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The Good LifeReview - The Good Life
The Moral Individual in an Antimoral World
by Cheryl Mendelson
Bloomsbury USA, 2013
Review by Joanna Rozpedowski
Nov 5th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 45)

"Morality" writes Cheryl Mendelson in The Good Life (2012),is that lovely invention that makes happiness the consequence of goodness" (292). A thoughtful reader might wish to ask how Mendelson reaches this sensible and self-assured conclusion and what does it really mean to be scrupulously and irrefutably moral?

Ought we confine morality to instinct, emotion, or reason? Is morality a universal aspiration or a socio-cultural construct? Is it a matter of virtuous character or situational contingency and pragmatism? Ought empirical sciences, as some sociobiologists and neuroscientists insist, play any role in informing our emotive compulsions and intuitive moral imagination, or does their involvement inevitably threaten to explain morality away, banish its value-laden assumptions, and reduce it to a mass of mere primordial biological impulses reinforced by evolutionary gene selection? Why do societies abound with narcissist egocentrism, utilitarianism, antimoralism and postmodern relativism, where self-importance and self-serving interests run rife and cruelty and exploitation blossom, never fail to engage us morally, evoke our revulsion, wound our intelligence and offend our conscience? Finally, what can be gained from continuing to invest our moral sensibilities with profoundly demanding questions of the right conduct and the good life, when our modern-day circumstances are ever more ambiguous, our commitments woefully impermanent and contingent, and our interests far too often shortsighted? To these and other deeply puzzling questions Mendelson promises, in her absorbing and eloquently argued 295-page opus, to turn the reader's attention.

The ten chapters which make up the volume's internal skeleton can be classified  along five larger historical, political, and philosophical-psychological themes such as those concerning: (i) the social terrain upon which morality operates (Chapter 1), in particular, (ii) democracy and its need for a highly evolved individual moral capacity (Chapter 2), which can remedy the (iii) premoral and amoral pathologies (Chapter 3, 4) of modern Western societies, plagued, in no small measure, by the (iv) decline of essential public and private institutions (Chapter 5, 6, 8, 9, 10) and (v) the rise of the culture of "cool" indifference and alienation (Chapter 7). The Chapters collectively attempt to show pronounced deficits in the moral imagination of the modern individual, the mass civic and moral atrophy of the public, and their ubiquity in all facets of interpersonal and political life. Mendelson's book is a highly readable attempt at trying to reinvigorate the debate on difficult and often controversial moral questions, offer theoretical support and pragmatic steps for an institutional reform that is to culminate in a restoration of peaceful coexistence between three essential components of a well-ordered society: law, morality and democracy.

Embedded in the contemporary debates on the social, cultural and political contours of our civilization, this voluminous expose of moral goodness allows the author to reflect upon the contents and meanings of our moral aptitudes, estimate their value and establish their indisputable ties to psychology, law, science, and democracy. As illuminating as the substantive discussion of moral goodness qua "values and ideals of conduct" (21) is, the book's contribution to the timeworn analytical discussion of morality and its innate and acquired dispositions lies in the author's assertive and unabashed: (i) endorsement of "a system of values that is characteristically and historically Western; (ii) recognition that "values arise independently outside of the West"; and (iii) defense of morality and deploration of the politics and theories of today's rightists" (11). Mendelson's political alignment with the democratic left-of-center ideology, gives her the non-neutral moral high-ground for bewailing, as she contends, the "decades of contention about values" which "have resulted in a thorough politicization of the subject" (2), the history of which her book promises to re-examine and undo.

It is in the book's Introduction that Mendelson lays out the "map of those places in the moral realm" (17) that should assist the people with shared moral mentality in navigating the treacherous pathways of antimoralism fueled by all too-common modern experiences of selfish disregard, sadism, envy, ego, and covetousness. To remedy this premoral state of our social life, Mendelson recognizes, will require (i) turning a critical eye upon social mores and one's own personal behavior and (ii) a mature and well-developed sense of one's own worth and courage, which naturally enlarge the geographical terrain to which our moral sensibility must respond. Such capacity cannot evolve however, in societies where 'social habits' are lacking in moral goodness or otherwise impede the promotion of virtue and character. This is why, for Mendelson, morality is above all a product of a democratic ethos and is intimately involved in the cultivation and maintenance of a democratic mentality, or an inner disposition capable of bringing about the richly varied socio-political institutional designs and practices, which originate with the loving and secure family environment and end with a more humane legal system. Passivity, however, in the face of a moral decline of the West and the increasing visibility of amoral, antimoral, and premoral tendencies in the traditional incubators of moral thinking, particularly, in the academia, the legal system, the empirical sciences and the socio-political discourse, Mendelson warns, threaten to beget a public that is susceptible to greed and empty flattery and strongly averse to any expectations which "breed social trust, loyalty, and reduced motives for misbehavior" (37). 

For Mendelson, civilizational moral decline has its roots in a highly individualized and personalized moral regress. Upstanding moral conduct, Mendelson contends, demands a good dose of healthy self-criticism, which issues from conscientious self-observation and self-knowledge. After all, "morality is about the self and the kind of judgment that implicates the self. It is about our own human worth, who we are and what we ought to be" (19). Without our willingness to soberly tap into the unvarnished fundamentals of what makes us human, the rudimentary drives of our psyche, we will lose, Mendelson contends, the psychological and intellectual compass necessary for discriminating between morality's preeminent adversaries - relativism and amoralism - and fall on the side of irresolute diffidence, rootless pretense, and dishonest playacting, the corrosive solvents of all social bonds.

Mendelson's The Good Life is a worthy intellectual endeavor that seeks to fine-tune the reader's sensibilities and evoke profound reflection with regard to the life's fundamental question, that of "What should I do?" in the face of perplexing moral quandaries. Her careful analysis of problems as diverse as those concerning authoritarian morality, polygamy, pathological narcissism, dissolution of the family, criminal liability and punishment, as well as altruism and happiness can become deeply challenging to those of the reading audience, who hold a view contrary to the author's own. Given the existential value of the subject matter, the book does not aim to be lukewarm and dispassionately neutral in its approach. As such, it can naturally run the risk of being either too offensive for the select few of the reading audience or too intellectually confining, selectively restrained, and narrow. Additionally, the reader might find the author's penchant for naming names (pages 41, 74, 95, 100, 105,153,163, 250) when laying out her case for a manifest presence of a well-defined moral consciousness in our encounters with the everyday a bit insensitive if not tactless, as it unfairly pigeonholes the named into a category against which they have no choice but to remain silently defenseless. The book's pages thus are inked with names of living and long-dead characters, whose often-questioned moral motivations constitute the material for the author's disapproving eye. Consequently, the "anomic types" -- those "rudderless" (96) fundamentalists who hold "megalomaniac fantasies of remaking the country" (97), or those unduly morally earnest who "veer into pointless asceticism" (41) or those "cooly" detached who are "afraid of feeling" (183) are closely linked to household names from the world of politics, entertainment, academia, and popular press. It is also rather unnerving to see Mendelson fail in maintaining internal consistency in her arguments, which in turn, send opaque and contradictory messages about the kind of morality she intends to propound and defend. I shall illustrate this subsequently.

Each of the book's ten chapters begins with the author drawing on a number of direct quotations, which are a brilliant technical addition to the polemic style employed, especially when they can at the same time summarily capture the very spirit and intent of the book itself. Henri Amiel's quote cited at length in Chapter 9 seems to do just that. It reads:

" is stifling to see scientific ...teaching used everywhere as a means of stifling all freedom of investigation as addressed to moral questions, under a dead weight of facts ... To crush what is spiritual, moral, human -- so to speak -- in man, by specializing him; to form mere wheels of the great social machine, instead of perfect individuals; to make society and not conscience the center of life, to enslave the soul to things, to depersonalize man -- this is the dominant drift of our epoch." (210).

Yet, Mendelson herself, despite acknowledging Amiel's concerns, shies away from an expansive use of a more wide-ranging theoretical arsenal and the rich intellectual output of the West when speaking on a number of contested subjects, particularly, abortion (Chapter 6). In view of Amiel's appeal for a more comprehensive perspective, Mendelson's largely scientific claims, which she interweaves into her moral deliberations on abortion, can befuddle any attentive reader. If humane societies and democracies, to which Amiel alludes and Mendelson espouses throughout her book, depend upon the moral sense of its citizen-body richly equipped with a reservoir of intellectual inventory that informs its moral character, then how does the author propose to reconcile her own preference for relying upon sterile scientific terminology when defending, supposedly from a moral standpoint, the right to an abortion. The question arises as to the proper place of science in moral reasoning and the ethicist's own aptitude or "mental equipment" (157) necessary for understanding objective scientific fact without stretching its application beyond its intended purpose.

Mendelson's own one-dimensional view unfortunately does nothing to resolve the unpleasant contentions about values which have unduly politicized not only scientific facts, but hijacked the moral conscience of the public, which she so eloquently bewails. By claiming that "the destruction of the conceptus, embryo, or early-stage fetus is not, morally speaking, murder because the fetus not only lacks a desire to live but lacks physical characteristics that would enable it to experience emotion, thought, sensation, and desire" (158) or that to "regard the destruction of insensate agglomerations of cells that contain human DNA as the destruction of a person's life is to step outside the moral into a brutal and dangerously irrational kind of thought ... It is a regression to quasi-magical thinking" (160) leads the author to dangerous equivocations and unfortunate contradictions, as on the one hand she bewails the crude anti-morality of academia, which tends to "promulgate junk science" (211) of evolutionary biologists, sociobiologists, neurologists, and psychologists (212) and silence voices of the more "penetrating social observers -- the historians, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, philosophers and literary scholars who once illuminated our moral lives" (211) and on the other hand comfortably forges ahead in shaping the "new scientifically grounded moral consensus" (242) which conjoins ethics with materialism and reductive scientism without giving due consideration to other just as worthy and fertile intellectual perspectives.

       Surely, soberly minded ethicists would be wary of any inclination to unequivocally base their ethical stance and moral judgments solely on the purity of scientific facts and do well to recall Paul Feyerbabend's demurral:

"My criticism of modern science is that it inhibits freedom of thought. If the reason is that it has found the truth and now follows it, then I would say that there are better things than first finding, and then following such a monster." (Feyerabend, Paul. 1975. "How to Defend Society Against Science.")

Why, then, in order to inform her unadulterated moral sensibility, would Mendelson choose to discriminately and narrowly rely on strict scientific certainty with regard to pre-selected questions of moral value, while remaining intolerant of alternative sources of enlightened knowledge? "Morality, like all realms of human behavior" (227) may very well be "a proper subject of empirical study" (227). But is empirical science a necessary and sufficient condition of moral evaluation? Is morality reducible to scientific fact and empirical data alone?

It is also worth noting, that it has lied in the purview of many of the disciplines mentioned by Mendelson, to inevitably regress to the much deplored "quasi-magical thinking" in order to create a richer tapestry of human experience. Moreover, if morality as a social phenomenon constitutes a "repository of knowledge" (65), which, by Mendelson's own admission, expresses itself in "religions, stories, novels, paintings, songs and poems, and analyzed in philosophies" (65), then the author's strictly scientifically-informed morality is all the more mystifying. Naturally, we might wish to ask whether there might be any value in remaining just as vigilant of the ever-evolving nature of scientific facts, which Mendelson readily embraces, as about "magical thinking," which constitutes the very substrate of novels, paintings and philosophies. Perhaps, we would do well to pay heed to forewarnings and contentions that:

"We should be cautiously open to the spiritual and non-rational, and skeptical of the more invisible magical thinking--what we might call "magical reason"--pervading secular thought and experience in modern society. Science and technology are for most people a new religion, and their orthodoxies are believed with the same fervor." (David Watson, 1998. Against The Megamachine: Essays On Empire And Its Enemies)

To her credit Mendelson does bring morality to bear on contemporary problems facing modern societies, such as: (i) the irrationality of political discourse; (ii) the gross inequities in the criminal legal system with its proliferation of the ethos of vengeance that stretches the limits of criminal accountability and wreaks havoc on the notion of democratic equality and human dignity; (iii) the culture of the "cool" which transects the domains of popular entertainment, arts, music, literature, and politics, which not only "throw off moral restraints" and "discredit moral discourse", but promote an "inherently exclusive, sneering, detached, and tilted toward nihilism" (171) psychological attitude; (iv) insertion of sociobiological, neuroscientific, and pseudo-scientific explanations into the study of human character, virtue, and morality. For that very reason The Good Life is a required reading, which sheds an important perspective and nuanced view on what constitutes the right conduct and contributes to a life well lived. Due to the book's generalist character, its polemic and loosely connected chapters, I would imagine it holding a wide appeal to readers seeking an introductory-level guide to the underlying psychology of ethics. Among the many merits of the book is that it allows us to question more vigorously the very foundation of our social and political capacities and mores and assess their benefits to the fully flourishing and richly varied moral life.


© 2013 Joanna Rozpedowski


Joanna Rozpedowski is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Government & International Affairs at the University of South Florida, an LL.M Student at the University of Liverpool School of Law, and the 2013-2014 US-UK Fulbright Scholar.


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