Morality – the downside

We have often discussed the concept of morality. Obviously for someone without a belief in a supernatural authority but, instead, a 'belief' that natural selection is the main factor in the creation of our social code, it is possible to see how morality can work unexpectedly. To function well in our age, a social code, our morality, depends on encouragement from a combination of law and social pressure. And as we can easily see, where the law does not work very well and where social pressure is not benign but actually malign, the morality of that area can be a contradiction in terms - at least for those who look at it from the outside.

The social pressure of your group can have very variable consequences. To be accepted, some groups require as part of their social code the commission of what would normally be considered immoral, or even illegal, actions. If I am in a disadvantaged area, I am likely to find that stealing cars or dealing drugs would be considered necessary behaviour if I wanted to be part of a gang. I'm expected to lie to the police for my friends. But in this situation, the rest of us gang up on them, the people we consider criminals. We use the law, with force when necessary, to prevent them acting to the detriment of society as a whole.

But when dysfunctional morality is not confined to a residential neighbourhood but is something much more diffuse, the difficulty becomes much more difficult to manage. We see this in our political world, where there are special interest groups that compete to have influence over the government. They offer money - political donations - to get it. There is a deep suspicion that the government is not by the people for the people, but by a clique for its supporters. In fact we have just seen an obvious example in the elevation to the House of Lords of numerous Johnson cronies. 

But it can take many forms. A particularly egregious example was a promise made by Trump during his 2016 election campaign. Religious conservatives decided to support Donald Trump for president because he promised to appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices, but also because he promised a change in the tax code. The law does not allow any political donation to be tax deductible. But donations to what we would call charities, churches included, are tax deductible. Hence the passing of a law in 1954 to prohibit the use of money by charities for political purposes.

Trump promised to repeal the law. Its repeal would allow churches and other non-profits to start to lobby for specific causes, campaigning on behalf of politicians, and supporting or opposing candidates for office. While opponents of the law often framed their objections in terms of free speech, the primary impact of Trump’s promise was financial. The repeal meant that pastors would be able to endorse candidates from the pulpit, which they weren’t allowed to do by the 1954 law. And so a lot more politically motivated money could flow via donations to churches. It would make religious groups much richer and more powerful in American politics. Something which the religious right very much approves of. An obvious example of corruption amongst ‘the Righteous’.

And Trump now claims to have indeed set the Churches free, by an executive order he has signed and which, he says, overrides the law passed by Congress. It doesn’t, but as the principal purveyor of fake news, he keeps claiming success to bolster his re-election prospects - and the evangelicals are lapping it up. He is their Saviour.

Sectarianism, whether founded on religion or ethnic origin is a widespread problem.  We manage to keep it under some degree of control in our democratic Western countries, although clearly it is fraying at the edges in a number of European Union states. But sectarianism is both inconsistent with democracy and also a foundation for corruption. The reason is that corruption is often regarded by those engaged in it not as immoral, but as a form of virtue. An underpaid official in an underdeveloped country who takes a bung from a stranger, perhaps to give a necessary certificate, will share that money with his family. As one corrupt Fifa official once told a Times journalist and former Olympic sportsman (off the record): “I would be failing in my duty to my people not to extract as much as I can.”

You see the same result in the practice of nepotism. When a politician gives a job to a member of his clan, he usually disadvantages a more qualified stranger, thereby weakening the ability of that state to function well. The economist Michael Muthukrishna has said: “Corruption can be seen as a form of co-operation at one level (the faction). The problem is that this undermines co-operation at the level of wider society.”.  Unless the moral demands of the faction come second to the interests of the nation, then the nation will suffer, something seen particularly in underdeveloped parts of the world that have struggled to enjoy stability.

But there is another important effect of group pressure. The pressure binds us to the morality of our group, but also, at the same time, acts to curb the change of that moral or social code, for better or for worse. It is likely that the slowness of change is the reason why many people believe that we have absolute morality. In principle, it should change when its non-adaptive nature becomes too much to ignore. But while others act as if all is well, then not many people in the group will question the situation. Those involved at the centre, therefore, are often the last ones to understand the situation. And it is this blindness to the current situation that is often important in connection with many current disasters.

We see an example in the horrendous explosion in Beirut. The incompetence of the authorities was criminal. Foreign aid will be given, but that won't solve the underlying problem. The root problem is not the explosion, but the system of government that allowed it. Lebanon is criss-crossed by internal divisions based on relatives, clans or religion that have existed for centuries and are now incorporated into the power-sharing agreement that ended the civil war in 1990. But it is an agreement that fossilizes the problems that led to the civil war. In an attempt to satisfy everyone, there are political roles that the constitution assigns exclusively to 18 different religious factions. And this encourages the intra-group pressure to favour your own people, which in turn explains why the country cannot function. Each group looks out for itself. There is no general concept of morality or even law that really brings these groups together.

At least not until now. From the people on the street to the Lebanese ambassador to the United Kingdom, many now speak of this catastrophe as a possible turning point in the way people think. They have perhaps seen the non-adaptive nature of the existing situation, with its inherent corruption and consequent hopeless inefficiency. It seems that they are beginning to recognise the need for a change in the weight to be given to the morality of special interest groups in favour of the need to build a an overarching morality, a social code for a real nation. And this is the only long-term solution for Lebanon and many other failing states - when a critical mass of its citizens puts nation above faction, and the rule of law replaces the pernicious morality of the clan.

Paul Buckingham

11 August 2020

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