IV. 5. Who Could Have Imagined a Flip-flopping Steven!

 

The more integrated we are in society, the higher position our sense of morality occupies within the hierarchy of our self-perception. Being per se our signature under the contract with our community, our morality has the supreme power to elevate or sink any circumstance in our perception of the environment. The people from that poor neighborhood (chapter IV.1.) – no matter what their count was – would have acted differently, were their sense of morality strong enough to put the gangsters’ crime at the top of their personal perception of the environment.

The opposite relation, though, is also valid: the perturbations in our perception of the environment can significantly influence the position of our morality in our self-perception hierarchy. As Karl Marx has said, people’s “social being determines their consciousness”. Once our self-preservation drive is triggered due to misfortunes, we are more willing to abandon some of the behavioral codes comprising our morality. Since we often blame the community – or a certain part of it – for the situation we have gotten into (our turned-negative perception of the environment), we are willing to take action against it in order to restore our previous status. Therefore we secure ourselves with a selective morality, justifying our deeds as necessary and right. Deprived from some of its “ingredients” our “old” community-oriented morality becomes a hollow form, a feeble circumstance in our self-projection hierarchy, which guides us only when we have to shield our new life philosophy from the others, and preserve the authority we have in front of them.

The phenomenon of disintegrating morality into separate parts is the closest we can get to introduce its very essence. The behavioral codes mentioned above are nothing more (or less) than separate circumstances constituting our sense of morals. Morality is not a monolithic term; it is an entirely new conglomerate of circumstances within the conglomerate of circumstances forming our self-perception. These circumstances are also bound in a dynamic relationship; they fight for supremacy too. You don’t have to go far to find an instance. “Honor your father and your mother” and “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife” are the first two frequently clashing notions that come to mind. Both are crucial parts of our moral system, occupying a very high position in its hierarchy. Yet, often some of us have to choose between them, obeying one and inevitably neglecting the other.

When Steven got kicked out of his job he barely suspected the scale of rough luck that had overtaken him. He still had his investments, his resume and his professional knowledge, all of which were impressive enough to keep him optimistic. He took his time fiddling around for a while, and only when his wife started talking about the impossibility of booking the same vacation package as last year’s,  he started shopping for a new job…

It is November already, and Steven is still unemployed. Long gone are the yacht, the mountain cabin and the plans for two week leisure time in Aspen. Since no one has taken interest in him, neither his experience nor his professional knowledge as an engineer seem so solid anymore. Then there are the investments, which have been almost completely wiped out by the general economic downfall. Feeling the uncomfortable tickle of panic Steven starts calling long forgotten classmates and colleagues from his first jobs whom until recently he used to consider completely out of his life. After the first three awkward sentences of reminding them who he is he asks for any job opportunity they might have to offer. Several of his acquaintances agree to meet him. With some of them he has to stay late at night enduring their drinking and their sleazy sex memories; to others he should do some small personal favors like writing an article about their achievements or introducing them to his influential friends… Of course, Steven wouldn’t humiliate himself with any of these chores if he weren’t in a dire, hopeless situation. But the worst part of his job-seeking nightmare starts when he has to give some insider information from the database of his former company. The friend who asks for it promises that Steven will be hired by the end of the fourth quarter. As for the information, he claims that this is an innocent inquiry conducted for purely statistic purposes. A desperate Steven continues to provide the guy with information well into the first quarter of the next year.

Pressed by the circumstances Steven has gone far beyond what his morality normally would allow him to do. Yet, he doesn’t feel guilty. His self-preservation drive has come up with a version of his morality according to which his new behavior seems totally acceptable. This version contains behavioral codes like “You shall not commit adultery”, but completely omits the immediately following “You shall not steal”, farcically substituting it with, say, “showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

A perception of the environment topped by negative circumstances always suggests leaning to a self-centered individual morality, because our self-preservation drive is put on the alert. The more permanent the negative circumstances in our perception of the environment are, the more inveterate our egotistic morality would be. The loss of the job can seem to blow up our world, but usually this is a temporary situation. It doesn’t stay as our top outer circumstance forever. One day we come back to our senses and to the larger picture of our life. But if our upbringing is accompanied by ceaseless threats and punishment we inevitably start viewing the environment as something evil. Unfortunately, due to the strength of the first impression on an innocent soul we can be haunted by this notion forever. As a consequence we completely reject the community morality; to us it is a system of restrictive codes, whose acknowledgment means nothing but humiliating obedience. Instead, we develop an alternative, self-preserving morality that could last much longer than those temporary downturns in our morality caused by crises later in our lives. This is why smart parents educate their children by means of persuasion (as opposed to compulsion), thus appealing to their self-projection. They do everything to kindle the children’s instinct for socializing, which turns following community morality into a natural part of the self-expression of the youngsters. In their little minds the common interest ceases to compete with their own, and what to others looks like encroachment on individuality, to them becomes a rewarding experience.

As for adults, morality is independent of all outer cataclysms and occupies an immutable high position only in the self-perception of people who have “the general idea” (chapter IV.4.). Driven by high ideals and principles, they have the guts to face their own role and responsibility in the negative turn of their lives.

There is a very strong interdependence between self-projection and self-preservation (chapter II.2.). Every incoming bit of outer information activates one of these drives and disables the other. The moral codes we have to follow are not an exception of this rule. Depending on its essence , every incorporeal, spiritual demand which community imposes on its members, from manners to political ideology to religion, either “clicks” with our self-projection and mutes our self-preservation, or limits our self-projection, thus triggering our self-preservation. The results form two completely opposite trends. Self-projection produces individual morality that connects with the community; the groups which the person joins are not antagonistic but an integral part of a larger society; this individual believes in common morality and enriches its power through her own contributions. When triggered, self-preservation alienates the person from her community; even when its moral values happen to be worthy, once imposed by force they are met with mistrust and are never embraced; her individual morality defines itself mainly through the extent to which it opposes the larger morality of the community.

Developing and following a sense of morality in accordance to the commonly acknowledged values of humanity as a whole is an investment, the dividends from which arrive only if we don’t expect them. If we do, we violate the very core of morality. Being the reason for thinking and behaving unselfishly, morality takes its revenge when we start playing around with it and adjusting it to our own ends. Remember King Lear?

© 2010 Peter Budevski

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