I find a disturbing trend in our current public discourse:1 areas of human behavior that once were addressed through the principles of morality and the study of ethics have now—slowly, quietly, almost unprotestingly—become matters of merely medical, scientific, legal, or economic interest.
Take all the issues related to human reproduction: attraction, love, sex, fertility, and abortion. Once these were matters of a mostly moral dimension. Is the attraction appropriate for these two people—considering issues of consanguinity, previous marital commitments, and religious compatibility? Is the decision to enter into a sexual relationship appropriate—considering issues of the participants’ ages and level of maturity, their previous emotional involvement, and their ability to care for any potential offspring? Is the choice of bearing a child or terminating the pregnancy appropriate—considering the health and interests of the unborn child and the parents? Such questions were once some of the deepest human riddles of human relationships.2 But these days—and perhaps starting with Alfred Kinsey’s research nearly fifty years ago—sex and love have become matters of merely psychological interest. Fertility and abortion are only medical and legal issues. Questions of right and wrong seem to be locked out of the bedroom, the clinic, and the debate.
Take the issue of child rearing: expected behavior, education, guidance, and discipline. If ever there was a situation designed for ethical and moral consideration, how to socialize and civilize a wild human so that he or she can take part in the family and in the greater social setting of humanity itself would surely qualify. Children will become the kind of adults they are raised among, which is the basis for how they are expected to behave and the kind of choices they will make. But today these issues revolve around political considerations, often apparently centered on the child’s legal and civil rights, as if he or she were a miniature adult already with full personal consciousness and independence. Child rearing has become the province of the day-care center and the schoolhouse, and a parent who interferes too vigorously in teaching, training, and disciplining an offspring may get a visit from Child Protective Services.
Take the issue of right and wrong action in and of itself. This is the basis of morality and ethics. How do individuals relate to each other? What is appropriate action in the current setting? What does it mean to be a responsible person? Yet today these questions are subverted by a miasma of confusion—raised like a smoke screen by the proponents of moral and cultural relativism. Such a doubt about the issues of right and wrong having any universal application recently came up in a Facebook discussion which quickly devolved into a cost-benefit analysis. Morality itself had become a subset of economics!
This saddens me greatly. In the transfer of basic human relations from issues of personal decision making to the externalities of science, medicine, and law, I think we lose an important human element.
People exercise their greatest freedom in the choices they make. To be an actor on the stage of human relationships and in the sphere of human endeavor is the greatest differentiator between human beings and animals. Animals do not have the reflective capacity to know right from wrong. They can make only limited choices, based upon their physical ability and available opportunities, rather upon than any moral insight. Animals are creatures of instinct, not reason.
To treat the issue of sex in purely physical terms without moral relevance, to treat child raising as a matter of purely civil rights, to treat moral choices as matters of pure stimulus and response—is to debase our view of human beings. By reducing the human capacity for reasoned action to a psychological or legal or economic basis is to view humans from the outside. They become automata, political or economic units, members of an undifferentiated mass reacting in a theoretical domain.
Now, I am not promoting an anti-science agenda here. I believe human psychology, physiology, medicine, and biology are worthwhile studies with extremely useful results. I also applaud the study and exploration of politics, law, and economics. It was the upward trend in all of these areas, starting during the Renaissance and flowering with the Enlightenment—as well as the basic idea of “knowing” in and of itself—that has given us the comforts and sophistications we enjoy in the 21st century.
And I am not promoting religion here. Morality and ethics can be studied and applied purely in terms of human relationships and transactional equities. They do not relay on any reference to mysticism or the supernatural, on a divine and all-powerful creator and his/her/its commandments, or on any hypothetical judgment and personal disposition to be experienced at the point of transition from this life to someplace else.3
My concern is that by removing the moral dimension of these issues, we remove the human dimension. Sex becomes just something that humans do along with the other animals. Socializing children becomes akin to weaning and raising puppies and kittens. Choice of action becomes an analysis of physical opportunities and perceived consequences. Questions of personal responsibility and personal honor disappear.
A well-raised child absorbs a sense of moral self from his or her parents and family members. Yes, school and peer group also have an influence. But the lessons of the family begin to be ingrained before the child has left the backyard for the schoolyard. An attentive parent—as my mother certainly was—uses pride and shame to shape the child’s reactions. “I’m proud of you.” “I’m disappointed in you.” “We always do things this way.” “We never do that kind of thing.” “You know better than that.” By example and through the pressure of love and parental approval the child learns to know the world.
The child also builds a strong sense of identity as a member of the first circle, the family. This is the place of tradition, the touchstone of identity. A child with a strong moral sense built on parental love and guidance is the one best able to navigate the many choices of action and behavior that will come later in life.
When a child knows who he or she is, and what is expected of him or her by the approvers in that first circle, then that child develops a strong sense of personal honor. “We always do this … We never do that …” gradually becomes “I always … I never …” A child with a strong sense of personal honor is more reliable—and more predictable—when confronted with moral choices than a child who reacts only situationally, seeking the best balance of costs and benefits, or—worse—who only obeys when the minions of an outside law are watching.
This is not some kind of universal morality. Some families may teach “always” and “never” in terms that other families might object to or reject outright. Those are matters of cultural and social norms. But a family which partakes of its surrounding society and culture, and which raises its children with a sense of honor related to the norms of that greater life, does the best service to the society around it.4 Children so raised will know and do the right thing without having to think about it. They will be able to resist temptations to avarice and cowardice more reliably than those who were raised in a climate without moral relevance but with reference to medical, legal, or economic principles.
Each human, at the core, is an individual acting from a unique moral sense. To view and value human beings from the outside looking in, as mere units of unknown capability and responses in a moral pinball machine, is to dehumanize them.
1. By “public discourse,” I mean in the news media, the blogosphere, and the opinions offered through personal updates and comments in social media. This exchange of ideas, both official and unofficial, has created a new kind of national dialogue and national awareness. As I’ve said before, we’re in a whole new world.
2. Not to mention the plot motivations for some of our best plays and stories.
3. However, I do believe that at the moment of approaching death, if we are allowed time for reflection and a “summing up,” it matters whether our last thoughts be those of pride and satisfaction or remorse and regret. A moral being must expect some kind of final review and comment on the quality of the life he or she has led.
4. And raising children without the experience of this first circle, without the family traditions, will lead to the fracturing of that society. I believe this is one of the problems we are facing in America today.