Friday, 19 April 2013

When Morality Breaks Down

Over the past few months, I have developed the basis of a morality based on no more than the emergent need to survive.  I say “emergent need to survive” because survive is what every single creature, human or otherwise, from which we descend has done – at least long enough to produce at least one viable child.

Before I started though, I posted a prelude – Being Bad – in which I mused on why we do bad things:

So, the question that really intrigues me is this: why do we have (or pretend to have) this morality when we so often, and often so easily, throw it away?

Are there specific situations in which acting contrary to our morality might, paradoxically, be the right thing to do?

I now want to return to these questions.


Living and letting die

If we live in a community in which the principle of not killing each other is held high, then we stand to gain security if we avoid acting violently towards each other.  We might not, however, be so forgiving when we come upon strangers from outside our community.  While we might be “good” to our immediate neighbours, we are quite likely to be “bad” to our more distant neighbours for at least two reasons.

Firstly, we do not know with any certainty that a foreigner is as committed to the concept of not committing violence towards others as we are ourselves.  Secondly, a foreigner may not be considered to be as human as a member of our own community.  This means that our moral injunction is weakened with respect to a foreigner and we can rightly fear that even if the foreigner considers killing people to be wrong, they might not consider us to be real people.

(Note also that when it comes to be being observed, the killing of another human being is not entirely a moral question.  It is illegal to kill another person under the vast majority of circumstances.  For that reason, when planning to kill another person, it is not primarily for reasons of protecting their image as a moral person that a killer tries to avoid detection.  It is in order to avoid the legal consequences.  Even in more primitive social groupings, the power over life and death is usually vested in a leader or leadership group.  There will exist rules, if not laws, about who is allowed to kill whom and when.  These more formal rules generally override moral considerations.)

When it comes right down to basics, we are not overly concerned with the survival of others – even if we might make a show of thinking that way.  It certainly seems to be true that those who are close to us are considered to be important but the greater the separation between us and some “other”, the less we truly care whether they live or die, irrespective of whether we think we should care or not.

What we are primarily concerned with is not being killed ourselves, to the extent that if our survival is threatened many of us would be quite capable of bringing about the death of another and the vast majority of us would stand by while another dies if intervening were to put us at some sort of risk.  (Note that almost everyone reading this will have sufficient wealth that they could make a completely painless sacrifice in order to help save lives in other countries, but only a small percentage will do so.  The rest just stand by while other, distant people die.)


The same sort of argument as presented above applies to theft.  When someone engages in theft, they generally do not do so merely because they think that their need overrides the moral injunction, but more often because they do not expect to get caught or that if they do, they believe that they can laugh it off.  Many a time when pushed, a person who has committed a theft – especially someone who is not known to be dishonest – will give as a reason for their action: I thought I could get away with it.

That said, sometimes we do justify stealing because we consider our need to be sufficiently great.

Being able to steal without getting caught conveys considerable evolutionary benefits, similar in form to the benefits which accrue from the ability to kill first by betraying another’s trust (their belief that you will not try to kill them).  As has been stated in earlier articles, we are all the descendants of people who did better at the “trustworthiness” game than others.  Our ancestors were sufficiently willing to take from others when necessary, even when doing so threatened the survival of those taken from.  At the same time they were able to maintain an image of trustworthiness amongst their peers, at least sufficiently well enough and long enough to produce viable progeny.

In a functional sense, the ethical structure that I have presented is not overly concerned with the rights of others to own things.  The primary concern is the ability to maintain ownership of one's own belongings. 

Again, the moral injunction is weakened when we consider people outside of our own community.  Powerful nations take land from smaller nations, soldiers pillage towns and hamlets and professional thieves steal happily from those outside their own circle – but of critical importance not within their own group.

Perhaps there are modern day saints in the world who have never taken a towel from a hotel, or soap or toiletries, or eaten a grape in a store, or taken a morsel of food from a platter or display that they were not entitled to, or been aware that they have been overpaid but not said anything, but they are likely to be extraordinarily few in number.  An overwhelming majority of us frequently take things which do not belong to us, which we know to belong to someone else.

Geographical considerations

The Ethical Hierarchy applies within a community.  When we meet a person from outside our community we are aware of a few things: they do not know our rules; we do not know their rules; they are not necessarily our friends and are possibly our enemies, and we have good reason to suspect that they might feel the same way.  If a stranger looks different to us, the distance between us and that stranger lengthens.  Nevertheless, we do seem to apply our ethical structures in relation to those outside our community – to a certain extent.

We expect strangers and foreigners to be less moral than us: most travellers carry their belongings very close to themselves partly for this reason.  Those who are so inclined (pick pockets, scam artists, tourist booth operators) prey on tourists for two reasons: firstly, they have money to steal and secondly, they are foreigners - they are not part of the community.  Equally, as tourists we will sometimes haggle to the point where we may feel that we might be cheating a stall owner.  This may not dissuade us because that stall owner is not part of our community.

That said, we do not all become totally immoral when in other countries.  Let us use the example of prostitution, noting that a number of countries which are popular tourist destinations also have a thriving sex industry.  In a few instances (Thailand for example), the sex industry caters largely to the natives and tourists may merely take advantage of it, if they chose.  While the morality associated with frequenting prostitutes may be quite different in these countries, sometimes being expected rather than frowned upon, the majority of westerners would still consider themselves bound by their own community’s moral standards rather than those of the nation they are visiting at the time.  This is for two reasons (at least).

Firstly, the moral standards on the issue of prostitution are quite strong in most western nations.  Not everyone can turn off many years of conditioning and operate according to a new moral standard during a short visit to another country.  Westerners generally consider the sex industry to be fundamentally wrong  and even a moral argument about the benefits of providing much needed financial support to people who earn their living from the industry in other countries is insufficient to overcome the imperative to conform with one’s native societal views on prostitution.

Secondly, there is a slight chance that tourists who take advantage of the opportunity to consort with a prostitute might be caught by a member of their own society, someone who knows them, and that they would as a result be judged according to their own community standards rather than by the standards of the visited community.

However, longer term exposure to another culture, or being in the company of others who have had longer term exposure to another culture, can break down one’s standards.  Expatriates living in countries in which prostitution is condoned begin to express a much more liberal view towards the practice.  This may not necessarily mean that expatriates become regulars at the types of places that they would never frequent in their country of origin, but they certainly become more accepting of those who do.

It is also well known that military men who visit foreign lands regularly take advantage of the opportunity to consort with prostitutes.  Usually there are “leaders” among the group who have already been exposed to the foreign culture and have had their moral standards “compromised”, for want of a better word.  These “leaders” demonstrate by example that contravening this particular moral injunction in a particular situation brings no consequences.

It is interesting to note that military men who have regular dealings with prostitutes in other countries do not necessarily become regular clients of prostitutes in their own country.  This may be a financial consideration but is more likely a result of returning to their own community in which injunctions against prostitution remain in force.

So, in short, we tend to apply our ethical structures in foreign situations according to how it would reflect on us among people of our own community.

If no-one cares whether we apply our community standards in a foreign lands or not, then we don’t care (or we care less) – meaning that we can feel free to cheat a poor stall owner by means of excessive and intimidating haggling.

If our fellows do care, then we also care – so we do not automatically avail ourselves of the local sex industry when travelling.

However, even if our community of origin does care about our behaviour in other countries, but we think we can get away with otherwise immoral behaviour without being caught or are in a group of people all (or most) of whom are complicit in contravening a specific set of moral injunctions, then we may be liberated to contravene similarly.

Caring about others – or not

A slight variation of the application of our ethical structures in a foreign situation comes up when we hear stories of events in other countries.  It is worth comparing two horrendous events from the 1990s – the genocide in Rwanda and the massacres committed during the war in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia.  I read with horror the stories of brutality in both countries and truly wished that someone would step in and do what it took to stop the madness (NATO, the UN, the African Union or even unilateral action by an interventionist nation like the US or France).  However, when images from the refugee camps in Bosnia were televised, I felt a far more visceral response than when I saw images from the refugee camps in Burundi.

It is sad to say that seeing a group of Africans suffering in squalor was nothing particularly new, especially after events in South Africa, Mozambique, Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia.  Seeing Europeans in the same situation however, came as more of a shock.  In part that might be due to the association with the death camps of World War II, but there was also an element of the fact that the people being depicted were Europeans.  And I am of European origin.

Watching horrible events happen to other people does affect us.  Some might argue that when this is considered in relation to the Ethical Hierarchy, we should be surprised that we care at all about events that clearly have no impact on our own personal safety.

This is erroneous because we humans have the ability to consider what it would be like for us if we ourselves were in such a situation.  Certainly we can see that other people rather than ourselves are currently suffering on television, but we can understand that we would be threatened if such a situation were repeated in our own communities.  Therefore we perceive this situation as wrong.

When we see the suffering of a type of person that we can associate more closely with, in the way that most westerners could when presented with images of Europeans in refugee camps, the sense of outrage and unease is heightened.  For a westerner, seeing a large group of third world people suffering is “comfortably” wrong.  We would not like to see ourselves in their situation, but we might see it as completely unlikely.  When we see people very like ourselves suffering, it is much less comfortable and we tend to place more emphasis on how wrong the situation seems to us.  In such a situation, we perceive the threat to our survival much more clearly.

A conclusion to the Morality as Playing Games series

Game theory, some would argue, is about winning games and for that reason has nothing to do with ethics.  I have shown, however, that game theory can also show us how to not lose, and not losing is key to survival.  I have used this understanding to develop a conceptual ethical structure which can act as a mechanism for promoting our survival in a community in which we would otherwise have little basis for trusting others.

My argument is that the fundamental basis for what is morally “right” and “wrong” is a consideration of what promotes the longer term survival.  And while the ethical structure that results from such a consideration may be characterised by self-interest in one sense, it is fully consistent with what we observe in reality with people frequently appearing to act against their more immediate self-interest – in part because their small but ostentatious acts of self-abnegation in the near term can mean the difference between survival and death in the long term.  With the introduction of the concept of “legacy survival”  we are provided not only with a further explanation for acts which are inconsistent with apparent (short-term) self-interest but also an understanding as to why, under certain circumstances, people may be motivated by their morality to accept potentially lethal risks.

However, in order to maximise the chance of long-term survival, we must not only espouse the morality which results from our ethical structures but also have the capacity to act against that morality when necessary – we need to be bad when being bad is called for.  This allows the fact that we humans almost universally consider ourselves to be fundamentally moral to be reconciled with the fact that we are wracked by human failings, consistently failing to uphold the moral injunctions and imperatives that we espouse.  If the emergent function of an ethical structure is to promote survival, then it is entirely rational for us to work tirelessly towards establishing ourselves as morally upright individuals while not permitting ourselves to be locked too securely into a morality that only promotes our survival prospects in under certain circumstances.  It is entirely rational to retain some freedom to manoeuvre, including the option to abandon key aspects of our morality when circumstances change, such as when it becomes apparent that persisting on a moral path is no longer consistent with the best chances of survival.

It is in this way that one could even say that occasionally, by acting against the imperatives and injunctions of our ethical structures – that is by “acting immorally” or “being bad”, we are not only being rational but we are doing what is right in terms of our survival prospects and, as a consequence, we are doing what is fundamentally moral.

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