|Murdoch says the key is to meditate on the good and the beautiful|
Photograph of Hampton Beach, Christmas Day 2014
CC Jean Stimmell
When I was young, success was not being rich but being a person of good repute: honest, hardworking, and willing to help others. We were taught stories in school about how presidents should be honest and of good character: stories about how George Washington confessed about cutting down the cherry tree and Abe Lincoln walking 3 miles at night to return 6 cents he had overcharged a customer.
In addition, we held religious stories in common, like it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of an needle that a rich man to enter heaven. Now, however, we have elected a rich man as our president, who is an inveterate lier and serial adulterer, cheating even the contractors who built his hotels and casinos. Yet he is revered by much of working-class America and applauded by religious conservatives.
This decline in morality is the result of many factors. Two immediately come to mind. The first is moral relativism, advocating an “anything goes” attitude, personified by Trump and his supporters. Interestingly, back in the 1960s, conservatives were blaming “leftists” in our universities for promoting such decadence.
However, those college professors were not advocating that all truths are equal. What they were saying is that when you look closely at a text or a society, it soon becomes apparent that the truth people see depends on where they stand in society. A current situation that illustrates this divide is Black Life Matters protesters versus the police: Each side makes a different claim on what is true.
Of course, 1960s hippies have always been blamed for pursuing an “anything-goes” morality. But one could make a strong case that we were experimenting, searching for a new caring, person-centered morality, as opposed to the existing patriarchal model that dropped atomic bombs on Japan and killed millions of peasants in Vietnam.
Another signal event that helped usher in our moral decline happened 50 years ago this month when Milton Friedman, a leading economist, wrote his “free market manifesto that changed the world.”1 In essence, he said, forget about morality and ethics. In no uncertain terms, he asserted that business has no responsibility for the welfare of its workers or to society; it’s sole responsibility is to make money. He call to arms spread like a virus.
Spurred on, in part, by his manifesto, the 1980s became known as the“Decade of Greed, ” personifying avarice and an anything-goes attitude, according to Time Magazine.2 Meanwhile our society continued to become more secular with fewer people going to church. I don’t know if that is a lagging or leading indicator.
The contagion has now spread until it is the only game in town. Everything has become transactional. Forget the Golden rule: if a transaction is good for a company or individual, jump on it, no matter what the consequences to others.
From this brief history, it is evident that Trump is not the cause of our downfall, but a symptom of a distressing trend. I’ve been mulling what has gone wrong and and what can be done to reverse the trend. Retrieved from dusty history, I came across a remedy: “The Sovereignty of the Good” by Iris Murdoch, first published in 1970.
Murdoch, a novelist and moral philosopher who recently died at the age of 100, fought against the cultural relativism, turning back the pages of history to not her idol Plato: he was a true believer in an ultimate reality, although he thought most could only access it in low resolution, as shadows on the wall.
This trancendental reality, Murdoch says, is The Good, something we are all familiar with “by instinct.“ “The ordinary person understands some things are better than others.”3 But to clearly apprehend what is good, one must work at it, like you do with any other endeavor. For example, to become good at mathematics: you must be introduced to the principles and practice them. All our religions recognize this need for practice.
Murdoch writes there is “a place both inside and outside religion for contemplating the Good, not just by dedicated experts but by ordinary people.”4 The most important thing we must do is to get outside our anxiety-ridden minds: “to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue.”
“Our ability to act well ‘when the time comes'”, she says, “depends partly, perhaps largely, upon the quality of our habitual objects of attention.” For this reason we should meditate, with a “just and loving gaze”, upon those things that appear to be good and beautiful.5
For the sake of my soul, crying out from the cauldron of incivility we find ourselves in, I have pledged to follow Iris Murdoch toward her vision of the good.
3 Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge Great Minds) (p. 95). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
4 Ibid. p 99