Tag Archives: morality

A Question of Morality

“She would of been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Flannery O’Connor “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

I’m not religious, not a “believer.” I have a low opinion of organized religion, and am wary of “faith,” especially the unquestioning kind. That said, I believe there is room in this world for spirituality and I can respect it. There are many religious people who are deeply spiritual, and far more who are not. And there are some very spiritual people who do not ascribe to any belief system. It’s pretty complicated.

I function comfortably in a world of believers, a society where people seek out and embrace supernatural explanations for the complexities of their lives, and govern themselves in accordance with ancient rituals that are increasingly difficult to reconcile with the world today. I’m okay with that. I don’t get all frothy when people reject what science has confirmed because it goes against superstitions that have been handed down from thousands of years ago. I’m more troubled when they try to compel others to do the same. Fortunately, I live in a society where that’s pretty hard to do on a large scale, at least overtly.

True, there are small manifestations of religion that fill our culture, but I’m not going to get all bent out of shape if a well-meaning Christian says, “God bless you,” when I sneeze, or wishes me a “Merry Christmas.” I ask only they also don’t get upset if I don’t do so. When they take the equally well-meaning “Happy holidays,” as being somehow an attack on their beliefs, then there’s a problem. But, for the most part, things are fine, and I’m happy to live in a pluralistic society that can be so dominated by one particular faith, yet not become totally repressive.

Where I do get unhappy is in a rather odd place, one that comes of the melding of religion and morality. There exist things like the “Christian Yellow Pages,” where people can seek out businesses run by alleged Christians. The assumption is that a Christian will just innately be moral and ethical and trustworthy. Why? Because he believes in Jesus? More to the point, because he professes a belief in Jesus? Like someone wouldn’t lie about that? Come on, a dishonest person won’t hesitate to say whatever you want to hear. And even if he is Christian, that doesn’t make him innately more moral. Actually, the fact that he’s making such a big show out of being Christian is, as I understand it, antithetical to the actual teachings of Christianity.

But the real problem is the presumption of morality. This goes beyond business practices. Many religious people believe that a believer is more moral than a non-believer. They hold this perspective to the point that they think we need to emphasize religious practice, that we need to put religion back into the schools in order to make our children more moral. Underlying this entire premise is a very nasty assumption: not merely does religion instigate morality, but in fact in the absence of religion, people will not be moral. This is frightening.

When someone says that without religion we will not be moral, it tells me a great deal about that person. Whether or not it’s true that people cannot be moral in the absence of religion, it’s indisputable that he himself is only moral because of his religion. In other words, he only does the right thing because he believes in, and fears, some sort of divine retribution. Take away his faith, and he will become a savage.

People who are only moral because they believe some invisible superbeing is watching and keeping track aren’t moral at all. It’s said that the truest test of character is what we do when we think nobody is watching. If a believer behaves well only under threat from an all-seeing God, it’s not morality, it’s imposed behavior.

That’s why I submit that in fact non-believers are actually more moral than believers. A believer acts a certain way because he believes there is an eternal reward coming for doing so, and certain punishment for not. A non-believer, on the other hand, has no such motivation. He rejects the idea of an afterlife or reincarnation or anything else like that. He understands that this life is all we get, there are no second chances, nothing better waiting for us. When this life is over, that’s it. So he makes this life the best it can be.

And he realizes this is also true for everyone else. He, far more than the most crusading fundamentalist, understands how precious life is, in all its myriad forms. He will hesitate to kill because, unlike the believer who thinks it’s all part of God’s plan and the dead are on their way to paradise, the non-believer knows that killing takes away everything, and it can never be returned. This is why the rampant killing in our entertainments sickens me. Even in fiction, I am heartsick at a life snuffed out. Forever.

Yet our books and movies are full of killing, often done by supposedly good characters who then give no further thought to the monstrosity of what they have done. The victims didn’t matter because they weren’t major characters and, thus, their lives were unimportant. But all lives are important to someone, and a moral person never forgets that, even playing a computer game. In my book, there is death, and it’s always profound, and my characters cannot avoid the psychological consequences and moral implications. Alas, that may well make some people avoid my book, because the last thing they want is for morality to intrude on an exciting story. Not surprising, given the role religion plays in most of their lives.

Religion shields people from having to acknowledge the finality of death. It makes it easer to kill. Why else have so many wars and organized atrocities been done in the name of religion? When our conscience is imposed upon us, we are spared the burden of minding it ourselves. Now, I’m not one who says that if there were no religion, the world would be a better place (sorry Mr. Lennon, but it’s just not true). Human beings have an infinite capacity to be horrible to each other, and without religion, we’d find some other justification. But religion is a particularly good one, because rather than making us moral, it obviates our moral responsibility to each other, and thus frees us to justify the most heinous immorality as “God’s will.”

And I say that as a moral person who does not need to believe in God to be that way.

(ps I know this isn’t the follow-up to my last post as promised. But that’s still coming, so stand by.)

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Equal to What?

WARNING: You are about to encounter content many people may find objectionable. I’m going to go there.

Currently the United States Supreme Court is considering a couple of cases with bearing on the gay marriage issue. There are ongoing rallies and other events across the country to stir up support and let the “will of the people” be heard (whatever that means – it depends, of course, on what your own opinion is).

equal_sign_grunge_rust_posters-rc863c657b59b44ddb125404d2863653c_wvm_216Currently, the pro-gay-marriage side is being more vocal, and, as a result, you may have seen little pink equal signs popping up on social media and elsewhere. There are also some variants, this being one of the more amusing I’ve found:

Nominally, I am supporting the pro-side of the argument, but it’s more a theoretical support. I’m straight (not that that matters in this issue), but I’m also cursed with the ability to see all sides of an issue. I can see some merit to the opposed view, despite that side’s inability to articulate it effectively. Those opposed to gay marriage will frequently use the term “defense of marriage,” which, on the surface, makes little sense. After all, it’s not like anyone will be forced to get gay-married. Nor, as is often claimed, will any church be required to perform gay weddings. Clergymen aren’t obligated to marry anyone now. And if we are really concerned about defending marriage, we should focus on the insanely high incidence of divorce, as well as the trivializing of marriage seen in reality shows and celebrity relationships. That’s a far bigger threat than two men who love each other exchanging vows to commit their lives to each other.

So, obviously, no straight marriages are in any way threatened by legalized gay marriage. But what those making the argument may not even understand themselves is that the real concern is not for any particular marriage, but the institution of marriage itself. Broadening the definition does, in a way, weaken the existing concept. Marriage as it has been understood is a unique bond between a man and a woman, which society recognizes as being special. It is one of the few genuine rites of passages our culture still maintains, and it’s an important one, one of the real determiners that one has crossed over truly into adulthood. We value this, and celebrate when people do it. All the married people at the wedding are sharing in this transition, in the couple joining the club, so to speak, experiencing something they themselves went through once. It’s a binding experience. That’s why many clergymen are very resistant to too much messing around with the ceremony, especially the vows. When the couple are up there reciting their vows, all the married people witnessing are silently recalling and re-reciting their own vows. Why do you think so many babies are born nine months after a big wedding?

Okay, I hear you say, if this is such a special moment, why deny it to others? Why shouldn’t homosexuals enjoy the same special moment? Well, as much as this pains me to note, when you expand the parameters of the club to allow more people to join, it makes membership slightly less special. A selfish, foolish sentiment, I agree, but there it is. That’s why many people who oppose gay marriage raise the question, “Where do we draw the line? What’s to keep someone from marrying his horse?” Yes, that’s an extreme argument, but there’s validity behind it. It’s interesting to me that many people who are vigorously in favor of same-sex marriage are equally vigorous in their objection to polygamy. “Any two people should be allowed to marry!” they say. “What about three?” I ask. “Oh no, no, no, that’s just wrong.” And don’t get me started on their response to, say, child marriage. (Too late; we’ll come to that.). They are all for freedom and equality, right up until it hits their own “ick” threshold. Then all bets are off. Hypocrisy? I don’t know.

So what then do we do? As far as I’m concerned, efforts to defend marriage equality are wasted. Frankly, marriage is an institution that has largely outlived its usefulness. It had its value in the past. For one thing, it legally ensured paternal inheritance. It also served to protect women at a time when they had no rights to speak of and no ability to provide for themselves. Well, we can safely say that modern genetics has made the former concern irrelevant, and women are no longer dependant on men to provide for their needs. Indeed, many noted feminists oppose marriage as an instrument of patriarchal oppression. I won’t weigh in on that.

I’ll just say this: we might want to look beyond marriage at this point. Those who wish to be married may do so, on whatever terms they wish. If they want to make a marriage of three or more, so be it. If they want to set the terms of the marriage to expire in ten years with an option to renew, fine. That actually makes a lot of sense; is any of us really capable of knowing who we want to spend the next seventy years with when we’re only nineteen? A lifetime vow made sense when the average lifetime was forty-five years. Things have changed.

Thus, I am not actually arguing for marriage equality. For me the more important issue is sexual equality, sexual freedom. This most fundamental of biological processes has gotten so tied up by abstract, conflicting moral systems that it’s a wonder we aren’t all insane. Maybe we are. How are your sexual choices anyone else’s concern? If you are religious and believe fornicators are going to burn in hell, then what keeps you from sitting back and letting it happen? That’s God’s job to enforce, not yours. Practice sexuality that you are comfortable with, and leave others to do the same. Bottom line: people should be able to have sex with whomever they want, however they want, whenever they want, wherever they want. Just “don’t scare the horses,” as they used to say. Let’s abandon the old, insulting values that said a sexually active woman is a whore. Let’s stop telling our young girls that “he won’t buy the cow when he’s getting the milk for free.” Do you realize that by saying that, we are telling girls they are livestock, and their sexuality is a commodity to be bartered off to the highest bidder? No wonder our young people are messed up.

As a writer of fiction for teens, in which I proudly include sexual content, I can tell you without reservation that teens know what sex is and they are very, very, very interested in it. When we do nothing but tell them to keep their legs crossed, we deny them their essential humanity and virtually guarantee they will grow up repressed and dysfunctional. Instead we should teach them that their sexuality is normal and healthy, and make sure that they are capable of making reasonable decisions on their own, rather than simply ones we force them to make.

How far do we take this? Here’s where it gets dodgy, because I say this should go as far as it goes. It’s time to reconsider age-of-consent laws. We become sexual beings in our early teens, or younger, even; childhood sexplay is well documented and in the majority of cases studied, the children involved did not find it a harmful experience, but oftentimes a positive one. But teens are then told to spend an entire decade pretending they don’t have those feelings. This is the decade when those feelings are the strongest and most impossible to ignore. And then we wonder why teens are sexting each other.

Now, let me clear I am not advocating for sexual relations between young girls and adult men (the cause of most teen pregnancies, by the way). Far from, although the fact is we are biologically hardwired to be attracted to youth, and there was a time that a girl in her early teens was considered of marriageable age. Let me also point out to all of you saying the very idea is sick, that anyone arguing this issue must be some sort of deviant who should locked up, or just outright killed, that’s what they used to say about homosexuals, back when they were subject to clinical diagnosis as “homophiles” and sent to prison for deviancy. I am not advocating for molestation, nor anything that in any way harms children. But we need to take a closer look at whether or not harm is even involved.

Let’s stop labeling an eighteen-year-old boy a sex offender because he had sex with his seventeen-year-old girlfriend and her daddy freaked out that someone “damaged” his little girl. Let’s stop seeing celibacy as a mark of moral superiority. Let’s acknowledge that maturity does not conform to chronological age, that there are fourteen-year-olds more emotionally and mentally sophisticated than some thirty-year-olds (such as the people who appear on dating reality shows). Let’s question the double standard that calls a female student who had sex with a male teacher a victim of a merciless predator, but a male student who had sex with a female teacher a lucky stud. Let’s ask ourselves whether the trauma a twelve-year-old girl experiences when accusations of molestation surface is because of inappropriate sexual contact, or because afterwards the people who are supposed to protect her were screaming, “What did he do to you???” and making her feel like she did something terribly, terribly wrong that at the time she may actually have thought was kind of nice. Let’s respond proportionally to all these things, uninfluenced by emotional terror and moral outrage.

Let’s remove four millennia of superstition and fear from our sexuality, and instead embrace it. If marriage equality is the next step towards that, so be it. But there’s still a long way to go.

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Flee the Darkness

The news is almost unbelievable: a horrific mass-shooting in a crowded movie theater.  Once again we are forced to take stock of what we believe, what’s really important.  Such occurrences should make us take a close look at ourselves and who we are.  And we will.  But inevitably we will eventually look away.  That’s easier.

The gun-control argument has already begun, with the usual hyperbole from both sides.  One has to wonder why it is so important that people have access to assault weapons.  Yet at the same time, most gun-owners are entirely responsible and as horrified as anyone when something like this happens.  But unrestricted access to guns – or the lack thereof – is neither the cause nor solution to incidents of this sort.  Rather, we should be looking at what it is about us as a society that makes incidents such as this not only likely, but indeed inevitable.

Many have especially mourned the fact that some of the victims were children.  This should raise a couple of questions, but it doesn’t.  This was a midnight premier event, a now-common opening for high-profile action movies.  What were young children doing there?  What were they doing out anywhere at midnight?  There was once a time when children had what was quaintly called a “bedtime.”  That’s a thing of the past, apparently.  But more to the point, what were children doing at any showing of The Dark Knight Rises, a dark, violent thriller?  How is this appropriate entertainment for children?

It is, of course, because children’s entertainment is filled with violence, as is adult entertainment.  It is what we crave.  The more brutal and nihilistic the better.  I could go off again on The Hunger Games and its presentation of the specter of children killing each other for sport.  But that’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Another media event of late, nearly as anticipated as the Batman premier, is the return of the series Breaking Bad, a dark, violent drama about a man’s downward spiral into anarchy and amorality.  It’s just one show of many such.  There’s the immensely popular Dexter, where the main character is a remorseless serial killer.  The Sopranos gave us mobster protagonists killing each other.  The list goes on. 

Such shows are called “edgy,” and we apparently like them because they present a world of moral ambiguity.  But it’s far beyond that.  The morality of these characters is not ambiguous, it’s clear: they aren’t good guys.  Not by any sense of the term.  Even a series like Big Love, which could have gotten all the edginess it could want from the premise of an illegal polygamous family, nevertheless saw a need to include a murderous conflict between family members.  It seems we aren’t really entertained unless people die.  And then we wonder how someone could possibly armor himself, carry weapons into a theater with impunity, and open fire.  How was he not simply living out the sort of things we celebrate in entertainments such as the one that was about to unfold on the screen?

Noted horror writer Steven King has suggested we find pleasure in dark, gruesome scenes because deep down we are all crazy, and violent media is a way to safely feed these urges.  But just because we crave something, that doesn’t mean we should feed those cravings.  Children (and many adults) crave sweets, but we don’t feed our children a diet of candy.  Rather we limit such things, often trying to eliminate them entirely from our diets.  Because we are healthier for it.

Now, I’m not calling for the abolishment of violence in entertainment.  Far from it.  In context, violence can serve great purpose in storytelling.  In my own writing, after some deep soul-searching, I have come to be able to present violent content, but on my terms.  It’s ugly, not enjoyable.  One of my characters can become horrifically violent, and this tragic reality serves a major drive of the story.  I am currently looking as well into revising one of my more violent action sequences, out of which the protagonists currently emerge unscathed, changing it so that a key character receives a grievous injury.  Because that’s reality.  The bad guys don’t always miss, not like in the movies.

But then that’s perhaps the real problem.  It’s not the violence so much as how enthusiastically it’s meted out by hero and villain alike.  Just a few years ago Kick-Ass gave us an eleven-year-old girl who goes though the film stabbing, shooting, decapitating, and burning more people than can be counted, with perhaps the most egregious case being a scene where she gleefully crushes a helpless man in a car compactor, an act for which she is then praised by her father.  And she’s the most beloved character in the film.

I have a young girl, age 11-12, in my novel.  When I started out I vowed that, no matter what, she will never kill.  I also set as my standard that, no matter what happens, no matter how dark or scary the story gets, my four main characters are all basically good people, who love each other very much.  I realized then that it is this love, this bond, that is really what the story is about.  They aren’t going to slide into the abyss of amorality that seems to drive the character arcs in so much of our popular entertainment today.  Any darkness within them will find redemption.

I’m not talking about some sort of vacuous black and white morality.  I’m very much a fan of tough moral questions.  But it should be the search for answers to those questions that drives the characters, and they should naver take “no” for an answer.  There is more than enough violence, darkness, amorality and nihilism in the world; we don’t need it to be central to our entertainment.  This is especially true of children’s entertainment.  They don’t need to see a brutal world that reflects their own, or whatever other arguments the defenders of these works come up with.  Rather, they should be shown something better, something brighter to which they can aspire.  They need heroes.

We all need heroes.  But when heroes become indistinguishable from villains, then we are truly in a dark place.  And we shouldn’t be placing ourselves there.

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