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More Thoughts on Morality

There is a lot of confusion when we talk about morality, largely because the word has different meanings.  I want to clear up a couple of conflations, and give you a more concrete understanding of exactly what I mean when I speak of morality.  First, here are some things that are not morality:

  • Lists of Do’s and Don’ts. Especially in the Christian West, we like to think that being moral means adhering to a strict list.  People who never drink are moral, and drunks are immoral.  Abstinence is good and sexual promiscuity is bad.  But this isn’t an accurate representation of what morality really is.  In fact, it’s kind of the opposite of morality.  A list takes away independent valuation, which is the essence of morality.  If I am behaving in a certain way because someone else has told me that I have to, I’m not behaving morally.  I’m behaving obediently.
  • Laws. Similarly, laws are not moral or immoral, in and of themselves.  Many laws are connected to moral behaviors, and it’s possible for individual laws to be immoral or moral, but laws are not the equivalent of morality.  Laws are the enforcement of approximations.  In theory, if everyone obeys the law, things will be generally good.  But they don’t promise the best in every situation.  Just a reasonable “average.”

Things can get a little tricky when we go down these roads.  If I obey the speed limit and drive exactly 65 mph on the highway, I am behaving lawfully and obediently, but it’s a gray moral area.  Is there a significant chance that driving 75 will make me more likely to cause an accident?  What about a case in which I have a deathly ill friend in the back seat and every minute counts as I race to the hospital?  I could actually be acting immorally by driving the speed limit!  This is exactly why lists do not equate with morality.  For virtually any action you can think of, I can think of a situation in which that action would be the most moral course to take.  (Yes, some of them would be far-fetched, but they’d still be within the bounds of reason.)

In fact, if you think about it carefully, strict adherence to any list of do’s and don’ts cannot possibly create more good than evaluating each circumstance individually.  Anytime we do what is mandated even when it is clearly not the right thing to do, we’re behaving immorally.  For example, imagine a country in which there was an absolute law.  Any use of a gun is strictly illegal, no matter the circumstances. Now, imagine that a crook breaks into your house with a gun.  He threatens you and your children, but you manage to get the gun away from him.  In a fit of rage, he pulls a knife and begins charging at your children.  You only have time to shoot, and no other way to save them.

Any reasonable society places caveats on their laws, or grants judges the ability to allow for extenuating circumstances.  A law forbidding any use of a gun whatsoever would be immoral in that it would prevent you from saving your child’s life in our hypothetical situation.  I suppose that in some sort of bizarro world, it would be possible to codify literally every possible situation, complete with all the possibilities for cultural, individual, and all other variables, and create a list of what would be “empirically best” in each situation, but such a list would probably be longer than the distance from Earth to Pluto.  And that’s the point.  Lists are not capable of encompassing the subjectivity of morality.

When I speak of morality, I am talking about the human moral instinct and how it operates.  We have certain innate emotional biases.  We want fairness.  We want justice.  We want honesty.  But these things are not strictly self-evident.  There are lots of animals who survive perfectly well with no such concepts.  Perhaps it’s possible that a species similar to Homo sapiens could have evolved in our place with substantially different moral instincts, in which case, we would value other things.  But that’s just conjecture.  We value what we value, and this literally creates our culture.

Now for the hard part:  Our moral judgments are not based on some abstract, free-floating qualities of “goodness” and “badness.”  They’re based on individual, subjective, cultural and emotional variables.  They’re subject to disagreement.  I firmly believe contraception is a good thing.  Many Catholics firmly believe it’s bad.  Many people believe this subjectivity is beyond science, but it’s not.

Science asks the questions:  Why do Catholics believe contraception is bad?  What bad things do they think will happen if people use contraception?  Is what Catholics believe about contraception true in the objective world?  Just for fun, let’s take a hypothetical Catholic and ask them the questions:

Q: Please name all the reasons you believe contraception is bad, and what you think will happen if people use contraception?

A: Contraception is bad because God says we are supposed to be fruitful and multiply.  When we stop a pregnancy, we’re contradicting the will of God.  Also, the availability of contraception encourages premarital sex, which is also wrong, also because God says sex is reserved for a husband and a wife.  Also, if you give people permission to have non-marital sex, you increase the spread of disease because contraception is not 100% effective at preventing disease.

Ok… we can use science and reason to evaluate these claims:

  • Where is God?  If you can’t produce him, how do I know what he wants or doesn’t want?
  • Is it empirically beneficial for humans to have as many children as they would have if they never used contraception?
  • How do rates of disease transmission vary for people who use condoms vs. those who don’t?
  • How do rates of extramarital sex vary between people who use condoms and those who don’t?

If it turns out that the Catholic’s claims about objective reality prove false, then we have to ask:  Do you have any other reasons for not using contraception?  If not, then there is no validity to your claim that it is a bad thing.

On the other side, we could use the answers to our questions to make a case for the “goodness” of contraception.  We know that people have basically the same sexual habits whether they use contraception or not.  That is, it’s not true that the availability of condoms either encourages or discourages sex.  That being the case, we can site the statistics for how incredibly effective condoms are at preventing disease.  When we include stats for the costs — both monetary and personal — of both disease and unwanted pregnancy, it becomes pretty clear-cut:  IF we want to increase personal happiness, decrease unwanted pregnancy, and decrease disease transmission, THEN it is good to use condoms.

This isn’t a universal mandate to use contraception.  Remember, morality isn’t a list of mandates.  This is evaluating the available data and assigning a value to an action based on its benefits to both individuals and society, including benefits which are solely emotional or interpersonal.  THAT’S what I’m talking about when I speak of morality.  We have things that we value.  Some actions promote what we value, and others do not.  These are good and bad, respectively.



2 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Morality

  1. Hamby says;
    Remember, morality isn’t a list of mandates. This is evaluating the available data and assigning a value to an action based on its benefits to both individuals and society, including benefits which are solely emotional or interpersonal.

    PG says;

    And there you have it. A scientist gets to assign a “value”. The last major push by a science community to assign values to humanity stated that blue eyes and blond hair were “a Higher Value” and then used science to make lamp shades with the skin of everyone else.

    Get where this is going…


    Posted by PG | July 6, 2010, 1:08 am
  2. I’m not sure where this is going. You can assign whatever value you want to various actions. I’m not seeing the connection you’re trying to make. That value will simply determine which actions you should take to achieve the desired outcome. If I wanted to rule the world, I’d probably use God to do it (better historical chance of success, see how science works). That’s what Hitler tried (with a little dash of crazy violence thrown in, but that seems normal with religion).

    Posted by Alex Hardman | July 7, 2010, 3:44 pm

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