Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Morality of Convenience

The song "Live and Let Die" came to my mind and made me start reflecting on how it serves as a contrast to the common phrase "live and let live." The idea of "live and let die" is that one who began as a person who endorsed "live and let live," who went on one's happy way and allowed others to go on theirs without any sort of condemnatory judgment, eventually became hardened by the evils of the world, resulting in an apathetic cynicism, a kind of ennui towards life.

This reflection in turn made me consider that many of my coworkers and those I notice in society, either through media or social media, subscribe at least unconsciously to a "morality of convenience." Pope Benedict in his homily before the conclave upon his election to the Papacy in 2005 said (source:,
How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true. 
Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.
 The Pope emeritus suggests that relativism is the most common go-to attitude among today's pluralistic society. It seems to be the only attitude that allows each viewpoint a "respectful space" to exist, to "COEXIST" rather, among other viewpoints.

I find, then, that working hand-in-hand with this attitude of relativism, and perhaps lending fuel to it, is the morality of convenience, a moral ethos established on, as Benedict said, "one's own ego and desires." A few examples may help draw out this morality of convenience at work in regular conversation:

1. A woman objects, "It's my body. I can do what I want with it!" Others reply, "Let the woman do what she wants!"

2. People retort, "What does the Church have to do with my private sex life?"

3. Others argue, "What's wrong with gay marriage? It won't harm me, and I don't see the harm that will come from it. I think others exaggerate when they say it will lead to the entire collapsing of our society."

4. COEXIST and TOLERANCE bumper stickers.

5. The oft-used dismissal: "Who are you to judge?" This dismissal is closely related to the other exclamation, usually said in a joking way, a phrase which I even used the other day, "Don't judge me!"

6. "Whatever floats your boat"; "Different strokes for different folks"; "That's good for you" (as opposed to, say, "That's good for you").

The examples can be multiplied. An intellectual argument is presented that can roughly be modeled as follows: my actions are as good as any other, so you cannot condemn them. Ultimately there is no "good." Those who are praised or condemned are treated as such either on the basis of what simply pleases or offends me. Desire and aversion become the framework by which moral action is judged.

And in fact, in this framework, moral action is reduced to something accidental to human life, not essential. We are no longer essentially moral beings with free will who work towards our proper flourishing. We are smart animals who try to get our way in a dog-eat-dog world, all the while paradoxically singing, "Live and let live." Yet we eat each other at any chance we get—a honk here, a flip of the bird there, an abortion here, a random stabbing there, etc.

We no longer have a direction but are like the crowd of swimmers in the tidal-wave pool, supported simply by our floatation devices, trying to stay above the waves that we create with our own machines.

We want to demand our rights and our absolute autonomy and exist as moral atoms.

There are so many contradictions in this viewpoint. An example that came to my mind is the cry of feminists who rail against patriarchal and sexist forces. These same feminists find nothing objectionable about a woman using her body to get what she wants, but the deliberate reduction of the body to an object is simply the same manipulation of a patriarchy but only in a different social sphere. Manipulation is manipulation, plain and simple. One cannot condemn the use of gender or sex-based power for one sex/gender and turn around and advocate it for the opposite sex/gender.

The morality of convenience is borne simply out of convenience, simply out of the most basic animal cognitive processes: the sorting of objects in an animal's awareness into either something 1) favorable, 2) unfavorable, or 3) neutral. All animals do this to the objects that come into their awareness. A morality of convenience simply is a more sophisticated version of this process, one that often makes use of sophistry to justify itself.

And this is why a morality of convenience goes hand in hand with the reduction of man from a moral being with a free will, the object of which ought to be the moral good, to a "smart animal," not much better than apes, self-determining and often acting like a baby or spoiled child.

The Cross is utterly antithetical to the morality of convenience.

How do we overcome the morality of convenience? It is simply the process of growing in holiness as all the Saints have taught. St. John of the Cross especially showed us its basic psychological element, which every spiritual theologian since then has reconfirmed and systematized:

1) We must detach ourselves from creaturely affections.
2) We must attach ourselves to the Divine.
3) Insofar as we detach ourselves from creaturely affections, we become free to reorient our psychological powers to the Divine and open a space in ourselves to be drawn by the Divine, for only by the grace of God can we desire God.

These three steps are a heuristic cycle; each step reinforces the other, and all lead eventually to that perfection of charity that is possible even here on earth.

In fact, St. John of the Cross's analysis is more relevant than ever, for what St. John of the Cross is telling us is the precise remedy to the morality of convenience. The morality of convenience has us pursue objects that please us and avoid or condemn those objects that repulse us. St. John of the Cross tells us to be indifferent to both—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, etc. What does it matter?

Obviously, some objects we ought to be attracted to—such as food when hungry or warmth when cold. Some objects we ought to be repelled by—such as behaviors or things that would probably or certainly entail our death or serious injury. Nevertheless, we ought to be indifferent to what Providence disposes for our experience; thus, if we get into a car accident (and weren't TRYING to get into one by some bizarre misapplication of St. John's teaching), we ought to be indifferent about such a matter and simply praise the will of God that has allowed such an event for our good.

How do we know what we are attached to? It is very easy—just look at what draws you. What do you find favorable? There is a psychological test for determining whether one is attached to something—can you live in the absence of that object for at least three months? This may seem rather strange, but consider—if a person gives up eating chocolate to test whether he is attached to it or not and never thinks about chocolate again (at least until it is accidentally brought to his attention by someone or something else), then it's clear that he isn't attached. But if a man gives up chocolate and finds, even if it's only several times a month, that he craves for it or "sneaks" some chocolate, then we know that he is attached. If his mind continuously fixates on chocolate, even to wonder, "Am I attached to it?" then we know that there is something off. After all, continuously pondering, "Am I attached to it," simply keeps it in mind. Well, if you're not attached to it, paradoxically, you just don't think about the object or the attachment.

As an aside, after I told some seminarians about St. John of the Cross's doctrine and this psychological test, one seminarian bitterly remarked, "Oh, so does that mean if I don't eat carrots for three months, then I'll know that I'm not attached to them?" (Subtext: "This is bullsh**"). The reply would be—yes, if you can continue on with your life without any concern for carrots for three months, then you'll know for sure that you have no attachment to carrots.

Now, having identified what you find favorable and unfavorable, remove yourself from favorable objects and accept unfavorable ones indifferently or even as if it were favorable.

But what about objects that are necessary for life that we may be attached to? Then you'll need to modify the behavior and bring it under a control; this is the place of virtue. For example, an attachment to sleeping—then set boundaries for the sleep and follow them strictly until they become easy, and you are indifferent to whether you get a chance to indulge in sleep or not. (This example may not be the best since most people are sleep deprived and to take the time to fix that would require considerable effort and possibly be impossible to coordinate with one's work schedule...) For eating food, one can follow a diet or give up certain foods or eat only certain amounts at certain times, etc.

Through this process, we transcend our most basic cognitive-psychological process of acting on our desires and provide a space to act in moral freedom, in pursuit of the good.

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