October 05, 2009
A Genealogy of Morals
One of my fundamental beliefs about culture and humanity is that morals and folkways are subject to natural selection. You need not believe in sociobiological bilge to share this belief; you merely need to agree that some ideas confer advantages over others. The classic example is the Levantine disdain for pork chops; not a bad idea to avoid parasites in primitive Middle Eastern countries. It doesn’t matter how the idea of avoiding pork chops originated; people have weird ideas all the time. What matters is that the custom was useful enough, and it has been handed down to modern Jews and Muslims the world over. The reason for it is no longer true in the civilized lands, since trichinosis is no longer a problem in, say, America, but this is a very recent development, and in many parts of the globe, it is still a good idea to avoid pork. Culture and morality are machines for transmitting basic survival truths across generations.
I also believe that most people tend to want to be thought of as moral. As such, when you kick the props out from underneath historical morality and folkways, people will still find their own soi-disant moralities, and develop ways to think of themselves as moral people. This is the probable reason for the old G.K. Chesterton saw, “He who does not believe in God will believe in anything.” (The quote might be apocryphal but it’s no less true.) Of course, if you’re a theist, you probably don’t need to think about the problem of what morality to hold; but those of us without strong religious beliefs need some extra mental furniture to make sense of modern life.
In 21st-century America, life is soft enough that our over-educated upper-middle classes are able to do away with moral codes that serve a purpose, and adopt more byzantine ones which demonstrate their freedom from concern. I see this as a form of conspicuous consumption, a status marker for viewing themselves above the lower orders. A hundred years ago, wealthy men who were above the concerns of the peasantry would sprout preposterous top hats and hire a servant. Fifty years ago, if you had a job among the gentle people, you’d wear a nice suit. Nowadays, that sort of “I have arrived” directness is seen as gauche; membership in “polite” society is reserved for people who display the proper contempt for reality in manner and folkway. After all, if “you have arrived,” you need not believe in those outdated things the lower orders believe in by necessity. Flouting ancient moral codes is the postmodern version of the proverbial rich guy lighting cigars with $20 bills.
But this also means it’s not quite clear to arrivistes what the correct morals and folkways to believe in are exactly.
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The moral codpiece as status marker certainly was confusing for me. I am, after all, a mere bumpkin from a suburb of a military base. The morality of my hometown taught me that personal bravery is a moral virtue and pacifism or cowardice is foolishness. My hometown taught me that sexual morality was better than personal decadence, that thrift, self-reliance, honesty, patriotism, and industry were better than debt, sponging off others, ideology, political correctness, and consumerism. And in my day, we didn’t have Christian Lander’s webpage to tell us how to behave. The main status marker I was able to discern about the higher social class was they feel entitled to cross the street into moving traffic, like important people do in college towns. This proved to be a helpful sort of Rosetta Stone for me. Looking both ways before you cross the street is a sort of basic moral teaching about the laws of physics—thanks mom! Denial of these laws proves you are an important person above concern. While crossing the street into moving traffic is a violation of moral law with potentially immediate consequences, the same principle can be applied to moral law that operates on a longer time scale. The most fashionable ways of doing things consists of denying basic strategies for survival. Armed with this basic piece of information, one is able to derive all the other moral laws the gentle classes use to distinguish themselves from pipe fitters.
When human beings decided to build complex societies in the agricultural age, priesthoods arose to codify and pass on moral culture to the populace at large. In modern America, that priesthood consists of what you learn in graduate school and the New York Times editorial page. Higher education is the ultimate status marker with a certain class of people these days. The idea that “brains” will make a better world is deeply ingrained. The problem, of course, with higher education is that it is a world removed from consequence. You can believe any fool thing you like if you’re an academic. In modern Academia, you’re more likely to be rewarded if you say something completely silly. This sort of status climbing by moral absurdity probably originated in the status insecurity of post WW-II academia. How do you distinguish yourself from the older, more cultured guy in the cube next to you once you have tenure? You most likely can’t compete with him on an intellectual level, so it’s best to count coup on his moral enlightenment—and the more removed your belief system is from reality, common sense, and tradition, the better. Mencken meant something a little different when he referred to the “booboisie.” But his term fits the status-seeking moral codpiece class better than any other large group of people in America today. What else can you call someone who distinguishes himself from the Lumpenproletariat by crossing the road into traffic?
The modern booboisie belief system is presently self-reinforcing, in that it creates social problems that booboisie experts will claim to have solutions for. Once the booboisie did away with traditional sexual morality and gender roles, for example, it created a need for an entire class of jobs and expertise. Legions of social workers, professional feminists, jailers, policemen, doctors, and psychologists are now needed to deal with the consequences of the sensible, ancient moral imprecations against passing yourself around like a tray of tea biscuits. People who espouse such things gain status with their moral codpiece people, and they gain status in training legions of lesser experts needed to deal with this sort of idiocy. Once the booboisie did away with the sensible puritan values of thrift and self-control, thus cementing their place among the anointed cool ones, legions of financial engineers, social workers, debt counselors, lawyers, and other professionals become necessary to deal with the national consequences of acting foolishly. Once the ancient god of “Terminus” is slain, vast multitudes of “diversity instructors,” policemen, court translators, and other such professional trouble-making trouble-fixers become necessary. Training such people is probably pleasant work, much like being a revival tent preacher. Once you establish yourself as an extremely moral person who doesn’t believe in patriotism, borders, or nationality, you’re a lot more likely to find work in this line. What boggles my mind is that nobody notices that these industries were not necessary back in the dark ages when people believed in common sense ideas like borders and nationality.
The problem with all this, of course, is the Broken Window Fallacy of economics. You can’t run a nation whose economy is based on breaking windows then repairing them—not for long anyway. We’ve done fairly well in supporting large numbers of harmful and useless people via vast increases in the productivity of a small group of people. Ultimately though, the moral codpiece of the booboisie is a bubble. Reality is that which doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it. There are faint glimmers of this in academia. Even the most cement-headed of academics have begun to notice that, for example, the moral codpiece of “diversity” doesn’t make anyone happy. Students have begun to notice that learning business swindles pays off better than learning the latest moral codpiece from some booboisie in the English literature department who have almost entirely ceased to teach anything remotely resembling knowledge. To say nothing of the “quelle horreurs” which are occurring as Darwin’s army ceases amusing itself tilting at creationist windmills and gets down to the business of exposing human beings for the unpleasant creatures we actually are.
People will always form status hierarchies, and human beings will always have a strong desire to conform to moral codes. The question remains whether or not the present status hierarchy based on crossing the road into traffic will last long enough to see us all run over by a renewable energy hybrid bus, or if such behavior will be laughed into deserved oblivion. The latter is the only way out I can see. It worked on the American ruling class in the 1960s. Laughter is probably the best weapon we have against numskulls. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun. So, the next time some prune-faced lackwit in a hair shirt attempts to lecture you on their moral superiority to reality, keep the image in mind of some self-important bozo crossing the road into traffic, confident some white paint will protect them from two tons of steel piloted by a monkey. Laughing at their looney tunes ideas of reality is ultimately the only defense against modern insanity.