I was arguing yesterday that the righteous didn’t approve of all the things that people do in their leisure time. Eat. Drink. Smoke. Gamble. Have sex. Watch TV. The righteous, I figured, disapproved of leisure. Of idleness. The righteous think people should keep busy. That they should keep working. And if they don’t keep themselves busy, then they should be kept busy. The devil makes work for idle hands.
Midway through writing, I suddenly realised that most drinkers and smokers feel pretty much exactly the same, and that’s why there has been so little resistance to the smoking ban. For most people, these things are guilty pleasures. Or at least slightly guilty pleasures. They were guilty pleasures from the moment they had their first cigarette behind the bicycle shed, or their first beer, or their first kiss. And they’ve remained guilty pleasures ever since. And so when smoking got banned, it simply re-affirmed what they’d always known all their lives: that smoking was wrong. So when smoking got banned, it was just like teacher catching them smoking behind the bicycle shed again.
I’m always puzzled when I hear that 70% of smokers want to give up smoking. In my experience it’s a lot less than that. Most don’t want to give up smoking, but are driven to do so by social pressures, bans, health worries, or just plain lack of money. They don’t really want to give up smoking at all. But I think that if you asked smokers whether smoking was wrong, probably 70% of them would agree. After all, that’s what most smokers have been taught all their lives. So they’re bound to think that way. They found out behind the bicycle shed.
What’s actually wrong with smoking cigarettes? Nothing. It’s simply disapproved behaviour. When I was at school, smoking was strictly forbidden. But it was also forbidden to keep your hands in your pockets. And to run rather than walk. What’s wrong with having your hands in your pockets? Nothing. What’s wrong with running? Nothing. But they were disapproved behaviours all the same. They were wrong.
Actually, there’s a good reason for not keeping your hands in your pockets when you’re walking, and it’s that it’s easier to walk swinging your arms freely than it is to walk with them jammed into pockets. I’m not sure of the physical reason for that. It may be that swinging your left arm back while you swing your left leg forward helps you to keep your overall balance. But there’s no reason not to stand with your hands in your pockets. Or at least none that I can think of.
As for walking versus running, there’s probably a similar physical reason why it’s more energetically efficient to walk from A to B than it is to run from A to B. If nothing else, in running people have to expend more energy accelerating up to the higher speed, and in braking to slow to a stop again. But I’m genuinely puzzled why children very often choose to run, and adults choose to walk. Maybe adults only walk everywhere because one day they were told not to run?
Whatever way, the lessons are taken to heart and kept there. For example I couldn’t help noticing, when I first visited Tom Harris’ blog, that in the photo of him at the top, he’s got his hands in his pockets. That’s my 50-year-old forgotten school rules kicking in.
There are lots of other rules like this. When I eat I hold my fork in my left hand, and my knife in my right hand, with my index fingers pointing along the handle. Anything else is, well,… wrong. What’s wrong with doing it the other way round? Nothing. Or if there actually was a reason (which may have been that you always held your cutlass or sword in your right hand), it’s been lost in history. People are taught these right-and-wrong things, and they stick with them for the rest of their lives, unless they make a conscious effort to unlearn them.
So everybody knows that smoking is wrong, just like everybody knows that holding your knife in your left hand is wrong. And that’s why they don’t object to smoking bans. They’ve always known that smoking was wrong. The bans just remind them.
So I think that if the righteous go ahead and ban drinking, there would be no more resistance to that than there has been to the smoking ban. Because everybody knows that drinking is just as wrong as smoking. It’s just a matter of re-kindling the guilt that people felt when they drank their first illicit bottle of beer, or smoked their first illicit cigarette. ‘Oh, we got caught! The game’s up.’
The same would happen if they banned gambling and shut down all the bookies. People know it’s wrong to gamble just like they know it’s wrong to smoke or drink. And people will never rise up and fight for the right to do something that they really believe, deep in their heart, to be wrong.
Right and wrong, as I’m describing them here, are just-so rules. There is no reason for them. The rules are Just So. There’s no reason for any of them.
But if there is no reason for rules of one sort or other, then there’s also no reason not to break them. Rules of this sort are purely arbitrary. Moral reasoning starts when you start to advance reasons why something is right or wrong. Like I’ve been suggesting that it’s ‘right’ to walk swinging your arms because it’s more energetically efficient to do so. And the same for walking rather than running.
Real morality starts when people start thinking about the justification for moral rules. And very often when they start questioning those rules, they can’t find any reason for them. And they start breaking the rules. And fight for their rights. And win.
There have been several examples of this over the past 50 years or so. Homosexuality is also wrong, just like keeping your hands in your pockets is wrong. But homosexuals started wondering why it was wrong, and couldn’t find any good reason for it. And maybe there isn’t any good reason for it. And so they re-branded themselves as ‘gays’ and started fighting for gay rights. And pot-smokers started wondering what was wrong with smoking pot, and couldn’t see any reason either, and so started pushing for pot-smokers’ rights. And in California it’s all-but-legal to smoke pot, just as it’s becoming all-but-illegal to smoke cigarettes there.
It’s the same with racism. Probably when the first white people met the first black people, the white people disapproved of black people’s behaviour. They didn’t hold their knives and forks the right way. They kept their hands in their pockets. They ran and danced in a most improper and unseemly way. They did everything wrong. They were, well,… uncivilised savages. And probably the black people thought exactly the same about the white people. The disapproval that white people have for black people is the same disapproval that the righteous have for smokers and drinkers and gamblers. It’s wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But the black people couldn’t see what was wrong with being black, and playing drums and dancing. So they started fighting back. And they’ve been slowly winning back their rights. The US president is now a black man. Well, slightly black.
But, all the same, everybody knows that homosexuality is wrong. And that smoking pot is wrong. And that black people are savages. Because that’s what they learned long, long ago, and they’ve never unlearned it. Not really.
It’s a kind of war whose front line surges backwards and forwards, one side advancing in one place, the other side advancing in another place. While blacks and gays and pot-smokers are reclaiming lost rights, smokers and drinkers and fat people are losing theirs.
And the righteous fight on both sides. On the one hand the righteous loudly champion the rights of blacks and gays and women and disabled people. But on the other hand the very same people are busily working to remove rights from smokers and drinkers and fat people. So the righteous are always on the winning side. They are either triumphantly restoring lost rights, or triumphantly removing them.
In a few years, the righteous will very likely be doing the exact opposite to what they’re doing right now. Then they’ll be championing the cause of downtrodden smokers and drinkers, and reclaiming the pubs and restaurants for them. And they’ll be busy righteously oppressing blacks and gays and women and pot-smokers again. The righteous always go whichever way the wind blows. There’s nothing moral about the moralistic.
If much of what passes as morality is what people get taught at an early age, then it makes sense that the righteous have taken over the schools, and are busy teaching children that black is beautiful, and gay is gay, and smoking kills, and whatever else they want to ram into the children’s tiny heads. But if what they are teaching is as senseless and irrational as what I was taught at school 50 years ago, then that also will be questioned and found wanting.
Ancient prejudices are passed on from one generation to the next, mostly entirely unquestioned. If I had any children, they’d know by now how to hold their knives and forks properly. And most of what passes as morality is like this. It’s unreconsidered custom. It’s the way things have always been done, and the way they always should be done, and it’s Just So. Real morality only starts when people start looking for reasons why things should be done one way and not another. Real morality is rational morality. Real morality requires unlearning custom and prejudice.