Tag Archives: moral compass

Does your center point move?

If it does, congratulations. Your mind works the way most people’s do. Your life is easy because everyone else understands you, and your views don’t make anyone uncomfortable.

If it doesn’t, I feel for you. Welcome to my world.

Many areas of opinion and judgment may be viewed as continuums: number lines, if you will. Do elementary schools still use number lines to help teach arithmetic? Mine all had them stuck to the wall above the chalkboard (we still had chalkboards). A number line, as I recall them, began with -10 on the left and counted up to zero, then counted up to 10. Zero was one’s center. In a subtle way, I believe this contributed to the formation of many of our moral and ethical perceptions.

Turning to application, the assumptive logic is that every issue must have two sides, each with extreme and moderate stances, and there must be a center balance point that hybridizes both sides in a sort of compromise. This is a comforting way of looking at the world. It means the other side of an issue is never a demon, except for its extremist minority, of which one’s own side of the issue also has such a thing. It means giving the other side a fair shake, recognizing that one’s opposition is also decently minded and simply sees things from a different perspective. Doesn’t that sound sweet as cane sugar?

It also means one can arrange never to be an extremist…because most people’s center point moves from zero with current events. As long as one’s center also moves, one can feel comfortably within at least one embracing faction on any issue. One never need feel isolated. So let’s say that two million households normally go bankrupt in a given year; in the next year, the number doubles to four million. Most of the people who felt that two million was way too many will now decide that two million wasn’t so bad and that four million is way too many. Last year, two million was horrible. Now, two million is cool. The center point has shifted. Being bankrupt still hurts two million people just as much; that doesn’t register with the mainstream.

Of course, if one side’s former moderate segment goes crazy extreme, and that side’s lunatic fringe goes apocalyptically extreme, the relative center point shifts to remain in between the two extremes. And if the opposing side shifts in the same direction, both shifts will drive the center that direction. Now what was once the midpoint is the mainstream position of one side. The new midpoint represents its opposition’s former moderate stance.

In my view, this means a floating moral compass, a concept I find abhorrent when not well monitored. I do not have a problem with a moral compass that moves for reasons of principled reflection. I have a great problem with a moral compass that moves simply because there is a “new normal” that the majority of the public now assigns to the center of the number line–because it believes there must always be a center, and that center is always the point between the extremes.

Let’s take college tuition costs. In my college days (1981-86), in-state tuition cost about $6000 for a four-year degree at a public university. At the minimum, with an entry-level job meant for college graduates without technical degrees, one could expect about $22,000 in annual compensation. (Unless you were lazy, an ass, or a geranium, it would improve within a few years. It meant a frugal existence in a studio apartment, but it was independence.) Thirty years on, tuition at that same university would cost about $48,000. However, that does not mean that the typical entry-level job will pay about $176,000. In fact, not even the typical technical/professional starting pay will approach that. A relativistic moral compass looks at this situation as the “new normal”: enormous student loan debts, stupidity to major in any subject that doesn’t produce a near-certain high-paying job, actual education as a waste of time for most people.

My “normal” has not moved. My normal is that it’s reasonable for college tuition, managed economically, to work out to about a third of what one can expect to earn in one’s first year of an entry-level position requiring some form of bachelor’s degree. Improvement would be for it to work out to about a fourth or a fifth of what one could earn, though if we took it much farther, a lot of people would be in college who truly have no business there. (This in fact is kind of what has happened, with a whole lot of dim bulbs pressured to attend college–another of my generation’s Great Leaps Forward.) Worse would be for it to bloat up to half of one’s beginning earnings, or unthinkably bad, to cost as much as a full year’s beginning gross earnings.

Most people’s “normal” has moved. Think not? Let’s say tuition were cut in half, to $24,000. Would the typical poli sci major be able to earn about $88,000? She wishes. She is more likely to be working at Chipotle for minimum wage or a little better, living to pay student loans, tutoring in Spanish on the side, living with her parents because in no way can she afford student loan payments and independent life. Even if the cost were cut in half, it still produces untenable economics.

My “normal” is still where it was. Most people’s “normal” has shifted so that tuition is still too expensive, but a cut in half would suddenly make it seem cheap. Their “normal” would shift. Mine has not and will not. Current tuition costs are an obscenity, and even if cut in half, will still be an obscenity. The professors have not gotten sixfold raises. Neither have the custodians, the librarians, or the RAs (shoutout to all of my old colleagues, and others who have done that job). Yet universities still demand that much money, and it goes somewhere. To someone. For something.

Either the cost of education is screwed up, the wage scale and job market are, or perhaps both are.

My “normal” will not simply reset to the current situation, or to a point slightly to the more balanced direction of the current situation. This situation is obscene. This is unpardonable. It is unsustainable. My generation let it happen, and it is one reason I consider my generation the worst in American history. We were the last who got to adventure in childhood before full bubblewrap set in, we were the last who could afford financially sane college education, and we turned around and allowed those things to be taken away from our children. Even those of us who did not have kids, like myself, whose number line centers just kept moving as the trees were cut down and the monkey bars were turned to plastic, as CPS was called for unsupervised play and a third of our kids were drugged into not being childish, as wages stagnated and tuition spiraled out of control, as student loan costs began to look like home loan costs and the purpose of college ceased to be education and simply devolved into job training to produce for a corporatist state, who did not scream bloody murder about it and who came to accept a new normal, were complicit by silence and rationalization.

Rationalization is pernicious. It sneaks up on us. Keep rationalizing away increasingly greater evils, and we will one day wake up with moderate evil as one’s “normal.”

One may apply the number line model to many situations, not all of them measured in economic terms. There are just and sensible reasons for one’s “normal” to shift; let’s take race relations. If our “normal” had not shifted from 1950, we would still be a nation of open Archie Bunkers. A few annual lynchings would be expected, as would segregated separate-and-unequal schools (and cans, and drinking fountains, and neighborhoods, etc.). Stereotypical and denigrating overt depictions of minorities would be the norm. Over time, we came to realize that for the majority to mock, denigrate, and lynch minorities was an unacceptable way for a majority to treat our fellow equally human beings (as which, speaking of that, we ought to recognize said minorities). Did we, the privileged majority, become saints? Not even close; but our “normal” shifted. Some, like me, will argue that it didn’t shift far enough, that the compensating efforts are not adequate. When you can still die for your skin color in a traffic stop, I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. But where a “new normal” is born of the gradual rationalization of progressively greater obscenity, I refuse to shift mine.

If two hundred million people do/accept/tolerate/rationalize a wrong or stupid thing, it will still be a wrong or stupid thing. Majority status does not confer rightness or wisdom. Often it means that a whole bunch of people rationalized their way down the number line, taking their center with them, feeding themselves the comforting porridge of a balanced world with two neatly arranged sides, each possessing more or less equal moral and intellectual merit.

I won’t shift my center. I haven’t yet, and it’s too late to start now even if I suddenly decided I needed the comfort of group approval.

That, I find, is a thing I not only do not expect, but do not even desire.

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