Monday, February 07, 2011

To what extent does the "morality" of behavior depend on choice?

I’m not modest about my own story, as I think I achieved something, with a great deal of irony along the way that makes for a plot comparable to that of any good novel. Specifically, I believe that I played my own unconventional role in the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell,” and this led me, somewhat concentrically, to my own style of journalistic innovation, putting me on the stage of many battles over freedom of expression on the Web today.

But there has to be a point in telling one’s story. It’s new to viewers, and not part of an obvious entertainment franchise. I am motivated, perhaps driven, to explore publicly why at a few critical points of my life, my “freedom” was intruded upon, interfered with. What did others really want from me?  I can look back over decades of teen and adult life and imagine what others would say I should and done and why they would say it, but what does it add up to?  Inductive reasoning is inherently dangerous. It’s not sampling.  What can others really learn, of general nature, to apply to their own situations?

When one says he was put upon or “victimized”, he must be able to characterize what he wanted, to say what he lost.  To say that there was a real “loss” is to presume that his goals had some moral legitimacy.  Right there, one encounters a question (yes, one echoes Mark Zuckerberg’s famous line “Is that a question?”)   To what extent does a person have control over his own goals, and how much of his purpose should be integrated with or mediated by the needs of the group?  (We really find that in the military, don’t we. Les Aspin said so in 1993 when dealing with Bill Clinton’s proposal.)   On the other hand, we have a debate over conscious choice.  The Left, in particular, tends to argue that people are “born” the way they are, as if this eliminated any moral consideration over their actions because there is ultimately no choice. The libertarian position is that Choice is Good, but that one has to account for the outcome of Choice (and that’s a kind of political “Axiom of Choice”).

In 1997, when I published my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book, I accepted “absolute personal responsibility” as a postulated requirement for maximal personal freedom.  That fit well with libertarian-oriented reporters (John Stossel) and politicians and businessmen (Steve Forbes and now Donald Trump), and with a certain kind of objectivism, even traceable to Ayn Rand, that sit well with some parts of the modern gay community (such as Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty).  It even made it into Southpark (“Big gay Al”).  In time, as I lived past 9/11, my own layoffs, and then an eldercare situation, I certainly came to question the limits of individualism, particularly its “sustainability”.

Nevertheless, anyone forms a set of goals and expectations that have legitimacy at some level in the personality. If those are taken away or compromised by others, there is a problem. And it is particularly an issue for those of us who are "different" and that others perceive us as cheating or gaming their system.

My goals had a lot to do with individualized self-expression, which had grown in music, and spread to other areas (writing) and which also intermixed with my interpersonal “needs”.   When all is said and done, I’m struck by the idea of a “social contract”, which would stipulate the rights and responsibilities of individuals as members of their families and larger community and social groups, outside of what is normally “measured” by a fiat market economy.  Starting sometime in the 1960s, there developed an increase in the expectation of individual rights – call it “individual sovereignty” or “personal autonomy”, centered around the idea of “private choices”.  Since about 2000, particularly since 9/11 (and also since other catastrophes like the financial bust in 2008), I’ve sensed a backpedaling from this trend, a sliding back toward what had been older social norms, as in the 1950s, with which many of today’s young adults (the disco crowd) are not very familiar.  
In considering what a go-forward “social contract” might look like, I’m struck by a few major points:

First, many people have a need to see their own belief systems ratified by the behavior of others. This is particularly true of religious fundamentalism (in any faith, not just radical Islam or the extreme religious Right in our country). They feel  that if others are allowed freedoms denied them, their own lives and personal commitments lose the meaning necessary for sustainability.  This observation bears on the durability of traditional marriage.

Second, many people do benefit from the unseen sacrifices of others, both in previous and current generations.  “Fairness” (or “absolute justice”) ideology sometimes demands the forced sharing of risk, sacrifice and hardship, as with the military draft in our own history, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s when carried to logical extremes by Chairman Mao.  Today, the concern can show up in calls for mandatory national service.

Third, we’re faced with concerns about “sustainability” that earlier generations never encountered. A lot of this has to deal with the environment and climate change, more of it has to do with debt, but the most striking part has to do with population demographics.  Sometime in the 70s or 80s, it had become customary to think of having children as a completely private choice, morally significant only in that one had to follow through with that choice when made (support one’s own children, preferably in marriage).  But now we have a burgeoning elderly population needing care from those with little such interpersonal experience. In general, it’s no longer morally acceptable for someone to maintain that he won’t know what’s wrong after he (or she) has passed away.  Everyone should have a stake (or experience being a "stakeholder") in what will follow his or her life, before complaining or being heard from.  We can call the new concern “generativity”.

And Fourth, we have a Fundamental Problem about just how separate we should see or experiences ourselves as.  Sometimes the goals of others in our communities and our families are just more encompassing and “real” than those of our own.

This comes back to what “happened to me.”  Is it about my sexual orientation?  It sounds like that’s a “No” because the music seemed to appear first in my life as an issue. But there’s no question that my own expressive goals and intertwined  (in areas of subsumed or imputed meaning) with what “properties” of others “turn me on” and, just as significantly, repel me or drive me away.  Sometimes I have been called aspie, or schizoid, and others accuse me of running from “real life” to a world of quasi-narcissistic fantasy.  There’s no question that some of the worst of the incidents in college years had to do with the desire of others to see me open to having a family and the same responsibilities that they had (but not exactly by “choice”).

All of this suggests a “chicken and egg” problem.  When does a responsibility for “faithfulness” start? Is it when one “chooses” to have intercourse, and “risk” having a child or intentionally have one?  A better question seems to be, where to “responsibility for others” (not just self) start?  Sustainability concerns seem to take this beyond the narrow idea of choice. It’s more that everyone has a moral responsibility to meet the real needs of other people, and be open to some level of connection from or with them, and to develop the skillset necessary to support sociability, even at some loss to one's own purposes. Parents have the right and responsibility to impart this on children. Indeed, family cohesion transcends choice; not only is this obvious now with eldercare, but it appears in other scenarios like those in movies like “Raising Helen”. Parents expect siblings to back each other up, even though sibling relationships don’t occur from one’s own choice, but from the choices of one’s own parents. This argues for social structure (familial and political), and in the past it was leadership that resolved political issues; today much more of that resolution capability rests with individuals (which relates to the journalistic innovation that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece). That added individual capacity (“free entry”) is at some risk today, and that concerns me because social and family structures are always vulnerable to corruption otherwise, leading to the moral and political problems for familiar to us from the past (including racism and tribalism).

In my own history, “upward affiliation” rears up as a moral issue.  It was good to like or love people who seem “good”, but that raises the old problem of “the knowledge of good and evil.”  Logical consistency means that one retreats or avoids people who are not “good”.  But yet, almost every religious tradition has to deal with complementarity, that people back up one another and that everyone has need.  (Vatican anti-gay teachings rest on this point.)   Christian theology of Grace seems to play with moral “double standards” and that has always perturbed me.   In fact, it seems to me in the Christian world it would logically be very hard to predicate one’s well  being on what others do, but that is how the “Religious Right” seems to behave.  

I’m struck by how the Internet age (and the new openness and sharing – the Facebook Effect) has magnified “upward affiliation” which used to be protected by narrower and older versions of privacy as they had developed in the 1970s.  Now it seems as though this psychological process raises real existential questions about one’s intent, particularly when one is challenged by others (as in eldercare or other situations of “need”) to become more emotionally receptive, and be willing to step in and function as a role model, regardless of choice.  To refuse to do so when implored now gets taken as hostility; benign neutrality no longer plays. After all, "upward affiliation" wouldn't develop in someone who had been able to perform "in the community" according to all required social norms.  "Democracy" gets linked to complementarity and a "love everybody" system of values.  This is what I had to deal with during the last months of my own mother’s life.

(See also the "Bill retires" blog Feb. 9 for coordinated post.)

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