In Grandmother's Lap

The Spinster Aunt

"Morals are the nagging fear that somebody somewhere may be having a good time."

H. L. Mencken

What is the difference between one of us and Oral Roberts? Well, hopefully there are lots of differences, but the top one on my list is that I work on being ethical and he is a moralist.

The moralist knows how everybody else should behave in order to be a good person, avoid Hell, fit into decent society, etc., etc. He is quite likely to feel that he is a valid exception to all his own rules, since he can handle temptation and control his outcomes. His main characteristic is frantic paranoid distrust of other people. No one should be seen nude, for instance, because this would be unbearably sexually arousing and lead to promiscuity, neglect of ordinary duties, etc. He knows he can control himself, but everybody else has to be "protected" from their evil impulses. His major defense is projection: "I'm not over-sexed, and of course I'd never want to be or want to be unfaithful to my wife, but that woman in the (name situation or article of clothing) sure is asking for it. Ultimate expressions of this type of thinking are wife-beating - one man said, "When I walked into the self-help group I thought that when they heard what I'd had to put up with they'd congratulate me for not having killed her." - and witch-burning - "I am a good person. Bad things do not happen to good people. A bad thing has happened to me. Somebody did it! Kill them!"

In essence, the moralist is saying "It can't be my fault (I'm not able to face the idea that it might be my fault). It must be somebody else's fault. If people would just follow these few simple rules, which I'll be glad to explain to them, nothing would go wrong and I wouldn't have to feel anxious. But since they won't all follow my rules, everything is their fault, not mine, and I don't have to feel anxious."

To me this is nauseating. I have no idea how you "should" behave; who are you? What's the situation? Who else is affected? Even then, the best I could offer would be some suggestions of courses of action which might have good results - but I don't believe there are any simple rules for human conduct which are always "right." What I do believe is that ethical behavior consists of choosing your actions such that you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning without flinching. Which means I can see a Corsican being ethical and killing another person as part of a feud; a gypsy being ethical and defrauding a gaujo. I suspect that what I mean here is that ethics impel you to be true to your own values, while morals make you want to

  1. control others, and
  2. not get caught yourself.

But being ethical implies that they are your own values, which you have thought through and decided to accept, and not just the ones you have swallowed whole from your family or culture.

Marjoe, a famous evangelist who later went straight, described preaching hellfire and damnation and then going back to the motel and making love to his girlfriend of the moment - who had to be flown in from New York so the locals wouldn't know what he was doing. Oral Roberts says people have to give him $8 million, or God will "call him home." These are examples of people whose highest priority is influencing others, making the right kind of impression - the actuality doesn't seem to be really relevant to their choice-making process.

The ethical person, on the other hand, may not care at all about the impression he is giving; he will say in total sincerity "I know I look like a fool for doing it, but I couldn't have lived with myself if I hadn't." Or even harder, "I know you think I'm being hard and cruel, but I honestly believe this is the best solution in the circumstances."

Next issue (are you holding your breath?) the difference between act idealism and absolute idealism, or how to tell a witch from a fundamentalist without a score card.

The Spinster Aunt
From RMPJ, 2/3/1987

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