The accountancy model of morality and one alternative
The book of Alcoholics Anonymous says about the 9th step: “Now we go out to our fellows and repair the damage done in the past. We attempt to sweep away the debris which has accumulated out of our effort to live on self-will and run the show ourselves. If we haven’t the will to do this, we ask until it comes. Remember it was agreed at the beginning we would go to any lengths for victory over alcohol” (76). The rest of the discussion of “making amends” in chapter 6 offers practical advice including not being too effusive about one’s religious revelations about God’s will, being shrewd about choosing to whom to make amends, and trying to avoid prison time if possible.
In Staying Sober without God, Jeffrey Munn writes that “Making amends is about doing the right thing so that we can become people of integrity and clearing our conscience of guilt and shame so that we can walk around feeling free and unburdened by our past. It’s about healing ourselves just as much as it’s about repairing the damage we’ve inflicted on others” (99). Munn presents, in secular language, the motivations for making amends, heard even in traditional AA meetings. In brief, amends are supposed to wipe away the guilt and shame of past misdeeds so that we can live with ourselves, and make reparations as much as possible to others.
In both cases, correction of moral wrong is invoked as a goal of moral action. This is such a common conceptualization of moral life that I expect it is difficult to see it as ideological—but it most certainly is. Making amends, and the related 4th step “inventory,” are construed in terms of accounts and balances, ideas of mercantile and capitalist economics. These ideas are deeply embedded in much of European-dominated thinking about morality. Think of the rather cartoonish images of St. Peter at the pearly gates by a standing desk consulting an enormous ledger book to check whether we’ll be allowed into heaven. We imagine justice to have balance scales, and by extension think of morality also as involving undoing wrong, making it whole, resetting the moral balance of our lives. All of this presumes that we know what value to place on moral wrong, what compensation is adequate—practically quantifying the entirety of moral life.
For some complex and some not so complex reasons, I’m not convinced this calculative way of thinking either adequately describes the phenomena of moral life, or tells us very much about right action when wrongs have been committed. For now, I’ll omit the complex reasons, which have to do with some esoteric ways of thinking about the ethical (for instance, the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas, whose book Totality and Infinity is so challenging to comprehend, that myself and two grad school buddies reading it together nearly came to blows over interpreting it—which I find hilarious in retrospect). The simpler reasons have to do with personal experiences of trauma, but I think they relate to a broader issue of thinking about moral life. I’ll use one such experience.
Let’s say that as a young teen, your family has moved about 500 miles from what has always been your home, to a region with marked cultural differences. Let’s say that, as a result of that move and your own native difficulty with making friends, you have no real social support network in your new junior high school. One day, you get to gym class, change into gym clothes, lock your street clothes and book bag in one of the lockers, all in the usual way. The usual way, in this case, involves ducking the mild physical and verbal abuse of some much bigger kids. When you get back to the locker room after gym, you discover that some group—likely the same kids who were intimidating you earlier—have pried open the top of your gym locker and pissed in it, soaking your street clothes and book bag.
This would be painful for you, possibly traumatizing. Considering that you have no network of social support, have not made any real friends in the new school, and are dealing with the usual horrors of being of junior high school age, it’s likely that this would be traumatizing for you. You can’t change into your urine-soaked street clothes, so you have nothing else to wear but your gym clothes for the rest of the school day and bus ride home. Whatever is in your book bag is also reeking of urine.
Now imagine that, thirty or forty years later, one of those intimidating kids is “in the program,” and has remembered this event. Suppose they also wrote it down in their 4th step inventory, and recalled it not merely as a junior high prank, but something potentially quite harmful to its victim. Maybe they would even understand how it could be serious enough that it might traumatize its victim, and so determine that this is something they should make amends for.
What amends would be appropriate? What would be a meaningful way to “repair the damage” and “clear away the debris” or this past action?
I know, from my experience of trauma, including this event, that the “debris,” the “damage,” defies quantification. Beyond that, it was traumatizing, because I was shaken to the point of never feeling safe in school ever again, and because I felt targeted every minute I was at school. My already developing coping mechanism of withdrawing from others became further pronounced, to the point that I was practically asocial, and had no real friends until my senior year of high school. Consequently (or concomitantly) I was depressed, anxious, hyper-vigilant, and ultimately suicidal, before falling into addiction.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that having my clothes pissed on made me an addict. The point I’m making is that, to me, it is impossible to figure what it would mean to re-balance the scales, to clear the account, related to this harm. The damage is extensive and indefinite, without clear limits or specificity.
What if, fundamentally, moral life is outside of any scale or standard, and admits of no proper measurement or commensuration that would allow anyone to know meaningfully what harm or damage they produced? If we remove this idea from our way of thinking about moral life, what are we left with? What would motivate “making amends,” and what would “amends” look like?
At least a couple things are worth consideration. First, consider that moral wrongs, the damage and debris, will always be there, and can never be removed. From the tiniest fib to the most horrific crime, nothing can be done to repair the moral wrong. You might be able to give back the money you stole, but you can’t give back the action of stealing, for instance. (Or, in my example,—shit, I don’t know, maybe buy me a book bag, a pair of jeans, and a t-shirt? Whatever it could be, it obviously could not undo my clothes and stuff having been pissed on then.) So, we never can make amends in this sense.
Second, following from that idea, perhaps it is not amends but emends that are called for. Acknowledging something we did as morally wrong means that we judge that action according to a set of moral values we espouse now (and maybe did even then). Emending our ways of life would mean setting those moral values as significant goals for our actions. It could mean that the whole “inventory” business is really about discovering and committing to moral values and acting with integrity.