What is it that forms and drives our “moral behaviors”? Are we born with a basic sense of morality or do we develop a set of moral “social codes” to keep society from falling into chaos and anarchy? In her essay “On Morality,” Joan Didion dissects what lies beneath the surface of humanity’s morality. By recounting several stories and historical events, she shows that morality at its basic “most primitive level” is nothing more than “our loyalties to the ones we love,” everything else is subjective.
Didion’s first story points out our loyalty to family. She is in Death Valley writing an article about “morality,” “a word [she] distrust more every day.” She relates a story about a young man who was drunk, had a car accident, and died while driving to Death Valley. “His girl was found alive but bleeding internally, deep in shock,” Didion states. She talked to the nurse who had driven his girl 185 miles to the nearest doctor.
The nurse’s husband had stayed with the body until the coroner could get there. The nurse said, “You just can’t leave a body on the highway, it’s immoral.” According to Didion this “was one instance in which [she] did not distrust the word, because [the nurse] meant something quite specific.”
She argues we don’t desert a body for even a few minutes lest it be desecrated. Didion claims this is more than “only a sentimental consideration.
” She claims that we promise each other to try and retrieve our casualties and not abandon our dead; it is more than a sentimental consideration. She stresses this point by saying that “if, in the simplest terms, our upbringing is good enough – we stay with the body, or have bad dreams.”
Her point is that morality at its most “primary” level is a sense of “loyalty” to one another that we learned from our loved ones. She is saying that we stick with our loved ones no matter what, in sickness, in health, in bad times and good times; we don’t abandon our dead because we don’t want someone to abandon us. She is professing that morality is to do what we think is right; whatever is necessary to meet our “primary loyalties” to care for our loved ones, even if it means sacrificing ourselves.
Didion emphatically states she is talking about a “wagon-train morality,” and “For better or for worse, we are what we learned as children.” She talks about her childhood and hearing “graphic litanies about the Donner-Reed party and the Jayhawkers. She maintains they “failed in their loyalties to each other,” and “deserted one another.” She says they “breached their primary loyalties,” or they would not have been in those situations. If we go against our “primary loyalties” we have failed, we regret it, and thus “have bad dreams.”
Didion insist that “we have no way of knowing…what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong,’ what is ‘good and what is ‘evil’.” She sees politics, and public policy falsely assigned “aspects of morality.” She warns us not to delude ourselves into thinking that because we want or need something “that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen.”
She is saying this will be our demise, and she may well be correct. Hitler’s idea that he had “a moral imperative” to “purify the Aryan race” serves as a poignant reminder of such a delusion. In 1939 Hitler’s Nazi army invaded Poland and started World War II. World War II came to an end in large part due to the United States dropping two atomic bombs. If the war had continued and escalated to the point of Hitler’s Nazis and the United States dropping more atomic bombs we could have destroyed most, if not all, of humanity, the ultimate act of “fashionable madmen.”
We may believe our behaviors are just and righteous, but Didion’s essay makes us closely examine our motives and morals. She contends that madmen, murders, war criminals and religious icons throughout history have said “I followed my own conscience.” “I did what I thought was right.” “Maybe we have all said it and maybe we have been wrong.” She shows us that our “moral codes” are often subjective and fallacious, that we rationalize and justify our actions to suit our ulterior motives, and our only true morality is “our loyalty to those we love.” It is this “loyalty to those we love” that forms our families, then our cities, our states, our countries and ultimately our global community. Without these “moral codes,” social order would break down into chaos and anarchy.