The moral realm can be defined as that area where we determine not only what is but what human action ought to be. It is also notable for being perhaps the only part of human life in which we are able to weigh the options and use our free will to make a decision. Aesthetics are more connected to the subconscious; our choice of mate or food or residence could come from predetermined nature, but when we are faced with doing the right thing we have the opportunity to step away from all “inputs,” from all immediate causes, and weigh the matter within ourselves. That there is, at that moment, a correct decision and an incorrect one, and that we are held responsible for the one we choose, and that the choice is truly a free one uncaused by anything other than our own souls, are all fundamental to the notion of divine reward and punishment so central to religion.
However, as in so many other areas, clarity is much harder to find in our times. The very proposition that there is a “correct” decision is of course famously under assault from “moral relativism,” whatever that is; our responsibility in the matter is downplayed by most social theories; those, in turn, are based on a materialist understanding of human beings which does not allow for an “uncaused decision” in what is a more-or-less deterministic universe.
These views on the nature of man and the world that stand against the traditional understanding of morality are made more mysterious by the fact that they do not truly exist. Moral relativism is the somewhat murky general stance that in any question of right or wrong everything is equal from different perspectives. It is unclear whether anyone has actually ever held moral relativism as an actual position, as it seems we’d be hard-pressed to find a person who never judges anyone morally, or who is always willing to see the position of others as correct from a different point of view. Similarly, the social theories that blame, say, the choices of the young latino who robs a convenience store on his position in society, government policies, the hatred of others toward him, etc. seem less inclined to extend the same social theories to the young white racist who hates Latinos, and vice versa; taken to its (truly, at this point, farcical) extreme, there are few who’d say Joseph Stalin is as good a person as, say, Vanna White because both merely played the fated part their biology and upbringing laid out for them. And if no one is excusing Stalin on social grounds, neither are they excusing him on biological ones, despite the fact that his neurons obey the same unchanging and inexorable laws of nature that Vanna’s do and it would be easy to argue he was fulfilling more evolutionary imperatives by opening gulags than she is by revealing game show solutions.
Yet somehow, despite these strange internal contradictions and a seeming desire across the board to at least pay lip service to the old morality, somehow it always comes up from some angle that the action in question is not the fault of the individual. There’s always someone who says, “You know, I’m all for being moral, but if you had been alive during the time of slavery, you probably would have been for it!” I think that the real thrust of the argument is sometimes lost in the fact that it’s true; I agree at once that this point is true whereas its application is false. If we would have been slaveholders in antebellum Georgia, the question then becomes, “So what does it mean to be personally moral within you time?” After all, we will all be sitting under our vineyards one day after the coming of the messiah and telling each other we, too, would have sinned if only we had lived in the dark times when G-d’s presence did not shine in all of reality, and then, too, what we would mean is somehow that there is no morality rather than morality is complicated and must be discussed in context.
It is hard to believe that such questions are merely intended to further moral investigation when the follow-up is almost always some matter of practical concern. It is obvious to many of us who read literature or study history or even mull over in the dark the mysteries of our own fate that the moral question is the question of human existence, and so it is equally obvious when no one around us cares about it. How could it be that something so central could be so undiscussed?
I blame the near-infinite human capacity for distraction.
You see, the enlightenment (on whose dregs and fumes our society still runs) was a great turning, a decision to put aside all of what is to focus on how best to conquer it. This dogmatic narrowing of focus is what gave us that very mechanistic view of the universe codified by Isaac Newton and applied with astonishing success in technology to master nature; it is what diverted public attention away from the mystery of their own moral souls to questions of governance and politics, which can be used to change the circumstances of society and take certain ethical questions off the table.
And this great turning, in whose wake we are still all caught up, is in decay. When it was young and vigorous and had its bright eyes set firmly on mastery over nature, Hume was able to say clearly that one cannot derive an ought from an is; Newton and Descartes were aware that their mechanistic focus was merely the lowest function of a universe full of G-d and purpose and so were content to deal purely with mechanisms. But now, in 2017, we are far beyond the point when the revolution knew what it wanted and well into the part where chaos descends on the now-godless masses.
This is why the people we know propose more and more medical, political, or scientific solutions to tough moral questions or the time. The “solution” for criminality (and most other things wrong with people) is therapy, which we are meant to pretend is purely a medical solution to mental health problems and not an attempt to apply a moral theory (that always remains undiscussed) to the psyche of the patient. Which therapy is it that does not assign to certain moral actions a certain level of responsibility, a causative explanation, and a course of action one ought to follow? The “solution” to poverty is redistribution or central planning of some sort, which we are meant to pretend is purely an economic solution to material resentments and not an attempt to apply a moral theory (that usually remains undiscussed) to large swathes of citizens. Which form of welfare or entitlement does not directly incentivize certain behavior, altering the sort of moral choices one is open to making? The “solution” to boredom and ennui is the continuous march of technology and the new mission to save mother earth, which we are meant to pretend is obviously the reason we are here and not an attempt to apply a moral theory (which is almost never discussed) to the very definition of humanity. Which TED talk on imagination, or progress, or the cause de jour does not attempt to tell us what we ought to do without asking whether it’s right?
Just as the march of science has hit a wall with the problem of consciousness because consciousness was never a problem it was meant to solve in the first place, so, too, has the march of practical solutions and mastery of human nature come to its last breaths.
We have been working on an assumption that we are here to control nature, and many of us find that the more we control her to the detriment of other pursuits the more empty and adrift and purposeless we feel. But if the true reason we are here is for us to come to grips with our souls and our terrifying ability to choose right and wrong, to devote ourselves selflessly to each other and to God, and to find and participate in the truth, most of the solutions of modernity have simply been a distraction and a delaying tactic.