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The Imperial “I”: When the Self Becomes the Arbiter of Morality
In the past two chapters, we learned about what sets us apart from other creatures: morality and soul. Today, we will be going back to morality and understanding morality and its place in our present society. While before traditional morality was popular, nowadays there has been a new kind of morality that has emerged: liberal or secular morality. Secular morality has been popular in Europe, Canada, Australia and it is now making its way towards the United States. You can see evidence of secular morality within many different cultures; however its main target and growing number of recruits are the young generation. The reason for many of these “culture wars” that involve problems like abortion and homosexual marriages can be understood as a conflict between traditional morality and secular morality.
D’ Souza explains traditional morality as “the idea that there is a moral order in the universe that is external to us and makes claims on us”. During ancient times, “moral order was believed in nature itself”. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Caesar’s death “is convulsed by reports of frightful horrors of nature”. It was believed that the “physical order itself is disrupted prior to some terrible moral crime”. However, today we do not correlate the natural world to the moral realm. We don’t see the physical world to have any connection with our soul. This kind of thinking is thought to be only present in “fairy tales”. Although, this direct link of the natural world to the moral realm has been diminishing, the “idea of an eternal moral order has persisted”.
Traditional morality can be understood as an “objective morality”. D’ Souza explains by saying “it is based on the idea that certain things are right or wrong no matter who says differently”. One of the most well known written codes is the Ten Commandments; and we believe that God is the writer for traditional morality and when we obey by His rules than we are asking for His favor. It is essential to know this, because there are times where good people do not reap the benefits, while bad people prosper. However, God’s position in traditional morality is to make sure that these kinds of “injustices” will be corrected in heaven.
Secular morality surfaced in defiance towards traditional morality. Secular morality teaches that morality is “in here”; while traditional morality points to an external code. Secular morality instructs when one is facing a “moral dilemma”, he/she looks towards our inner self to guide us through that problem. We don’t ask our parents or church pastor for help, instead we figure it out with our inner self being the guide. D’ Souza says that “Secular morality is a quest for our best or true self, which is believed to reside within”.
However, D’ Souza says that there is some type of similarity of this new morality and the traditional one. For instance, the traditional one requires us to abide by God’s commandments; all while “harkening the voice within us”. We believe that “outward behavior is not enough, because there is an inner self that only God perceives”. The difference is that, secular morality looks at the “inwardness as an autonomous moral source”. Philosopher Charles Taylor explains this when he said “I am free when I decide for myself what concerns me, rather than being shaped by external influences. Our moral salvation comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves. Self-determining freedom demands that I break the hold of external impositions, and decide for myself alone”. Essentially, this new secular morality points at themselves as the ultimate standard of good.
Now it is important to understand that secular morality has came from the “romantic philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau”. Rousseau believed that human beings were “originally good” and their environment was what made them corrupt. Human beings cannot be held accountable for this because “society made us do it”. So, in order to find what is good we must reach deep within ourselves and “recover the voice of nature in us”. Rousseau believed that within ourselves, we can find our “true uncorrupted self” that is void of society influences. This is the polar opposite of what Christian’s believe. We believe that our very nature is corrupted by “original sin”. Not only because of the sin of Adam and Eve, but also our nature from the start is sinful. Thus we believe that we need God’s grace in order to transform us from our fallen nature. Whereas, secular people like James Byrnes says that we are ‘the dispensers of our own saving grace”.
D’ Souza notes some similar features that secular morality holds. For example, in traditional Christianity we engage in “self-disclosure and confession”. Born again Christians, would often confess to their old ways; like being drug addicts, drunks, adulterers…etc However, the secular people also engages in these confessions too. We can turn to Oprah or any talk show and find people discussing about their past secretive and shameful lives. The difference in traditional and secular morality though is that in secular morality “the purpose of all this titillating detail is not, however, to surrender these anxieties and turn to Christ. It is to advance the process of self-discovery, aided by audience participation”. Oprah promotes “individuality” that allows people to feel comfortable in their own skin and follow their true selves. It then allows one to become independent and “you are no longer subservient to the will of others, or to the artificial appeal of society”.
The most popular and appealing feature about secular morality is the “formation and preservation of love relationships”. When we question ourselves being in love, we find the answer by digging deep within ourselves and “consulting the inner voice”. D’ Souza says that “we succumb to that inward self so completely that we feel that we have lost control”. This type of love can be called “erotic love” in which it can be considered “beyond good and evil”. C.S Lewis says that this erotic love “tends to claim for itself a divine authority”.
This type of thinking has led to high numbers of divorce in the West. Nowadays a woman that leaves her husband would say “I felt called to leave. My life would have been a waste if I stayed. My marriage had become a kind of prison. I just had to follow my heart and go with Ted”. This kind of divorce gives a “form of personal liberation”, in which it can be called “expressive divorce”. The problem with this love, is that your inner self can lead you wrong. Rousseau has even said that in love “everything is only illusion”. This brings an even deeper problem to secular morality, in which it assumes that “the inner self is good”. Secular morality does not admit that “there is corruption at the core of human nature”. But is this true? When we look at our actions or feelings, we have many selfish motives and self-perpetuation. Even our “good motives” like “pity and compassion” may be from “feelings of superiority and condescension we are reluctant to acknowledge”.
While there is no way to solve the problem of secular morality, D’ Souza says that the Christian solution is to “take conscience as your guide”. While secular people turn to themselves as their “impartial spectator”, we remind ourselves of the ultimate good and “enables us to go beyond what feels good and to do what is right”.
1) What do the terms “traditional morality” and “secular morality” bring to mind? Give some examples of each.
2) Show how secular morality derives from Rousseau’s idea that humanity’s original goodness has been corrupted by society. How did Rousseau depart from the Christian idea of original sin?
3) How do divorce rates illustrate the contemporary force of secular morality?
4) How do self-disclosure and confession function within secular morality? How does this compare to the role of self-disclosure and confession in traditional Christianity?
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