By what guidelines do you think we are judging good and bad, right and wrong, at this moment in Western society? I found I was asking the question in the wake of Andrea Leadsom’s comments about motherhood, and the furore over Black Lives Matter in America. And I am wondering whether the answer lies in the odd pickle we seem to be getting ourselves into over the difference between morality and ethics. Let me explain, and to do so, I’m going to talk about my mother.
My mother was born into an age of morality. Back in the 40s, behaviour was judged by an absolute system of black and white rules. There were no excuses, no mitigating circumstances, and very little in the way of compassion. Couples could not live together without getting married, babies could only be born into marriages, homosexuality was a sin, foreigners were not to be trusted, you kept your house tidy and turned up to church on a Sunday, and respectability was all. Of course what went on in private was entirely unregulated. What mattered was to show yourself to be on the right side of the rules in the public space.
Now, my mother was a war baby. My grandmother never told her who her father was, and my mother had to grow up with the stigma this conferred. My mother, who has a mind like a steel trap, let me assure you, grew up with far less education than she should have had because school was an uncomfortable place for her, and she was wounded in her self-esteem. She has never had the confidence to which her looks, abilities and character should entitle her. And yet could anyone be more innocent in the situation in which she found herself? Nothing my mother did warranted the stigma that attached to her in her early years. I can only hope her life spent as the essential heart of a close-knit, loving family has managed to make up in some way for this rank injustice.
Over the 60s and 70s people began to wake up to the unnecessarily stringent harshness of their morality. They began to understand that people should not be condemned for the rest of their lives because they made a mistake, or because they were different to the rigid standard of ‘normal’. And this was because morality was gradually giving way to ethics. Morals are the rules imposed on a group, whereas ethics are the guiding principles we choose for ourselves. Morals are specific to historical time and place, whereas ethics are eternal, and transcend the society we live in. The way I understand this is that ethics are often primarily concerned with how we treat the other person, based on the understanding that what unites us is much more profound than what separates us; we must all suffer the difficulties of the human condition.
Two of the great forces in this shift into ethics were feminism and civil rights. In both cases the premise of the argument is that men and women and people of all skin colours are fundamentally the same. But society has made some of those groups second-class citizens in the eyes of others, thanks to longterm, systematic discrimination. Much as those people who had been discriminated against were angry, and with every right to be so, their intention – explicit in feminist circles – was to ‘raise consciousness’. In other words, to remind others of basic human similarity, to help others understand what it was like to walk in their shoes, and to promote the ethical necessity to ensure fairness, justice and equality for all.
The psychologist Alfred Adler argued that one of the great motivating forces in each individual is to make up for the painful feelings of inferiority we harbour by finding ways to feel superior. He felt that childhood would pretty much wound everyone, one way or another. We’d all emerge from it feeling awkwardly, shamefully inferior in some respect or other, and the counterpart of that unpleasant condition would be to search ruthlessly for reassurances of our superiority. Now, morality is a fabulous way to do this, because it has simple rules and no excuses. If we catch someone trangressing a moral boundary we have every right to look down on them. They have done wrong. They are inexcusable and must be punished.
But ethics has a very different perspective. The ethical position suggests we consider how we ALL struggle with these feelings of inferiority, and that the way to move forward isn’t to seek this fallacious sense of being superior to others, but to have compassion for ALL our wounds and weaknesses, in our broader collective.
If women and ethnic minorities hadn’t believed that the people around them could be enlightened and changed, there wouldn’t have been much point in them fighting for the right to equality. The ethical position acknowledges that the world is often a badly misguided place, full of damaging and dangerous misunderstandings, but it is fundamentally optimistic. From that shared place of humanity, we might all choose to deal with our fears and our insecurities in better ways, in the fullness of justice and compassion. And it is a choice. Morals are imposed, but ethics are the principles we choose for ourselves, and so the path towards them is always an education.
We are supposed to live now in an age of ethics, where we understand that each individual is the same but different, and that’s okay. But of course it isn’t okay, because there’s a tendency for people to want to turn ethics into a morality, to have absolute rules that brook no excuses. So if someone makes a sexist comment, we want to invoke a moral rule. There’s a tendency to want vengeance, to shout that this is wholly unacceptable, the person has fallen on the wrong side of the law and must be punished; they must be humiliated and ashamed. I can understand a warrior stance against backsliding, but I wonder if some people believe that only anger, shame and humiliation will educate (though schools gave up with that approach a while back, because it causes as many problems as it solves). In any case, all this is a moral perspective on the problem, a case of people being wrong or right, good or bad, without nuance.
An ethical perspective would be to educate or enlighten the person who made the sexist comment; to challenge them for sure, but not to aggress them. In ethics, the question is fundamentally how you treat the other person. Sure, it’s wrong to insult someone in a sexist way. But to scream for the blood of that person on social media, to humiliate them in public, to ensure that they lose their livelihood for their mistake, well, that’s every bit as unethical as the insult was in the first place.
And why should we not turn our ethics into a morality? Well, because of people like my mother, that’s why. Because morality can be so harsh and unbending, so restricted in its ruling, and yet so specific to its time that innocent people do get caught in the crossfire of something that’s ridiculous 50 years later. That’s why we let the law deal with the timeless rules of morality, with the extreme cases of murder, grievous harm, theft, slander, and so on. Because morality can ruin people’s lives if they end up on the wrong side of it. And, with rare exceptions, that’s too harsh for the everyday problems of getting along together in a mixed society.
So we’ve had a couple of big ethical issues happen in the Western world lately. Andrea Leadsom’s foolish remarks about motherhood, and the Black People Matter argument over in the States. In both of these cases the debate has moved almost instantaneously into a punitive, vengeful, moral realm. I place the blame on the media, which is the punitive, vengeful, moral realm par excellence. The media are totally unethical – they will ruin anyone’s lives without a second thought if they can make moral mileage out of it.
I seriously think that we should not let the media have our conversations for us. Ethics rise naturally to the surface when we become real to one another. When we speak openly, not defensively, from our vulnerabilities. When we actually listen because we want to understand the problem. Forget the media – sisters, let’s talk about how irrelevant it is to our friendships whether we have kids or not. Black, white, East, West, we all need to keep talking to people who are different to us, to be reminded time and again how much we share. Then these screaming headlines in the papers – Having Children Makes You A Better Person! – Black Lives Matter Is A Racist Comment! – can be met with the words ‘don’t be so ridiculous’, and a turning towards positive things. What unites us is far more powerful than what separates us.
I think we have to keep asking ourselves: what is truly important in a life of limited time and energy? Is it more important to express anger and hatred, or love and kindness? Is it more important to catch people out, or to explain to them why they made a mistake? Is it more important to reassure ourselves we’re right, or to recognise the insecurities that make us all crazy sometimes?
Here’s what I think is important: try to understand the other person, and be kind. Understanding and compassion neutralise far more powerfully than any violence can.
p.s. In case you were wondering, I told my mother what I was writing and gained her permission to tell some of her story. Thank you, Mum!