Monday, October 14, 2013

Moralish In America

Is moral bankruptcy on the rise?  I know people have been asking the same question for thousands of years. That doesn't mean the answer is "no."

I'm thinking here especially about self-serving lying and cheating, and especially about my Home Country, the US of A. Maybe it's just that we're paying more attention. Maybe the instances are more outrageous. I don't know. But doesn't it seem there's astonishing amount of really brazen misbehavior in the US these days?

Surely part of the explanation has to do with knowingly evil intent. But I think there's more to it, and I have a theory. OK, let me say right up front that I don't know if this theory is true and I wouldn't know how to test it, and when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail, so maybe my theory says more about my own obsessions than anything else.

But anyway. My theory is that just as truth is being replaced by  "truthiness," the norm of being "moral" is being replaced by a norm of being "moralish." The idea being that morality is a "grey area," where you have to sort of make a lot of fine tuned judgments -- and where if you err on the side of "being too good," you'll be a chump.

Let's look at a little background. For years and years, economists have been telling everyone that the pursuit of self-interest, far from being at odds with virtue, is actually aligned with virtue: when you pursue your own good, in certain particular ways, good things happen. This idea floats around in variants, but I'm guessing a lot of people think that living in a capitalist society means doing what you can for yourself, as long as you're playing by the rules, is not only essential to your own well-being but also good all around.

The problem with this idea isn't that it's false. The problem with this idea is that it sounds simple and universal even though it's actually complicated and limited. So instead of taking it as license to go buy an extra cup of coffee, which would be a correct interpretation, people take it as a license to put fake out Harvard degrees on their resumés, lie about mortgage agreements, and engage in insider trading.

The principle itself is complicated and limited for lots of reasons, but let's just talk about one: what does it mean to play by the rules?

In fact, the production of good consequences from capitalist activity happens only when people tell the truth, refrain from fraud, keep their agreements -- even when doing so isn't directly in their self-interest. So lying and cheating are central forms of NOT playing by the rules, and are not sanctioned by any version of the self-interest principle.

But it's easy and fun, especially when it benefits you, to just sort of forget about that part. Especially when there's no watchdog, or no one's paying attention, and you think you're not going to get caught.

Then you think to yourself that somehow telling the truth, like giving to charity or calling your mother, is somehow Morally Optional. "Oh, yes, I know really GOOD people do those things. But I'm just a regular Joe!"

So then people come to think of the lying and cheating areas of life as sort of grey areas -- even though they're clearly against the rules in some sense, they're part of "morality," and surely anything to do with morality is somehow optional and hazy, right?

And here's the kicker: if you live under conditions of extreme capitalism, you get the feeling that you've got to fine-tune your moralishm just right, because if you're acting "too good," you're losing out. You're a chump. In a society of great inequality and intense suckiness for the socio-economic losers, you cannot let that happen. So there's huge motivation to adjust your moralish grey area commitments -- probably, in a lot of cases, hoping to match those around you.

I picture a lot of people figuring, Hey, if I can talk about it over lunch and the guys think it's cool, then it can't be wrong, can it? 

End result: whole industries full of people completely screwing society and sleeping like babies at night, saying to themselves, "Hey, I'm a moralish kind of guy. You can't blame me!"

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