All my years as a public school student in the USofA I was taught what a moral country I belonged to. It wasn’t even open to question. We were the good guys. Other countries were often bad. Sometimes they were good but we were always good. Sometimes I actually thought it was schmucky of us to be so good all the time but it’s amazing how little I questioned the idea that we were so good. It wasn’t until I read the book Prairie Fire written and published by the Weather Underground Organization that I actually faced the fact that my dear, sweet country was founded on genocide and slavery. Not that I had been totally ignorant of the facts. Of course we had been told about slavery. But that had something to do with the ignorant past. People were just less enlightened back then. It wasn’t really the fault of our country. And slaughtering the “Indians” wasn’t “our” fault either. It was a misunderstanding. The settlers were farmers. They lived by clearing the “wilderness” and building farmland which destroyed the hunting land of the “Indians” who naturally turned hostile as their livelihood became diminished. But the settlers hadn’t meant any harm. What I hadn’t realized was that the indigenous people of what is now called the United States also cultivated the land they occupied.
Immanual Kant called a moral rule a categorical imperative. That meant something is either right or wrong, absolutely, no ifs ands or buts. Historically, the idea of right and wrong has undergone changes as society has developed politically. Today, many people say Americans “stole the land from the Indians,” a concept that reflects some complex changes taking place over the years. The very concept of “theft” invokes that of not only ownership but of crime. The land originally occupied by the indigenous people wasn’t “owned” by modern concepts of ownership. The indigenous people didn’t think of land as something people could own. Nations had been fighting over land for centuries in Europe before the settlers brought their colonial behavior to the New World. The moral rule seems to have been one of might is right. Ethics were just rules that applied within an existing society. Outside a society, the “law of the jungle” still applied.
Is moral law universal?
Christianity is universal in it’s statements of morality and Western man is nominally Christian even if he is often far from it in practice. Throughout most of history, countries thought they had to be guided by a particular Christian church so they fought wars over which one was to lead them. The United States wisely choose to be a secular nation so they could dispense with religious warfare. Still, they believed in some sort of universal morality. This notion of morality found it’s way into the classroom. Everything was supposed to be fair. We were taught “the policeman is your friend.” Obey the rules. They rules are fair. Things are the way they’re supposed to be. Later in life, if you complain about a bum deal, a scornful voice asks, “Who ever said life was fair?” As adults, we are ridiculed for expecting justice.
But we keep on demanding it, especially in political discussions. We are permanently embroiled in a twisted web of idealism and cynicism. We are supposed to have a conscience. We are supposed to want to be “good.” But we “know” the way the world works and only a fool or a child thinks it’s run according to the rules of any categorical imperative. At best, we stay within certain parameters society allows which seem to shift a great deal. A president getting a blow job in the oval office used to be grounds for impeachment. Now, he can be the playboy of the western world and nobody raises an eyebrow. Atrocities such as putting children in concentration camps, something only Nazis were known for are only winked at. But weren’t the trail of tears just as cruel? Has morality ever been other than situational? Has empathy ever been color blind? Let’s discuss it but make sure the kiddies aren’t around when we do.
2 thoughts on “A Hypothetical Imperative?”
When has “Power” ever cared for more than the optics of morality? Probably never, despite the noble aspirations of some few who have somehow arrived in positions of governance. But to demonstrate real power and privilege, nothing works so well as violating the dictates of morality without consequences. That is the true test.
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Cluster B – Morality and Power?