Borders and morals, take II

Maybe America’s morals have gone to pot and maybe not. I’m not sure I’m qualified to say, though I understand “Declining Morals” is a refrain sung for a very long time.

My grandmother was horrified when I wore shorts as a child, and I’m talking about shorts that weren’t all that short. “Child,” she’d say, “You’re showing your limbs!” She couldn’t bring herself to say ‘legs’, for reasons I still don’t understand, though I’ve been told that at one time it wasn’t even acceptable to mention piano legs in polite company. Oh, the horror, the shame, of legs! The immorality of showing them!

I dismissed her attitude as hopelessly outdated. Little did I know that the entire Muslim population (now a billion and half people) agreed with her. Hiding female “limbs”, and often faces, was, and still is, their standard code.       

Is that code about morals, or is it about customs confused with morals? Think of the people who believed slavery was moral, and those who insisted Sunday movie-going was immoral. Some of today’s practices, now imagined to be moral or immoral, are sure to meet similar changes.

That doesn’t mean each generation makes morals from scratch. A sense of right and wrong seems to be innate (in all but a very few, thankfully),  showing itself even in young children; but recognizing basic principles is sometimes obstructed by incessant rule-making. Of course rules are required for living together, but morals are not about rules.  They’re about doing no harm, or as little harm as possible, and keeping an eye out for an ultimate good.

Is it moral to murder a murderer? Is it moral to let people go hungry, or, on the other hand, to feed them just enough to keep them living in ways or places that are non-productive, perhaps even crippling? Is it moral to make war for anything beyond self protection, or moral NOT to make war against a murderous regime led by someone, say, like Hitler? Is it morally justified to tax parents and non-parents alike for public schools? Or to withhold education because of a child’s birthplace?

As Ray noted, all our problems won’t go away if we wall people out of America. Walls are an easy answer, but not necessarily a moral answer. Remember the cheers when Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!”? Now we’re planning one to keep out the riffraff.

I wonder what my seventh great-grandfather would say, the one who came to America uninvited and unannounced. He was part of the riffraff, without enough money for ship’s passage. He paid if off with five years as an indentured servant (like slavery, but with a time limit), and now here I am, an American citizen. I’m glad he came, glad I live here, and glad I don’t have to decide who comes next.

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