Friday, November 13, 2009

Morality bug

The flu bug got me before I could take the annual visit to my doctor for my inoculation, grounding me for almost a week of bed rest. Lying listlessly on bed while enduring the dull pain that was shooting every bone in my body, I was just thankful it wasn’t the H1N1 flu virus.

It was there on the bed in the middle of a crazy afternoon as I was trying to get some sleep, that another bug, not related to the pandemic one that has kept health authorities worldwide on alert, hit me right on the head. This was the moralizing or morality bug. The question that looms big in my shrinking mind, possibly an effect of the flu, was why people enjoy moralizing.

Perhaps, some psychological need must be satisfied when we speak to others about our knowledge or sense of right and wrong. We like our world view to be validated, and at same time to enjoy the experience of wielding power over others. We like to impose upon others our view of how they should live and behave. If we are able to convince others we are right when we moralize, perhaps we even feel some thrill at having been right or powerful.

This is what moralizers do, to go beyond telling others what is acceptable behaviour. They want others to conform to their views, and usually, they bring this about by coercion, which could range from social disapproval to legal control.

Professor A. C. Grayling, in The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life, wrote: “in forcing others to comply with their preferences they show at least several of the following: insensitivity, intolerance, unkindness, lack of imagination, failure of sympathy, absence of understanding, ignorance of alternative interests and needs in human experience, and arrogance in believing that theirs is the only acceptable way. They defend their actions by saying that they are trying to defend others from harm, thereby claiming not only a monopoly on moral judgment, but the right to decide on others’ behalf what is good for them.”

This moralizing bug has deeply troubled my thinking, already befuddled by the flu bug, as I followed an unexpected crisis in an organization that I belong to. An exclusive organization, one must be a graduate of the school its members went to or according to the Rule 60. The Rule 60 stipulates that one must at least earn 60 units of courses, roughly equivalent to two years, to qualify as a member. It is a rule that has been followed by the organization for over 30 years.

Then the almost impossible happened. Someone was able to join the organization by not making a full and honest disclosure of his credentials. Whether he complied with Rule 60 became the focal point of the controversy.

As first, he claimed he had a bachelor’s degree, a full scholarship in economics, and that NATO lost his original diploma which he sent to them for consideration. When he was about to be exposed, he confessed, admitting that he never had a degree from the school and only spent a year there studying as a scholar. But that was not enough to muster Rule 60.

Without reservations, his ardent army of supporters ditched the reason or purpose of the organization by arguing that there is much more to the organization than a diploma or 60 units. One member even said: “A diploma is an important piece of paper. But you don’t loose (sic) your credentials when you loose (sic) it. Honesty and integrity and the university spirit make us true and qualified members of the organization.”

Doesn’t he get it? This person lied about his credentials, pretended he was a graduate and then only confessed when the heavy weight of unmasking was about to fall down on him.

What university spirit? This is learned and imbibed on the grounds of the school when we were youngsters in pursuit of higher education. Without that existential experience, any moral claim of embracing the university spirit is empty and disingenuous. Oscar Wilde once said that "a man who moralizes is usually a hypocrite."

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that morality involves judgments that conform to a law of reason. But these moralizers in my organization have no shred of reason in their didactic arguments.

Consider, for example, what the elected members of council of my organization tried to accomplish in order to get around Rule 60. The council passed a grandfathering resolution to exempt the aforementioned non-graduate (or pretender, if you may). This is debunking the correct interpretation of what grandfathering is. There is grandfathering when one is exempted from the new rule because the old rule still applies to him. But the old rule does not apply to him, so why do you need to grandfather him? The net result of the grandfather resolution by the organization’s council is an entirely new rule adopted in order to accommodate the non-graduate, an effect normally achieved through a process of amending the organization’s rules. Based on their moral judgment, there is no violation of the rules, thus the resolutions adopted would only strengthen the constitution (rules) of the organization.

Making moral judgments is as human as sleeping and eating. We reason about values and make value judgments. But moral judgments, to differentiate it from moralizing, require the best of our intellects, and sometimes, the best of our hearts, too.

The moral values of people differ from others on a range of issues. But that should not make us less enthusiastic about moral engagement.

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