The Spectacular Failure of American Morality

Here’s a tiny observation: America developed a moral philosophy that’s utterly unique in the world, and in history. One that’s solely its own, not used anywhere else — and is fatally, weird, gruesome, and backwards, when you think about it.

It goes like this. American morality says that what’s good for everyone is acting aggressively in our own self-interest.Bang! Collapse. History and human nature say exactly the opposite is true: what’s best for us is doing good for others. Don’t believe me? Very good. I’ll make my case, and you be the judge.

Now. We might preach kindness and gentless in church — and even desperately believe it — but the daily reality of American economic, social, and cultural life is that an absolutist, totalizing, atomizing self-interest has prevailed, isn’t it? We’re instructed, maybe indoctrinated, to believe that to be aggressively self-interested is what is good — not just for us, but, strangely, for everyone. Economics teaches it, psychology teaches it, business practices it, culture celebrates it, politics institutionalizes it — America is built on it. (Hence, we’re told to “take responsibility” and “be self-reliant individuals” and so on.) We fight the system — norms, bosses, codes, rules — if we want to genuinely care about anyone else but ourselves.

And yet the limits of this moral philosophy are becoming clearer by the day — as, thankfully, American are beginning to reject it. People crowdfunding healthcare. “Active shooter drills.” Kids buying bulletproof backpacks. Elderly people who’ll never retire. Young people saddled with life-crippling debt just for getting an education. These are just some of the self-evident failures of morality as aggressive, naked self-interest. These things enrage us as much as they aggrieve and frighten us. They cannot be good, we are realizing, deep in our bones, these days. Here’s a tiny observation: America developed a moral philosophy that’s utterly unique in the world, and in history. One that’s solely its own, not used anywhere else — and is fatally, weird, gruesome, and backwards, when you think about it.

But those failures hardly stop there. When you think about it, almost every single one of America’s catastrophic problems can be traced back to this fatal error in moral judgment. Loneliness, depression, suicide. The lack of a public interest. The decline of the common good, the common wealth. Extremism, fascism, authoritarianism. A sense of nihilism — that nothing matters anymore. A loss of hope in the future — most Americans expect life to get worse, not better. These, too, are all reflections of the epic failure of the weird and strange morality of pure self-interest.

Why is that? Well, what happens if we believe that morality is pure self-interest? A strange and curious perversion. By definition, “morality” is a concern for what is good for others. To call self-interest moral, then, is to say that immorality is moral. Just think about it, with any idea of morality you like — use any great moral mind, from Jesus to Aquinas to Kant to Rawls to Sartre. That’s because morality is best defined as simply the answer to the question “is this good for you?”, not “is this good for me.” That’s the only way that the human good can ever really grow, isn’t it? And yet, there is only notion of morality in human history that calls selfishness moral — and that is modern day America’s. But simply calling immorality moral does not change its consequences or effects — they remain the same: good becomes bad.

(In fact, using the immoral morality of pure self-interest, I can justify everything from rape to murder, can’t I? “There goes Umair! Exaggerating again!” Ah, but am I? I’ll come back to that point, and prove it.)

And so the result of America’s weird moral philosophy is immorality, on an epic, absurd, almost tragicomic, scale. Manafort, Trump, Cohen. Greed and avarice replaced magnanimity. Pride in possessions, in perfection, in acquisitiveness, took the place of humility. A kind of flamboyant ugliness, in words and in deeds and in manners, replaced a search for beauty. Dishonesty and inauthenticity replaced integrity and truth. A cruelty that the world is aghast at replaced kindness and gentleness. Egotism replaced justice and fairness. Coldness and calculation replaced passion and warmth. Indifference replaced compassion. Do you think that’s unfair? Or do you see all that around you in everyday America — at work, in the economy, in culture, in life, in relationships, in play, in the kind of people we are told to admire and become?

What’s strange, though, is that all that is obvious. At least to the rest of the world. If I ask the average European, is greed good, they’ll laugh at me like I’m a dolt — but the average American will probably hem and haw over it. So why did America fall for this absurd, bizarre, childish idea, anyways? How did a whole nation get sold on the chauvinistic conceit that morality is immorality, which means that good is bad, and vice is virtue, and hence, a society implodes?

In an equally strange and bizarre way. The idea was that if I act as selfishly as humanly possible, and you do too, then I will have to serve you, and you me. Thus, the greater good will somehow come from all of our combined egotism. Now, this is only possible in one way: through capitalism — and of course, greed, selfishness, and cruelty as good for everyone, not just ourselves, are exactly the morality of capitalism

But the problem with capitalism is that I can all too easily tilt the playing field in my favour. If I’m rich enough, I can make it possible to indenture or own you, with debt, with property rights, and so on. Which, of course, is more or less where America is today: 80% of people live paycheck to paycheck, many work several jobs, and they’ll never retire, while just 10% of American own stocks, and perhaps 1% of Americans earn enough from capital to call it their income. The philosophy of pure self-interest has failed catastrophically — instead of producing some kind of fantasyland of the greater good, where everyone’s happy and free, it’s produced something like a feudal society, all over again. The good has been minimized by the capitalist morality of pure self-interest, not maximized — Marx is laughing.

In fact, the great lesson of human history, as I stress these days, is precisely the opposite — the human good is maximized by shared interest, not self interest. Where did freedom, liberty, happiness, and prosperity really come from? Not from self-interest — from people investing in one another. Once upon a time, society was kings preying on nobles who preyed on peasants — and in this mode of social organization, no collective action was possible at all — in fact the point of it was to prevent it: to stop the peasants from rising against the nobles, the nobles against the king, and so on.

It wasn’t until people came together and invested in one another that great things like cities, universities, libraries, laboratories, parks, hospitals, schools, vaccines, and antibiotics were all had. Those things caused prosperity to explode, because they cultivated and expressed people’s creativity, intelligence, reason, knowledge, passion in ways no one person could do alone. (Today, Europe is vastly more prosperous than America — people live significantly longer, happier, healthier, saner, freer lives — because Europeans learned this great lesson of history. They invested in one another robustly, after the war, and even before it. But Americans, uniquely, never did.)

Remember how morality as pure self-interest can justify everything from rape to murder — and you probably thought I was stretching it? Yet that’s exactly what happened for centuries in America, under slavery. It was perfectly moral to abuse slaves — it was considered the best thing for them, in fact. What was immoral was not to abuse them, punish them, hurt them. Then your fellow slave-owners would laugh at you. The moral horizon of Americans, in other words, was stunted from the very beginning — by the idea of that what is good is raw, unrestrained self-interest. It is undoubtedly in my self interest to own a slave — but it can never be genuinely moral, in the sense that it is good for anyone else.

So the idea that immorality is morality has deep, pernicious — and poisoned — roots in America. It traces back to the very birth of the nation — and it is embedded in America’s original sin, slavery and supremacy. The idea that a man should be free from any interference from his neighbours, and never have to invest in anyone else, is the precise kind of morality that a slave society will develop, because it is how one can go on treating people as property, to be whipped and lynched when they are not productive. You do not have to invest in people if they are not people at all — but the human good cannot grow that way, because we are doing no good for one another.

So while much of what is now the rich world was learning the great lesson of history, and people were investing in one another — the roots of Germany’s public healthcare system, for example, date back to the 1890s, as does the French pension system — America, instead, developed an odd, backwards, perverse, set of moral ideas. Today we call them “self reliance” and “individual responsibility” and so on. But they are still, at heart, the broken, ruinous morality of the slave society — in which I am indifferent to the suffering of others. They’ve failed catastrophically — as we’ve discussed — because they were bound to.

(Nobody is purely self reliant, and nobody ever will be. Even those hermits living in the woods glorified on American TV buy bullets, clothes, and fuel. The ultra rich, just like you and me, use the internet, roads, utilities — not to mention the alphabet, language, math, science, art, and literature. Nobody is truly individually responsible, either, for just that reason. We stand on the shoulders of history, each and every one of us.

There is only one reason to deny all that. So one can preserve one’s supremacy over one’s fellow man and woman. That is what America tried to do, from the moment it was made. But you see now how that fatal choice limited it. Morality as immorality created a society that could never really invest enough in the things which mattered most — hospitals, schools, libraries, pensions, and so on. Instead, bad became good. Everyone was told to be greedy, avaricious, indifferent, cold, calculating, as cruel as possible — purely, absolutely, only, self-interested. But if we are those things, then all we do is end up preying on one another, precisely because, just as the concept of morality implies, we do not care about anyone else’s suffering to begin with.)

Now. The question remaining is why should we be genuinely moral beings — beyond the reason that society will prosper? And the truest reason of all for morality, curiously, is to fulfill our own nature. America is learning, too late, that human nature doesn’t accord with its own fatal, childish moral philosophy of immorality.

We cannot really just watch other people suffer — crowdfund healthcare, kids shot, go bankrupt, lives ruined — and be indifferent. We suffer, mightily too—we feel angry, enraged, afraid, sad, we grieve and mourn — because happiness, like unhappiness, is a kind of emotional resonance. That is why morality matters, my friends — nobody is Zarathustra. Happiness and unhappiness, at the end of the day, are not ours to possess, own, or acquire: they are shared between us, because they are like rivers flowing through us. That strange yet undeniable fact of human nature is what makes love possible, grief necessary, and life meaningful. And so to be immoral is never to realize one’s nature, and to stay distant from happiness, meaning, truth, and beauty. That is to live in the deepest kind of ignorance there is.

American morality: acting according to our own self-interest is what’s good for everyone. History — precisely and exactly the opposite: what’s good for others is what’s best for us, because it reveals and fulfills our nature.

And that is the lesson that America is learning the hard way.


By Umair Haque
Source: Greanville Post

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