Morals are not exactly a hot topic in a growingly individualistic culture. No one likes being told what to do. Americans rail against an overly-PC culture. Comedians speak against hypersensitivity while refusing to play college campuses. Dave Chapelle for one recently received heat for apparently not catching up with the times on issues like rape and LGBT rights.
But morals were once widely discussed. Religious texts are filled with moralistic directives. One can argue that what separates many faiths are subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) lifestyle choices: don’t eat this animal, don’t talk to that person, don’t mind chatter with that god. While Adam Smith is mostly known for his work on markets, morals were directly intertwined with his faith in capitalism. He believed this system would make us more compassionate people.
For the most part it hasn’t worked out that way. Most capitalistic ventures addressing morals end up like this failed Pepsi ad, which was quickly pulled for trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as this Nivea ad linked to a white supremacist slogan. Corporations taking a stand often sink into quicksand they should have recognized.
Of course, many companies take moral positions without unskillfully co-opting imagery. Deciding how to market your company, whether in a national ad campaign or a tweet, influences support. Most companies prefer to be on the side of history, though in the moment that becomes confusing, forcing us to address what role morals serve to begin with.
In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris writes that it might be difficult to differentiate between individual rights and collective well-being, but that there is an objective manner in deciding how to progress. Every nation and religion should recognize that the Taliban is not working for the moral benefit of most people, an observation he believes can be recognized socially and scientifically:
The moment we admit that we know anything about human well-being scientifically, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures can be absolutely wrong about it.
If we can understand what makes a society function harmoniously from the viewpoint of science, we must abandon Iron Age philosophical tracts holding humanity back. Part of the problem might just be that moral demands were decided for so many millennia by men.
Which is why Eden Collinsworth’s new book, Behaving Badly: The New Morality in Politics, Sex, and Business, is a refreshing read. Having cut her teeth penning a book on Western manners for Chinese readers, she quickly realized the challenges morals face when moving to China:
Unlike the West, where Judeo-Christian ethics designate a nonnegotiable right and wrong, the Chinese do not adhere to absolutes. This means that one in five of the world’s current population believes that there is no single way of being wrong and many ways of being right.
While she doesn’t make moral demands—her goal is to “map its landscape”—Collinsworth believes moral values initially served as a controlling force for the society’s elite, which were, of course, male. Morals change as cultures reorient. America might currently be a bit PC, but having more diverse voices deciding our moral direction is where the world is headed. And that means diverse female voices.
The section on sex—both the act and gender—reveals the most interesting pieces of the puzzle Collinsworth constructs. Told through a series of interviews, including the founder of Ashley Madison and Sex in the City author Candace Bushnell, Collinsworth comes to a series of intriguing pronouncements: both men and women design “sexual strategies based on market conditions”; male pleasure is a priority in numerous cultures (a truism porn relies on); men do not actually offer the lifeboat to women and children—J Bruce Ismay was disgraced by this fact.
Perhaps the most fascinating idea arrives during her discussion with Edie Weiner, president of a futurist consulting group. While discussing whether or not there’s a difference between ethics and morals, they stumble into the justice system. Weiner notes that female judges rule differently than men:
When women are involved in the legal process, they tend to be interested in justice; when men are involved, they tend to be interested in enforcing the law.
Weiner notes that male judges will tend to look at whether or not a contract was broken, whereas female judges consider the validity of the contract itself. Timely, given the opposition to Neil Gorsuch. Collinsworth notes that half the law students and one-third of federal judges in America are female. A rethinking of justice is in the works.
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith famously said not to appeal to one’s higher nature, but rather to self-love in business. Don’t tell someone that the deal is culturally beneficial; show them how it helps them out—some politicians pay credence to a distorted form of this ideology with trickle-down economics. Interestingly, Collinsworth experiences a similar revelation when writing,
What binds us together is not so much virtue as the fear of losing our security.
Maybe the sexes are not as far apart as we sometimes believe. One of the greatest dangers the world has ever known is moral certainty. If there’s any theme bubbling beneath Behaving Badly it’s how fluid morals are. They’re always relative to time and place. As Collinsworth shows, having more female voices guiding the way is only going to make of us a better world.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.