Three things happened yesterday: South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia. The Pope delivered a blistering indictment of the lynch-pin of all capitalist systems: greed. And the Dalai Lama posted this message on Facebook:
“We are all the same as human beings, we all want to lead a happy life. We can think of every day as a new day. When we wake up we can remind ourselves: I need to be happy. I need to have warm feelings towards others. This builds self-confidence, honesty, transparency, which leads to trust. And trust is the basis of friendship. We are social animals and we need friends. This is a source of happiness I wish to share.”
I’m reminded that, in addition to being social animals, we live in moral frameworks and identify ourselves by virtue of our orientation within these frameworks. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary.” C. Taylor, Sources of the Self, Harvard Press (1989).
Over millennia, our forebears have articulated a host of moral frameworks for themselves and posterity. (Think: animism, Buddhism, Confucianism, polytheism, the Homeric warrior ethic, racism, stoicism, hedonism, monotheism—Judaism, Islam, Christianity, nationalism, existentialism, rationalism, romanticism, individualism, scientism, capitalism, Marxism, new age spiritualism.) Fueled by pride in one or more these moral frameworks, groups have self-identified as “the chosen people,” “a superior race,” “first world people,” “the new world,” “enlightened,” “the greatest nation on earth,” “morally superior,” “modern,” “righteous,” “hard-work and deserving of a greater share,” etc.
These divisions, drawn in moral space for millennia, and as potentially demoralizing and lethal today as at any time in the past, are nevertheless being eroded. Slowly, yes, but at an ever-increasing rate. The seeds of their destruction were planted, in some cases, eons ago. Take, for example, the essential and much-ballyhooed capitalist creed: accumulate, and do not stop accumulating no matter how much you have relative to others, or in absolute terms. In a word: be greedy. Greed is good.
For the past three centuries, this orientation in moral space has flourished in spite of almost never-cited warnings from the Book of James:
“Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower…. Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence….”
Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, acknowledged in a sequel to The Wealth of Nations, that the drive to accumulate wealth is, at best, a “middling virtue.” In his remarks delivered in Bolivia yesterday, Pope Francis went much farther. He called the unfettered pursuit of money “the dung of the devil.”
Defenders of unfettered capitalism will argue, quite rightly, that greed has inspired entrepreneurs to innovate in order to capture greater market share and increase profits. This has raised the standard of living for tens of millions of us. They are silent or grumbling in the face of arguments that capitalism, left unregulated, creates obscene levels of economic inequality, including a class of workers indexed by economic forces to work below the poverty line.
Defenders of the Confederate flag cite its role in preserving Southern heritage, never mind its hurtful symbolism in the eyes of others. That debate is over.
Yesterday’s events typify the slow erosion of moral frameworks that divide people according to their differences—wealth, race, and the like. They suggest to me a direction of change, as well: toward an increased awareness by people everywhere of all that human beings have in common in spite of their differences, and a recognition (as modeled by the Dalai Lama in his Facebook post) that moral inspiration can come from such a holistic awareness renewed daily.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your views. Because the “Comments” function on this website is temporarily out-of-order, please email me at: scottwyattauthor [at] gmail.com.