Thursday, October 3, 2013

A new, (for me), thought about moral sentiment

Something I've noticed as an owner over time of various cats and dogs: When you come upon them doing anything out of the ordinary they automatically act nervous or guilty. They are concerned that they may be doing something you might disapprove of and they may try to avoid contact with you no matter how affectionate they are under normal circumstances. I think it shows how they respect your moral authority. And why do you have such mighty moral authority? I think it is primarily because they know how dependent they are upon you. Who pays the piper calls the tune morally as well as economically.

Is this a principle of cultural dynamics? Perhaps. It could mean that those we understand to own or control the means of our safety and welfare automatically become moral leaders. They might be government and politicians or business and captains of industry or some combination varying with individual circumstance and perspective. In the middle ages the moral authorities were the nobility and the church which between them owned nearly everything. The point here is that conformity to the desires of the major asset owners goes beyond mere pragmatic acknowledgement of dependency, it leads to a sense appropriate social order or propriety.

Karl Marx, of course, understood the social and political order as directly derived from the ownership of the means of production but I am talking of a more psychological effect here whereby moral relationships derive from perceptions of dependency upon owners of certain assets, specifically assets not dedicated to the immediate needs and wants of their owners but employed for social or commercial purposes. To the extent that commerce and politics are concerned with acquisition specifically of just those assets they are a means of acquiring moral, and consequently political or social, authority. Also, charity can be seen as a means of buying moral authority even if that is not its intent.

If we see the state as having moral authority, (contrary to libertarian theory or to natural law which invests moral authority more or less exclusively in individuals), then it would be because of the dependency of our welfare upon it which derives, in turn, from its command of material resources devoted to collective security. It isn't really because of an imaginary "social contract". It is because the state has an army -- so might makes right after all.

I am only being descriptive here. Morally, I still believe that we possess a natural sympathy for our fellow beings which in accordance with natural law lead us as by an invisible hand to seek the common good out of self interest even when unenlightened. Enlightenment in our self interest nevertheless can be quite helpful. To this end we need to be cognizant of the extent to which government and business property may be artificial either in its qualities or its quantities and thereby conferring upon its owners moral authority which may be less than entirely legitimate. In particular, the natural sentiments that work to put stamps of moral approval upon the decisions of government and business may have been unnaturally amplified and distorted through the operation of ideology and a priori moral imperatives. In hindsight, we can see this pretty clearly in the case of the medieval church and feudal estates. One wonders what we may be failing to understand about the present moral authority of government and business.

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