Thursday, February 14, 2008

The flawed moral sense

“I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” – Ernest Hemingway

There is a dangerous idea out there that is being promoted by theists and atheists alike. That is the idea that we have an in-born, natural sense of right and wrong and thus a natural sense of morality that we can rely on to make moral decisions. Whether that sense comes from a magical apple or billions of years of evolution is beside the point, to me, because the statement itself is false; there is no point to discussing the origin of something that does not exist.

Many people see their “conscience” as a voice in their head that speaks up whenever we encounter a moral decision. Some people see it as the voice of God, some people see it as a naturally developed sense, but people from both sides often view this “voice” as flawless.

Of course, when we hear about someone who bombed an abortion clinic or kill their family because they heard God tell them to do it, most of us say, “That person is insane. He should have known not to listen to that voice in his head. It sure as hell wasn’t God.”

And that’s good to think that because those people sure as hell are crazy to listen to any internal voice that tells them to kill people. But there is a more subtle, and more common, belief that as long as we are not mentally ill, we can tell right from wrong, even if we might do the wrong thing every now and then—but when we do something wrong we know it’s wrong and feel guilty because of it. And I’m not hearing this argument from religious people; I’m hearing it from people who are generally non-religious that claim there is a natural, objective morality that has developed in humans for the benefit of our species. After all, without some sense of morality, society at large would be impossible. If everyone was just looking out for themselves, we would never have escaped the stone age, or even made it that far.

I’m not disputing the claim that we have an innate sense of morality and justice. But I am disputing that a perfect sense of morality could, hypothetically, be achieved if we were just willing to listen to that natural voice in our head that tells us what is right and what is wrong. I’m disputing the idea that our selfishness is the only thing keeping us from a perfect, or near perfect, sense of morality.

The problem with claiming that God installs a sense of morality in us is that if God created it, it has to be perfect. I find it ironic that Christians in this country claim that without religion, subjective morality would take over and “people would do whatever they felt like.” I find this ironic, because it is exactly what most Christians do themselves. Many born-again Christians are convinced that they can communicate directly with God. When they have a difficult decision to make, they can simply ask the God voice inside their head what they should do. How many times do you hear Christians talk about praying for guidance? And in the end, who is actually making the decision? Them, based on what they feel is right. Because the Bible is surprisingly vague on today’s “moral” issues like abortion, gay marriage and the death penalty, people have to rely on what their internal God tells them, and both sides can find plenty of scripture to back up their conclusion. But in the end, they’re just listening to the supposedly flawless voice inside their heads.

But Christians aren’t the only ones who do this. Just substitute “self-reflection” for prayer, and the process works just as well without any god. When it comes to making moral decisions, most people rely on what they feel. And as long as someone’s moral opinion doesn’t stray too far from the norm (like someone who feels like child molestation is okay), we are not supposed to criticize anyone’s moral decisions.

On one hand, we desperately want to believe that there is an objective moral code so that we can say definitively and objectively that rape, murder and theft are immoral. But when it comes to our personal lives, we feel like we are equipped to make the correct moral decision if we just stop and reflect on whether something feels right or not.

This is a mistake, because the tools we are equipped with are flawed. Evolution is a sloppy process that cares about one thing and one thing only: survival. I’m not sure whether morality developed as a direct benefit to human survival, or if it is purely a side-effect of our ability to understand another being’s thoughts, which leads to empathy, which leads to morality. I tend to lean toward the side-effect theory, but it’s beside the point in this case. The point is that just because morality developed and has proven beneficial does not mean it is perfect, or anything close to perfect. Relying on what we feel is right and wrong is a perfect way to allow ourselves to justify our immoral acts. Cold hard reason has to be a (big) part of our morality if we ever want to get anywhere close to living in peace.

Take racism, or any other kind of prejudice, as an example. While culture certainly plays a role in prejudice, there are underlying, natural, aspects of our brains that make us discriminate—mainly the need to categorize, which is necessary to our ability to comprehend the world and make decisions. And how is something like racism diminished? There wasn’t a generation that suddenly said, “We no longer feel good about treating someone differently because of the color of their skin.” It was the realization that “they” bleed, sleep, age and feel the same way that “we” do. Racial relations have been helped tremendously by proving scientifically that we share the same genes. On a personal level, the best way to conquer prejudice is to form relationships with people with different skin color, sexual orientation or social status. When you actually get to know people as individuals, you realize you aren’t all that different and can begin to chip away at your prejudices. One way or another, logic plays a role in overcoming the natural tendency toward prejudice.

Of course, even though we have a tendency toward prejudice, many of us still feel bad that we are prejudiced. So you could argue that there is still an overriding natural moral sense that has to battle with the separate natural sense of prejudice. But our moral feelings (the guilt or empathy that make us feel icky or good) do not always fall in line with what logically seems moral.

When our morality fails

Imagine that you were walking to work in your brand new $500 suit when you see a man lying in the street, bloodied and unconscious, but clearly still alive. There is a semi driving down the street toward the man, and it is obvious that the driver will not see the man in time to avoid him. You have plenty of time to drag the man out of the way, but you certainly do not have time to undress or try to wake him up. You do not save the man because you do not want to ruin your new suit with bloodstains.

Now imagine a second scenario. You are watching TV and a commercial comes on that shows pictures of starving children in Africa and a phone number you can call to sponsor a child for just five dollars a month. You continue to watch television and do not call the phone number.

In these situations, are you acting immorally or morally? If you are like 99% of people, you would say that in the first scenario you are acting immorally, but in the second scenario, you are not acting either immorally or morally.

But what makes these situations different? In both situations you have the opportunity to save a stranger’s life at your own expense. Why is inaction immoral in one case, and not in the other? You can say that in scenario one you are the only person that can save the man, while in scenario two you can rest assured that those children will be saved by someone else. But come on, you know that’s a lousy excuse. There is no shortage of starving children in the world, so even if 3,000,000 children were saved from other peoples’ donations, your donation would mean that 3,000,001 children were saved. You can try to come up with an excuse, but if you’re honest with yourself, the moral judgments of the two scenarios should be the same.

Because indirect contact with other human beings (through letters, telephone, email, webcams, etc.) is relatively new to us, our empathy does not translate very well to people we cannot physically see. It’s not completely absent, and in fact we often get angry that these sponsor-a-child programs play on our empathy by showing pictures of miserable children. But that feeling is not strong enough for us to actually save those children’s life. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have never personally donated to any of these causes myself. So I’m not getting on my high horse here; I’m just as guilty as anyone).

Should I feel guilty every time I go to the movies, since that money could save someone’s life? Well no, that kind of guilt would be crippling. But is it immoral for me to go to the movies when that money could save someone’s life? As uncomfortable as it makes me, it’s hard to say that it is not. In fact, I will say definitively right here that going to the movies or buying a four-dollar cup of coffee are immoral acts.

Of course, this sets a moral standard that is impossible for anyone to live up to. The idea that I can never be perfectly moral, no matter how hard I try is uncomfortable. But just because something makes us uncomfortable does not mean that we should deny it against all reason. And I just cannot come up with a reasonable argument for why I should not consider the mentioned cases immoral.

Even upon realizing this, I do not find myself in a constant state of guilt and shame because I am not giving every penny I earn to humanitarian causes. When I sit down and really think about it, sure I feel a little guilty, but just like I’m not continually baffled by my self-awareness, my feelings of guilt in these cases are not instinctive. If I steal money from my brother, as I did sometimes when we were kids (sorry Jordan), I instinctively feel guilty about it. I don’t have to sit down and consider that what I did was unjust, because my moral sense naturally activates feelings of guilt. This feeling of guilt will not go away until I justify my immoral actions, or make up for them. People that are constantly committing immoral acts are usually very good at quickly justifying those acts.

With the starving children on the other side of the world, however, my moral sense falls short. I have to consciously convince myself that my inaction is immoral before I feel any sense of guilt, and that guilt disappears immediately.

So what?

So what can we do about it without driving ourselves into poverty and starvation? Well, for starters, we can recognize that our moral sense is imperfect, and that we need to apply reason when it comes to making moral decisions; just because we don’t feel guilty about doing something does not mean we are doing the right thing.

The man in the road and child in Africa examples are extreme situations of when we do and don’t feel a moral responsibility to help someone, but most situations fall in a gray area. A lot of people have siblings that are significantly less or more fortunate than they are, but few people feel bad about buying a new Mercedes while their brother is living paycheck to paycheck and falling behind on his bills. If anyone suggests that you should feel guilty about not helping your struggling sibling, there are all kinds of justifications you can fall back on: “I earned this money, and my brother’s lazy,” “He’s not starving to death. He’s fine,” “If I give a handout to him, then everyone’s going to want one.”

Since my personal situation is a lot closer to the struggling brother, it is hard for me to criticize the inaction of the well-to-do brother. The common reaction is, “You’re just looking for a free handout. You just want people to give you something for nothing.” But I am just as guilty when I buy a $10 t-shirt instead of donating that money.

I am not attacking particular actions that I think are immoral. I am suggesting that we reevaluate how we define morality. Perfect morality as I have defined it is unattainable, but that does not mean we should not pursue it. A perfect understanding of the universe is unattainable, but we do not stop pursuing that. Like any good counselor will tell an alcoholic, admitting our shortcomings is the first step to recovery. We have to admit that our moral sense is incomplete. We cannot continue to insist that immoral actions will reveal themselves through our guilt, and moral actions will reveal themselves through our happiness, because this is not always the case. It may be uncomfortable to expand our definition of immorality, but our descendents will thank us. We are a long way from a peaceful existence, but I am confident that harmony is possible if we take the appropriate steps. And I believe that including reason in our moral decisions is an important one of those steps.

Sorry Hemingway, but you’re wrong.

1 comment:

Katie said...

this post of yours is almost completely in line with traditional catholic moral theology. just thought you'd be interested to know that.