The biggest news story of 2004 was likely the American presidential election. While many of us may be baffled by the appeal of George W. Bush, about half of the American people apparently thought him worthy of the highest office in the land. If we listen to those who voted for him, it appears that many of them made their decision based on what they saw as "moral values." This in itself is remarkable. With pressing economic issues like the soaring deficit and with an on-going foreign policy crisis centering on a disastrous war in Iraq, the voters chose to focus on something else again. Whether "moral values" are more fundamental or more ephemeral than the usual "bread and butter" issues depends on your point-of-view.
It could be argued that a moral electorate is a fine thing, but it begs the question, what morality? There are many ways of defining what is moral and what is not. If I could offer a formula from the Buddhist tradition to which I adhere, I would say that a moral act is that which reduces suffering for one's self and for others whereas an immoral act is that which increases suffering.
By this standard, the moral values espoused by the red state voters seem strange indeed. The big "moral" issue, highlighted in several state referenda, was same-sex marriage. Opposing this on moral grounds has nothing to do with eliminating suffering. It seems an odd morality that focuses on interfering in other people's private lives. On the next biggest moral issue, abortion, the American conservatives have something more like a valid point. Abortion is, after all, the taking of life and therefore a cause of suffering for the unborn. But it remains problematic whether a legislated ban would not have even worse effects.
What is really disappointing about this focus on moral values, though, is what genuine moral issues were not raised. It is genuinely immoral, in my humble opinion, that homelessness and poverty exist in the midst of plenty. It is unspeakably immoral that millions in Africa and elsewhere are dying of Aids to protect the patents of drug companies. And what about the morality of environmental destruction and the extinction of whole species? It seems to me that any of these are far better candidates for moral outrage than whether or not two homosexuals should have the option of formalizing their relationship.
But in the American context, the huge immoral elephant stomping around unseen in the living room must be the Iraq War. This is a conflict which was started on a tissue of lies, launched in defiance of international law, has proceeded with a series of heavy-handed atrocities and has taken over 100,000 lives (according to the British medical journal the Lancet.) The images of Iraqi children with their limbs missing, of bodies in the streets of Fallujah, of homes smashed to rubble ought to have raised a tremendous moral outcry.
But where were the protectors of public morality during the campaign? Even the Democratic candidate John Kerry did not raise the war as a moral issue, but only argued that it was being run badly. There were, and are, voices speaking out against the immorality of war but in the American context they have been marginalized. For those who took their stand on "moral values" the morality of an unnecessary, cruel and bloody war remains a blind-spot. It is not at all the idea of "moral values" that is so troubling, it is rather this perversely misguided choice of which moral values. Someone, somehow, seems to be missing the essential point.
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