Friday, December 7, 2007

Whither Morality?

What is morality? It is not the following of enjoined rules of conduct. It is not a question of standing above temptations, or of conquering hate, anger, greed, lust and violence. Questioning your actions before and after creates the moral problem. What is responsible for this situation is the faculty of distinguishing between right and wrong and influencing your actions accordingly.

Life is action. Unquestioned action is morality. Questioning your actions is destroying the expression of life. A person who lets life act in its own way without the protective movement of thought has no self to defend. What need will he have to lie or cheat or pretend or to commit any other act which his society considers immoral? -- U.G. in Mystique of Enlightenment.

We do question our actions before and after, whether we like it or not. For one thing, we are worried about the consequences of our actions, whether they will be just as we expect them, or they are liable to cause harm to ourselves or others, or what will happen to us if certain consequences follow our actions, and so on. We also feel guilty if the current action goes against our own previously accepted norms of right and wrong, loss or gain and good and bad.

I am not as much concerned here with which theory of morality (and moral judgments) is correct, whether utilitarianism is better than deontology or vice-versa, for instance, or whether we should opt for egoism or hedonism, and so on. My issue with morality is that even if we agree on which moral standards we use in our judgments, we are still left with a major problem.

The main problem with morality is not even that we worry about whether our actions may turn out to be wrong, but it is that more often than not we don’t act according what we ourselves admit is the right thing to do. It was Aristotle who first grappled with the problem of incontinence. The problem became translated in Christianity as the problem of the weakness of the will – “the spirit is willing but the flesh does not obey.” Socrates, followed by Plato, always taught that if only a person knew what is good, he would automatically be good and therefore act accordingly. So the ultimate evil is really ignorance. Plato’s Republic is an attempt to connect knowledge of the good with a person’s (and by extension with the state’s) happiness, thus ensuring the moral conduct of the individual (and by extension of the society).

Whether we approach the problem as one of ignorance or as one of the weakness of the will, the problem of the gap between one’s beliefs and intentions and one’s actions remains. As a consequence, no matter what our ideas of right and wrong are, most of us say or believe in one thing and act in another way. Our desires and passions, or our ‘self-protectiveness’, as UG said in the above passage, are the impediments to morality.

Once we act, publicly we tend to justify our actions or defend them, although, internally we may regret or feel guilty. We learn to lead double lives – in public we appear to be virtuous and in private we constantly plot against other people and try to get our way. No wonder morality becomes a farce.

As I used to say in the very first class of my Moral Issues class, “Morality is for other people only!” We are quick to judge other people’s actions as good or bad, right or wrong, using the judgments, more often than not, to bolster our own egos, to feel superior to others or to feel that we are on a higher moral ground than them.

People always look for policies of living, for a policy which will make them permanently happy and be in harmony with the rest of the society. Unfortunately, even if they found one, I can hardly think of a single individual who doesn’t violate his own policies (or moral standards) at the next turn.

Then why this sham? Why morality at all? Why the standards of right and wrong (and of good and bad which are supposed to be their basis)?

I have thought for a long time that morality in these terms has really no place in our lives. Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating ‘immoral behavior’ such as murder, rape, violence, lying or stealing, or acting on impulse or passion without regard to consequences. (The above passage of UG might tempt you to think that he may be advocating this; but that’s far from the truth).

UG talks about acting with the self-protectiveness of thought. Unfortunately, we do think, and more often than we are self-protective. To me, it’s interesting to see how in fact we act in concrete situations: we have desires, some of which conflict with one another. And we have fears. In the face of any given situation, we consider the conflicts and act in a way constant with the equilibrium of our mental economy. I think that’s most assurance we could have for moral behavior. Consider the following possibility:

Take, for instance, a young woman who comes to me for advice regarding an unwanted pregnancy. I could take a moralist pro-life position and tell her that she should carry the pregnancy to a full-term, give birth to the child, and if she has problems raising the child, give it for adoption to another couple. Or, I could take the pro-choice position and tell her to go ahead and get an abortion. (I actually did advice someone to do this once, but I had a vested interest in giving that advice, leaving alone the main consideration of whether it is good for the mother or the unborn child.) But what my advice ignores is so many other factors the lady has to consider in making her decision, such as not just her economic plight after the baby is born, the social stigma or disapproval of relatives, but more importantly, her having to deal with her loneliness, feelings of guilt, feeling of being betrayed and so forth. Were I to not take these under consideration in advising her, I might be missing the point and only imposing on her an advice from outside, thereby putting only more pressure on her instead of helping her solve her problem. Is my position that of a moral judge or a friend and advisor? (In fact, even using of terms such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ would only exacerbate the matter.) Where do I stand in this matter?

If I were to adviser her on this situation, my advise is first, not to tell her what to do, and second, to tell her that the issue is not one of right or wrong, that she has to make up her own mind, listening to her feelings about the situation and considering how she would feel about the possible consequences. I tell her that after considering all these she should come up with a decision which she could live with, and if she can’t come up with a decision right away, she should keep working at it until she can come up with a solution, i.e. ‘sit’ on the problem. I also tell her that when she finds the right solution to her satisfaction, her mental turmoil would diminish and she could live peacefully. She would then know that as far she is concerned that’s the ‘right’ answer. If she finds later that she was mistaken in her previous decision, then again she gives herself a chance to rethink the matter until she comes up with a more satisfactory solution. And unfortunately, there are no rules for this. Of course, she knows that whichever way she decides, she has to face the moral judgments of other people, and that she has to live not with herself, but with society, and more especially with the law.

I think this approach to the dilemmas we face bypasses the whole issue of rights and wrongs and goods and bads. (One might say, by taking consequences into consideration, she is adopting utilitarian approach. But I think it’s much more than that.) It’s not that I provide any specific rules or guidelines for acting. But I think this approach more or less approximates actually the way we in fact act and I also think that by broadening this approach (which aims at a state of equilibrium in our mental economy) has a significantly better chance of bridging the gap between our professions and our actions. I know this is no easy solution to our problems, but I don’t know of any easy ones.

By ‘to live with oneself’ I mean that you work at a problem in a situation you confront until it is resolved in your mind and that it’s no longer a problem to you; I mean to resolve a conflict, until you can live in peace with yourself. And, of course, only you can be the judge of that.

One might ask the question, what if I lie or cheat or dig the ground under someone’s feet, and still live in peace with myself, because I feel that I am justified, or that I did it because someone else did something else, and so on. The answer to the question, of course, varies with the situation:

For one thing, I have to live in fear of consequences: (of course, I could just be paranoid and live in fear of unreal, non-existent possibilities). I remember that once, a long time ago, after trying to smoke pot a couple of times, I refused to do it again, not just because I didn’t like the taste of it, but I didn’t think the possible consequences of getting arrested or going to jail were not worth it.

For another, if my lying or cheating does cause a problem to another person, and there indeed are consequences as a result of that, then I still have a problem on my hand. I have to work to resolve that.

If, on the other hand, what I do causes no problem to someone else or to myself, then why should I bother even to think about it?

One advantage of thinking in these terms is that such thinking provides a tool of self-knowledge and a way to free oneself from all kinds of ‘unnecessary’ goals, fears and worries, which will hopefully ultimately lead to a life without self-protectiveness. Another advantage is, I am not quick in judging other people’s behavior.

This thinking is not really Fletcher’s situationism. There is no talk here of God or love. And of course, it would be subject, nevertheless, to charges of moral relativism, which was leveled again situationism. But my thinking in a given situation is relative not just to the situation but also to myself, because my reaction or response to a situation is a complex result of what I see as the situation and of all the factors that go to make up myself including my background, conditioning, personality traits and psychological complexes and so forth. It is that complex which determines my response to the situation.

But the response is not a fixed response which can be judged as right or wrong instantaneously. Of course, other people would judge it as such. But as far as I am concerned, at any given moment, it is either satisfactory or it is not. If it is satisfactory now, it may cease to be so when other factors come into the picture, and I may find another response more satisfactory and modify my previous one accordingly. If I can’t change my response, of course, I am willing to suffer the consequences.

A nun, we have heard, for instance, made a decision to carry her ‘unwanted’ pregnancy to full term and give birth to the child. She was willing to face the consequences of her action, including becoming a lay woman, finding a job to support herself and her child, face social disapprobation and so forth. In other circumstances, the consequences I am willing to face may include physical punishment, prison or even death. But that’s my choice and that’s the way I have decided to live. If I become chicken and change my mind, I have to face my fickleness too and that in turn becomes part of my situation I have to resolve.

And it goes on and on.

Notice here, that there are no objective standards such as right and wrong or good bad that I use to judge my actions. (If others judge my actions with those standards, I, of course, have to face those judgments.) I can only talk about the responses I can live with and are satisfactory to me, and those I can’t live with or have problems with.

Another objection that could be raised against this approach is that the approach is purely psychological and has nothing to do with moral issues of actions being right or wrong and that it would take away the most powerful element in our thinking about actions and moral education.

I was saying above that we use morality as a tool not merely judge other people’s actions, but to build our own self worth through those judgments, to feel righteous and morally or otherwise superior to other people. The one big problem I see in our society is that we are so quick to judge others (say politicians about their sexual morals, for instance), knowing full well that we are not really much different from them and that under similar circumstances, we would act the same way or worse. Then I ask why play this game of morality?

How could it help educating our children if what we are showing them in our lives is different from the way we actually live?

What about situations like war? Don’t I take away the powerful tool of moral judgment, i.e., my ability to say that such and such a war, for instance, is morally wrong? My answer is the following: by criticizing either side in situations of war, we tend to polarize the situation further instead of resolving it. Instead of solving the problem of war, we perpetuate it by taking one side or the other. I remember the times when I was demonstrating against the War in Vietnam in the downtown mall in Riverside, California (as I also did earlier in Berkeley). While I was standing there in the mall holding hands with others in protest, I could see the animosity I was causing by my mere standing there -- people’s hostile looks and angry debates and so forth. I asked myself, “What am I doing standing here? Instead of solving the conflict in Vietnam, I am adding further conflict to it.”

My reflections drove me to consider the sources of war and violence in general, and discover to my utter chagrin that I myself was not free from intolerance, greed, aggression, violence, search for domination and glory, which I saw as the sources of war. I similarly saw that the problem of hunger and poverty the world over have also roots in the ways of my (and others’) living: my self-protective self-interest, my urge to amass wealth beyond my need, and so on.

How can I save myself and others from such problems? Then I look for possibilities of change in my ways of living (before I can even possible contemplate changing others’ ways of living or making quick judgments about them.) I think this sort of approach is more helpful than moral judgments. It in fact helps people see things more clearly and perhaps help us solve problems better in the long run.

Of course, the same goes with educating children. If you could show a child that hitting another child hurts the child (once I demonstrated this to my daughter by actually snapping sharply on her forearm just once and telling her, “this is how it feels to her, don’t do it!”– and I never had do it again), then that’s the best education you could give her. Of course, nothing I do might change her dislike for the other child, but at least I provided an awareness of a problem (at least she had to deal with me!) To be sure, she might do it later stealthily, or she might like being violent for just the kicks of it, and so on and on ... but I don’t need to dwell on the point. Of course, the need to educate my child may be my own need (I wouldn’t say moral need, but her behavior toward other kids did present a problem for me that I had to deal with.)

The problem with the traditional moralistic approach is that it doesn’t address the gap between our professions and our actions: it ignores our desires, feelings and passions and our make-up in general. As long as we have our desires, there is bound to be a gap between what we ought to do and what we end up doing. My question behind my approach is, how do we bridge that gap?

You might say that I am removing morality from the objective realm to the subjective realm, thereby making it in accessible to any public discussion. This is much the same as saying that you can’t morally judge someone’s actions as right or wrong, we can’t a point a finger at the action of a person, however horrible it is, and say it is wrong, we can’t publicly discuss such actions, and therefore, we can’t praise or blame them. That implies we can’t change people’s anti-social behavior. While this all may be true, much of what we do in the public realm can be transferred, practically in tact, into the realm of problem-solving and in fact make better progress that way.

You might also ask the question, suppose someone does make a moral judgment, would I say that such making a judgment is morally wrong? I say it’s neither, as far as I am concerned. I might find a problem with it, and in fact even feel guilty because of someone pointing out a problem with my behavior (as it might have gone contrary to my own standards about myself) and I would deal with the judgement in those terms.

What about feeling guilty then? Is that not a moral issue? (This is the crux of the objections to my approach.) Guilt and guilty conscience are expressions of conflict within a person of what he feels he ought to have done and what he in fact has done. The question of ‘ought’ is not necessarily a moral ‘ought’. It could just be a possible action which the individual finds more according to his beliefs about how he should live or behave toward other people. That may or may not include moral standards.

One more remark about conscience: one might say my approach is akin to appeal to one’s conscience in order to decide whether or not to act in a given fashion. This remark is only partially true as ‘conscience’ normally presupposes an inner moral voice with its dictates, whereas the problem-solving approach includes the ‘moral’ as well as other considerations such as one’s interests and passions and so forth.

The fact of the matter is that we do have moral standards about ourselves as we do about other people and other groups or nations. We have acquired those standards from our society and use them to beat ourselves or approve ourselves. Of course, we believe in them. What my approach does is to bring them under the head of ‘feeling’. We feel that such and such should be done or ought not to be done. Right and wrong are just expressions of those feelings. There is nothing very objective about them, although we might believe that they are.

You might ask then whether those feelings are just what I think, or are they according to me what ought in fact to be the case. This is really the charge of subjectivism. My answer is that from my point of view there is no difference between them and that I claim they are merely part of my mental economy.

It might be claimed that this approach is not basically different from that of any moral theory where an attempt is made to reconcile between one’s interest and one’s duties, taking into consideration how one’s interests must take into consideration other people’s interests in order to secure a moral society. To that degree, it might also be asserted, this theory is similar to the utilitarian or deontological ethics whose primary interest is to safeguard the welfare of the society as a whole.

My answer is that the claim is essentially true except for this basic difference that it doesn’t lay an unnecessary burden of rights and wrongs on the individual and secondly, it allows the integration of a person’s interests and feelings better within the context of a situation and finally, it tends to diminish the gap, for the above reasons, between one’s interests and one’s duties.

One final remark: again, one might claim that this is not very different from Hume’s theory of morality or a modern version of it such as an ‘enlightened self-interest’ which is a form of egoism. Here one might say that I am advocating an individual’s happiness (in my terms an ‘equilibrium in one’s mental economy’) as the ultimate good and all actions are judged as good or bad or right or wrong according to this norm. My answer is, once again, that it may very well sound like that, except that my approach tends to include moral psychology in the picture which moral theories generally do not.

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