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June 24, 2002

Moral Relativism, Scalzi Style

My wife is in summer school (she is 16, you see -- no, not really), and among the classes she's taking this quarter is an introduction to ethics course, one of those courses where the great moral issues of the day are plopped on the table and everybody goes back and forth on the issue but nothing really gets resolved; not unlike the UN, but somewhat less expensive to participate. The textbook for the class is called Taking Sides, and it features about 20 contentious issues, like "Should Abortions Be Legal?" or "Should Great Apes Be Given Human Rights?" with one essay on the topic arguing for the question, and another, naturally, arguing against. Nowhere present is the third essay, in which the first two essayists are labeled pedantic twits, followed by the suggestion that everyone reading the book should simply go out for cheeseburgers and a round of pool. It's a real shame it's not there.

Unsurprisingly, most of the topics that are under consideration in Taking Sides are topics that I already have fairly strong opinions about; perhaps also not surprisingly, it seems that most of the time is not at all like the opinion of the book's appointed pro and con representatives. This is because in most cases of ethical and moral conundrums, the arguments of those totally for or totally against an issue exist in a rhetorical fantasyland that has no real relationship with the world human beings actual live in. Ethics isn't mathematics; one can't take as given certain things in order create an elegant and coherent system. Human beings are messy things, after all. Ethics and morality are and always shall be a messy business.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the first question that Taking Sides posits: "Is Morality Relative to Culture?" The cultural conservative position on this, of course, would be no -- there are certain aspects of morality that are independent of one's culture (and, conveniently, those aspects of morality tend to be those moral aspects which a cultural conservative finds convenient). Cultural liberals, of course, tend to take exception to both the theory and practice of an absolute morality, since those "absolutes" tend to get in the way of whatever activity it is that they're enjoying and that the conservatives are worried that they are enjoying too much. The only problem with this position is that taken to its extreme it means that you have no right to complain when someone speaks glowingly to the morality of, say, female genital mutilation in they Sudan. Sure, it's immoral here, but in the Sudan, they've been doing it forever. It's perfectly moral there.

Both positions are fundamentally pretty stupid. The conservative position of an absolute morality has always struck me as weak, because the construction of an absolute morality (which almost always conforms to their morality of choice) is a tacit admission that they can't sell their lifestyle without divine intervention. All assertions for an absolute morality that I know of eventually lead back to a God of some sort, the existence of which is fundamentally unprovable. There may be someone out there is who is arguing that that there's a Chomsky-like "deep structure" for morality, which would be independent of an end-point celestial lawgiver, but if there is, I haven't heard of him or her, and I can't really imagine any cultural conservative wanting to use Chomsky-ian tools to make a point; it's just not in them to be agnostic about the provenance of their argument.

On the flip side, it's difficult to intellectually to support a position on morality whose finally reductive argument leaves room for the aforementioned genital mutilation or shoving little girls back into a burning building to die because their heads aren't properly covered, as so recently happened in Saudi Arabia. Neither argument satisfies because neither argument has anything to do with the real world.

Here's an argument that I think works: Yes, morals are relative to culture and independent of any larger, overarching system of morality that all of humanity shares. But if one believes that morals are relative to cultures, it does not therefore follow that one must believe that all cultures are created equal, or that the moralities therein are equivalent. This is an argument that allows you to say: "Your morals are rooted in your culture -- but your culture truly sucks."

I don't have any problems with this formulation at all. On the one hand, America's culture owes most of its distinct and durable character to a marvelous act of intellectual manufacture on the part of the founding fathers. They created a political culture almost entirely out of whole cloth, and by doing so helped to create the social and moral culture that supported the aims of the political culture. Neither of these existed anywhere on the planet prior to the founding of the United States, and even attempts within the United States to fight them (the Civil War comes to mind) ended up ultimately strengthening them (mind you, there are still some kinks to work out). There are certainly numerous cultural threads to the social life of the US, but the most important one -- the one that ensures personal liberty -- was a whole new thing.

Moreover, this created culture and morality is a better one (by and large) than others. Part of this can be seen pragmatically: The US is the most powerful country in the history of the world because the culture and morality of personal liberty has allowed for the creation of a rich, healthy, hard working and (reasonably) intelligent populace. But it's also evident simply in what it allows, which is for just about everything, once you're an adult. An open and free society can include, as a subset, and damn fool thing you want to believe in -- even a morally restrictive lifestyle (I mean, I live near Amish). The only real restriction on this is that you can't drag other people down with you if they don't want to go, but if you can live with that, have at it.

Cultural conservatives believe that having morality dependant on culture ultimately leads to anarchy, but I don't see that as being the case. Most people are smart enough to see that their freedom to do whatever they want stops when whatever they want unwillingly involves someone else (more accurately, people realize that someone else's freedom to do what they want stops when it involuntarily involves them). People don't want anarchy; it cramps their ability to do what they choose to do. Thus we have a society that, with a few reactionary spasms now and then, largely lets us live as we want to.

It's hard to beat that, and I'll pit it against any other culture, and any other morality, any day of the week.

Posted by john at 05:27 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

June 20, 2002

Mowing Life Lessons

Based on the immense (and frankly, somewhat inexplicable) popularity of the last Whatever, I now present All The Things I Didn't Know I Didn't Know About Mowing My Lawn, an excerpt of my upcoming (and no doubt soon-to-be-spectacularly-successful) yard care book, Everything I Ever Knew About Mowing I Learned in Just the Last Two Weeks. Any resemblance between what you read here and heartwarming lessons about life and love is purely coincidental. Unless it helps me turn this pathetic idea into another Chicken Soup For the Soul-like juggernaut. In which case, I meant to do that.

1. You Must Mow Counter-Clockwise. The reason for this is that the blades of death attached to the underside of the lawn tractor take the mulched, decapitated grass stalks and fling them out from the right side of the mower. If you mow counter-clockwise, you get an evenly-distributed dusting of mulch that feeds and fertilizes the lawn much in the same way that beef fats and by-products are used in cow feed to plump up your incipient hamburger (or were, until Mad Cow Disease. Stupid Mad Cow Disease). But if you mow clockwise, you blow the mulch into a continually smaller and higher pile of ever more finely chopped grass particles, until what you're left with is an unstable ziggurat of grass motes which will collapse upon you at the slightest provocation, saturating you in mower leavings and making you look like the Swamp Thing's wimpy, suburbanized cousin, Lawn Thing ("Lawnie," as he is known, derisively, to his kin). You will never get the grass stains out.

2. You Must Not Sweat the Baseball Diamond Pattern. Look: If the Yankees are paying you 75 grand a year to mow a diamond pattern into the Field That Ruth Spat Tobacco Juice Upon (as I believe it is formally called), then by all means make a diamond pattern with your lawn mower. If they're not, you might as well try to get through your mowing as quickly as possible because you're just going to have to mow again next week (If the Houston Astros are paying you to make a diamond pattern, go the extra mile and make the diamond look like the Enron "E." I'm sure they'll get a big kick out of that one). Any temptation to mow any sort of design into your lawn other than the most utilitarian round-and-round spiral is probably a good sign that you need either to get away from your lawn more often, or you need to be whacked in the head with a sturdy board. It's your choice.

3. Try Not to Think of the Lady Bugs. Over the course of mowing, you will undoubtedly mulch dozens of these friendly, colorful, useful beetles; you'll see them clutching the ends of grass stalks, their red, speckled carapaces winking like a 3rd graders' craft beads just before you run them over and either crush them with your tractor wheels and fling them into the abattoir of whirling blades slung to your tractor's undercarriage to be diced into confetti. Try not to feel guilty about their tiny little deaths, even though you have the sneaking suspicion that killing lady bugs is the only thing that actually enrages Jesus, and that each lady bug you whack gets you a century in purgatory, where demons force Bowflex commercials upon you until your sins are completely scraped away. Try not to think about the lady bugs at all.

4. Your Lawn Will Try to Shame You. Your front tractor wheels bend down grass stalks, which keep them from being fully mowed, so when you look back, you'll see little wheel-width-wide rows of slightly taller grass, mocking you to the other grass stalks. Remember your place on the evolutionary ladder, go back and teach those leaves of grass a lesson. Mock you, will they. Let's see them mock finely-edged blades of metal whirling at thousands of revolutions per minute! Yeah, who's mocking who now? Huh? Huh? Huh?

5. No Matter How Much It Seems to Be So at the Time, Those Birds Really Are Not Trying To Attack You And Peck Out Your Eyeballs. They're just after the bugs that are busily fleeing your mower. Honestly, that's all it is. Oh, fine. Wear protective goggles, you baby.

6. When You Are On Your Lawn Tractor, You Must Wave to Anyone Going By On the Road. And if you live in rural America, as I do, you must especially wave at the farmers cruising by on real tractors; you know, the ones that make your lawn tractor look like a frisky Maltese next to a Great Dane. The farmers really get a kick out of you waving to them; they sort of chuckle and think to themselves I bet that idiot thinks he looks real sharp on that toy as they wave back. Given the sorry state of the American family farm (evidenced by the fact that Congress and the President just sent $190 billion of our tax dollars to prop them up), I feel it's my duty as a patriotic American to give the local farmers at least one thing to feel smug about.

7. You Will Eat a Bug. Probably more than one. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you can get past it. Just as long as it's not a lady bug. Jesus is mad enough at you already.

Posted by john at 05:30 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack