Immorality Of A Collective Conscience

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The Immorality of a Collective Conscience Joan Didion, in her essay titled, "On Morality," bravely confronts the issue her title implies, but more specifically she explains how the concept of morality exists and is applied in the Western United States. The author contends that essentially, beyond a fundamental loyalty to those whom we love, humans cannot, without error, know what is "right" and what is "wrong." She also suggests that individual's moralities cannot and should not be imposed on other individuals. Didion insists the issue of collective morality should be comprised of a single convention, which promotes nothing more than one's survival.

Didion opens her essay with a brief story of a talc miner, who was directed by a sense of "moral duty" to stay with a deceased body of a boy in the Western desert, until a coroner arrived. The author does not "distrust" the role of morality in this certain instance because there is no ambiguity in what its role actually is, as well as what the result of the role being taken is.

The miner's role, she feels, was simply acquiescence to "the promise we make to one another that we will try to retrieve our casualties." Didion also refers to certain groups throughout history who failed to continue their fleeting westward and how she feels their lack of success was due to severe environmental circumstances or other "circumstances out of control." Yet, she is bothered that most have been "taught instead that they (the groups fleeting westward) had somewhere abdicated their responsibilities, somehow breached their primary loyalties, or they would not have found themselves helpless." The breaches being referred to include the eating of one's blood relative, as well as the separation of relatives, each infraction occurring as a result of the "severe circumstances" mentioned above. Unlike the rather intrinsic role of attending our deceased, Didion feels that it is not "moral", nor is it rational, to place definite ethical standards of action upon other situations.

Didion explains that to place such standards upon other situations is purely "claiming the primacy of personal conscience." She elaborates that such an act suggests that such an infliction of an individual conscience, since a communal conscience is not possible, is as irreverent an act as possible. The author supports her opinion by providing the reader that even those who support the conscience in making moral decisions eventually find themselves in a "quite contradictory position that the ethic of conscience is dangerous when it is "wrong," and admirable when it is "right". Given this, she is disturbed by the looseness and frequency in which the word is placed throughout society, due to the ambiguity in which its use entails, as well as "self-indulgence" becoming a motive, once "factitious moral burdens" are enacted.

Joan Didion regards morality as necessary only for decisions that pertain to survival, her one exception being our inherent allegiance to our loved ones. She insists that beyond that allegiance, the universal application of shared moral standards, based solely on conscience, only result in uncertainty and error in judgment. The author maintains that applying such moral standards, ironically, can yield an inadvertent, yet potent essence of immorality, which she feels might already have begun to linger throughout the West.