Saturday, March 24, 2007

Let's Get Philosophical -Part II

In Let's Get Philosophical part 1, we laid one of the foundations for talking about society by defining the major roles people have in society.

Today, I'd like to stay at the foundation we're building and talk about morality. How do we know right from wrong and how do we convince people they should behave accordingly?

In every society in recorded history, this has been the job of the shepherds and the dogs. The shepherds (priests are an example) teach the spiritual laws, which are almost always focused on morality. The dogs (police are one example) are the enforcers of the political laws, which have a lot to do with morality, and in some cultures are one-in-the-same with the spiritual laws.

But what about morality on an individual basis? How does each person decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong?

Of course, the overwhelming majority simply follow the herd without a second thought. Most of the time, this strategy works out pretty well. But sometimes the dogs and the shepherds are evil. Examples: the Crusades, the Inquisition, colonialism, witch hunts, slavery, Fascism; you get the idea.

So moral authorities really can't be trusted entirely on the issue of morality, can they?

But what about the Ultimate Authority? The Big Guy?

My problem with using God as a moral compass is that everyone has a different idea about what God wants from us (and now we're back to having to trust the word of the shepherds and dogs). And what about the idea that God gives everyone what's coming to them? That doesn't exactly work out in this lifetime, does it? There are far to many evil people prospering and good people suffering for anyone to argue that life on earth is anything close to fair and just.

And if everyone gets what's coming to them when they die, well, that still doesn't have much bearing on or lives here on earth. I mean, it's not like we can see who's being made an example of; we just have to take the shepherd's word for it.

I once found a large wad of cash that had been dropped near my apartment. As easy as it would have been to put it in my pocket and keep walking, I took it to the apartment office. I told them where it was dropped and counted it-- $120. They told me to hang on to it and if no one called about it within a week, it was mine.

When I was a child, I thought that God was watching me and taking notes on everything I did. I could feel him in my brain, judging all my wicked five-year-old thoughts. Shame, shame, shame! But I don't believe that anymore, so with no human or divine eye watching or judging me, why not just keep the money? (I certainly needed it!)

My motivation in making some attempt to return the money was empathy. I know what it feels like to lose money. I don't need to go to church to learn how to behave like a human being. I don't need anyone to scare me with threats of hell or divine judgment. And anyway, if you only do what you're supposed to do because you're afraid of a god, are you really a good person?

So I'd really like to get some feedback here. How does a person know right from wrong? How does a society know right from wrong? More importantly, how do we persuade people to behave for the good of everyone around them if "behaving" conflicts with what they'd rather be doing?


Chris said...

Kants's Categorical Imperatives provide an excellent means of deciding what is morally right and what is not (for more see ). According to Kant, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." In other words, what is morally right is that which is OK when everybody else does it. So lying, stealing are not right because we are going to have a problem should it be OK for everyone to do it.
Thus to answer the question you raised in your post, which of these two actions is morally right (that is can be made into a universal law)? (a) Take lost-and-found money to the police or (b) keep it?

Heather Annastasia said...

Well, the question wasn't about the money, really, that was just an example.

But based on your premise, the only right thing to do would be keep the cash. If everyone who found a relatively small amount of money --$10, $50, $100-- called the police, they would be overrun with paperwork, and they have more pressing matters to deal with. I'm almost positive they would be pretty irritated. I chose (c) Take lost-and-found money to the apartment office, where someone would be most likely to look for it.

The money wasn't so much an example of a moral law, but a demonstration that one does not need to fear a god to have a conscience.

I like the rule that it's okay to do something if it's okay for everyone to do it.

Chris said...

Heather, for a moment I thought you had missed my main point but your last sentence shows you did not. Nevertheless, I wish you had given some more thoughts on Kant's proposition than on a little example I was trying to give.

Heather Annastasia said...

Yeah, sorry, that was my intention, but I got busy and had to cut the comment short.

I'll be back in the morning with more thoughts on Kant.

I like Kant, for the most part.

Jason said...

As far back as I can remember my mother, father, stepfather, grandparents, and their friends instilled in me what is right and wrong. Rarely did they ever raise a hand to do so, the few times they did I was deserving. I learned from a young age that doing the right thing is most often a lot easier than doing the wrong thing in the long run, and if everybody just did the right thing, life would be easier. Sometimes I think that some people in this society spend their whole life learning those elementary lessons we take for granted. Some people need to believe that they are going to burn in a fiery pit if they get out of line. If these folks had parents that loved them they would be different. Unfortunately they pass on their non-values to their offspring. Nader was on the Daily Show recently and said that if Dick Cheney had his father (I think, it might have been mother... forgive for the misquote if I'm wrong) he wouldn't be Dick Cheney. Ralph hit the nail on the head with few words.

So, I guess the deeper, more complicated issue at hand is what do we as society do with the folks that weren't taught right and wrong? I'm not talking about the folks that would have just slipped the $120 in their pocket without thought. I'm talking about the murderers, rapists, armed larcenists, etc. Clearly if we just put them in a cage with like minded people, they become worse if they don't "find god" and become more troublesome societal adversaries. as far as the person that just puts the $120 in their pocket without thought... it's not that big of a deal. Although I would do the exact thing Heather did (as I believe most people would) when it comes down to it. Money is bullshit, and we're talking about green cotton paper that distracts humanity. The only reason it has value is because we give it value. If I dropped the $120 I would probably assume it found a new owner. I've been broke before, and each time there was somebody rushing to pull me up. At the very least I ate and had a place to sleep. I like to think that this is because I was taught to pull people up, and make sure they eat and have a safe place to sleep.

The Iroquois people like most tribes had no laws or justice system. Those who acted without valor were shamed by their people and depending on the severity of the transgression forced out of their society until which time the people decided they sufficiently made up for it. This was very effective. In a way, it seems to me that this is what we're trying to pull off here only our way is broken because on the back end of things we teach hate and intolerance and the lesson is lost on the pupil. As a society we need to learn that jailing minor transgressors usually escalates future transgressions and leads to a pack mentality. We should reserve jail for truly dangerous people and find another way to teach right to those who aren't violent threats to our society. I'm a big fan of creative sentencing, and almost as big an adversary of mandatory minimums. Draconian justice systems break societies.

Chris, I enjoyed reading about Kant's Categorical Imperatives. Do you recommend any titles? I only consider wikipedia to be a loose reference. The only problem I have with this philosophy is the Hitler factor. The bastard was such an eloquent speaker, he had the majority of Germans believing the answer to their problems was genocide. For a brief period, Bush had enough popular support to attack a non-threat country in order to pocket their riches. History provides many examples like this.

sinincincinnati said...

My silent musings while on a long drive back from Nashville were in the neighborhood of this topic, so I'll try to mesh them in here.
The Islamo-Judeo-Christian tradition is based on a death wish. It's no wonder the US is in more wars than it can keep track of.
Huge billboards in the vicinity of truckstops where there is an "adult" store had this to say:
"Jesus died for your sins"
and "Hell is real" (The "H" in hell was red.)
Why should anyone die for anyone else's sins? Isn't that what suicide bombers do?
Why the pathological vengeance to imagine death is not punishment enough? No, Jehovah must wake the dead and torture them for an eternity??
Jesus had some good ideas, but he should have quit while he was ahead.
Love thy neighbor is a good idea, yet it ranks as Jesus' number two.
Love Jehovah is number one, but Jehovah just happens to be a vengeful fiction, which deserves neither love nor respect nor honor.

Heather Annastasia said...

Okay, first Kant. The "it's okay to do it if it's okay for everyone to do it" principle is all well and good… kind of like "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I think in simple, everyday interactions we all have a basic understanding of right and wrong. Whether we choose right or wrong, and how we justify our actions to ourselves and those around us is a whole other issue.

I think the most important thing a parent can instill in their kids, to help them develop a moral compass, is empathy. I'm all for an occasional swat on the fanny (to get their attention, not to cause pain or injury), but spanking is more for immediate safety issues than moral issues. Children are naturally empathetic; they often cry when someone else is sad and laugh when someone else is happy. When small children are being selfish (which is also natural), adults need to step in and teach them to be more consciously empathetic of the feelings of others. Consistent instruction and demonstration of empathy in childhood will foster morality throughout adulthood.

I couldn't agree more with Jason on the issue of justice. Jail, like spanking, should be reserved for issues of safety. Dangerous people should be locked up humanely while we try to rehabilitate them. All justice should be administered with compassion and empathy, not anger or vengeance.

Nader's observation works both ways. "There, but for the grace of God, go I," is a thought I often have, even though I no longer believe in a god. And I think that's what empathy is all about; we are each capable of all the wonderful and terrible things human beings do given the right set of circumstances.


Good point! The western theology death wish! More on that later, I gotta run.

plain ol' Sin said...

"So I'd really like to get some feedback here. How does a person know right from wrong? How does a society know right from wrong?"

Until society is placed into the petri dish of pure peaceful anarchy, there will be no resolution to your question. And, even then, it would be the outside observers of our petri dish who could say, and there is an insurmountable barrier between us preventing communication.

Heather Annastasia said...

Ha! Now we're talking Kant!

Kant said that actual reality is always going to be different than our percieved reality because the process of perception distorts reality. Plus, each individual's perception of reality is going to be slightly different since we all have our own individual distortions.

So the obvious question is why even try?

But the answer, I think (but what the hell do I know?), is that we all have to behave as well as we can based on the reality we more or less agree on.

Hmmm, that's a pretty vague answer. Maybe it's just a starting point.

Gotta run!