Some Thoughts on Morality and Power

If someone walks up to you and starts talking to you about good morals and the importance of morality, what’s the first thing you think of?

If you live in the US, odds are pretty good that anyone who wants to talk morality with you is actually talking about sex. How to do it, where to do it, when to do it, in what position to do it, who to do it with…the term “morals,” especially in political discourse, has come to be a synonym for “sex.”

And if the person talking to you is a conservative Evangelical, ten will get you twenty that somewhere in that conversation about morals, you’re going to hear about sex with a partner who’s the same sex as you are–something that seems to be right down at the bottom of the Pit of Immoral Behavior, just slightly below pedophilia and at least two and a half yards beneath genocide on the relative Scale of Morality.

And that’s really weird.

Or at least, it seemed really weird, until I thought about it for a bit.


The word “immoral” isn’t used to describe people very often these days. At least, it isn’t used to describe heterosexual, monogamous, married cisgendered people very often in the court of political discourse. It’s still quite popular among some segments of the conservative religious community, but it generally gets applied to sodomites, gay and bisexual people, transgendered folks, and other folks who don’t fit tidily into the prescribed box of sexual norms…with occasional side-branches directed at atheists, of course.

In the late 1800s, notable cynic Ambrose Bierce defined the word “immoral” to mean “Inexpedient. Whatever in the long run and with regard to the greater number of instances men find to be generally inexpedient comes to be considered wrong, wicked, immoral.”

And I submit that the laser focus on sex that we see in almost any popular political or religious dialog has at its heart a very potent expediency indeed, because it serves to distract us from true immorality, and causes us to focus on that which doesn’t really matter to the betterment of some very evil people indeed.


Take Pat Robertson.

No, I don’t mean take him out behind the chemical shed and shoot him; I mean take him as an example. Pat Robertson has made himself a very wealthy, powerful, and influential man by talking endlessly about morality. Or, more specifically, talking about sexual morality: sex before marriage (he’s against it), homosexuality (against), gay marriage (against), non-traditional sexual unions (against), sex work (against, even though he admits to having employed the services of prostitutes), oral sex (surprisingly, for…as long as it’s between a married man and his wife. He’s silent on the subject of whether or not they can have onlookers watching the act.).

And yet, for all his preaching about morality, Pat Robertson is by any reasonable standards of decency an astonishingly, breathtakingly evil man.

Pat Robertson has yet to meet a wealthy foreign dictator he doesn’t like, at least when it’s economically expedient. He cozied up to Liberian strongman, sex trafficker, and war criminal Charles Taylor in exchange for a gold mining contract in Liberia. He owns African Development Company, a corporation which snuggled up to Zaire’s warlord Mobutu Sese Seko to win rights to so-called ‘blood diamonds’ mined by slave labor.

Or look at “Family Values” candidate and politician Newt Gingrich, who divorced his first wife after an affair, married his mistress, then divorced her to marry his second mistress. Said second mistress, who is still married to him, is apparently spending her time these days doing fundraising for the Romney campaign…on a platform of (wait for it) family values.

Gingrich, despite being a serial adulterer, is perceived by many folks on the right as being “moral,” presumably because hey, he ain’t gay. Yet to anyone who believes that morality lies in treating others with compassion, he is unquestionably an evil man.


This is not a new observation, of course. Many of the people who talk the loudest about “morality,” on both sides of the political divide, are deeply and profoundly evil. Mahatma Gandhi was quoted as saying “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” It’s not exactly a revelation that those who use talk of morality, particularly religious morality, in the public sphere are very often deeply immoral people.

Which is where Ambrose Bierce comes in.

It is not simple hypocrisy that explains the prevalence of evil among those who speak of morals. It is not that we are all born of frailty and error and each of us relates imperfectly to those around us.

It is, rather, a calculated and deliberate expediency.

Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich, and all their ilk are evil people, consumed by a desire for power and wealth. They do not hide this at all. But there is a dilemma. In a Third World country, powerful strongmen can do pretty much whatever they like, without needing to justify themselves to anyone. But in an industrialized nation, maintaining power and wealth often requires maintaining the general goodwill of the people. How to do that, then, when you are a serial adulterer? How to do that when you own a mine that uses slave labor?

The answer, brilliant in its simplicity and obviousness, is to change the public dialog about what it means to be good, and what it means to be evil.

An evil man can gain the favor of generally good people, if he can set the tone of the dialog about good and evil. If he can redefine “evil” so that, rather than meaning “exploiting slave labor in Third World countries to become fabulously wealthy” it means “having sex in the wrong way,” he not only can deflect attention from his own evil, he can short-circuit the conversation about his own evil before it even begins.


When this image dominates the public dialog about morality, someone is being snookered.

We have come to a place where “morality” means “sex” because that state of affairs is expedient to powerful, wealthy men who want to be able to indulge their lust for wealth and power unchecked.

According to the Bible, it is the love of money which is the root of all evil. It is not premarital sex, nor gay marriage, nor the burning question of whether or not married couples are allowed to give head.

Yet among the Religious right, discussion of money is strangely absent from the morality debate. The beginning and end of morality revolves exclusively around who one has sex with, and under what circumstances.

That didn’t happen by accident. That isn’t a coincidence. It happened because evil men set out, systematically and deliberately, to focus the lens of morality away from their own evil.

Every time we accept this definition of morality, every time we allow the conversation about morality to get bogged down in irrelevant sexual minutia, we work in the service of these evil men.

All sin lies in treating one another poorly. Rather than talking about the morality of gay sex, perhaps we should talk about the morality of slavery. Perhaps, if we re-focus our dialog about morality onto the evil that those who campaign on platforms of morality and virtue do, we will begin to see a better world. I would far rather that Pat Robertson divest himself from his blood diamonds and give the vast wealth he created from slave labor to the poor, than see him continue to hold influence by talking about how immoral we are if we don’t have sex the same way he does.

38 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Morality and Power

  1. A great post as usual, but for safety’s sake maybe you should change the “chemical shed” to a more benign storage unit, one that could perhaps take a stray bullet without concern about puncturing hazardous materials containers.

    Woodsheds are great for that. Gravel pits, too.

  2. A great post as usual, but for safety’s sake maybe you should change the “chemical shed” to a more benign storage unit, one that could perhaps take a stray bullet without concern about puncturing hazardous materials containers.

    Woodsheds are great for that. Gravel pits, too.

  3. Very well said! I think a large part of the problem is that historically people on the left have been rather uncomfortable with “good vs evil” talk and so the right, being quite comfortable in that domain, gets to define what is good, what is evils, and which evils are going to be talked about. I think the left is getting better in this regard, but still has a way to go to master this.

  4. Very well said! I think a large part of the problem is that historically people on the left have been rather uncomfortable with “good vs evil” talk and so the right, being quite comfortable in that domain, gets to define what is good, what is evils, and which evils are going to be talked about. I think the left is getting better in this regard, but still has a way to go to master this.

  5. “How to do that, then, when you are a serial adulterer? How to do that when you own a mine that uses slave labor?”

    Another fork sticking into this ham of foolishness is the ability to construct a morality that allows evil deeds to be forgiven.

    I’ve seen it on bumper stickers: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

    From a practical viewpoint, that means that a person who subscribes to this belief can do ANYTHING they want, and then simply pray for forgiveness.

    In fact, the only “unforgivable sin” one might find in most of the really popular versions of the local bibles involve claiming (basically) that God and Satan are the same entity (which is like arguing over whether or not Superman or The Flash can run faster).* true believers would never do it and nonbelievers have no connection to the notion.

    The practical result is that nothing a HUMAN can do to another HUMAN is, technically, unforgivable.**

    The fuel behind such a belief is the acknowledgement that EVERYBODY does horrible things on occasion, and so, in order for one person to be allowed forgiveness, then they must necessarily allow others to be forgiven.****

    That’s where the chain closes. If I want to get away with (for example) being a serial adulterer, or running a mine with slaves, or abusing children, all I have to do is remind you that YOU sometimes sin as well, so if you want to be forgiven, then you must accept that I can.**

    It’s a complicated cycle, but it feels like part of the puzzle.

    -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
    * Setting aside for now the notion that to mere mortals, the difference between an archangel and a god is functionally nil.

    ** Some religions are literally*** custom-built for psychopaths!

    *** Intentionally used.

    **** by an all-powerful creature who loves us and created an entire universe for us, but will burn us in hell for jacking off… but I digress.

    • Forgiveness

      And indulgences have a long history. Treating “sin” as an interchangeable unit (you sin, I sin, …) would seem to be another part of the puzzle you describe. If you can equate, eg “stealing food so as to not starve” and “running a mine with slaves” as “both sins” (with the implication of no apparent distinction), then you’re also drawing attention away from the nature of the acts that you want people to overlook.

      Ewen

      • Re: Forgiveness

        “If you can equate, eg “stealing food so as to not starve” and “running a mine with slaves” as “both sins” (with the implication of no apparent distinction), then you’re also drawing attention away from the nature of the acts that you want people to overlook.”

        Yep.

        No wonder even the tiniest things are called sins.

        If I were REALLY unscrupulous, I’d call “having evil thoughts” a sin, just so I could excuse my own personal horrors by shrugging and saying “well, we ALL sin, I guess…”

        • Re: Forgiveness

          *You* have evil thoughts?!?

          Insightful article & responses, but lecturing to those whom are already convinced or at least willing to sing about it…

      • Re: Forgiveness

        maybe the venial/mortal sin concept the catholic church used to talk about really made sense on some level. . . . At least then all sins aren’t interchangeable. . . . unfortunately, the catholic church has always been obsessed with sexual sin, and the list of “serious or grave sins” includes masturbation, adultery, pornography and fornication alongside murder, rape, perjury, terrorism, etc.

        Ah well *sighs*

    • I think they are also deriving some benefit from obscuring the issue of who is doing the forgiving. In my understanding of it, the being all-loving and all-forgiving is done by God, and while being godly is perhaps something for people to aspire towards, God’s forgiveness isn’t transitive. Maybe God would forgive Pat Robertson, but I suspect at least one of the miners would still be glad to stick a pickaxe in him.

  6. “How to do that, then, when you are a serial adulterer? How to do that when you own a mine that uses slave labor?”

    Another fork sticking into this ham of foolishness is the ability to construct a morality that allows evil deeds to be forgiven.

    I’ve seen it on bumper stickers: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

    From a practical viewpoint, that means that a person who subscribes to this belief can do ANYTHING they want, and then simply pray for forgiveness.

    In fact, the only “unforgivable sin” one might find in most of the really popular versions of the local bibles involve claiming (basically) that God and Satan are the same entity (which is like arguing over whether or not Superman or The Flash can run faster).* true believers would never do it and nonbelievers have no connection to the notion.

    The practical result is that nothing a HUMAN can do to another HUMAN is, technically, unforgivable.**

    The fuel behind such a belief is the acknowledgement that EVERYBODY does horrible things on occasion, and so, in order for one person to be allowed forgiveness, then they must necessarily allow others to be forgiven.****

    That’s where the chain closes. If I want to get away with (for example) being a serial adulterer, or running a mine with slaves, or abusing children, all I have to do is remind you that YOU sometimes sin as well, so if you want to be forgiven, then you must accept that I can.**

    It’s a complicated cycle, but it feels like part of the puzzle.

    -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
    * Setting aside for now the notion that to mere mortals, the difference between an archangel and a god is functionally nil.

    ** Some religions are literally*** custom-built for psychopaths!

    *** Intentionally used.

    **** by an all-powerful creature who loves us and created an entire universe for us, but will burn us in hell for jacking off… but I digress.

  7. The real problem is, he’s not evil. I mean, in his head, he’s the hero of his own story. This allows us, as humans, to justify anything. We start this process in children when we tell them ‘be good’ and teach them that evil is this bizarre fantasy D&D idea of some dark goddess that wants to plunge the world into fire. Because we must always be good, this forces us, as people, to define everything we do as good. No matter how many mental gymnastics it takes. The other option is massive cognitive dissonance and probable insanity.

    K.

  8. The real problem is, he’s not evil. I mean, in his head, he’s the hero of his own story. This allows us, as humans, to justify anything. We start this process in children when we tell them ‘be good’ and teach them that evil is this bizarre fantasy D&D idea of some dark goddess that wants to plunge the world into fire. Because we must always be good, this forces us, as people, to define everything we do as good. No matter how many mental gymnastics it takes. The other option is massive cognitive dissonance and probable insanity.

    K.

  9. The first thing I think of when I hear morals is religion.

    I personally take very little stock in what other people consider moral. I couldn’t give less of a care really, because I look at them with much the same judgement but on a different topic.

  10. The first thing I think of when I hear morals is religion.

    I personally take very little stock in what other people consider moral. I couldn’t give less of a care really, because I look at them with much the same judgement but on a different topic.

  11. Forgiveness

    And indulgences have a long history. Treating “sin” as an interchangeable unit (you sin, I sin, …) would seem to be another part of the puzzle you describe. If you can equate, eg “stealing food so as to not starve” and “running a mine with slaves” as “both sins” (with the implication of no apparent distinction), then you’re also drawing attention away from the nature of the acts that you want people to overlook.

    Ewen

  12. Very insightful. Now what? The real problem is that society, social conventions, are, and have long been, a very “top down” sort of thing.

    Men dressed as peacocks for centuries until Beau Brummel, with the patronage of the Prince Regent, decided that elegance was more fitting than opulence. Smoking was considered vulgar for women to do until a number of Society Ladies lit their “torches of freedom.” Linguistic shifts are not infrequently driven by the language use of the rich, powerful, or otherwise envied/admired.

    Given all that, how can we shift the definition of morality back to Good and Evil and away from what people in power want to distract you with? Especially given the questionably ethical things one must do to gain power/influence.

    • Instead of Msr Brummel, we need the modern icon to demonstrate the definitions of good & evil. Alas, that’s Hollywood, and since sex sells so well, I think the movies with an asexual but evil villain against a lesbian free love heroine are going to be … Well, I was going to say few and far between, but instead I’d go with drowned out by the hoards of sexy reality shows and stereotypical bond villains. Or maybe I have a bad attitude.

    • Given all that, how can we shift the definition of morality back to Good and Evil and away from what people in power want to distract you with? Especially given the questionably ethical things one must do to gain power/influence.

      I don’t know that I have an answer, but I sure do admire the question!

      We are increasingly moving toward a society in which everyone can have a voice, in a way that wasn’t possible before the advent of the Information Age. But large, organized, entrenched power structures like political and religious systems have a lot of inertia, and they have the weight of tradition behind them as well. There are plenty of people who will accept tradition merely for the sake of tradition; if they believe that these institutions have “always” thought of morality in a certain way, then they’ll accept that definition of morality, even if it’s not actually rooted in history.

      So I don’t know if I have an answer. I suspect, though, that giving voice to more people is probably going to be part of it.

  13. Very insightful. Now what? The real problem is that society, social conventions, are, and have long been, a very “top down” sort of thing.

    Men dressed as peacocks for centuries until Beau Brummel, with the patronage of the Prince Regent, decided that elegance was more fitting than opulence. Smoking was considered vulgar for women to do until a number of Society Ladies lit their “torches of freedom.” Linguistic shifts are not infrequently driven by the language use of the rich, powerful, or otherwise envied/admired.

    Given all that, how can we shift the definition of morality back to Good and Evil and away from what people in power want to distract you with? Especially given the questionably ethical things one must do to gain power/influence.

  14. Re: Forgiveness

    “If you can equate, eg “stealing food so as to not starve” and “running a mine with slaves” as “both sins” (with the implication of no apparent distinction), then you’re also drawing attention away from the nature of the acts that you want people to overlook.”

    Yep.

    No wonder even the tiniest things are called sins.

    If I were REALLY unscrupulous, I’d call “having evil thoughts” a sin, just so I could excuse my own personal horrors by shrugging and saying “well, we ALL sin, I guess…”

  15. Re: Forgiveness

    *You* have evil thoughts?!?

    Insightful article & responses, but lecturing to those whom are already convinced or at least willing to sing about it…

  16. Instead of Msr Brummel, we need the modern icon to demonstrate the definitions of good & evil. Alas, that’s Hollywood, and since sex sells so well, I think the movies with an asexual but evil villain against a lesbian free love heroine are going to be … Well, I was going to say few and far between, but instead I’d go with drowned out by the hoards of sexy reality shows and stereotypical bond villains. Or maybe I have a bad attitude.

  17. Given all that, how can we shift the definition of morality back to Good and Evil and away from what people in power want to distract you with? Especially given the questionably ethical things one must do to gain power/influence.

    I don’t know that I have an answer, but I sure do admire the question!

    We are increasingly moving toward a society in which everyone can have a voice, in a way that wasn’t possible before the advent of the Information Age. But large, organized, entrenched power structures like political and religious systems have a lot of inertia, and they have the weight of tradition behind them as well. There are plenty of people who will accept tradition merely for the sake of tradition; if they believe that these institutions have “always” thought of morality in a certain way, then they’ll accept that definition of morality, even if it’s not actually rooted in history.

    So I don’t know if I have an answer. I suspect, though, that giving voice to more people is probably going to be part of it.

  18. I think they are also deriving some benefit from obscuring the issue of who is doing the forgiving. In my understanding of it, the being all-loving and all-forgiving is done by God, and while being godly is perhaps something for people to aspire towards, God’s forgiveness isn’t transitive. Maybe God would forgive Pat Robertson, but I suspect at least one of the miners would still be glad to stick a pickaxe in him.

  19. Re: Forgiveness

    maybe the venial/mortal sin concept the catholic church used to talk about really made sense on some level. . . . At least then all sins aren’t interchangeable. . . . unfortunately, the catholic church has always been obsessed with sexual sin, and the list of “serious or grave sins” includes masturbation, adultery, pornography and fornication alongside murder, rape, perjury, terrorism, etc.

    Ah well *sighs*

  20. Hear, hear!

    This is a superb essay, and these ideas need to reach everyone – especially in the conservative base. Sadly, it’s a very tough message to get across to them.

    Conservatives need a new Jesus! Or… just a suggestion, but you ought to write for FOX.

  21. Hear, hear!

    This is a superb essay, and these ideas need to reach everyone – especially in the conservative base. Sadly, it’s a very tough message to get across to them.

    Conservatives need a new Jesus! Or… just a suggestion, but you ought to write for FOX.

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