The human moral decision-making process seems mostly random: Our laws are enforced differently depending upon race. Religions put out a conditional morality through allegiance to their exclusive society. Our President merely pretends to have a moral center. Corporations rape the land, sea and air. Our schools cower to politics resulting in clipart substitutes for the power of moral art. Hate groups hire lawyers trained in religious colleges to sneak hateful bigotry into law. New York Times columnists have to chastise other journalists for food-related arrogance. And the christian school where I endured my freshman year is regularly noted for being the most anti-LGBT campus in the US.
I’m not a philosopher. As a matter of fact, I almost failed Intro to Philosophy as a freshman at Grove City College, an extreme, alt-right school, well, at least in terms of LGBT issues. I was not afraid to ask the kind of questions that caused the whole class to turn and gape at me. I challenged the concept of god no matter what the topic of the day. My questions were genuine, but didn’t always match the syllabus, so the minister/professor who obviously preferred grad students to freshmen was quite frustrated with me. He failed me on a paper I had put a lot of time into. I challenged him point by point on what I had written and it became obvious to both of us that he hadn’t bothered to read it. He had judged me on my non-christian attitude in class not the paper itself, so, I passed the course. The ethical merit of his actions was typical at the school – repent if and when you get caught, otherwise keep up the pretense. It was a place to learn moral pretense and hypocrisy.
Old furniture has a moral value to some people. People who value functionality would rather sit comfortably in a chair while having enough room to eat dinner at the table. For others, the expression of status is inherent in the furnishings of their abode. The list of criteria necessary to make value judgments on a chair or a table is daunting. I’m more proud of the fact that I inherited the dough box from Aunt Charlotte than its dollar value, which I have never bothered to discover. I give the object, the thing, the dough box – sentimental value which comes from my heart. Its place in my family history and its aesthetic qualities evoke joy within me. The antique crowd gives it a dollar value.
If the box were to be broken in an accident, would the person who breaks it be guilty of an immoral act? Well, I know how upset I’d be, but I wouldn’t make too big a fuss about it. Damaging another person’s property is a violation of the moral code we live by. I can forgive an accident but once the judgment of the antique crowd places a dollar value on it, the issue gets complicated. A different kind of sentiment becomes important by the introduction monetary value. In that mind-set, my feelings about the object become irrelevant. Objects with dollar signs attached are morally superior to things of mere sentiment. The person who broke it would feel much more guilt if she knows the dollar value of the piece. Her sense of guilt would go up accordingly with the dollar value. That list of criteria that assigns a price tag to an object is devoid of feeling. The result is we become confused with what we truly value: the emotions derived from the object itself or emotions derived from the money it represents.
Who can we turn to when deciding the morality of a situation? Not philosophers who are still asking that question themselves. Not lawyers, duh, nor the cops. Not the spiritual leaders – they hire lawyers to pick on gays. Not teachers. Not Presidents. And not corporations. We must look at all these resources while taking them with a boulder of salt, not just a grain.
The answer comes from inside us.
Seriously, art helps make things clear to us. It could be a poem, a play, a novel or a song. It may not have any words at all like a painting or a sculpture or ballet. It may be grand and bombastic or calm and lyrical. Let the art transport you into the world it creates to experience its message and emotion, then come back changed because of the journey.
It won’t be like googling, “how to be moral” on the internet. You can’t go to art with a question expecting THE answer, but it will move you to another place and perspective. Perhaps you already know this new place and can revisit it as an old friend. Perhaps you will totally disagree with the premise. Perhaps it will disturb or shock you. It may make you cry. Art as a whole has no agenda, individual pieces have different meanings but there’s no dogma in art. There are no rules or formulas to follow, and yet it instructs you emotionally and intellectually. Art is, by its nature, altruistic.
The moral lesson intended by the artist may not even be the one you carry away after experiencing the work. I was able to endure my freshman year by repeatedly listening to scratchy records of the musicals Oliver and Fiddler on The Roof, along with the Who’s rock opera Tommy. They all had the theme of an individual struggling against and surviving an unjust society. People take journeys away from their homes to find a new life where they can be the person they are. None of them mentioned being gay but they taught me much of what got me through my internal coming out process. Even a show like Grease with its questionable lesson of getting-the-guy by lowering personal standards and conforming to marginal behaviors has value for the discerning observer.
As with anything, art should be used with discretion and determination. Art helps make clear the questions alive in the world, however, it is up to the consumer of art to find the answers. Art is an excellent starting point for the discovery and resolution of moral concerns. If you seek answers from those who repeat dogma such as priests, mullahs or rabbis, you get a cookie-cutter answer – they think, so you don’t have to think. Their cookies may not have the ingredients you require. The thing is that you already have all the ingredients necessary within yourself. Art will help you find yourself so you can answer the questions for yourself. Make your own cookies.