I am currently pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing and during one of my courses we read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. One assigned selection was “On Morality”. I’m simply going to share her concluding thoughts which resonate quite deeply even today.
It is of note that this essay was written in 1965, yet it could have been written yesterday.
Note: Any errors below are mine.
Of course you will say that I do not have the right, even if I had the power, to inflict that unreasonable conscience upon you; nor do I want you to inflict your conscience, however reasonable, however enlightened, upon me. (“We must be aware of the dangers which lie in our most generous wishes,” Lionel Trilling once wrote. “Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.”) That the ethic of conscience is intrinsically insidious seems scarcely a revelatory point, but it is one raised with increasing infrequency; even those who do raise it tend to segue with troubling readiness into the quite contradictory position that the ethic of conscience is dangerous when it is “wrong,” and admirable when it is “right.”
You see I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing — beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code — what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what is “good” and what is “evil.” I dwell so upon this because the most disturbing aspect of “morality” seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work. Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And or course it is all right to do that; that is how immemorial, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not deliud ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committeess, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the specturm, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right so long as we recognize that the end may or not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start decieving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic neccessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when teh thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.