Humanity’s Greatest Need: A Secular Morality
©2020 by Vernon Miles Kerr, VernonMilesKerr.com, WritersClass.net
Today’s world is a world of deception. Politicians promise to bring Utopia if elected, fully knowing they cannot deliver. Once in office, they lie, pull dirty tricks or just vegetate — collecting a handsome salary and selling power and access to the highest bidder. Does this sound cynical? Does it sound like I am referring to one politician or one party? I am not. While one party’s leader deals fast and loose with the truth, the other party’s “respected” potential leaders are stretching the truth to the breaking point, with false claims of ethnic minority and blue-collar-ness, or moral superiority. Some few people might say, “Oh this is just politics, part of the game.” But most people are disturbed and made to feel vulnerable by such “gaming.” This lack of predictability — in something as important as the question of who rules you — is unsettling.
And politics is not the only aspect of daily life in which we, the people, feel vulnerable. Is it paranoid to think that someone, somewhere is tracking your every move, via the tell-tale signals sent from your mobile phone? It’s being done, and it’s being demonstrated graphically on cable news every evening. Moreover, it’s not paranoia to think that someone, somewhere could be gaining access to your life savings or retirement account. It’s not paranoia to think that local criminals could, at this very moment, be plotting to break into your home— whether you are there or not.
No matter how remote your risk of being personally affected by any of the above dangers, they are all happening to someone, somewhere, as you read this.
In the business world, lack of predictability is so counter-productive that inducing a contract using fraud or deception has been labeled a crime. It has been a crime in English Common Law — which we in America inherited — for more than a thousand years. The legal maxim “stare decisis” which describes the Common Law’s reverence for precedence — though sometimes frustrating — evolved to give the Law some of that comforting and productive “predictability.”
Beyond worrying about these immediate dangers, from our fellow citizens’ widespread lack of trustworthiness — aided by dangerous new computer-driven tools of criminality — there is a very real danger of governments using technology in the future, taking away our personal freedoms. In the present Coronavirus pandemic, one formerly-democratic country, Hungary has already declared fascistic “emergency” powers, arguing that they are “needed” to handle spread of the disease. Could America be slowly sliding into something similar? Can a “foothold” of dictatorial power, even though limited to the fighting of a pandemic, be widened to include non-health-related areas?
We, in America, even with all the news of double-dealing in our leaders, tend to think that our country is basically too noble to engage in “Big Brother” practices for political purposes. But a country is only as noble as the degree of nobility the citizens demand from its leaders. The actions of our American political leaders on both sides of the aisle, over the past several years, are not noble: they are crude, rude, disingenuous and self-promoting. Sadly, there are people in the constituencies of both parties who laugh at such tactics, who minimize and justify them because they are turned against their own “enemies” — to their own perceived political or economic advantage. Nobility is diminished by their acquiescence, while the danger of computerized big-brother-ism is expanded.
During my childhood in the mid-twentieth century, our home was devoid of religion, due to both our parents’ having randomly experienced unrelated childhood trauma as a result of protestantism. My father, as a 16 year-old was driven from a small farm in the midst of the Great Depression for impregnating a girl friend. I think this expulsion was my pious grandfather’s idea of demonstrating his “righteousness” to the parishioners of their small rural church. This disowning of my father, along with the sin and shame he had brought upon the family, seemed to be my grandfather’s way of disavowing responsibility. So, my teenaged father rode the top of railroad boxcars for several years, just trying to survive.
My mother’s father, a deacon in another denomination, left the church because of disgust with the denomination’s attitude toward the then-latest discoveries about geology and evolution. Mother’s trauma from the family’s leaving the church was heightened by her embarrassment from my grandfather’s notorious publishing of letters to the editor of their large city’s newspaper about the church’s backward-looking stance.
When I say our home was devoid of religion, I don’t mean to say it was devoid of morality. Both mother and father took any opportunity to make a moral lesson out of family events and/or conflicts. But these lessons lacked any reference to Biblical authority. Things were described as merely, “right” or “not right,”, without reference to any authority other than its inherent rightness or wrongness. The Golden Rule was the gold standard, the golden ruler by which all other moral questions were measured. Stealing was wrong because, “How would you feel if someone stole your favorite toy?” No imagination was required to vicariously experience being beaten, or worse—or having been lied to by a friend. Battery, murder and lying were just, “not right,” no other explanation necessary.
Most religions teach some kind of morality; and obeying that morality is a prerequisite to receiving the benefits, and avoiding the punishments, of that tradition. The trouble with morality that is based upon reward and punishment is that it has never effectively produced a peaceful worry-fee society. Back when Church and State were one, crime still existed. Even in modern authoritarian regimes, where morality is dictated by the state and strictly backed-up with corporal or capital punishment, crime still exists. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and even modern Singapore are good examples. Perhaps it’s human nature to think “I won’t get caught,” or perhaps crime is a satisfying form of rebellion against perceived overbearing Church or State authorities. Regardless— humans cannot be forced into moral behavior. Such behavior has to come from the heart, a heart convicted of the inherent rightness or wrongness of any action that affects one other human being, outside of self. More broadly, such heartfelt morality also goes toward creating a sense that a morally wrong action detracts from the overall quality of one’s society as well. I believe the totally secular moral teachings provided by my irreligious parents accomplished such a heart in myself and my two brothers.
I can’t imagine myself, or either of them, pilfering supplies from our employers, cheating on income tax or even deliberately tossing a piece of litter from a moving car ( at least without some feeling of guilt.) The three of us are more likely to pick up litter found during a morning walk and deposit it in our own trash can on returning home. I know that what I describe sounds like a from of “self-righteousness,” but in my own case I know that is not the motivation: I simply feel crumby, and dirty, if I violate my own heartfelt and inculcated morality. How can I complain about overall society if I don’t live the society I desire?
But can a secular, non-religious, form of morality become widespread—one that offends no religion, no political party, no entrenched group of academic amoralists? In today’s American public school, teaching morality based upon “right and wrong” is tabu, for many reasons; stepping on the toes of parental religious-teaching being one of them, and the teaching-professions’ indoctrination into situation-based ethics is another.
But let’s just fantasize about a world where 99.9% of people were pledged to one secular moral code. Police forces would only have to deal with the amoral 0.1%, making law enforcement much easier and making the perpetrators’ acts more visible and subject to public-shaming. Retailers would no longer need to take so many anti-theft measures, with expensive security systems. They could abandon the recently-seen practice of keeping razor blades, cigarettes and other high-value products behind locked glass doors. Children would once more be able to play outside, or explore hometowns without fear of abduction. The reader is encouraged to meditate and add more to this list.
In my recent blog posting on The Golden Rule, I offered that maxim’s words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” not as an end-all, nor a panacea, but more as a template upon which people of good-faith could begin to build a consensus. I think the conclusion to that essay is appropriate for this one as well:
” … does your heart ache for a “fair country”, a “fair world”? If most people followed The Golden Rule, we would have that. Do you try to follow it? Do you cheat, occasionally? Your cheating belies your complete commitment to Peace on Earth.