Of the spheres to examine in contemporary culture, one of the more fascinating is from where ethics are derived and what those ethics are. In the bio section of my website, I succinctly spell out that I am first a virtue ethicist, second, a deontologist, and third, a utilitarian. Aristotle, then Kant, then Mill. If only most people could even categorize their beliefs about right and wrong. I happen to be an Asperger’s nerd with interests in psychology and the social sciences, those would be an obsession with human affairs and behavior, and thus a keen and deep dive into what should regulate that behavior and the normative values to which that behavior should be oriented. I have contemplated right and wrong more than people with social lives and without a scientific infatuation with the human condition. I have also studied, deeply, what other people think about ethics.
So, what does the average person think is right and wrong? Are they a virtue ethicist, a deontologist, or a utilitarian foremost? The answer is they’re deontologists but they’re not Kant, they’re Locke. The reason being is they have no strong moral institutions and the closest thing to one in their lives is the political culture. Religion wasn’t replaced with secular humanism, when people stopped going to religious services, they didn’t start going to Unitarian Universalist services. Sociologically, religion was replaced with fandoms, enthusiast subcultures, and nationalisms and morally it was replaced with nothing. The only times a person sees right and wrong preached or argued is from a political pulpit which is why their ethics are Lockean and almost wholly concerned with negative liberties, positive liberties, property rights, and consenting adults.
In a political context, when debating punitively enforced law, it may be appropriate to act as though one has the right to do whatever so long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of another. Yet, that’s a horrible ethical system to have personally. Hatred, greed, hubris, apathy, sadism, dishonesty, and many more, are all morally okay under that system. Furthermore, under that system, all of the benevolent opposites of those things are also neutral. In an earlier article, I talked about how burning an ex in effigy was considered normal and how this was a bad thing. Burning someone in effigy is despicable and depraved. That’s another human being with a full life and soul and to burn them in effigy is a horrific degradation and sociopathic anti-humanism toward one’s fellow sibling. According to Locke, if you use no one else, so long as it is in the privacy of one’s own home, it’s fine.
Locke wasn’t a philosopher of personal ethics, he was a philosopher of legal ethics. Someone shouldn’t be incarcerated for burning someone in effigy but they definitely shouldn’t do it. Generally, I term that use of Lockean ethics, Rawlsian minimalism since Rawls was basically the founder of using it as personal ethics since, although he was technically a macro political philosopher, unlike Locke, Rawls believed that those Lockean ethics should be the only ones, not only in law, but also the public sphere and all institutions constituted therein. My side of politics, the left, spent many decades pushing for the Rawlsian stance and routinely repeated the idea that morals have no place in society and one should not domineer one’s morals over another.
Upon close examination, the idea that morals should be mostly divorced from the public sphere doesn’t make sense. In the sense of not legally enforcing moral minutia with the state monopoly on violence, it does make sense but taken to its logical conclusion Mister Roger’s taught a form of virtue ethics and therefore was imparting his thick morals and those of the subculture from where he came (he was a Presbyterian minister) on the impressionable youths using public money. Going by Rawls’ logic, a follower of Ayn Rand should have sued PBS for violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. What I believe Rawls and the left of the past many decades were doing was an instinctive psychological reaction to socially conservative political movements in the late 20th century. While they stated categorically that morals should be absent from politics, they really were just thinking about Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell, they weren’t concerned with Plato or Spinoza.
However, the result of their rhetoric was a categorical sanitizing of the public sphere of morality. In the 1960’s, when prayer in school was abolished, it wasn’t replaced with a secular analogy. They replaced the morning prayer with silence, not something like Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” which is what I would have done. The institutions of the public sphere became ever more what Rawls envisioned they should be: devoid of morality. Which meant that the generations raised in that paradigm of Rawls didn’t become the idealistic hippies striving to forge a humanity in love with each other like I would have wanted them to become. They became nothing. As much as the politics of today is progressive, most of the political fronts are led by identity movements peopled with members of said identity fighting for their class to be accepted in a Rawlsian liberalism and with little attention paid to creating a more broadly loving world beyond the horizon of their particular, self-interested, cause.
As I’ve written in previous articles, the amount of personal love and empathy amongst the population for various reasons is fairly low. A part of the reason for that is the lack of strong morality. Obviously, some moral institution should return and what that may be, I don’t know. I have a religion but I lack faith that it can deliver in the short-term. The Unitarians have been a secular alternative for many decades and have gotten almost nowhere. Quacks like Alain Botton intermittently pop up claiming to have the new institution of morality and so do many bat-shit spiritual and holistic gurus. I do my best in my personal life to be a light of morality in a world morally dark. I hope that going through my website, I have uplifted the characters of the readers and in my life that I have done the same.