Saturday, May 10, 2014

Journal of a Soul 53

People and Systems

As I write these few words, The Irish Times reports the following:

Sgt Maurice McCabe, whose allegations about malpractice prompted the establishment of the inquiry by barrister Seán Guerin, welcomed its findings and said it had vindicated him. “It is a good day after six years of fighting the system. Now I hope my family and I can move on,” he said, expressing his thanks to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin for taking on his case and passing on his concerns to the Taoiseach. (See here )
Thorny branch versus water: Marley Park April, 2014
For non-Irish readers of these posts, the gentleman in question, Sergeant Maurice McCabe is a whistle blower within the police service, namely An Garda Síochána, here in Ireland. He and another former Garda, one John Wilson, have been treated atrociously by "the powers that be" within that police force, being viewed as traitors and as "letting the side down," to such an extent that the latter former officer had a dead rat nailed to his front door.  Wilson had this to say about the revelations of the Guerin Report: “I find the contents of the Guerin report to be disgusting, truly disgusting.” (see here )

What interests this writer here is the blind loyalty to systems that dulls the conscience and moral sensibility of the majority of individual members of those systems.  It would seem that very few of us are courageous enough to stand up and be counted by "blowing the whistle" on policies, practices and actions that are downright immoral. One needs only to recall the banality of the excuses of many of the leaders of Nazi Germany at the time of the Nuremberg Trials, viz., "I was only following orders."  The great philosopher Hannah Arendt would call this very ordinary and utterly childish use of excuses the sheer "banality of evil."  Indeed, all of the top Nazis were such flawed, weak and all-too-ordinary individuals that truly one feels a certain sense of incredulity when one looks at their pictures in defeat that such weak individuals could have unleashed such evil on the world of the twentieth century.

The present writer works in a small school with some 300 pupils only in the inner city area of Dublin, Ireland.  Even within our small system, there is often an unwritten rule of conformity to the system and of "keeping things running smoothly", of "not rocking the boat" and of not "washing one's dirty linen in public."  It would seem to this writer that systems create their own sense of morality or moral behaviour which are essentially self-referential, and that a sense of a greater moral criterion outside the system is simply not recognized or acknowledged.  Further, such systems seem to override individual conscience.  

Now, dear reader, I am a neophyte in social theory and in the theories of systems and how they evolve and organize themselves.  While the French founder of sociology as a science, Émile Durkheim did not live long enough to propound a completely refined sociology of morality, it appears to me that his thoughts on the matter are quite interesting.  In his moral theory, Durkheim rejected theorists who relied on "a priori" moral concepts, that is, concepts that are independent of experience or that can be reasoned out, "without leaving your couch" (as the contemporary philosopher Galen Strawson says) and are apparently immediately and obviously true. On the contrary, Durkheim treated all moral phenomena  as conditioned both socially and historically.  Each society, he argued, creates over time its own set of moral rules, which can vary dramatically from one society to the next.  In other words, Durkheim is here ruling out the existence of any universal moral code. (This intrigues me, as all the prosecutors at Nuremberg, in my humble opinion, had to stretch their moral vocabulary to include such a universal moral code because of the sheer horrific nature of the Nazi crimes.  The criterion is surely somewhere on an horizon beyond the system or the group.  (Of course, Durkheim had died at a mere 59 years of age before the end of World War 1 in 1917 and before the atrocities that WW II would unleash on the human race, and some 30 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).  Morality, he argued, is a social fact and should be studied as such. Further, he argued, it could be studied just like physics in a system he called a physique des moeurs (physics of morals). 

In summary, then, we can say that according to the father of sociology, morality is a wholly social phenomenon, that is, it cannot exist outside the limits of society. He argued strongly that morality begins only when an individual pertains to a group.  And yet, how does this account for those heroes who stood out against Nazi injustice like the German lawyer Hans Litten who protested against Hitler, even calling him as a witness in a famous court case where he cross-examined him for three hours (1931), a action Hitler never forgot?  In fact, when the latter dictator came to power, he sent Litten to a concentration camp where he was eventually hanged: see here.

Durkheim argued that there is a central moral authority at the heart of morality that commands the enactment of its moral precepts. (One could ask what is the nature of that central moral authority, is it an "it" or an "energy" or a "person" as in a being like a God?). The individual in any specific situation, he argues, feels constrained to act in a moral way by society, and therefore, we may conclude that obligation is a fundamental element of morality.  This higher authority is not so much authoritarian, but rather a desirable authority (Durkheim speaks of the "desirability of morality" in this context) that is worthy of respect and devotion.  In such situations, an individual feels that he or she is working towards some sort of higher goal that Durkheim equates with the good, what he calls "le bien" - a very Platonic concept, indeed.  One could also say that this is a very philosophical/theological concept, too.  

And so, we may infer that this dual obligatory-desirability element of morality interweaves nicely with the influence of religion.  Indeed, this founder of sociology as a science would argue that morality and religion are closely linked as social phenomena: indeed, the moral life of a society, he says, is intimately intertwined with religion.  Moral authority, then, is born out of religious life and draws its authority from the power of religion.  However, to my neophyte mind in this area, Durkheim does not see morality as a one way street where an edict is issued from "on high" by a central power or an image of that central power (i.e., God or a god.  Remember that morality and religion are two sociological phenomena in our argumentation here).  For Durkheim there are two poles at play here: on the one hand, there is the morality of the group, which exists objectively outside the individual. However, on the other hand, there is the individual's way of representing that morality. While society creates many of the moral rules, the individual can add some little personal interpretation and nuances in understanding to them.  Each individual expresses that morality in his/her own way.  Indeed, while conformity to society and to collective rules and mores is often the greater reality for all of us in practice, there is still room for our individual conscience. Durkheim suggests that we all can add elements of our own personality and moral beliefs to society's moral codes and thereby build it up and refine it.  In other words, he leaves room for the individual to create, albeit in such a small way, their own morality. 

There is an old English saying that runs "there's nowt so queer as folk," meaning that there is nothing to account for the strangeness in people's behaviour.  There is a lot of truth in that old colloquialism, and yet if we are to live together in civilized societies we have to have codified behaviours.  There have to be rules and regulations and laws to ensure the doing of justice and the maintenance of peace.  However, as we have seen from my opening paragraph, it is so very difficult to stand up and be counted, especially to stand out from the crowd in any organization and openly reveal its errors, indeed its sheer corrupt practices, to the public.  All such people of such great courage, who have done so, have experienced the contumely, derision, opprobrium if not vilification, defamation and character-assassination of many individuals within that organization or society.  Some, as we have recounted above, have even paid with their lives for their courage in speaking out.

And so I will ask some questions, addressed to myself primarily:

  • Do I speak out against corrupt practices within my organization or work place?
  • Do I ask the hard questions of my own practices and those of my colleagues?
  • Do I sleep easily at night? Why? Why not?
  • Do I have the courage to speak my truth openly in my work place?
  • What is my truth? Who am I? Am I an authentic human being?
  • If I don't speak out for justice and right practices, why is that?  Is that due to my laziness, my cowardice, my lack of interest or my lack of commitment?
  • Do I have causes I care about?  Why?  Why not?
  • Do I read about whistle blowers and heroes?  Do I admire then?  Why? Why not?
Martin Niemoller
I will conclude this post with one of my favourite short poems about people who failed to speak out. It was written by pastor Martin Niemoller (1892-1984): It basically is a severe criticism of the failure of German intellectuals to speak out against the rise of Nazism:

First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Socialist. 
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Trade Unionist.  
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew.  
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.

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