Thursday, December 13, 2007

I've Got Mad Moralz, People!

I picked up Lord of the Flies a bit ago because I won a complete unit on it at a literature conference and I thought it might be cool to read it and go through the unit as if I were one of my future middle school students (I'd prefer to teach high school).  As if doing your own unit is fun.  (It is, by the way.)

I liked the book.  It made me think quite a bit about morality, which is one of my favorite topics.  What follows are some of my thoughts while reading the book and my very non-scientific evaluation.  If you prefer scientific type stuff, here are a couple of blogs on the subject and a recent article you may enjoy:

Time magazine's What Makes Us Moral?
Doctor Jones's Morality is Hard-Wired
Grau Geist's What's Your Morality?

I'm truly fascinated by morality and could probably write a whole series with the questions that occupy my mind on the subject.  For now, I'll just stick to Lord of the Flies.

Most people know that this is about a group of boys that attend a private school and get stranded on an island with no adults.  Naturally, the story would chronicle their struggle to figure out the right thing to do and morality is a huge part of this story. 

I'm going to excerpt from a paragraph.  While questions of morality were already raised, this is where (in the first quarter of the book) I began to notice that morality was going to fall by the wayside.

This occurs after one of the older boys kicks in sandcastles (thinking it quite funny) that a few of the younger boys (about 6 years old) had made and gets sand in one of the small boy's eyes.

"...Percival began to whimper with an eyeful of sand and Maurice hurried away.  In his other life Maurice had received chastisement for filling a younger eye with sand.  Now, though there was no parent to let fall a heavy hand, Maurice still felt the unease of wrongdoing.  At the back of his mind formed the uncertain outlines of an excuse.  He muttered something about a swim and broke into a trot."

I had to pause here because this was very realistic, as was the whole book in spite of its fictional nature.  To me, this demonstrated a need for morality in our lives.  Here, a boy participated in something that his buddies were doing in a brief moment, even finding it to be funny.  The sand in the eye was an unintentional side effect.  He didn't do it on purpose, only it draws his attention to the fact that he did something contrary to what his instincts were telling him was right.  There is no one there for him to report to, nothing to get in trouble over.  Curiously enough, the lack of recognition for morality as it exists on the island brings this particular boy to act quite contrary to his instincts and winds up being nearly the most terrifying force on the island.

While the boys vote for a leader at the beginning, a sensible leader, all rationality and empathy are abandoned at the end and they end up following the one boy who displays sociopathic characteristics.  If not for the arrival of the navy, they would have murdered the first leader (it would have been the third murder)-the only boy left who wouldn't abandon morality.

In his explanation of what he was trying to accomplish, William Goulding says this:

"The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable."

I can endorse that but for one thing: why do we throw our morality under the tracks in the presence of the immoral?  If the society depends upon the nature of the individual, why did this society allow the one boy who lacked a morality that all of the others shared to dictate what the rest of their days would look like?  Fear?  Resignation? 

When the Navy arrives, all of the boys break down crying.  They are simultaneously relieved and ashamed. A breakdown in their morality will result in nightmares that can never be escaped.  They all know it and they knew it when they broke.

It leads me to universal questions.

If the research linked above is correct and morality is biological (and given our innate sense of empathy, I believe it is), why do we sweep such a grand and noble thing under the rug in times of weakness?  If morality is innate, but for deviants, why doesn't it band us together, as it should, in the face of evil?  Why are we ashamed of our morality?

I was thinking that many of you would argue that you aren't ashamed of your morality and are proud to stand up for what you believe in.  But I'm betting that, particularly in our adolescence, we've all done things we knew we shouldn't because we didn't want to look "uncool".  I'm betting, too, that we've done it at adults even if we don't want to admit it.  I know I have; only, instead of not wanting to appear "uncool," I don't want to appear "holier than thou."

Cheating is the best example I can think of because every single one of us has either (A) Cheated, (B) Been cheated on, or (C) Is intimately acquainted with someone in the former categories.  Most people would agree that cheating is wrong.  Most people who have done it feel very guilty, beginning from the inception of the act itself.  What makes us do it anyway when we know that it's compromising our character and, when cooler heads prevail, we'd argue against it?  I've heard women speak in absolutes on the subject.  "All cheaters are scumbags!" or something of the sort even though their best friend has done it.  What allows us to use our morality to pass judgement on others, assuming it automatically excludes those we care about?

If the boys on the island had discovered their morality as a unifying thread instead of something to be ashamed of, they wouldn't have been standing there devastated by the reality of their actions when they were rescued.  In real life, the same is true of us, no matter how small our compromises. 


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