Written by Mark Russell.
We are not responsible for the conditions of our births. In this way, we cannot choose to step from the void into living. Our histories, our environment and even our bodies are beyond our control. While this also extends to the nature of our education, childhood, and our subsequent moral values, at some point most people reach an age of legal accountability. Suddenly we seem to have a choice we didn’t before, and, more importantly, such legal accountability assumes we are suddenly freed of the conditions of our births.
The ideal of human freewill is not necessarily incompatible with the belief that everything in the universe is predestined—the foundation for fate. Even while our personalities, physical identities and environments are shaped by the sum of all human experience and physical law, to accept these factors as proof of inescapable destiny is to deny an individual’s responsibility for their own actions and beliefs.
If all people can be said to possess the faculties of freewill and reason, to what extent can they—or should they—be held accountable for their cultural values? I am not referring to ethnicity, but rather to the set of ideals to which an individual subscribes. Sometimes these values are never given reason for doubt. On the other hand, self-reflection and the external pressure of conflicting ideals may cause the individual to call their values into question. This forceful self-examination is something we encounter a great deal in issues relating to immigration, multiculturalism and questions of identity.
What makes one culture more legitimate than another? Perhaps it is just a historical perspective. We feel justified in looking down on, for example, the slave-owning South, the witch burning Puritans or the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Yet we tremble at the thought of judging existing societies—even those that don’t subscribe to our own cultural values of respect, multiculturalism, equality and human rights.
This comes down to a surrender of personal identity to those very conditioning factors of culture and environment. Is this even a problem? The alternative is a flimsy weather vane, condoning a corporate morality that panders to the masses for the sake of status—for fear of public backlash. To quote writer Alan Moore, ‘anything done out of fear has no moral value’. On the other hand, to stubbornly retain prescribed cultural values regardless of their questionable moral content is irresponsible, and denies the potential for radical freewill.
The irony, of course, is that along with my present morality and identity, my valuing of freewill is a product of a specific cultural heritage and conditioning. We can never step out of our own culture to judge ourselves or others objectively. An objective understanding of morality is impossible.
We must not pretend to be perfect. No culture is. Ignoring for a moment the application of technology and simply considering the moral perspective, no culture is more primitive or more progressive than any other. Each is an inconsistent organism, constructed from many varying lineages. Each contains aspects that can be considered progressive, and each those we might call primitive. For example, Nazi Germany, while promoting ethically-dubious scientific philosophies, still benefited from a strong sense of environmental awareness. Although this is a very complicated subject, such an example illustrates that moral absolutes do not exist in either form. Pure evil and pure good cannot be found in reality.
In practice, we only face the quality of our convictions, our morals, in extreme circumstances. While we all like to believe we would make the right choice, social experiments have shown that people given positions of authority in highly-structured and divisive situations can easily become abusive and sadistic. Likewise, most adults are, when trusting of the moral responsibility of an authority figure, willing to relinquish their own and commit torture or murder. Based on this, it is easy to see how entire societies can be motivated according misplaced fears and corrupted cultural values. Perhaps we are too willing to do away with the responsibility for our moral choices. Too much of this weight is upon us, so even at the cost of all we believe, we are willing to surrender to those who know best. If this is the case, how can we ever know if what we are doing is right, or if we have already, from birth, surrendered ourselves.
At the same time, this does not mean we should indiscriminately adopt conflicting or immoral ideals for the sake of self-discovery. Just as we must hold ourselves accountable for our own morality, so too does cultural progression demand the critical evaluation of ideas that enter our sphere of influence. Are they rational? Can we overlook, in the name of respect, the cultural institutions of slave-owning Confederates, or the cruelty of Japanese Whaling? Should we accept the homophobic practices of the Westboro Baptist Church simply for the sake of religious freedom and tolerance?
Ultimately, we must acknowledge the absence of a supreme moral high ground. It is only a mirage in the distance—an ideal for which to strive. Our progress is sometimes blind—we live in a world where the same document has been used, at different times in history, both to uphold racial segregation and then later to end segregation. Perhaps the past deserves our respect for having informed the triumphs of the present. Was not the first seed of universal suffrage once imagined among medieval peasantry? We must not forget that a thousand generations from now, our own values will seem primitive to the citizens of the future.
If we were to step out of our lives and into the future, would the people of this distant foreign country demand we evaluate ourselves, and cast out our biases and moral failings? Which begs the present question—do we have a right to demand the same kind of willingness to change from others that we demand of ourselves?
There is no clear answer to any of this, and no matter what choice is made, someone will always disagree on moral grounds. Perhaps I am simply shaping myself at the demands of popular morality. Unfortunately—until we encounter extra-terrestrials—all that we can ever understand about ourselves is informed by the very conditions that gave rise to our sense of self. Even across cultures we are bound by our common evolutionary genetics—by the very traits that gave us the world and us to the world. We are our bodies, our instincts, our pasts—we are not separate from the world, but simply an aspect of the world that has become aware of itself. It would be too easy to attribute moral authority to a higher power—god, nature, evolution, culture—but this is just another way of surrendering to fate. Regardless of whether we should bow to nature or rise above it, whether we should uphold our heritage or forge our own destinies, we are always, ultimately, chasing a mirage.