Moral anarchy

In political theory, anarchism is the view according to which all authorities are illegitimate. Anarchy in this sense is to be understood not as chaos, but along etymological lines: “an” = no; “arche” = ruler. It seems to me the schools of thought I’m drawn to most in ethics could be categorized similarly, as a kind of moral anarchism.

Moral anarchism, as I see it, as the rejection of moral authority outside of oneself. Now of course, an “anarchist” in this sense would do well to recognize the wisdom and the insight of others. So too, the moral anarchist need not see him or herself as a moral island, disconnected from others. But there is an important difference between recognizing the insights of others and submitting oneself to the will of another. That’s probably not the only way to think of how “moral authority” might work, I suppose. But play along for a bit, and I hope you’ll see where I’m going with this.

Submitting to the moral authority of someone else–whether one’s parents, one’s friends, the Pope, or whoever–is on this view abdicating responsibility for one’s decisions. There are many contexts in which we can get away with this. But the result of such decision making (or lack thereof) if it becomes a habit is living a stunted life.

A rich and full moral life, on the anarchist view, is a life you take responsibility for. You can’t redeal the cards you’ve been dealt. You’re stuck with your looks, your talents, your sex, your race (barring surgical alteration, of course), and so on. But you can play the hand you’ve got with all that you are. The anarchist view here fits in with atheism, because it takes for granted that this is all you’ve got. It’s this one, single hand, and then the show’s over. Are you going to go big, or are you going to go home?

Are you going to let someone else live your life for you? Or are you going to live your own life?

Do you have the courage to forge your own path? Or will you be a sheep, a lemming, your whole life?

To be clear, the challenge we face is not whether to run off into the wild or live a tame, “civilized” life with other people. Assuming the hermit lifestyle doesn’t appeal to you, or isn’t realistically feasible for you, we can take for granted that you’ll be around other people regardless of how you live. The question isn’t whether you’ll live in community. The question is how you’ll live in community. Whether you’ll allow tradition and “how things are done” to swamp your existence, or whether you’ll own the values you want to own and disown the ones you want to disown. Even if you’re an all-out conventional person, there’s a world of difference between going with the flow and owning the flow.

To be a moral adult, on the anarchist view, you have to own who you are.

So. Are you an adult?


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