Quality and Morality


Quality Foods. Quality furniture. Quality trucks. Quality, Quality, Quality. Shite. Robert Persig some time ago wrote a book about quality. It’s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As Persig writes, his book has little to do with Zen and not much to do with motorcycle maintenance either. This was a very important book for me as I grappled with certain philosophical concepts in my youth. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the main protagonist goes catatonic after getting caught in his self-made vortex of contradiction around the idea of quality. As a fellow college instructor, I can relate to his descent into catatonia, although I was never able to quite make it all the way to its deepest reaches as Phaedrus (the eventual name of his protagonist) did.


The way we use the concept of quality these days drives me a little crazy but I’m not going to go grammar nazi and chastise all the unfortunates among us who constantly misuse the term or simply use it as a synonym for good. These days, quality stands for good. We seem to have lost the ability to qualify quality. Does Quality Foods refer to mediocre quality foods, poor quality foods or high quality foods? Well, that’s a silly question, isn’t it? Of course, the owners of Quality Foods mean it to refer to high quality foods. Any other conclusion would be nonsense. I presume that if we want to point out that a product or service is of poor quality we have to include the adjective ‘poor’ to qualify quality. Quality used by itself now means good. Any reference to any other kind of quality must be qualified with an adjective. Still pisses me off because it’s such a denial of the potential poverty of quality but I guess that’s just the way language evolves.


So, now I want to apply the concept of quality to morality. Can we talk about the quality of moral precepts? Can we come up with a hierarchy of moral precepts that go from good to evil or are all moral precepts supposed to be good. What does it mean to be a moral person? To what does ‘morality’ refer? I turn to this last question now, the others I deal with later and in subsequent posts.


The dictionary that comes with the Mac operating system defines morality as ‘principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.’ The Miriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary gives a “Simple Definition of morality [as]

  • beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior
  • the degree to which something is right and good: the moral goodness or badness of something.”


Fair enough. That seems straightforward, but is it? Are we born knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? If you believe that you probably also believe you were born knowing how to speak English. Not likely. Good and bad are social constructs and can only exist socially.


Obviously any judgment of behaviour can only be made when more or less discrete behaviours are compared with one another. The concept of morality cannot apply to an individual’s behaviour divorced from its social context. ‘Good’ or ‘bad’ are inherently relative concepts. There are no behaviours that I know of that can be universally and consistently viewed as good or bad. You might argue that killing and rape are universally and always bad. If you did, you’d be wrong. Killing is only bad in certain contexts particularly when it is unsanctioned by the state[1]. In certain cases, such as in military combat, a soldier may be court-martialled for not obeying a direct order to kill an enemy combatant. In many contexts, killing is expected of one, so killing is not a universal bad. In fact, it would be considered morally reprehensible not to kill if it meant putting innocent people in danger. No matter how strongly we may be repulsed by it, rape is also morally ambivalent and in certain contexts is considered a duty. The Bosnian War was the scene of mass rapes perpetrated by combatants who were given direct orders to do so by their commanding officers.[2]


In Emile Durkheim’s work, morality is a word that describes how to measure the intensity of our connections to our societies. I add that it’s used to judge the quality of individual behaviour as it aligns with overall social (including sexual), political and economic values. It stands to reason then that in a class based society[3] moral judgments of behaviour will need to be made in a context where, as Marx noted, the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas.[4]


To be continued…


Up next, morality and sexuality. I touched on this briefly in my last post, but I want to consider how important moral judgments are around sexuality.

Following that, I want to explore the politics of morality or why poor people are considered to be moral degenerates and made to feel shame and guilt for their situation.


[1] The ‘state’ is one of those words that elicits controversy. I once did a graduate course decades ago now where the only task we had was to define the state. Not a simple task as it turns out.

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/bosnia-war-crimes-the-rapes-went-on-day-and-night-robert-fisk-in-mostar-gathers-detailed-evidence-of-1471656.html

[3] I won’t question the popular unquestioning definition of society here. I’ll leave that for a future blog post. Harold Adams Innis is a masterful critic of the conventional definition of society. I wrote my Master’s dissertation on Harold Innis’ work and it’s available on my blog.

[4] Of course, the ruling class is not homogeneous, it evolves over time, gaining and losing power in times and places. Still, there are some basic precepts and expectations of behaviour that we find are fairly ubiquitous in societies where the capitalist mode of production predominates.

What the hell is ‘quality of life?’ Part 3

So, I’m back at it.  Lately I’ve been reading a book called The Truth About Art: Reclaiming Quality by Patrick Doorly.  Doorly refers to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig in very flattering ways.  Persig’s book is all about quality and what it means.  For Persig, quality is in the interface between things.  It’s not a thing itself.  As an aside, nowadays we’ve perverted the concept of quality to the point where quality only means ‘good’ or ‘high’ quality.  Apparently poor quality doesn’t exist anymore.  Now, when we speak of quality goods we always mean good quality goods.  That’s pretty stupid, in my mind, but that’s the way language seems to evolve.  Returning to my point, there is no question in my mind that quality exists in the interface between things.  I, being a thing, can find another person, also a thing, either good or bad, of high quality, or of questionable character and quality.  Quality is in the judgment I make about something even if that judgment is largely socially constructed.  I may find a Mercedes of higher quality than a Toyota Tercel but ‘society’ has already made that judgment for me by reference to the price of the vehicles in question.  The value of the vehicles, strangely enough, may have little to do with price.  But I’ll leave that seeming contradiction for a discussion at another time, after I’ve finished reading Doorly and re-read Persig.  Again, back to my story.

So, quality of life is partly an individual thing, a judgment about how a life is lived, but it’s also about the ‘price’ and ‘value’ of that life itself and how it can be lived.  Life implies mobility. Dead things don’t move. The more we have ‘life’ in us, the more we move.  In our world, personal, individual mobility is gotten by having money and good health, of course.  No money, no mobility, no life. Poor health equals poor mobility.  So, having money means to be alive and to be poor means to be immobilized and socially dead in the eyes of the majority of people in our world, including poor people themselves when they (generally) buy into the moral assumptions about quality and value that drive us in our daily lives.  So, what is a high quality of life in our (moral) world?  Well, it’s having some mobility and the ability to make choices the immobilized cannot make.  The poor and unhealthy are essentially stuck, blocked and unable to move in the marketplace or in just plain physical terms.  Being stuck/blocked is essentially the definition of guilt.  Guilt here is a social concept, addressing just how well one ‘fits’ within the moral wall of the ‘community,’  large or small.  In our world, being guilty is not being mobile, without wealth or health.  We [as a pronoun here used in the broadest and most inclusive of terms] generally have no great sympathy for the poor or the ill.  We speak sympathetically of the poor and the ill but culturally we have institutionalized suspicions that the poor are that way because they are morally weak and people who are ill have only themselves to blame or their families, who should look after ‘their’ ill because they are often responsible for whatever family illnesses there are.  Never mind that most ‘poor’ people are that way not out of any moral weakness but because of circumstance, family history, and the fact that there are rich people in the world.  ‘Poor’ people are as necessary to a ‘properly’ functioning society as wealthy people but we can’t let them think they are important or necessary.  We need to make them feel guilty for not being wealthy.  After all they are poor because they are morally weak.  Let’s be clear about what it means to be morally upstanding in our world.

To be morally upstanding in our world is to be wealthy, healthy and male above everything else.  If you aren’t those things, it’s your duty to give the best impression that you actually are those things.  Drive a car you can’t afford, live in a house you can’t afford because you need to give others the impression that you are a morally upstanding member of society.  It’s no surprise that most of our laws centre around private property. It lives at the core of our morality.  But so does business entreprise, the factory-system, individualism, hard work and maleness to name a few.  To test this view, just think of the things ‘we’ hold dear and the things ‘we’ loathe, fear, detest or for which we have little regard or esteem.  Need I make a list?  How about a couple of examples.  In our world, individualism is a ruling moral force to such an extent that labour unions are scorned by many people even those who would benefit from their existence because they are collective organizations.  We hold individualism to be of such importance these days that business corporations are now considered legal individuals.  Even though corporations are made up of groups of people aligned together to produce a result, that is to make money, they are considered legal individuals.  Unions are not considered legal individuals, rather they are thought to be evil because they contradict

the global love we have for individuality and it’s ideology, individualism.  So, we live in a world circumscribed by a more or less well defined moral wall.  Imagine a place, say an old English castle, surrounded by a high wall with the king’s residence in the middle and the rest of the people living in concentric circles around the middle depending on how close they are to the king in moral terms.  You have to know where the poor live.  Yes, right up against the wall and maybe even outside the wall.  It’s no wonder we struggle so much trying to look wealthier or healthier than we are.  We are constantly testing each other, trying to determine where we reside in our moral world.  Go to a party where you don’t know a lot of people and the first question you will be asked is “So, what do you do (for a living)?  If you say you’re retired then be expected to be asked “Planning any trips abroad?  Our daily conversations are laced with attempts to determine where we stand in relation to others around us on the moral spectrum.  How close to the king do you live?

So, to get back to my original concern here with quality of life, I have to say that quality of life is judged finally on where we ‘reside’ in our moral world.  The closer we are to the king’s domain in our world, the better we think of our quality of life.  But that’s not the end of the story.  There is a social dimension to the quality of life and a responsibility we have as a community to respect all people who reside within our moral walls.  The king could never keep his castle without the help of ‘his’ people.  The wealthy in our world are the same.  No poverty, no wealth.  The wealthy need the poor, not only to make their lattés but to collect their garbage, repair their roads and cars and to buy the products they sell.  The wealthy 1 percenters in our world would be lost without the buying power of the rest of us.  Yet they have little or no respect for us.  Well, why should they?  The poor have no moral standing in our world.  They deserve their lot in life, don’t they?