Wednesday, July 17, 2013
When people talk about morality, they often compare apples and oranges. Most people claim to be moral, but what does that really mean? That is a lot like saying something is good or bad. It is much like saying something is beautiful. I often tell my wife I am perfect, but it really is possible that some misguided person out there doesn’t see it that way. So how can we interact in a civil society when even reasonable citizens might question my level of perfection?
Yesterday, I came upon a disturbing story of a little girl with a rare disease known as hydranencephaly. She was born without a brain, and was celebrating her sixth birthday. While there are a zillion stories out there that tend to upset us, what disturbed me was the manner in which the doctors artificially keeping her alive were gleefully celebrating her life. It struck me that perhaps those joyful physicians were born without hearts.
I have no answers here. However, I have studied philosophical approaches to morality in the Eastern and Western worlds, and I draw my own conclusions. Nevertheless, in the Western world, there is a non-religious, measureable understanding of morality.
Broadly speaking, philosophical thought can be divided into three parts: Metaphysics, the study of reality, Epistemology, the study of knowledge, and Ethics, the study of morality. According to Socrates who introduced these concrete concepts to the Western world, ethics or morality simply means how we ought to treat others, and how we ought to be treated by others. The implementation of these concepts has been left to succeeding generations.
Philosophers very broadly divide human moral thinking into two areas: Consequentialism and Non-consequentialism. Recognizing the difference helps us to understand how other people think about morality.
Consequentialists base whether or not their decisions are moral on the perceived consequences of their actions. For example, a consequentialist might pick up a brick to hurl at someone, realize that person might be seriously injured, and decide the act would be immoral. Non-consequentialists base their moral decisions on rules that guide them through life. For example, religions tend to be non-consequentialist. Religious people might look to the Ten Commandments when they determine the morality of throwing a brick at someone. Either way, we would hope that in our society people could reach a moral accord from either direction.
Now, back to the troubling story. The celebration of the life of that poor child was distressing to me because reporters, doctors, and others seemed to rejoice in the process of keeping her alive by artificial means. Apparently, many Americans join in the celebration, much as they do when a victim of an accident lies brain dead. I know there have been rare cases when a person awakens after twenty years in a coma. It is not the science I am discussing here, but the morality.
At the same time, we have an ongoing abortion debate in the USA about late-term abortions, where the fetus is viable. Many Americans view the issue from a non-consequentialist legal or religious perspective. Many others consider it strictly a women’s rights issue. I don’t have all the answers. But I do see a great philosophical inconsistency.
Suppose you were driving a car near a playground and children were running across a roadway with a 10 MPH speed limit. Suppose further an announcement came across the radio waves declaring that all speed limits in the country have been abolished. Would you continue to maintain your speed, whatever that might be? It seems to me that in a civilized nation purporting to be moral, the philosophy of the driver would not matter. Moral citizens should reach the same conclusions.