What are the important moral questions?

When we talk about “moral issues,” we could be talking about a lot of things. On this blog, I make a clear distinction between “morality” and “ethics,” in order to not be misunderstood. By “morality” I designate evaluations of one’s own actions based on one’s values and desires. By “ethics” I designate universal evaluations of right and wrong which look at how groups and societies should be run. These are two very different things, subject to different principles, so it’s important, in my view, to maintain that distinction.

I showed this distinction in action many times in the two Kolhberg dilemmas I analyzed (Joe and his father, and Heinz and the drug). So, for example, “should Heinz steal the drug” is a moral question, because the answer would depend on a specific person’s values and desires, while “is it actually right or wrong for him to steal the drug?” is an ethical question, because the answer would be something universal, based on principles of conduct, not on any person’s values.

Starting from here, a further point is that most specifically moral questions tend to be very boring, because the only strictly logical answer is some variant of “well, that depends on the person’s values.” Should Heinz steal the drug for his wife? Well, if he values his wife more than not getting caught, then yes. Otherwise, probably not. There is no universal answer that one can give to such questions because, by definition, they are not universal but personal.

Another category of questions is meta-moral questions, and we should also carefully separate these as well. Meta-moral questions concern the sources and justifications of morality. Utilitarianism, moral intuitionism, divine command theory, moral non-cognitivism, moral nihilism, are all meta-moral positions: they defend some view of where morality comes from, or what morality actually is. So questions like “on what basis should Heinz morally evaluate the action of stealing the drug” or “what property of Heinz makes him able to evaluate his actions” would be meta-moral questions. These tend to be very interesting because of the wide range of positions and the vast disagreement between different meta-moral positions, but they don’t tend to hold much practical importance. Whatever our meta-moral positions, we tend to behave roughly the same, as far as I know.

And this is the first moral fact which I think is relevant here. If you take a global view of how human beings act, and don’t focus on ethical or meta-moral disagreements, then you find a lot of agreement. We pretty much all value being healthy, being able to live comfortably, being good people, and so on and so forth. We may disagree on how to achieve these goals, and we may express them differently depending on the culture we live in, but in terms of values you will find general agreement. This is why we can have something like the Maslow pyramid of needs and there’s not too much disagreement about it: we all have physical, mental and psychological needs that must be fulfilled, and whenever we are able to fulfill them, we generally do so.

There are interesting things to be discussed in the differences in values, but most of those differences in values are brought about because of religion, politics, or other authoritarian systems. Hierarchical systems in general (including religion, government, capitalism, the family structure, childism, sexism, racism, and so on) are pretty much omnipresent in our lives, and they all seek to indoctrinate the individual to think and act in certain ways. This is why I believe that the first moral question of import is: should we obey or should we rebel, and to what extent?

Even though we have to choose, either choice is a pretty bad one. To obey means to deny who we are, and our desire for freedom. Some people can suppress those desires and do well as obedient citizens, but many people cannot. To rebel means constantly being in the crosshairs, and depending on how much one rebels, can mean a loss of status, material resources, being incapable of getting a job, and being ostracized by the rest of society. There are of course degrees of rebellion. Some rebellions, like being an atheist in a Western country or being into polyamory, are relatively benign. Others, like actively fighting against your government or your economic system, can be very dangerous to fatal.

It is this tension between the individuated self and social institutions which provides the context to most moral dilemmas (such as the two Kolhberg dilemmas I analyzed). To a person who wants to do precisely and nothing more than what they are told to do, then there are few moral dilemmas. And if society tolerated every dissenting opinion and let anyone attack it as they wished (whether from the left or from the right), then there would be few moral dilemmas either. But such a person would hardly be human, and such a society could not survive. So therefore there must always be some tension between individual freedom and institutional survival.

Here are some interesting questions based on this that are worth asking:

* Why do some people obey so willingly even in atrocious situations (e.g. white people smiling at lynchings, people committing or defending horrible war crimes) and others disobey even in situations where disobedience is fatal (e.g. the White Rose in Nazi Germany, people who hid Jews during WW2)?

* To what extent should individuals accept institutional encroachment into their lives?

* To what extent should parents indoctrinate their children into obedience to various institutions and social roles?

* In general, what features of society motivate people to act in the ways they do, and are those features desirable or undesirable?

* To what extent do any individual’s actions participate in the construction of society itself?

I don’t think any of these questions have black and white answers (which is why they are interesting).

Note that the distinction I am making here is nothing like the typical “egoism v altruism” distinction, which, as I’ve already discussed, is meaningless (and besides, is really a collective attribute and therefore has little to do with morality anyway). It is more under the lines of D&D moral alignments “lawful v chaotic.” But more importantly, we can look at the recent remake of the Milgram Experiment for more information. Obedience v rebellion can be explained, to some extent, by whether the individual is social or not. Social individuals tend to be more obedient (to go along with the flow, to be like everyone else), while anti-social individuals tend to be more rebellious.

So, to that extent that sociability makes one more likely to obey, we can extend the discussion to sociability and anti-sociability. To what extent should individuals modify their beliefs to fit in with a group? Does being sociable necessarily preclude the possibility of rebellion, and to what extent? In general, what gets people to be more or less sociable?

We can connect this to the principle that we should not treat people as means to an end. People who are particularly sociable treat other people as a meant to an end, the end generally being to be popular or well-liked. We all know the feeling of a really sociable people trying to manipulate us into liking them. People who are anti-social don’t see people as means to an end: when they do decide to associate with someone (at least from my experience and observations), it is on the basis of how much they like them, not on the basis of extracting something out of it.

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