that contemporary academia, and my generation as a whole, invented: using socially sensitive language (such as gender neutral terms and preferred pronouns), creating art and media that challenge identity-based character tropes, honoring those whose identities have been subject to compounded social exclusion, and generally redefining what is considered “praiseworthy” on the basis of who one is and what one has experienced rather than a standardized measurement of “merit.” Underlying this ethical system is the recognition that cultural values (especially in 21st century, multicultural America) don’t arise out of a vacuum, but are imposed by powerful people on less powerful people and are thus loaded with inherent bias. Therefore, creating a more just society involves not only helping less powerful people become “successful,” but also redefining what we think of as success. At least in theory, white-straight-men relinquish their power to define “what matters,” and give it to everyone else to define for themselves. (In practice, I think the new definitions of “what matters” still tend to come from concentrated centers such as academia and popular media, which may be an inescapable feature of any ethical system.)

Because these cultural systems are so pervasive and have such immense explanatory power, discovering them feels like truly understanding the world for the first time. Thus, becoming socially virtuous in this way typically begins with a sort of “conversion story,” e.g. I once was blind to systemic racism but now I see. It also demands continual moral improvement: you start by recognizing economic gender discrepancies, but you later progress into deeper levels of insight into gender performance and masculine fragility. Again, these insights are persuasive and even captivating because of their power to explain “society”: why women aren’t CEOs, why crime is so high in urban black neighborhoods, why white men voted for Trump.

In the next post, I’ll look at what can happen when only social virtues are emphasized and personal ones are lost.

Sexual Ethics

With nothing in the highest, we are gods

unto ourselves; do you know how that will go?

We are a generation without sexual ethics

and it’s been devastating to everyone I know.

 

“Go forth and explore!

Proudly propagate your void, with your friends

and some people who don’t know your shoe size.

Don’t worry about the wonder or the weight of power.

Nothing matters but the element of surprise.

Be unafraid to let it in!

Someone else’s anxious, greedy, steaming cauldron

will not spill as you’re knocking yours into it.

A little stain won’t kill you, and time will wash it out.

The potion smells sweet, so if you want it, brew it.

If it makes you happy!

That’s logic not undone by shame or conscience

or some religious dogma of what gives you humanity.

That’s freedom to be enslaved if you so choose

and every chance to be toy, tool, or commodity.”

 

But in truth we’re neither gods, beasts, nor machines.

We’re merely fragile children with more room to grow.

We are a generation needy for sexual ethics

and the healing it would do in everyone I know.