Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Doing the right thing is worth money in the bank
Did you hear the one about the artist, the engineer and the editor? “I don’t want to be judgmental,” insists the young artist, flogging his McMansion-based project. “Let me reassure you all that we’re not being judgmental about the suburbs,” interposes the creative engineer, convener of the zero-carbon forum. “We always have to take a balanced view,” confides the journal editor over a working breakfast, “in case we’re seen to be partisan or judgmental.”
“Do it!” I want to shout. “Pass judgment. Say something stupid, wild, crass or just plain wrong but for GODSAKE voice an opinion.”
Artists, engineers and editors, maybe even more than the rest of us, exercise judgment all the time. Their professionalism, their very livelihood (and sometimes ours) depends on it. But that’s not the kind of judgment they mean. The kind of judgment they must on no account be seen with is moral judgment. Having moral views is just OK. Making them public is not.
Once, not so long ago, the opposite was true. Once it was impolite to discuss money or politics in mixed company. But if you lacked an avowed moral code – OK, let’s be frank, if you lacked the avowed moral code – you were distinctly suss.
These days, use the word moral and people think sex. Or rather, antisex. To advocate moral behaviour is to sound like some wizened family-first nutter.
But sex is morality’s least interesting – because the most private – aspect. All the big battles of history, from slavery to the 40-hour week, were argued in overtly moral terms. Right versus wrong.
Now we approach work, education, health and war less as moral issues than as economic ones. Even child abuse, thanks to last week’s $11 billion to $30 billion annual price-tag from Access Economics, we can now grasp as an abomination not against God, or some antique moral code, but against treasury.
Just as Descartes doubted everything he could doubt and was left only with the self, we doubt everything we cannot measure and are left only with money. Money has become our sole common and demonstrable value. So we end up, bizarrely, deferring to Warren Buffett, Gerry Harvey and their ilk as moral leaders.
We do have other values. But we don’t feel confident, or perhaps justified, in giving them external force. We feel – and this is quite new – that morality is something private; so private it’s almost shameful.
Morality has fallen into the same subjectivity-bucket that we dropped beauty into some time back. Just as architects habitually clothe arguments for beauty in terms of cost, managers and professionals are happier pushing a “right” course of action if they have a budget rationale.
There are many strands of enlightenment thinking tangled in this particular knot. Scientism, for one, has so entrenched the idea of “real” as a synonym of “material” that people look askance at anything as ephemeral as belief. While secular humanism, in making man the measure of all things, has facilitated (though it in no way mandates) a self-referential solipsism that enwraps us both individually and as a species.
Pluralism, more recently, has us so eager to accommodate Beliefs And Opinions Different From Our Own that morality itself has come to seem like some consenting-adults kind of luxury. Something relative and personal. Something you do in your own home but never, ever discuss.
And then there’s feminism which, in elevating process and relationship over product and principle, has so overvalued niceness as to discourage utterance of anything potentially offensive, injurious or disagreeable, even (or perhaps especially) if it’s true.
None of these is bad in itself. Each, indeed, has had huge positive spin-offs. But also in the room is a kind of moral laziness, or cowardice. The same laziness that has parents let their kids fall asleep in front of telly rather than do battle combines with the above, forming a sneaking societal urge to condone forced marriage, adulterer-stoning and systemic corruption as just more cultural difference. Like, whatever.
We know it doesn’t work. It is now terrifyingly clear, even as we duck to avoid its flailing death-throes, that the threadbare monetarist-materialist mindset fails in business, let alone saving the planet. We’re watching it hit the wall. And yet, just minutes from where decisive global action will be critical, we find ourselves lacking the complex public morality that could equip us for it.
Why? Because although we dumped public morality in the name of pluralism, its absence, allied with the new politeness, produces not diversity of opinion, not vibrant variegated debate, but the uniform beige of political correctness.
Many of us are nostalgic for a time when you could be poor and respectable. When there was more than one public measure of a person’s worth, more than one hierarchy. If we are ever to re-establish such a framework, we must be brave enough to debate right and wrong in public; to extract common principles, reinvigorate our moral language and do the right thing – quaint as this may sound – simply because it is right.