There’s no one answer to the question of what constitutes morality, but for Joan Didion, it’s about more than just following the law. It’s about understanding the complexities of human behavior and making choices that take others into account.
In her essay “On Morality,” Didion argues that morality is not a fixed set of principles, but something that evolves as our understanding of the world changes. She observes that what was once considered moral (such as arranged marriages) is now seen as outdated and oppressive, while other things (like premarital sex) are now widely accepted.
Didion argues that our morality is constantly changing as we learn more about the world around us. We must be willing to re-evaluate our beliefs in light of new information, and to make choices that take others into account. Only then can we hope to create a society that is truly just and moral.
In her article “On Morality,” author Joan Didion states that morality is not the pursuit of ideals, but rather a rudimentary code of ethics with the primary aim of staying alive. To illustrate this idea, Didion refers to the Donner-Reed Party, who, when trapped high in the freezing Sierra Nevada Mountains, resorted to cannibalism to survive.
Didion argues that, in a similar way, morality is not about idealistic notions of right and wrong, but is instead a practical code of behavior that helps us to survive and thrive in our social groups.
While Didion’s claim may initially seem cynical, she ultimately makes a compelling case for the importance of morality as a tool for social cohesion and survival. In today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded with news of violence and division, it is important to remember that our morality is what binds us together as a society. It is only by understanding and respecting our differences that we can hope to create a more just and peaceful world.
In situations like these, our natural urge to survive at all costs trumps our typical social code of ethics, which Didion characterizes as “wagon-train morality” (Didion). Our responses are generally much more sympathetic in everyday life, as seen in the example of the automobile accident when “the nurse explained that her husband, a talc miner, had stayed on the roadway with the injured woman and her family until the ambulance came.” However, in an emergency such as this one at the restaurant, “The case is different: what we have then is not morality but a set of taboos” (Didion).
Our reactions to the two different situations are rooted in our evolutionary past. In the case of the car accident, we can afford to be altruistic because we know that there will always be someone there to help us if we need it. On the other hand, in a situation like the one at the restaurant, our ancestors who were more self-interested and focused on their own survival were more likely to pass on their genes.
Interestingly, Didion notes that “[t]here is a point beyond which even the most altruistic among us will not go” (Didion). In other words, we are hardwired to care about our own survival first and foremost. This is why, in a life or death situation, we are more likely to act in ways that we would normally consider to be morally wrong.
In her essay “On Morality,” Joan Didion analyzes what lies beneath the veneer of humanity’s morality. By recounting a number of stories and historical events, she demonstrates that morality at its “most basic” level is nothing more than “our loyalty to the ones we love,” with everything else subjective. Didion’s first tale focuses on our devotion to family. She is writing an article about “morality” in Death Valley, where she distrusts the word “a word [she] distrusts more every day.”
As she looks out at the valley she is reminded of her father who passed away a few years earlier. Even though he was not a perfect man, she still loved him and he was always loyal to her. The second story Didion tells is about the Manson Family murders.
She specifically focuses on one of the victims, Sharon Tate, and how her death has been “eclipsed” by the fact that she was pregnant at the time. Didion argues that if Tate had not been pregnant, her death would have been seen as just another murder, but because she was carrying a child, her death became “a symbol of something larger, an emblem of our own place in history.” The third story Didion tells is about the Jonestown massacre.
She again focuses on one specific victim, Deborah Layton, and how her story is “the story of what happens when you do not come home.” Layton left Jonestown before the mass suicide occurred, but her sister did not and ended up dying. This story highlights the importance of family and how our loyalty to them can sometimes override our own survival instinct. The fourth and final story Didion tells is about her own experience with morality.
She recountsthe time she was in El Salvador during the civil war and how she witnessed a man being executed by a firing squad. Even though she was horrified by what she saw, she still could not look away because “to look away was to deny something essential about human nature.” Didion concludes her essay by saying that morality is not about right and wrong, it is about our “loyalties to the ones we love.” Everything else is subjective.
While driving through Death Valley in a rented vehicle, she heard about a kid who had been drunk, had an automobile accident, and perished while on his way to the park. “His girlfriend was discovered alive but bleeding internally, deep in shock,” Didion claims. She spoke with the nurse who drove her 185 miles to the nearest doctor. The nurse’s husband stayed with the body until the coroner arrived. “You can’t leave a body on the road; it’s unethical,” said the nurse.
Didion then goes on to say that the nurse was talking about a different kind of morality than the one she was used to. The nurse wasn’t talking about right and wrong, but about what is and isn’t done. It is a kind of morality that has to do with how we treat each other, not with how we follow abstract principles.
This story illustrates Didion’s belief that our society has become too focused on individual rights and not enough on communal responsibility. We have become a “me” society instead of a “we” society. We are more concerned with our own rights and freedoms than we are with the welfare of others. This has led to a decline in morality, as well as a decline in social cohesion.
Didion believes that we need to focus more on our responsibilities to each other and less on our individual rights. We need to be more concerned with the common good than with our own selfish desires. Only then will we be able to create a society that is truly moral.