Friday, 11 January 2013

Being Bad (Another Prelude)

I have an abiding interest in ethics, or perhaps more accurately meta-ethics and maybe even more accurately, but somewhat awkwardly, meta-meta-ethics.

Ethics or Moral Philosophy is a branch of philosophy which looks at concepts of right and wrong.  Within Ethics, there are a number of fields, including:

·         Meta-ethics – understanding the theoretical basis of morality

·         Normative ethics – understanding how to achieve morality using whatever theoretical basis for morality rocks your boat

·         Descriptive ethics – understanding what people believe about morality

While studying meta-ethics, one might ask what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean. With the term meta-meta-ethics, however, I am referring to a different sort of question – specifically a question about the purpose of morality.  Rather than asking about the basis on which you build your morality (although that is also of interest), I want to address the question of why you might want to build that morality in the first place.

To some people, this might sound like a strange sort of question.  But once you start asking, you quickly end up in a horribly circular discussion about wanting to do good because it is the right thing to do, and wanting to do the right thing because it is good to do so.  A simple exit from this endless loop is to admit that a benefit derives from doing good, from doing the right thing.  Quite a few people, however, are remarkably resistant to the notion that there is some benefit that derives from good, righteous action.

Soon I will begin a sequence of articles which build a case for an ethical structure which acknowledges that we might benefit by being moral.  First, however, I want to address a question that arises when considering moral theories.  An example might be apt.

I have a friend who argues for a form of universal morality although, following the example of Sam Harris, she likes to call it “objective morality”.  Her argument is that there is a “well-defined and accepted moral system” which is based on the principle of minimising suffering, or as it was posed in question form “Would you say that the need to lessen suffering is an accepted moral fact, and appears to have been a fact since societies were formed?”

You can get an idea of my response, which was graphic, if you google for images using the following search strings:

·         cockfighting injury

·         dog fighting injury

·         bear fighting injury (I used the cute one, with two cubs sparring, since the first two images I selected were rather confronting)

·         African child starving

One might also consider witch trials, gladiatorial games, public executions, Big Brother and FaceBook along with the many other methods by which humans have inflicted suffering on others – or idly stood by while observing the suffering of others.
In short, my answer was "No".

While there is some considerable attraction in the idea that humans are noble enough to want “the need to lessen suffering” to be “an accepted moral fact”, the evidence indicates that – as a species – we don’t really act as if there is such a need.

The graphic examples are, of course, extreme cases.  But even when we consider mundane “moral facts”, such as they are “facts” and “moral”, we see cracks in the underlying moral theory.

People rail against lying, saying that lying is bad, yet we all lie (research indicates that about 80% of people report lying at least once a day, other research seems to indicate that the remaining 20% are lying about how often they lie.  In a TED talk on how to spot a liar, PamelaMeyer reports that we are lied to between 10 and 200 times a day).

People rail against stealing, yet very few of us have never taken a single thing that didn’t belong to them (I, for example, know of no other person who is as blameless as myself – so long as we don’t count grapes, of course).

We do bad things, things that we know to be wrong – although when challenged we will usually go for double or nothing by then lying about it.

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’ll return to these questions after a series of articles discussing ethical structures.  The first of those articles is The Moral Animal, but if you're looking for the other two preludes they are here: Saving the Dog and The Problem with Sam.

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