Sunday, May 13, 2007

Morality, part 2

A while back I was talking about the fundamentals of morality, of right and wrong. It's time to revisit that.

One of the rules I have is that right and wrong must be reasonable, which is to say, amenable to reason. If we can't think about what's right and wrong, there's not much point in trying to figure it out... by definition, reason won't give us any answers.

Really, it's easy to figure out the fundamentals. Hurting people is bad; making people happy is good.

Now, "happy" is a bit of a question-begging term; what is "happiness"? Is a child forced to play inside for an interminably long time (from the child's perspective!) after chasing a ball into the street "happy"? Yes; the child's learning a valuable, possibly lifesaving, lesson. Happiness isn't short term pleasure.

I define happiness as any state of being better than the alternative, and I expect a lot of people to throw up their hands in despair. "That could mean almost anything!" you might say, and that's true. It might well mean, literally, almost anything. But then, what makes people happy can vary wildly, right? So why wouldn't happiness be so broadly defined?

We should listen to what people say. You may not always know what's best for you, but you have more information about what's going on with you, how you think, and how you feel, than anyone else can. Sometimes, we'll have to use our judgment; a sucidal person thinks death is the only option to end suffering but experience has shown that this is nearly always wrong. In most cases, we should leave people be. People will make mistakes, but will learn from them. Learning from mistakes, learning how to live better, makes us happier.

So, encouraging happiness is good, hurting people is bad... but notice that I avoided the terms "right" and "wrong", and "moral" and "immoral". It's bad to hurt people, but sometimes it's unavoidable. If you have to break up with someone who is in love with you, that will hurt that person. It is still often the right thing to do; if the relationship is irreparably broken, letting it continue will probably cause you both more hurt than breaking things off. Similarly, if someone is trying to hurt or kill you, defending yourself, even with minimal force, might require hurting the other person.

Or, for a more complicated example, what about competition? If two people are trying to sell you something, you'll "hurt" one of them by buying from the other.

The basic ideas of morality can't be summed up in easy-to-follow rules. Most moral decisions are pretty simple, but life is frequently complicated, and you rarely have all of the information that's needed to make a good decison. All you can do is look around and see who is hurt, and how much, and why, and see who is helped, how much, and why, and make the best decision you can.

Some of the rules will fall into your lap; don't steal, don't rape, don't murder, etc., are gimmes.

To get into more complicated situations, we need the two situations I referenced in my last post on morality as teasers: drunk driving and peanut butter sandwiches.

For many years, drunk driving wasn't considered a big deal. Drunk drivers didn't want to hurt anyone, and, you know, they were drunk. By definition, they weren't as aware of the consequences of their actions as they would be if sober. More importantly, in most drunk driving incidents, no one gets hurt.

Ah, but in too many circumstances, someone does get hurt. Even today, when drunk driving is considered a serious crime, thousands of people are killed each year as a result of drunk driving.

It should be obvious that drunk driving is wrong, not because every drunk driver hurts someone on every single attempt... drunk driving simply increases the risk that someone gets hurt to an unacceptable level... and the benefit (getting a drunk person home) is simply too small to justify this level of risk.

It is not enough to "not hurt people". It's wrong to do so much as put people at risk of harm, even if that harm doesn't actually come to pass. This has even more applicability today. I remember living in Ohio when George Voinovich was governor. He insisted that the trash burning power plant was probably safe, and that the danger of dioxin(!!) wasn't perfectly established, scientifically. Well, given the amount of dioxin being put out by that plant, it was right to shut it down. It doesn't matter that we couldn't provide proof positive that someone was being hurt; the risk was too high. Similar arguments can be made about global warming... at least, they can be made by those who aren't pounding straw men all day over the issue. No, we haven't proven, beyond any doubt, that man-made changes to the atmosphere are causing sufficient global warming, but we have enough evidence that it's wrong to fail to act. If we don't act to curb greenhouse emissions, our children and grandchildren will think of us as the people who got plastered and got behind the wheel of an SUV to do a little hot-rodding. Even if we're wrong about global warming, it would be incredibly reckless to ignore the issue.

So, it's bad to hurt people, and it's bad to put other people at needless risk of harm.

But there's more, and that's where the peanut butter sandwiches come in.

Imagine, if you will, a kindly member of the neighborhood; I always think of a woman like my grandmother, but you can imagine whoever you will. This is a person who loves children, and loves to have them over. If a child is hungry, this person is always glad to fix a peanut butter sandwich as a snack. And, to cover all bases, let's pretend they're organically grown, fair-trade peanuts, and wholesome, whole-grain bread from wheat grown locally, and that all of the neighborhood's parents have given this person permission to do so.

This is a good thing to do. It's still a good thing to do when, by accident, a child with a life-threatening peanut allergy is given such a sandwich. Our hypothetical kindly person didn't know about the allergy, and can't be faulted for an act of kindness.

What matters is what happens next. How does our kindly neighbor react?

It's not enough to claim "well, I had good intentions, it's not my fault if the kid got sick!" No, if your actions have caused something bad to happen, you have to do what you reasonably can to fix it. And, just as important, you have to investigate what went wrong, to try to fix it.

Only the most destructive of fools keeps blundering around at random, causing damage over and over, and never learning from the mistakes that have been made. There are jokes about George W. Bush that I'm biting back right now, but we saw a recent-ish example of that. Colin Powell referred to the "Pottery Barn rule" of "you break it, you bought it". Well, that's not true in Pottery Barn, but it's a sound moral principle. If you've caused problems, you should try to put those problems right. And, even if you had the best of intentions, it doesn't excuse you from putting things right, or for learning from your mistakes.

You need to keep your eyes open, you need to see what happens as a result of your actions, and you need to adjust your actions accordingly.

Try to make people happy; try to avoid hurting people, unless there's no other choice. Don't even put people at needless risk of being hurt, and watch what you're doing and make adjustments, because good intentions aren't enough.

It's not as simple as someone trying to give you a list of rules, be it the laws in our country, or the laws in the bible, but it's a path to a strong morality, based in love, and concerned more with doing right than with following the rules.

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