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Reflections on Ethics 115
I Believe - - morality (Part 1)

by: Gordon Barthel

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1. Morality is complicated

In principle, morality is simple for it is the pursuit of good rather than bad, right instead of wrong, virtue over vice and justice before crime. How could it be any easier? In practise though, morality becomes increasingly complicated.

The complications begin when we ponder the simple question, what exactly is the right thing. We believe we should help those who are less fortunate than we are so we give some spare change to a beggar, believing we are doing the right thing. But if they are using the money to feed an addiction, then we are not really helping. On the other hand, if they are buying food for their children, we are helping them even though they probably need more help. Then again, if they are pretending to be poor so they can exploit our goodwill, then we are hurting the people who need help.

We can probably agree the first and third scenarios are not exactly moral, our intentions might be moral but the outcome is not necessarily so. This begs the question whether intent is sufficient for our actions to be moral, which introduces a new dimension of complexity.

Regarding the second scenario, we want to believe we are helping this family, but are we truly helping them or are we perpetuating the problem. This goes to the proverb about giving a person a fish versus teaching them to fish. If we simply give the parents our spare change, we are helping them feed their children for today, but what about tomorrow and next week and next month and next year. Simply giving them our spare change means they are forever begging and that will never help their independence nor their dignity.

If we as a society give them a little education (vocational and psychological) and some basic job skills, we give them the ability to pay their own way. And then, we have truly helped them in more ways than we can imagine. We have given them a little independence, we have given them a constructive role in the community, we have given them a little dignity, we have given them a little security and stability, which means we have also given them a future. Basically, we have given them far more than we could ever give them by handing over our spare change and that includes handing over our spare change every day for the next ten years. I seriously doubt we are going to hand over our spare change every day for the next decade, at least not to the same person.

And so, I believe morality is simple yet complicated. In principle, it is simply doing good rather than bad, right rather than wrong. In practise, it is complicated yet we manage to muddle our way through it.

2. Morality evolves.

We probably start learning about behaviour and morality from the first breath. According to a Psychology Today article, babies watch familiar adults to gauge their emotional response to various situations.[a] By determining if adults are excited or fearful, babies begin to learn about the emotional value of different situations. For instance, if a baby watches its mother show fear when a particular man approaches, the baby learns the man is not good. Conversely, if a baby watches its mothers show excitement when a particular man approaches, the baby learns the man is good.

From our first breath to the last, we probably never stop learning about morality, although by the time we are adults we are more likely refining our understanding of the fine print. For instance, we learn from an early age that hitting others is bad but we also probably learned about spanking. As the years go by, we learn about sports, self-defence and fetishes. Thus, our understanding of hitting evolves from complete ignorance to a universal prohibition imposed by adults to a general prohibition granting exclusions for discipline, some sports, law enforcement and fetishes.

At the cultural level, humanity is constantly refining its understanding of morality. Before recorded history, many societies practised human sacrifices to appease the gods. This eventually disappeared, though in some cultures it evolved into blood sports, while in others, it evolved into the gruesome spectacle of public executions by hanging, beheading, burning, etcetera. Eventually, most societies discontinued the gruesome public spectacles, although many retained the right of capital punishment, ostensibly using ‘humane’ methods to dispatch criminals before a select audience. Today, some nations do not employ capital punishment while some do, some of which use ‘humane’ methods and some of which do not.

Consider too the classic example of an adult stealing bread to feed their starving children. Is this a criminal case deserving the removal of the offending hand? Or is this a case of a callous society ignoring its most vulnerable citizens? Taking what rightfully belongs to another without permission is wrong, and as children we might simply declare the adult is bad and deserves punishment. Some cultures would agree with this judgement and they would impose the suggested penalty. Some cultures though will grapple with the grey zones such as the challenge of balancing competing interests. How do we care for our most vulnerable citizens while protecting the rights of citizens to benefit from their labours? And different societies will answer that question differently, depending on their resources, their values, their beliefs and their ambitions.

Our morals, both personal and cultural, are constantly evolving, usually from simple absolutes prohibiting something to ethical standards that try to navigate the grey zones. In other words, we could start with a simple conviction such as the prohibition against hitting others to an ethical code that recognizes exceptions for certain sports, affectionate patting or swatting, judicial enforcement and erotic activities between consenting adults. We could say that our morality doesn’t change as much as it evolves into a sophisticated code that addresses exceptions and extenuating circumstances.

And so, I believe morality evolves, usually from simple absolutes to complex codes.

I Believe - - morality (Part 2) >


a. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ child-myths/ 200911/ learning-right-wrong-how-does-morality-develop, Jean Mercer, Learning Right from Wrong: how does morality develop


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