Friday, October 31, 2008

more moral complexity

One of the reasons my blogging has slowed recently is because I'm currently obsessed with ethics and when I type up posts they often look pretty stupid to me; or if not stupid, banal. Yesterday I decided to post anyway. I tried to link my point up with The Wire even though it's much more clearly evident in politics (as Greg mentioned). 

Whatever... 

Reading the penultimate paragraph I think it could using a little extra something. 

The reason we have moral rules like "keep promises" is because things will go better for most people in the long run if we observe them. You could reply that you could do more to help people by refusing to keep promises sometimes, but this is really where these rules earn their keep. The world is complicated place and we're stupid beings with scarce attention and motivation. Nobody, no matter how clever or altruistic, can calculate the diffuse consequences of their actions. "Don't tell lies" sticks around because it has been tried and tried and tried and has more or less stood the test of time. We break this rule when an axe murderer asks us where the children are, because in this case the evidence really is overwhelming that the consequences of honesty will be bad. A journalist doesn't know who will read her articles or how they'll react and these are the situations where honesty is morally binding, regardless of your feelings or any reasons you happen to find compelling, to fudge the truth. 

It's the fact that we can't predict the consequences of our actions that makes deliberately violating moral rules so dangerous. If an institution is dysfunctional, I'm really not sure what you're supposed to do. 

3 comments:

Trev said...

The problem with promises and truth telling also involves the complexity of relationships where you feel obliged to either tell the truth or hold promises, and there overlap.

Often you know a truth, and promise not to tell someone else. Then you feel obliged to tell the truth.

Which is more important, keeping promises or telling the truth?

Stuart said...

I understand the difficulty and awkwardness in practice, but I don't really think this counts. "Keep promises" has a lot of stuff hidden inside of it, basically you shouldn't promise to do bad things. If a promise is made not to repeat something, that promise is what enables you to hear that thing in the first place.

In this example I know where I'd come down

Stan said...

Interesting. I would say we follow moral obligations because we are creatures that generally follow the path of least resistance to attaining a very specific and instinctual goal. The one instinct that lies at the root of human nature is the survival of our species. The entire animal kingdom is programmed to procreate and pass on their genes. Adaptations and other events aside, success is dependent on a species’ ability to secure the basic necessities of food, water and shelter. That which prevents or prolongs us from obtaining those needs is resistance. While the unpredictability of nature provides exceptions to nearly every rule, basic human nature is to take the path of least resistance to securing the resources we need for survival.Committing acts of murder, rape and theft usually alters that path, not only for the individual who behaves in that manner but for those around him. Societies create punishments to deter people from antisocial behaviors because they impede the community’s ability to secure those vital resources.While crime provides many good examples, immoral behavior is certainly not confined to a community’s written laws. Adultery and spreading sexually transmitted diseases are both cases of immoral behavior. They are both acts which can result in physical and/or mental anguish, thereby potentially altering a person’s path of least resistance. Failing to keep promises could certainly fall into this category. It should be noted that while these examples will not apply to every culture, the philosophy can be. For example, many other cultures accept polygamy as commonplace. If the behavior does not result in mental and/or physical anguish among those engaged in it, I would say the act is morally viable.