Public Morality

Subject: Public Morality
Date: Thu 22 Apr 1999 - 16:59:11 BST

We are a country without a moral center, according to Barbara Walters. I
think she's right, though I don't blame it on the president or the
internet/other media.

We are a country on a path towards a secular, biological creation myth. As
much as there is a rebirth of spirituality, there is a decline in religion,
shared belief structures that inform our moral choices. There is great
polarization between those who believe in a religious, God-based moral
structure, usually at the expense of other moral structures, and those who
believe that a sense of public morality based in religious belief is
dangerous and insidious.

Communities share interests, economic and safety interests.
Races share bloodlines and heritage.
Tribes share belief structures.

In a world where humans aren't very transient, most villages or bands of
people shared all three of these traits: place, ethnicity and religion.
Today, though, we tend to share less and less with the people around us other
than what lies on the surface. The deeper we go, the more separate we feel,
which is different from the past, when diving deep revealed connections.

Talking about religion and morality can be terrifying today. We fear that
gives license for other people to try to impose their religion and morality
on us. We fear that our own freedom will be curtailed by a moral standard
that is held in culture. Many of us have come to a place where God is a
private, secret thing, one it is politically incorrect to discuss around
others who might be challenged by our beliefs. We believe it is reasonable
to ask people not to talk about their own standards of morality that might
make others uncomfortable because they don't hold to them.

Much of this is rooted in the illness model of behavior, such as can be seen
in the recovery movement. We have moved from believing that bad choices are
a lack of self-discipline, a moral failure to where those choices are just
evidence of a way a person is, either because of genetic predisposition or
environmental factors. To challenge a persons choices on moral grounds is to
be less than compassionate, to hold them accountable for their failings is to
not understand their deep inner problems. "It's rude to make someone feel
bad about their actions, because they can't help it, so just be quiet about
your morality -- who gave you any right to make judgments, anyway?"

The problem is, though, that when there is no public standards of moral
behavior, bad things happen. Children get more lost, don't get corrected
when they make little mistakes and go on to make bigger ones.

Rachel Pollack has long suggested that transgendered people take the moral
high ground, not letting fundamentalists cast us as degenerate. To do that,
though, we have to have some sense of public morality, some core of what is
right and wrong, we have to follow those beliefs, and pass them on to the

One of the most immoral things one can do to another person, in my belief, is
erase them by not listening to them and instead projecting an image of what
we believe they are onto them. When don't take the time to find out what
others mean about themselves, even if those meanings challenge our own
rationalizations and identity props, we injure another and hurt our society,
because people who feel stunted in expression act out.

This leads directly to a responsibility to achieve healing in our own lives,
so we don't act out in immoral ways when our own pain is triggered. As Maya
Angelou said, "It stops with me." When we are part of the chain of
projection, suppression and pain, we keep that spiral growing.

Is the problem the availability of objects in today's culture, be those
objects guns, bomb plans, or films about killers, or is the problem the lack
of moral fibre that allows us to use those objects to act in ways that
dehumanize others? We live in society where the availability of things, both
data and physical is going to keep increasing exponentially. Should we work
to put limits the things or on the people who use them?

Laws are never the first line of defense against the actions of people, but
rather the last. The first is, and must always be, a healthy sense of
morality that extends from a healthy sense of self, that helps people act in
good, healthy, positive and caring ways towards others. For most of human
history, this healthy morality has been vested in an omniscient god or gods
who control the afterlife, be that though reincarnation & karma, hell, or any
other technique. Moral truism has been vested in God.

Can we build a good sense of individual morality without a sense of public
morality, a morality that accepts the messiness of humans, but allows them to
change and grow? Can we have a sense of public morality if we believe that
its somehow improper and inappropriate to be moral in public, to express our
own religious beliefs?

There is no doubt that religious beliefs have allowed bad things to happen in
the world. The question is, however, is there any indication at all that a
world without shared, public religious beliefs about morality will somehow
allow good things to happen.



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