Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Morality as an individual's problem: the indirect dependence on others


Morality is a property of the individual.  Any situation finally drops down to a question as to how a particular person (I) “should” behave in a particular situation.

To the libertarian, morality is simple.  An act is morally OK if does not harm another person or violate that (adult) person’s will, or does not break a voluntarily entered contractual promise. Oh, were it that simple!

At this point, I have to give a context.  That is, at first, assume “you” live in a society that more or less follows the values of democratic capitalism (a term often thrown around by conservative writers after 9/11 as am owning abstraction).  We say that we respect all human life as sacred or inviolate, and must respect human rights.  The main problem that we run into is that as individuals we don’t all start at the same place in line, and don’t all have the opportunity to make choices.  Individualism seems to need some inequality in order to innovate, but unless individualism gives back, the surrounding world becomes unstable.

It’s useful to recognize at the outset, that you need a discussion of how to behave when you live in an authoritarian state, or are threatened by one.  But let’s come back to that later.

The main problem, in an individualistic culture, is that “I” can often bypass competing with others in manners that used to be expected in the past, and establish myself in my own mind and in front of others, but only when the culture is permissive enough to allow circumstances in which others, in less fortunate circumstances and with more unelected responsibilities, are likely to become harmed (or to harm themselves unwittingly).  The obvious modern context comes from the Internet and social media.  Related to this is that modern individualism allows me to avoid the risks and hardships that others take to make a living.  A good example is dependence on products made overseas at slave wages.  This often gets into typical Left wing arguments about “exploitation of workers” known since the beginning of communism (even going as far as Maoism). 

Note the importance of "permissiveness".  Someone who flouts a rule is punished or shunned not because he or she harmed others, but because of contraposition: if the behavior (or avoidance) is allowed to be acceptable, others will follow the example and then people, especially in future generations, may be harmed. 
  
So it would seem that a moral foundation would require recognition of when’s one’s activity depends on the unseen sacrifices of others, or can result at least indirectly in harm to others.  That “indirect nature” would have to filter out the circular reasoning of others (which accounts for a lot of homophobia and which dictators love to exploit).   A good example of behavior that might fit into this region is “being a football fan” as Malcolm Galdwell points out (because of the subtle concussion risk, which seems out of control).  The libertarian bedrock has always been “personal responsibility” (even as the “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” movie sees it), yet the realistic capacity to carry out responsibility isn’t always there.  Another question is, who are “the others?”  They would, for example, include other people’s children (“OPC”), a sensitive issue for the childless.  Would it include future generations, not only the unborn but the (as yet) unconceived?  In most ethical theory, a person who does not yet exist has no moral standing (hiding inside a clam in an aquarium doesn’t count).  But one could say there is a chain-link back to “OPC”.  If the welfare of future generations, decades after one has passed away, is a major moral concern, then behavior that wastes energy or pollutes (maybe my habit of renting cars alone with unlimited mileage) is morally problematic.  Another question is, are the “others” in one’s own family or community more “important” in moral standing than people in distant culture?  Democratic societies are having to learn that “taking care of your own first” (common on the political right as in the gun debate) doesn’t always cut it.
  

This brings me back to the issue of authoritarian societies, and their threat to individual liberties, not only in their own homelands but eventually to “The West”.  One of the most noteworthy features of authoritarian political and social systems – whether military, statist, fascist, communist, or based on religion, or some combination of these – is that people are presumed to “belong” to a nationality, ethnicity (sometimes based on race) or religious affiliation. The individual “loyalty” to his affinity group takes on primal moral importance, almost following that of social animals (like the orca in a recent post).  An extreme example is the idea in radical Islam that Muslims are one body, and that one has an obligation to go to distant lands to fight for other “brothers” who have been “attacked”.  This almost sounds like a perversion of logical reasoning, by carrying to the greatest possible extreme.  But our own treatment of the male-only military draft during the Vietnam era, with the “unfair” treatment of deferments, plays right into this problem. In fact, the debate over gays in the military, resulting in “don’t ask, don’ t tell”, became a proxy for the whole question of mandatory socialization when forced intimacy is possible, as often happens in real life in many contexts.  (Indeed, authoritarian societies often look at homosexuality as a treasonous attack on its future population, and ability to reproduce.) So how does one live honorably when one is different, and external powers force one to take on the group's goals as one's own? 

The moral paradoxes in the parables in the New Testament deal with these issues.  (My favorite is the Parable of the Talents.)  Jesus is dealing with the idea that there is no way for life to be both "free" and "fair" at the same time;  it's almost like quantum physics.  It's true that in "real life" (as Mother used to call it), people often have responsibilities they don't "choose" under "freedom of contract".  People often half to take care of others before or without having their own children.  It's true that a lot of aspects of my own life and thinking are problematic, even though it's not so clear how these "problems" add up; they are rather like a final examination where you "answer any four" of maybe six questions. One thing is apparent: if you get a benefit you didn't earn, you incur some responsibility to provide for others, at least down the line.  Disability or immutability has nothing to do with it. And if your content or skills benefits "humanity" (even on the level of solving "Enigma"), there needs to be the capacity of individuals in your neighborhood or orbit to matter, just because they are people, even if they need sacrifice. When people don't see this, they think no "rule of law" applies to them.  

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