ESSAY 3 ON SOCIAL ORDER
On Tuesday June 4 the New York Police Commissioner formally apologized for the actions of the NYPD 50 years ago when they raided the Stonewall Inn. We were amazed to read about it in the New York Times. The article stated:
On Thursday, as people around the world began commemorating the 50th anniversary of the clash, New York’s police commissioner took a step toward making amends, issuing an unusual official apology on behalf of the Police Department for the actions of officers during the Stonewall uprising. “The actions taken by the N.Y.P.D. were wrong — plain and simple,” the commissioner, James P. O’Neill, said during an event at Police Headquarters. It was an admission that gay rights leaders said was momentous and unexpected, if overdue. “To have the N.Y.P.D. commissioner make these very explicit remarks apologizing, it’s really moving,” said Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, who is gay and who had a day earlier called for a police apology.
The reason for the commissioner’s apology was that it was “a step toward making amends.” I take it this was in order to heal a rift between the New York Police Department and the LGBT “community.”
There must be a reason for the current trend to apologize for ancestors’ egregious behavior, and against refusals to do so. There are 3 categories of response these days: behavior done several generations or even centuries ago, recent actions for which amends are being made, and atrocities for which perpetrators’ descendants refuse to admit the facts. To mention a few:
These 9 examples represent 3 types of hundreds of controversial decisions. Elapsed time is often used as a qualifying factor or an excuse. But the debate is inevitably about what is the moral thing to do. Morality is about action. What action should be taken with regard to the separation of infants from their parents at the US border? What action should be taken against a 95 year-old stage-4 cancer patient who was found to have illegally entered the country after having been a brutal guard 75 years ago at a Nazi concentration camp? What action should be taken to recover from the ethnic cleansing of Croatians in Bosnia?
The rationale for taking action is what ethics is about. The right action is what morality is about. Logical speculation about principles is the main job of philosophy. Ethics is about speculative principles. Ethics is abstract and philosophical, presuming to be universal. And that is connected to the philosophical theory about how social entities are composed, sustained, and changed. Morality is measured by its consistency with ethical principles.
Before going on, please note that to say, “The reason for taking that moral action is because it is the moral thing to do,” is an illogical circular argument. Unfortunately, this justification for taking action is common. It is also illogical to say, “The reason for taking that action is because it is the right thing to do.” The word “right” either means “moral” (and so the argument is circular) or “right” refers to something else that is not being specified (and so the argument is a non sequitur).
Moral codes apply to specific social units. They can and often do take on the force of law. A nation may have no law regarding production or consumption of alcohol. A state may have a tax on sales of alcohol and a law about minimum age for purchasing. A community may have a law about public drunkenness or licenses for establishments that sell alcohol. A church or college may place restrictions on consumption by members of their communities. A family may prohibit consumption of alcohol by all members. Each social unit makes rules that are limited to that unit alone but must not contravene the rules made by other units. On the other hand it can be asserted, “If our rules apply to you, you are part of us.”
Moral codes are cultural decisions made by social and political entities. In fact, the decision about who is entitled to make a decision that is called moral is the main factor that determines the extent of a legitimate social order. The boundaries of a social group are stipulated by the boundaries to which its laws apply.
But what about making objection to particular laws on moral grounds? The rule of law does not allow immoral action, although when the law makes an immoral demand the imperative may mandate changing the law. (E.g. when slavery was legal it was illegal for slaves to try to escape, even though the law was immoral because it was ethically indefensible. The time came when the law itself changed because society deemed it immoral. The argument was that the laws adopted by slave-holding states were illegitimate because they were contrary to a higher law. That higher law was a humanitarian principle because no higher law at the federal level had yet been enacted.) When an individual is compelled to make an independent decision because it is the only moral option despite being opposed by society, either the individual or the society is wrong. If society is wrong it can recognize that error and reorient itself, either by exempting certain categories of people from the provisions of the law, or by changing the law. (E.g. when pacifists objected to mandatory military service the government exempted them before abolishing the draft entirely.) If a society does not do that, either the individual is expelled from the social community or if enough individuals successfully persist in defying the community’s moral code the society adjusts or it collapses and social order disintegrates with it.
Moreover, when individuals are incorporated in a society (no matter if that is by birth, choice, or force) all members of the society share the social identity and consequences of society’s actions. Individuals do not have the option of being beneficiaries of a society without being members who share accountability. In some cases merely being identified with a social or political entity is enough to count as a “benefit” even if one were passive or a victim in it, and is sufficient to hold one jointly accountable for the society’s actions. (E.g. citizens of Germany were accountable for what they knew or should have known about the holocaust going on. Following the war persecuted groups of Germans took great pains to establish the fact that they were either totally exempt or at the bottom of the levels of accountability. Operators did not get away with declaring they were just following orders (the law). Ordinary citizens did not get away with declaring they knew nothing. The new generation of Germans is also as accountable as those in other countries who are descendants of those who inflicted despicable acts.)
It is an ethical distinction without difference between those who defend (actively or passively) an immoral social order and those who oppose a moral social order.
In brief, actions against offenders of the moral order tend to be motivated by the decision to seek one of three things: revenge, recovery, or recompense. When none of those is considered to be valid, the action should not be taken. When there is some other action that would better achieve the objective, the better action should be taken without reference to the worse action. When the objective can be achieved by either of two actions, the simpler action should be considered first.
A distinction must be kept in mind between saying “we are not responsible for our ancestors’ actions” and saying “we have not benefitted from the outcome of those actions.” (E.g. “We did not kill any Native Americans”vs “We are not living on land stolen from them.”) In the first case the attempt is to divorce one’s self from society and ignore any relationship at all with the past. In the other case what needs to be encouraged is recognition that “even if we or our ancestors were victims who were abused and we are here today despite that horrific treatment, our present circumstances are not without compensations that deserve recognition and our situation can be improved within the existing social order.”
Reparations, a form of recompense, are based on the concept that injustice and unfair treatment is still going on. Payment is not to compensate this generation for the failure to adequately recompense ancestors in the past (which would be impossible, considering the extent of inhumane treatment they received). It’s not the argument that African American slaves worked for free, so pay up. It’s the issue that America is still unjust, unequal, and unfair to people of color, so we should allocate money to fix that.
In other cases what needs to be done is simply to return sacred land, or return cultural artifacts to the people from whose ancestors they were taken.
Apologies are about recovery. The issue is how to move forward in a way that we are not yet moving. What’s past is past, of course. The crimes of the past are done, but the consequences are ongoing. Confession is an outward sign of an inner transformation, but there is still more to be done beyond admitting shame and guilt, and even beyond “Truth and Reconciliation.” Hard work must be done to restore just social order. This is the principle behind public apologies that have become increasingly de rigueur. In many cases the motive of the political authority is to seek recovery of a sense of social unity, albeit unity in diversity or ex pluribus unum. It is an attempt to articulate the reality that a social entity does not fully exist in which there is “us versus them”. An apology is an exhortation to let divisions heal by recognizing that they can heal or have healed. Or in some cases the apology is to assert that “we no longer are in agreement with our ancestors who did that,” as when the Pope exonerated Galileo after 400 years (and he simultaneously disempowered whatever Vatican operations might still be hanging onto the rationale that validated Galileo’s conviction). Apologies, above all, recognize social continuity. Apologies of the type we are considering are predicated on the conviction that the social contract is intact.
The test of a moral code is how it punishes offenders.
The rationale for punishing those who break the law usually includes revenge. (1) One form of punishment is to inflict the law-breaker with sufficient unpleasant consequences so as to dissuade others from following the criminal’s example. The argument is that “if we put drug users in prison” others will refrain from using drugs. Countless studies have disproved that this works. It is not a good reason for putting law-breakers in jail. But societies agree to it because it makes them feel better. That is also the operative idea behind wars on drugs that take place when political entities sense that society is about to accuse them of being unable to maintain social order [or to deviously disempower a particular section of the population.] (2) The second reason to punish criminals is to prevent recurrence of immoral behavior. In behalf of a more orderly society some disorderly individuals must be restrained. A just system differentiates between sentencing offenders to hospitals where they can be provided therapy to get well, or simply incarcerating them until they show enough genuine remorse to be safely released. Even in these cases, sentences imposed are so erratic that only revenge accounts for the inconsistencies. (3) Sometimes, needless to say, the operative rationale is simply to subject particular offenders to enough punishment that society achieves emotional catharsis. For example, after the end of World War II war criminals were tried for crimes against humanity and executed despite zero chance they would repeat their offences. Still today, criminals on death row will be executed even if they show immense remorse and their crime is so terrible that there is little need to instill fear in others to keep them from copying the crime. The operative principle is indisputably revenge. The question is, of course, “Is the emotional satisfaction of others sufficient reason to punish offenders when any other benefits to society are lacking?”
It is essential that firm ethical principles underlie the moral order of a society. Ethics is the rationale for the argument that a moral code is consistent, comprehensive and compassionate. The question is “is this moral mandate ethical?”
Without the concept of an inclusive, durable social ethic, the whole idea of a social corporation fails.
This concept is being reviewed in our time. Two factors are driving this review: one is the expanding notion that the individual is dominant in all decision-making, and the other is that individuals are entitled to their emotional satisfaction. In its baldest form, the first concept is that I can ignore social restrictions I disagree with. The second concept is often stated, “I need what I say I need.”
These two widely-held concepts militate against social dominance at the same time as people are losing their ability to distinguish their own voice from the voice of their social group. This is the ethical paradox of post-modernism.
In opposition to the threat of social disintegration social sub-cultures are clinging ever more desperately to their moral codes. It is the destruction of these moral codes, those social communities contend, that threatens social order with chaos. Too often, however, it is just the moral code that they seek to maintain, forgetting about such inconvenient factors as the need for a cohesive social ethic based on principles that can at least conceivably be considered universal
We are confronted these days with the question, “To what extent should the church (or any other religious organization) enforce its moral order?” There are religious communities, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish, as well as Muslim, that assert the need and their right and duty to enforce morality as they see it. When they do this for their constituencies, who are free to agree or withdraw, one could hardly quibble with them. Very frequently the most adamant will try to impel neighbors of all religious persuasions to behave, on the presumption that infringement of that moral code will endanger the social order for everyone. The most radical religious communities feel justified to resort to violence to enforce their moral code.
Those radical groups have confused morality (conceived as rules of behavior) with ethics (speculation about the universal principles for moral behavior). Furthermore, they violate the contract that holds societies together. If a political entity, such as a nation, upholds the principle of diversity, seeking to include diverse communities, the enforcement of a limited moral code upon other communities is unethical. Every society needs a social ethic that unites everyone. But totalitarianism is the only political system that imposes a single moral code upon everyone.
That brings us to the issue of legitimate social communication which is the topic of the next essay in about a month. Previous essays on the subject of SOCIAL ORDER are:
www.kendobson.asia/blog/social-bond essay number 1
www.kendobson.asia/blog/social-contract essay number 2
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.