A Morality that Does Not Make Sense

It’s about being good, we were told, when teachers in the mass media urged us to endorse contraception, casual sex, abortion and samesex marriage; to write Ms instead of Mrs or Miss, first-name everyone and avoid new evil isms with American names. Add these practices of compassion and equality, we were told, to the OK elements of the old European morality and you will be enlightened, liberal, progressive, in short, good people. Such was and is the new hybrid morality that we have been adopting since the 1970s when American left-liberalism spread its wings, imperially, across the West.

Those left-liberal idealists (they were to become neo-liberals and to call themselves plain “liberals”) were animated, like their Russian communist counterparts, by moral disapproval of European civilisation and a vision of its just amendment and replacement. They were also countering with the support of small minorities of citizens —using the mass media, parliaments and supreme courts—the similarly godless and hybrid communist morality that was being imposed on Eastern Europe and evangelising westwards.

The American state and business corporations, mass media included, had noted the profit that could be made from these new rules of behaviour, thought and language. So the new ‘liberal agenda’ obtained their backing, and automatically that of the states and big business of Western Europe. Thus this neo-liberalism (the classical kind that partly shapes the Irish Constitution buried) supplied the ethic of the consumerist decades leading up to the Crash. That same alliance of social idealism with money-making by states and business is trying now, led by the mass media, to revive those halcyon days.

Human beings inherit from their millennia of experience an intuitive ability to assess the presence or absence of sense in the morality—the framework for life—that is prescribed for them by their rulers. This is not a matter of assessing the justice or correctness of the morality. It is an assessment, rather, of the coherence of its rules with each other and with felt human needs and the felt general nature of things. Such coherence is one necessary characteristic for the morality to make sense. Another is suggested by those historical societies that we call ‘civilisations’.

That these perceived and felt sense in their respective moralities is attested by the fact that, unless destroyed by outside force, they lasted for hundreds or more of years. And we note that in each instance—the morality’s coherence being a given – it also had a venerated source, supernatural or human (seer, lawgiver, holy man or the ancestors).

So it seems reasonable to conclude that for a morality to make sense to people as a framework for life, it needs to have both coherence and a venerated source, supernatural or human. If it lacks these characteristics, it presents, rather than a framework that makes sense, senselessness.

The American neo-liberal morality, while advancing over the past 50 years, has lacked those characteristics: coherence by being a hybrid of old and new; a venerated source, quite obviously. And the signs are that those to whom the corrective zeal of the neo-liberal idealists has been principally directed—white Westerners—have been finding, consciously or subconsciously, the resulting life senseless. Most fundamentally, their desire to reproduce such a life has flagged. The white populations of Western Europe face steep falls in the next ten years. Among the ethnic groups in the US, the only fertility rate lower than that of white people is that of the Native Americans.

The plight of the Native Americans is instructive. It mirrors the well-known phenomenon of all so-called ‘primitive tribes’ after European colonisers had made them insert elements of European morality into their systems of moral rules derived from some venerated source. The result for the consequently hybrid system was the absence of such a source and an incoherence that by way of senselessness produced anomie or normlessness: spreading alcoholism, sexual licence, suicides and falling fertility.

Small wonder, then, that the West’s senseless reigning morality has had effects on Westerners similar to those which European colonialism had on those ‘primitive tribes’.

Witness the more sensitive of us, particularly if young, feeling a pain of soul that issues in recurrent attempts to annihilate consciousness: temporarily by binge-drinking or drugs or—at a rising rate in the last 50 years—permanently the sharp-eyed types who, reading the senselessness as normlessness, have grown rich by supplying the drugs or, if bankers, by cutting corners; if statesmen by spying on citizens or if angry by making murder, once a rare occurrence here in Ireland, something that seems to happen every week or fortnight.

In two key respects, the consumerist-liberal morality has been particularly bad for Western women. Since the 1970s the spaces and times in which a woman can move safely alone have been diminishing. Only in the aftermaths of great wars have so many mothers had to rear their children alone.

That a society of human beings faced with senselessness cannot last stands to reason. After a few decades disintegration sets in and ultimately—as the fate of the Russian communist experiment shows -- completes itself. When the West’s turn comes, and signs of it are there, it will be time for Ameropeans to get serious. Indeed, that time is already here and advance thinking about what we will do then is in order. This time round, no anti-human utopia, but—with an eye to how China transits culturally from old to new—a new civilisation. Our European ancestors began to build an enduring one a thousand years ago.