One of my most favorite topics to explore is morality. In fact, for my seniors’ final last year, they had to construct their own definitions of morality. We looked at how morality fits into disciplines, such as psychology, government, pop culture. We asked questions such as, “Is our society on a moral decline?”, “Who gets to decide what is moral?”, “Is morality universal?”. This week, I took a To Kill a Mockingbird workshop with Facing History, and was asked to ponder a question about morality that I had never been asked: How do we know when someone has displayed moral growth?
In order to answer this question, we first must determine our definition of “morality”. In their projects, some of my students said laws always dictate morality, or that morality cannot be dictated by fate, or that morality is always whatever the “good” decision is. My dad says that morality is putting something back into society. I originally set my own definition of morality on whatever decision best benefits the greater number of people, but after taking this workshop, and pondering the question of “what is moral growth”, I think I want to qualify that definition: morality is when power and control is either inserted or subtracted in order to benefit the common good of people. Let’s deconstruct this definition:
Power and Control: I believe that 99% of our actions are motivated by asserting our own power and control. In my opinion, it is not necessarily the decision that is made, but rather the intentions behind that decision that should be the main focus. You might think of a time when you had a room mate you did not get along with; so, one day, you decide to park in their spot. Now, if you park in their spot because you broke your leg, and it’s legitimately closer for you, then that might be excusable. However, if you are parking in their spot just because you want to inconvenience them, then that is a power move; you are trying to make your room mate servile to you by making them park in a different spot. Or, you might think of a time when you were arguing with a significant other and you hung up the phone. If you just drove into The Land of No Service, and your call dropped, that is excusable. However, if you hung up the phone because you were mad and trying to prove a point, then that is asserting your power and control over the situation; you are basically suppressing your significant other’s voice, giving them the inability to respond, and therefore, suggesting that, “If you want to continue this relationship, you must abide by MY rules, when I say we can talk”. Or, you might think of a time when you offered to pick up coffee for your cubicle mates. If the intention to pick up coffee was genuinely to be nice, then that is excusable. However, if the intention to pick up coffee was in order to force people to say thank you to you, then that is asserting your power and control, because by forcing people to say thank you to you, you are placing them in a position of submission.
Inserted or subtracted: For the most part, I would say that power and control should always be subtracted from decisions. At the beginning of the school year, I always show my students a piece of my writing with the intention of sending the message that, “Hey, I know how to write, you don’t, so you better listen to me”. I am inserting power and control into this scenario, because I need to establish myself as an authority figure, as an expert writer, so that the students listen to me when I talk about writing. That is an appropriate time to insert power and control, students learning to write translates to students being able to think, which translates to students being able to make informed and conscious decisions. That’s for the common good of people. However, there are many instances where power and control is inserted in order to subtract someone else’s in an oppressive way. For example, say you are sitting in a meeting, and someone shares an idea that is actually a good idea, but it didn’t come from your head, so you attack them and put down the idea so their idea is not used; you are inserting your own power in order to subtract someone else’s. The intention was to shush someone else so that your idea gets used, not theirs. That is not for the common good of people.
Benefit the common good of people: In my opinion, benefiting the common good of people is not necessarily the decision that I like, but it is the decision that benefits the most amount of people (which, in some cases, means I might have to sacrifice something about myself ). For example, I always try to refrain from parking in the front spots. Even though I would really like to be close and not walk that far, I always think about those who are elderly or have small children who might benefit from those spots more than I; I sacrifice something about myself for the greater good. Or, I might have had a really stressful day, and I am tired and would prefer to just lay in my bed, but, if I don’t show up to my softball game, my team can’t play; so I show up, because showing up, and my team being able to play, is for the greater good of people. Or, there might be a time when I am in a social setting, and the group is currently talking about the Rockies winning, but I really want to talk about Eurrogeddon; I refrain from changing the topic, because no one else wants to talk about Eurogeddon, they want to talk about baseball, and thus, maintaining the conversation is benefiting the common good of people.
So, we can see moral growth when people (or literary characters) make moves to insert or subtract power and control in ways that benefit the common good.
How do we know a character exhibits supreme moral growth? We all recognize that characters, such as Atticus Finch, hold strong moral centers. So, perhaps ultimate moral standing occurs when one has stripped away everything that is innately human. In yoga, the term is “satya”: truth; viewing the world from an unbiased, unfiltered, un-selflish perspective. I believe, as humans, we are selfish. We are lazy. We are jealous, self-serving, pleasure driven, territorial. We shun those who are different, we ostracize those who speak up. We don’t like it when people question our authority (although we love having authority over others). We don’t adapt well to change. We are born corrupt, and in order to exemplify this strong golden code, perhaps we have to strip down everything that is innately human. When I think of the most moral people (or literary characters I know), they are all characters whose nature do not allow them to be selfish, pleasure driven, or territorial. If we want to be moral, we must get rid of our self-serving behaviors, so that we are certain that coffee run was not to boost our place in the company. We must purge ourselves of our selfish motivations, so that we are certain we are careful that our existence does not impede others’. We must free ourselves of jealousy, so that we can genuinely and sincerely celebrate others’ accomplishments.
Perhaps it is when we can be as far away from being innately human that we are the most moral creatures.