Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Do we need a moral code?

In the late 1960s a young Jane Fonda married the film director Roger Vadim. It was not a traditional marriage. Vadim asked his wife to share the marital bed not only with himself, but with a variety of call girls.

Understandably, Fonda regrets the arrangement. She does, however, admit that she wasn’t forced to do anything against her will. She writes,

But do you know what’s so interesting? I never felt coerced into it. I was never asked to do half the things that I found I didn’t want to do. I just thought that if I refused I’d be left, because I wasn’t enough. Isn’t that sad? And if that’s true of me, who seems so in charge and strong, imagine how it can be for other women.

She has a point. We are often told that as long as we consent to an action, and nobody else is harmed, that there can be no moral objections. But reality is more complex than this. There are many reasons why people might consent to an action against their better judgement.

When we are young, for instance, and don’t have a lot of life experience, we don’t always assert control over what happens to us. Nor do we, at this time of life, always have first-hand experience of the consequences of what we are choosing, in order to bolster our innate moral sense.

The Melbourne Age ran a story recently illustrating the limitations of an “ethics of consent”. It was about a young university student, Anna Neylan, who falls pregnant and who after “peeping through the keyhole of motherhood” knows that her preference is to have the baby.

Her boyfriend, though, wants her to have an abortion. She wrestles “with the burden of choice” and speaks to social workers and counsellors. She writes that,

Each time, I leave feeling strong and certain. In my heart I know that I want to have the child. I know that I’m not too young. I know I’d make a wonderful mother.

But the opposition of her boyfriend leaves her in doubt. She confesses,

I’m a mess; I trust him more than I trust myself. He comforts me with the promise that I’ll eventually be the mother of his children.

So she has the abortion and awakes in a “room full of blanketed grief.” Nor does she recover well in the coming weeks. As she describes it,

Waves of guilt lull me into troubled sleep at night ... I feel numb when I have sex. My partner doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to talk. When I try to talk or when I just want to cry, he tells me that he can’t help me.

A month later the boyfriend leaves her and she sinks “to dangerous black depths.”

So an ethics of consent did not serve Anna Neylan well. It left her open to a kind of exploitation at a time of vulnerability in her life.

For conservatives, it is not the case that by our giving of consent, and an absence of direct harm to others, that an act is made moral or even acceptable. For us, there is an inherent right or wrong in different behaviours, and a moral code, reflecting the wisdom, the moral strength and the moral ideals of generations, should exist to guide individuals toward right forms of behaviour.

A liberal may well label such a moral code as oppressive, as the first principle of liberalism is that we should be unimpeded in following our own will (and not constrained by something external to our will, such as a moral code).

But is a moral code really oppressive when it helps to protect the most vulnerable from exploitation and harm? Or when it helps us to overcome our own weaknesses of will by buttressing our better moral natures?

There is a supportive function of moral codes, an assistance to individuals in living a life of moral integrity, which needs to be defended against the largely unsympathetic outlook of liberalism.

No comments:

Post a Comment