Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Telling the difference between "good" and "bad" morality.

Moral or not it would be kinda cool to punch the sun.
In my last post on moralising I may have left the impression that I believe we can’t tell the difference between legitimate and illegitimate moral speech. I may have given the impression that all morality is merely a struggle of raw power in the fancy dress of logic. That’s not my conclusion and I want to take risks to spell out what the difference really is between proper morality and just bad “moralising”, as I see it.

I need to digress and just quickly say by “see it” that I don’t mean “see it.” Moral philosophy is not the practice of describing the world as it is. For example, you can’t dispute someone’s moral statement that beef is morally the same as whale meat in the same way as you can their belief that a cow is (in behaviour and form) just like a whale. The relevance for this discussion is that of course moral philosophy is “just” my opinion of how we should conduct ourselves in the world. You can pull it apart and argue against it on the basis of where such conduct could lead or its impossibility or its contradictory motives but neither of us can just hold up something and say, “see” (though we might be able to say “intuit”). Equally there’s no easy referral to common sense or experimentation.

The question of what morality is legitimate can be understood in three related ways. Firstly we can ask ourselves about what topic of morality is genuinely moral versus what is a nonsensical one. Is what hand you wipe your arse with and what species of animal (if any) you eat and what gender your partner is and what’s your carbon footprint all universally valid or invalid topics of moral discussion? Or is there some basis on which we can say one topic is worth considering as moral and another is not? I resolve this aspect of the question by answering the following two.

Secondly we need to consider what information is relevant. This feeds into and flows from the first question because certain topics lack certain information whereas others lend themselves heavily towards it. I believe that for an action to be moral it must either have a harm or a benefit to enacting it. Something like swearing as you fall into the sun is amoral. In space no-one can hear you say “Bugger” after all. Unfortunately this test it isn’t as helpful as it first might appear. It raises a very difficult question.

How are we to identify harms and benefits? Harms are not self-evident but have to be found in contrast to an ideal. Or rather only if the ideal is self-evident can you then have self-evident harms.  A polluted stream is harmed only if we considered the streams capacity to sustain life to be important. That’s seldom in doubt but self-evident could be a stretch. How about when a person is patronisingly flattered to; they may be happier (a benefit) but their dignity is harmed is one way to describe why we might consider this a moral no-no. However dignity feels a little like a rhetorical plug here, as if we are giving it a physicality it doesn’t really have to keep our logic afloat. Meanwhile conflicts over euthanasia are often bound up in competing “self-evident” ideals.

My own view at first seems to complicate matters further. I don’t believe there is a set of narrow constant ideals. Jim Henson seems to me to have attained something ideal with his storytelling however that doesn’t mean that Quentin Tarantino has fallen short of that by being less optimistic. I applaud sword swallowing trapeze artists but don’t think the rest of us are bad people for playing it safe. I admire great teachers for wading knee deep in their communities but I don’t begrudge an ancient Icelandic historian their research hours. Going on I don’t think certain expressions of sexuality are a universal ideal, or that everyone should have a house and car to go with the two and half kids.

This lack of a narrow ideal is actually useful however. It is the means by which we can largely define legitimate morality – following the premises that no meaningful harms or benefits means no moral issue and only where there is an ideal can we have meaningful harms or benefits. If we recognise something ideal in Jim Henson’s work and something ideal in Quentin Tarantino’s work then we know that the ideal is not to be found in qualities unique to one or the other (puppets or gore). As more and more exclusive qualities are pared away and as we recognize the ideal in other art I propose we draw closer to triangulating the ideal, in this case for storytelling. We can do something similar with a life well lived, with relationship structures, with our relationship with animals and so on. Recognising various forms of the ideal allow us to recognise what is truly ideal and what is merely form.

This still leaves the greatest question of all which is how do we recognise the ideal. To do this I believe relies on a set of skills that are both fragile and instinctual. They are fragile because the conditions of their development are unknown – there may be more biology than we understand, maybe certain types of play are crucial – but when they are developed they seem surprisingly robust without a need to manufacture them repeatedly. What I’m talking about is empathy – the capacity to connect with and recognise very subtle deprivations or the flourishing of another human or even an animal’s spirit. Through empathy with the people impacted we recognise forms of the ideal and through different forms we can triangulate the actual ideal. From there we have harms and from there we have morality.

We are not done yet however because we can also question a morality based on its conclusions. Here I agree with the proposition that involuntary actions are amoral. It may be incorrect to blink when a ball comes at you or it may be best to blink and protect your eyes but it is not a moral matter at least not until your ninja training gives you control over that reflex. In a very subtle stretch of our point we can say that if I am falling into the sun this may be a sad thing but it’s not a morally bad thing. The moral conclusion that I should punch the sun out of the way shows we’re talking nonsense. This provides a fairly solid basis for a sensible moral conclusion– that it makes a contribution to our decisions about our actions -but the implications of this statement are significant.

 If the only legitimate moral conclusions are ones which contribute to our decisions then it becomes worthwhile to rewrite moral questions in terms of the choices for action open to us. To do that we need to have context, we need to take into account our actual power and the broader consequences of using it and we need to quite frankly be a little more real than most moral discussions are. We are going to end up either promising action or confessing immorality. For example if I am asking whether the indefinite detention of refugees in Australia is wrong I either mean nothing sensible or I mean should I vote for a party that supports indefinite detention, should I ever take a job at a detention centre, should I attempt to free people there, should I write letters to my M.P.? Broadly speaking should I take an opportunity to support indefinite detention or oppose it? What should I do?

I could say that my question is meant to be hypothetically meaningful; that I’m really asking if I was solely in charge of Australia’s immigration policy then what should I implement. However is this really sensible? It is like asking “If I was as strong as ten supermen should I even punch the sun out of the way?” A fascinating thought exercise perhaps but revealing of the sort of nonsense a statement that something is wrong in isolation can be.

To return to the question of moral topics then, a legitimate moral topic is one which informs our choices about actions which benefit or harm as measured against what is actually ideal (not merely one form in which the ideal is found). That’s a hell of a sentence there which will be aided by an example;
Because empathy allows me to recognize ideal relationships in married and unmarried couples or same-sex and opposite sex couples or for that matter friends, teachers and students and work colleagues but not in relationships of any form which thrive on belittlement or deceit I can identify a true ideal as being honest and mutually encouraging relationships. The core of a morality regarding relationships would be about promoting actions which build mutual encouragement and honesty between people (including myself and others). If something like marriage can be shown to serve that ideal then it becomes a secondary good thing to do. That would also be a case by case matter and of course marriage would only ever be good if it was possible and in light of its full context for the people involved.

I hope this hasn’t been too painfully dry for readers. From my own perspective this has taken big risks. I’ve certainly expressed more optimism than I feel every day – some days the idea that morality is all nonsense feels more credible. I’ve put some opinions out here that I may return to one day with vehement disagreement. However I’m also aware that this has very much been located in the thin air of abstracted principles. I’m imagining that anyone who made it this far may be chuckling at the idea that this is a post of tumultuous controversy when it barely touches on the real world applications. Ultimately it’s when our morality is played out on the ground that it is really defined.

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