Ethics and Morality

The Jewish Humanist, March 1986

Ethics and morality. They are not trivial issues. They are the very stuff out of which daily decision making is made.

Moral issues of the ’80’s will be the theme of this year’s Retreat discussion. They are bound to stir up some provocative dialogue.

Over the past 20 years, moral values in America have been radically altered. They have been molded by the traumatic political and social events which have left their mark on the American psyche.

The Vietnam War altered our view of patriotism and respect for government. The Black Power movement changed our attitudes toward civil disobedience and conformity to the law. The feminist campaign assaulted our traditional perspectives on gender inequality and the role of women in our society. The contraceptive revolution undermined our conventional vision of sexual behavior and sexual restraints. The psychotherapy “explosion” redirected our attention from historical values like duty and guilt to newer concepts like self-fulfillment, autonomy, and happiness. The persistence of affluence guided us away from an obsessive concern with work to an appreciation of leisure and leisure skills. And the cosmopolitan influence of Eastern religions introduced us to the importance of meditation and holistic health.

But the moral revolution produced its problems. In the heyday of its churning, the consequences of all this change were not clearly discerned. Many of its advocates did not reckon with the negative side of its assault on traditional values. The recession of the early ’80s dramatized the limitations of an ethics of leisure (“Finding oneself” simply became too expensive). The appalling divorce rate and the breakdown of the old family structures brought into question the feminist assault and the self-absorption of self-fulfillment.

The increasing isolation and alienation of so many citizens challenged the values of personal autonomy and sexual liberation. The fundamentalist religious revival reminded us of the danger of tearing down all authority structures and replacing them with clichés about options. And the pervasive disillusionment and pessimism among both the old and the young became an indictment of freedom without direction.

In the environment of the more sober ‘80’s, we need to assess the meaning and value of the moral revolution. Many of its changes were important and necessary. But some of its claims were naive, and many of its effects were harmful.

Because of the excesses of its proponents, we are experiencing a social and political backlash that may undo a good part of its positive achievements.

In order to get a handle on the problem, we need to focus on three ethical issues that dominate our personal decision making.

The first is the issue of risk vs. security. Conservatives have historically been concerned with safety and protection, with law and order, with evenness and stability. Liberals have usually opted for adventure and excitement, novelty and experiment, danger and the rejection of the routine. Both sides have often been carried away by their anxieties and enthusiasm. What is needed is an appropriate balance between the two.

The second issue is the issue of commitment vs. freedom. Conservatives have generally used the vocabulary of duty and obligation, of responsibility and eternal promises. Liberals have resisted with an alternative vocabulary of freedom and self-determination, of dignity and self-esteem. Their controversy has often led to pushing harmful extremes. A rational morality hovers somewhere in between their respective propagandas.

The third issue is the problem of authority vs. autonomy. Conservatives tend to emphasize the necessity of subordinating individual judgment to the wisdom of the past. Liberals are more likely to insist on the importance of personal judgment, personal conscience, and individual uniqueness. When either side is followed to its logical extreme, tyranny or chaos prevails. Neither external authority nor autonomy can be absolute.

These three issues dramatize the moral agonies of the ’80’s.