Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Moral damages – ideological, technological and collateral

Moral damages – ideological, technological and collateral

Torrey Orton

September 29, 2009

We live in times marked by broad spectrum pleas for improved behaviour on the field, off the field and on the streets, and in the clubs and schools and corporate offices and government cellars and chambers…just about everywhere it seems the moral infrastructure is fracturing if not already collapsed. Almost daily we can find bullying at all levels of life, greed in a multitude of guises (M. Kloppers' salary doubling as BHP canned a mine in WA), deceptions and dissimulations across political (Victoria's north/south pipeline, the PPP in transport, etc.), social (the mateship pretence) and economic ("too big to fail") spectra, legal and illegal inebriations, violences against children, students, refugees and stray night drinkers, with an increasing array of weapons and injuries.

Many of the proposals for ameliorating (seldom eradicating) these behaviours are mono-factorial or mono-level – e.g. get rid of booze; punish without exception (3 strikes, mandatory sentencing, etc.). Almost never systemic or long term systematic initiatives. More just efforts to appear to have something "in place" than to make something happen (a difference, forefend?). The nice thing about having something "in place" is that later its place can be changed when the heat and light have gone out of today's issue(s). Distribution of police resources comes to mind. This tactic fails repeatedly in healthcare.

The behaviour decline is the signal of a moral* decline. It ranges from loss of civility to loss of life at the hands of the incompetent or malcontent. And, it's not only happening here. Similar tales come from the US and UK. Now, maybe moral decline is a periodic and certainly returning variable in the movement of history. Periods of moral decline mark the passage to new social forms and preferences, often giving rise to great innovations in all manner of human endeavours. The emergence of the three monotheisms occurred in periods of historic decline in the public moral and socio-economic fabrics in their foundational days. Christianity and Islam cannot be understood without the context of their arrival in clear view. Decline also involves substantial loss of values and systems. It happens at a pace and level that escapes the notice of the 1-3 year policy cycle. Values** and systems have century cycles at the least. Three generations or more.

My moral stake
I am attached to some aspects of the declining moral system of our times, so I treat them as important to the long-term course of human activity. Perhaps I over-endow them and, in doing so, give myself an elevated ethical platform of notionally objective origin and construction. From that platform I look out (I hope not down but probably somewhat so) on our present and near futures. This position has no special place in world history or local affairs but without taking it I have nowhere firm to stand and vertiginous psycho-spiritual confusion assails me.

My approach will be to explore certain irritating to outraging issues of our times in this place – Australia – with the awareness they have some degree(s) of application throughout the Anglosphere, and maybe all human places in their aspects touched by modernity. Pretty likely signs of decline appear already in economic hot spots like China and India.

We are subject to two systemic sources of moral damage in Australia – the ideological and the technological. The two prime impacts of the ideological on public goods are in education and health where public monies support private institutions. They come in two forms: degradation of personal morality and degradation of the public infrastructure of all morality.

The technological arises from advances in science which promise release from core conditions of life – namely those which distinguish us from the dead like youthful essences, Botox, etc. – and promise extension of our domain over the place we inhabit. The latter include "progress" in living conditions ranging from air conditioning to new materials to more travel…in short more of most essentials under the guise of musthave discretionary add-ons (home entertainment packages, rear facing safety TV in cars – "lifestyle").

Upward entitlement creep

The ideological appears as a kind of upward creep of unevenly distributed entitlements, only available to those who can pay for cosmetics by scalpel or injection and for extraordinary developmental opportunities for their offspring. Unfortunately they also creep upwards in the life-death stakes. A recent example is the recession of life sustaining capability to save premature. 24 weeks is now set as lowest limit for application of life-saving services. One wonders about the scientific decision which says the 23 week-olds are not viable enough for resuscitation. I'm waiting for some outraged, outside the guidelines, preemie parents to sue for discrimination, backed by a squad of co-litigants wanting to test retroactivity potentials for themselves?!!

So, from this end of the life stage universe there is pressure to extend the perception of rights to certain treatments, opportunities, etc. Where a right is perceived a felt obligation to meet it is near at hand but disputable. The public/private education sector offers the loudest example of this trend. In Victoria, at least, there is a political argument (almost completely eclipsed by entitlement thinking of the well or better to do) which privileges private right to public money for what otherwise is a discretionary expenditure – the private education of children. But people don't know that anymore. Same thing in health with subventions of private insurance to improve the performance of public services without regard to capacity to pay – i.e. unmeans-tested! Here goes the public infrastructure of morality…

It's also worth remembering that a huge quantity and spread of subventions goes to corporates in the form of industry assistance programs (without which cars, for example, would be made only off shore perhaps) and guarantees like the bank deposit guarantees and cash infusions of the GFC response program. We know in other places where things have been similar to ours (eg. The US and UK) "too big to fail" has guaranteed the survival of the really big to the detriment of the small. And, self-regulation is emerging as a childish fantasy encouraged by the unregulated to the uninitiated – you and me. The struggle over emissions trading compensation occurs in the same moral space, defined by privilege and precedence rather than right and need.

PC in the dessicated heart of morality
Political Correctness, propelled by the ideology of niceness, includes encomia like 'do no harm, whatever you do'. I have suggested before that this is a recipe for repression of emerging needs and insights. It is more than an inconvenience that my or your needs at any specific time may not be equally achievable. Negotiation of who gets theirs first and who second may be necessary. If the needs cannot be asserted (because assertion offers the prospect of doing harm since it presumes some possibility that I come before you, even if not necessarily so in fact) they cannot be addressed or even acknowledged. But they do not disappear if still felt to be real by their owners. This is the passive aggressive cycle's circulating mechanism. A social system, not merely one of personality or family.

A sibling of 'do no harm' is 'experience no pain' which sustains the curriculum of self-esteem. It escalates even to the highest levels as in Melbourne University's motto "Growing Esteem", one of the launch pads for the new training university. It's mundane expressions are signs like the roadside warnings that "limbs may fall" and "overhanging limbs" (may who knows what?) and, where the sheer rock wall on one side of the road makes likely for anyone to guess, "rocks may fall" or "beware fallen rocks". This is the public edge of the private aspiration that life should never be a challenge in which pain – physical or psychological – occurs. And if challenged, a damages litigation team will pop up to assist your defence of your right to painless passages.

It's all relative (so, is there no truth?)
The moral system of 'do no damage' sits on assumptions that both facts and values are relative, This is foolish in some respects, since the claim of relativity itself assumes it is true in an important sense – that is, to know it and accept it is to live a different world of action. Such differences include the capacity to entertain and embrace in varying degrees the cultures of others, to engage the probability that another's action has understandable motivations which one cannot now understand, etc. This constitutes the basis for an ethics of knowing or understanding which underpins, for example, the rejection of the death penalty, but also the endorsement of the right to die (because experienced by the patient as unbearable for reasons of their own ((most of which could be understood by others if they came out from under their rigidly configured ethical umbrellas)). These are conflicting truths about which much struggle occurs. And, in brief, there are other truths established by our action choices / habits which are recognised by people's adherence to the appropriate systems of action.

On the fundamentalising of the moral context – collateral damages 1
A recent feature in public discourses is the audible intensification of the voices of extremity. This is a nice term for this progress since it recalls that all voices belong to some greater body, which is why no group, no matter how virtuous, can acknowledge publically the destructive parts of itself. The great religions, for one, carry deeply destructive parts (sects of various sorts) whose aim is total dominion in the name of the God(s) of the whole. Similar dynamics inhabit footy teams, businesses, ethnic groups …more or less any group of humans.

Lesser extremities are the one-eyed speakers for minority positions in all core systems – health, education, transport, finance… - who carry on with a ferocity which is not the style of the bulk of the population. This can be seen increasingly in politics as well. Out of this come absolutisms of all sorts, trouped up with one-issue fanatics. And, politically they are sustained by the marginality of the differences between the parties here. The model figure of this effect is the Fielding ascension, elected by less than 2 % of the electorate. The effects on the terms of public discourse are increased narrowness of vision and constriction of policy options.

One outcome is the spread of lunar perceptions and "solutions" (see climate change "debate") in tandem with the declining inclination of middle of the road stakeholders to participate (see steady below legitimacy levels of voter participation across the first world societies). Effects on policy and practice are stultifying if not stagnating.

Choicey consumption and moral corrosion – collateral damages 2

The ideology of choice constitutes the greatest moral disintegrator in our lives. We are encouraged to choose things – economic choices - and to choose values, goals, relationships. This encourages the idea that choice is possible (practically) and necessary/desirable (morally) – especially individual choice (since we have little concept of collective choice, eg. choice for the family). In other cultures there is mainly family choice and one's meaning comes from being a member of such entities. Personal choice is circumscribed by long-term family needs.

But individual choice is impossible in many of the most important domains. Consumer capitalism works hard to undermine our choices by presenting access to them (advertising) in ways to seduce and bind us to repeated choices (brand marketing, it's called, for brand bonding we might say… a virtual membership relationship with an object, not a person!!). A habitual response doesn't meet most criteria I know for being choices consciously and freely undertaken. Producers and retailers interests, as many have pointed out, are NOT the cultivation of our interests except in as much as they can be brought to sustain theirs.

A few other conditions obtain for choice to be real: (1) options to choose between have to be really distinct, and (2) distinguishable by the choosers – having the knowledge required to exercise choice if choices are possible, (see much of public debate choices in water, fuels, climate, regulation, etc., increasingly muffled behind PPP's and jargon); (3) the time frame for choosing is adequate (otherwise pressure constrains choice into either/or frameworks, largely in the habitual arena triggered by appeals to sentiment or grosser emotions like fear, anger, sadness); (4) pre-existing, pre-programmed (brand bonded) choice systems overwhelm thoughtfulness.

Strangely, the very people who extol choice and consumer capitalism deny or let pass unacknowledged the deeply corrosive effect of these processes on the ties which are supposed to bind, family ones foremost. I suppose that in the early stages of industrialisation there were similar pleas from the dispossessed (then tossed off their family grounds), those of one group becoming the old standard for the class – Luddite. Somehow this feels a bit different, but that may only be the judgment of a cultural loser.

*What do I mean by 'morality', 'morals'? Roughly, all things which have to do with standards of conduct and their application. These standards and processes / systems should circumscribe the domain of right living, well-being, etc. See here for a more thorough treatment of the matter.

**NB – values are highly subject to balances in material and emotional conditions. The material conditions which allow certain values – compassionate treatment of the unfortunate, extra efforts to combat disease(s) – are noticeably absent in many human settings, so the value of a life is objectively different (if value is measured in longevity – imagine what Mozart would say about that!). In our everyday life this is seen in the constant triage of cases arriving in emergency rooms. The pains of this process and the desire of authorities to avoid responsibility for it are constant company in our public media.

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