Recently I attended the funeral of a relative who, although close to me in a genetic sense, was more distant from me emotionally than the owner of my local corner shop. This lack of any connection between us meant that I got little from the event in an emotional sense, but in the aftermath I was profoundly affected in a way I didn’t foresee, which was far from the intention of the ceremony. Hand in hand with this came a valuable lesson in the damage that can be caused by adhering to a rigid moral code.
It had been years, may be decades since I had seen this relative prior to his death, so I knew almost nothing about him first hand. Most of what I now know I learnt the day of the funeral from conversations with other relatives and from the occasion itself.
The funeral itself was unremarkable. His personality was honoured by the Christian Minister who described the uncountable moments of humour and joy he brought to those around him before praising his commitment to his chosen profession in motoring journalism and public relations through which “he made his unique contribution to the world, which only he could have made.”
However, what I learnt of him from other relatives before the ceremony contrasted greatly with this image.
It turns out that he’d left his immediate family to deal with his debts including a (quite elderly) mother, and also abandoned his wife and daughter and in the process of leaving the country failed to pay the child maintenance money he owed them. And the level of contact I’d had with him over the past years seems to have been typical even for those much closer to him.
So for the first time that I can remember, I had a picture of his identity painted in my mind. The result of this was that for me the event felt utterly surreal. Moreover, I would hazard a guess that for many of the others in the audience —which included a number of the relatives involved in the incidents mentioned above— the picture they had of him in their minds and the image of him that the words said at the ceremony fought to create were in just as stark a contrast as they were for me.
Later that day my bewilderment began to subside as I realised that for me the account of his life given in the ceremony only gave rise to confusion, while for others it caused pain. This filled me with anger, as I imagined the resentment I would have felt, had I been in his daughter’s position, for having to listen to a celebration of his dedication to his career and extravagant cars, while the part this may have played in his abandoning of her was left unspoken: buried in the dishonest atmosphere of the funeral.
I was distressed and confused. Why, when so many of the people present were aware of the harm it could cause, either to themselves or to others, did this situation occur and was in fact even planned in this way? Unfortunately, it seems we were abiding by the rigid morality of respecting the dead: even though in this case it resulted in upsetting many of those still living. For those who could foresee the distress that the ceremony may cause them, had they not wanted to attend this moral code will have compelled them to regardless. The same morality then forbade the verbalising of anything that could be perceived to taint the memory of him, but had so little consideration for the living they allowed him to inflict a final stab of pain to those he’d already hurt.
Now I’m not saying I know best how this situation should have been dealt with. Maybe there was no better way for it to be done. But the morality that was followed seemed only to exacerbate the situation and its rigidity only hindered any objective discussion about how the least harm could be caused to those whom may be vulnerable. And quite strangely, even though it seems he made choices in his life that would be strongly condemned by the teachings of the Bible, in death these appeared to be forgotten. So maybe one way the ceremony could have been made less harmful is if more forgiveness had been exercised rather than forgetfulness. Instead, I came away with the feeling that had I been at a funeral following these same principles but instead for a man well known for having a chain of secretive affairs behind his partner’s back, then he would have been celebrated for his womanising skills in front of his widow.
I see this experience as a valuable lesson in the unfavourable consequences that can result from following a rigid and potentially outdated moral code. To explain what I mean by outdated, consider that in our current society it’s become increasingly acceptable and indeed common to devotedly pursue one’s own individual goals and desires, whereas historically one was expected by society to focus more on the best interests of the family. Perhaps as a consequence of this transition, the breakdown of marriages and families seems to be increasingly familiar. However, strangely, society's moral code still dictates that when someone dies, relatives - estranged or not - should attend their funeral, show respect and pay tribute to their life. In this way the code seems to remain unchanged, in a sense not ‘keeping up’ with cultural developments."
And the more I think about it, there must be countless other situations where we apply rigid, potentially outdated, moral codes.
Extending Morality through Space and Time
One example of a morality we hold that I think should be questioned is our tendencies to let the immediate life around us dominate our moral judgement. I believe that it’s important to update this morality now that we’ve grown to be capable to be affecting our planet so profoundly in ways that reach far through space and time and which many future generations will have to deal with. There should be no excuses made as we are well aware of the capabilities we hold and their possible consequences.
Forced population control is a subject where the implications of this morality are highly relevant. In the UK for example, where we each consume far more than our fair share of the world’s resources which is almost guaranteed to be detrimental to future generations, people are still paid more money to have more children, in honour of this basic human right. In stark contrast to this, the severe rules implemented in China to control their hazardous levels of population growth shatter our established morality.
Unfortunately, a vast number of social issues that have arisen in China have been attributed to these policies, and consequently they have been repeatedly criticised. But consider this thought experiment:
If a person were driving along a reasonably fast road and suddenly saw a young girl who looked to be about to wander directly into their path, if they were to swerve in an attempt to avoid her, crashing and severely injuring their passengers, should the driver be condemned? And should this verdict change if the girl did not in fact walk out into the road, or if it was proven that an emergency stop would have been sufficient?
From the little I’ve read, China’s policies seem to be excessive, and the reaction of the driver in the above scenario may have proved to be, too. But in the UK it’s as if we’ve just shut our eyes and kept our foot on the gas, and as we’re abiding by an established morality we receive little criticism for this. I’d guess that the optimum solutions for population control in both the UK and China, and around the world, probably lie somewhere between these extreme, opposing strategies.
If optimum solutions to the growing number of issues in the world are to be reached I believe we need to constantly question the basis of our established moral codes. The development of our societies, almost globally, in the past century or so has occurred at an astonishing pace, and hence we need to recognise that our morality needs to keep up. Moreover, it needs to be increasingly considerate of long term prosperity rather than short term comfort.