The Moral Spectrum: When Freedom’s Just Another Word for Comfortable Homogeneity

My youth in rural Missouri was a slice of Americana. It was filled with the distinct sound of gravel crunching under truck tires as we tore down dusty roads. It was bucking hay in the summer, playing football in the fall, and chopping wood in the winter. It was George Strait and AC/DC on the radio as the Ford F150 lumbered through the fields, Copenhagen spit and sunflower seeds sloshing around inside dip cups on the dashboard. Cold Busch Light was in the cooler on the floor and a .30-30 lever action rifle rattled around in the gun rack behind my head. It was the ultimate feeling of freedom.

I could get up in the morning and dress however I wanted, listen to whatever music I wanted, and I could voice whatever thoughts my country boy brain conjured up. I said “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am” to my elders because, well, they were my elders.

The social limits of that freedom never really occurred to me, because I never felt like wearing a dress, listening to the Songs of a Lesbian Anarchist, or voicing a belief in the superiority of Marxist ideology. To me that wasn’t freedom anyway, but rather deviant subversion. Thus, in my mind, Americans were free to do as we pleased, so long as it wasn’t weird or anything. But even then, it was social ostracizing rather than the rule of law that would keep people in line, so to speak. In my mind, my way of life could not possibly be further from Gorbachev’s Soviet Union or Khomeini’s Iran. My morality was just different—and better—than theirs.

It turns out that while our culture was definitely different, our morality wasn’t as far apart as it would seem.

I thought that my morality was based simply on preventing harm and ensuring fairness. But I’d instinctively turn away in disgust from two men kissing, and I’d sure as hell stomp a liberal for burning a flag or an atheist for tearing up a Bible. Were those impulses of moral outrage really based on the simple morality of harm and fairness? Maybe I could come up with some creative reasons why those actions caused harm, but that would just be defending my intuitive reactions to seeing those things. Maybe what I mistook for freedom as a youth, and what many people still mistake as freedom, is instead consensual cultural uniformity.

Every human on earth has some moral sense but not every society emphasizes the same categories of morality, which often clash with one another. Conservative moral tastes are much more similar to the homogenous hierarchical societies that limit personal freedoms than they realize.

The five universally recognized categories of morality are care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Humans have evolved to intuitively and emotionally respond to these without the need to reason, and it is impossible for all five areas of morality to take precedence at the same time. In every debate, one must give way to another in our gut.

Most American conservatives would picture their morality as being on the far end of one side of the spectrum as opposed to that of extremist Muslim or Communist morality, with the American liberal morality falling somewhere in between. But, especially as of late, that conservatism has taken on a moral tone much more in line with the ideologies they purport to fear and loathe the most. The care and fairness in their moral tastes are becoming increasingly trumped by their sense of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. For them it is increasingly becoming acceptable for harm and unfairness to occur in order to protect the authority of their institutions and leaders, maintain the unwavering loyalty to the nation, and protect the sanctity of their religion and culture.

Much like the theocratic and underdeveloped nations around the world, the harm or unfairness to an individual or group is often justified in American conservative eyes in order to protect our society and culture from the perceived harm that certain peoples’ words, appearance, or actions may cause. Freedom is a hallowed word, but it is also becoming a hollowed virtue, more often than not giving way to cultural protection. Those who hold power now preach often about threats to our nation, our society, and our idealized way of life, but little about the threats to the rights of individuals and minority groups. They speak little of the care and compassion for the powerless, or of fairness under the law. The scariest part of these recent political developments isn’t the harmful laws and reforms they can push through, but rather the power that this shift in morality has assumed over our nation. They seem oblivious to the fact that their morality has shifted far closer to the oligarchic and theocratic governments they say we should fear than to the morality of individual freedoms and well-being our nation was established around.

I never imagined as a country boy growing up in the Midwest I’d be such a vocal advocate for those I didn’t relate to. Of course I never thought their freedoms would be as threatened as they are now. We Americans must now ask ourselves what we’re truly about, freedom or comfortable homogeneity. If it is the later, then are we truly America?