Thoughts on Morality

[Author's Note: The other lengthy essay I wrote for philosophy senior year, this one dating from May-June 2008. The composition bookended a May 31 wedding in Iowa which came in the midst of one of my happiest periods in recent memory. I believe it's a stronger piece than "Thoughts on Beauty" and shows the culmination of my philosophical shift that year away from moral relativism toward surer, if not absolute, judgments. The format of this "moral handbook" is that of a letter to my child leaving moral guidance in the event of my death. I've removed irrelevant citations.]

My child, if you are reading this, I am dead, unless the coroner is in grave error or the doctors sadly mistaken. I am an ex-Parrott. You can’t imagine how long I’ve been dying to spill these fatal jokes—I hope they, like Sam’s champagne in Casablanca, take the sting out, allowing you in your present and me in mine to just breathe and carry on. My sincerest regret (the statement already seems to contract inside me with sorrow) is that I could not spend an eternity with the people I love best (love, life, humanity—all so bittersweet), that I could not continue to be your father, to see who you’ll become. That breaks my heart. Worse still, though, would be to leave you swamped with truncated parenting, to abandon you to a disrupted upbringing with no last, meaningful words of guidance. Let this, then, be the culminating piece in your moral construction to the extent that I can offer one, and I am not so arrogant to think that I can offer one in full.

First, I think it’s important for me now to swear off any overtly religious concerns in writing this. As you know, I am not and have not been religious in any sense. I do not believe in any human conception of divine, nor do I consider the unknowable metaphysics of the universe to have any meaningful bearing on moral considerations. I feel there is a great problem, an absence of good thinking, in every religious tradition—I could elaborate on this elsewhere. However, religion is certainly not incompatible with a life well lived, and, indeed, many teachings associated with faith have undeniable secular merit, and this influence I will not disavow. Above all, I have always wanted for you to make your own decisions in the world, in religion as in all things, trusting to the intellect I know you to possess; and so, I hope you will find my ideas worthy of the love I have for you, whatever these decisions have been.

Because we will not be borrowing preexisting moral tenets from religion, we will have to fashion our own. If morality is action in accordance with entrenched values or overarching good, we must first establish the clearest way to understand what these might be—an umbrella to cover most individual cases. Aristotle outlined these as a series (not necessarily finite) of virtues that are the mean between two opposing vices, one excessive and the other deficient—for example, pride as the virtuous mean of vanity and humility, friendliness of obsequiousness and sulkiness. There are a number of problems in this approach. We may have limited understanding of where exactly extremes and means lie, as not all moral considerations fit a clear continuum. In addition, following the central of whatever three signposts we can generate doesn’t necessarily constitute a virtuous action. The mean between passivity and aggression is reactionary violence, and we as of yet have no reasons for taking that as virtue on its own merits.

There is a missing piece, a greater, less tenuous value that we can, and do, pursue consistently. Many, Aristotle included, would call this happiness. I would argue that happiness, correctly understood, is just a function of the inherent value of life. I feel that needs some emphasis: life. Life informs our understanding of all things, just as the fact of our own existence may be the only thing we truly know. An interest in the thriving success of our own species, especially, is fundamentally sound, inseparable from our biology. In nonmoral considerations, a rejection of the value of life is bad thinking, as the tribal belief cited by Louis Pojman that “deformed children belong to the hippopotamus” is a false conjecture. Similarly, in moral considerations, a rejection of the value of life is basically immoral, a slight against all humanity.

Our moral actions can now have a purpose: to affirm life and to provide quality lives for ourselves and others, in which a degree of benevolence is implied. Already, we see a certain duality emerging—a conflict between self-interest and altruism that will need to be thoughtfully resolved, perhaps on a case-by-case basis. Ayn Rand famously renders the former as the virtue and the latter as the sin, but I’m inclined to agree with Pojman—her sharp dichotomy between the two is a false dilemma. To consider life in a moral way is to consider all life, however tempered this consideration is by our perspective, inevitably and not improperly. It is biologically correct that we should balance the two impulses—preserving and enriching our own lives, enabling all other actions, while seeking the lasting prosperity of our species and according particular “high altruism” to those closest to us. The balance between these should not necessarily be knowable, or even balanced. Love, for instance, is not a rational force, but it is common to all human life and should therefore not be denied as a factor among others in moral decision-making. The failure to account for this breed of selfishness is one of the shortcomings of utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill stated that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness,” but a moral decision that has been computed with almost mathematical rigor is potentially flawed. One value is weighed against others, even one person’s happiness against others—but the end result may not make numerical sense.

There are always other principles at stake, perhaps because “life” is a very difficult entity to fathom before breaking it down, and from this process we have derived the majority of moral principles. However, this approach has been radically varied over the course of human history and has undeniably yielded beliefs that are radically incongruous with one another. It must be allowed, then, that many principles at least called “moral” are culturally relative; however, at the same time, it must also be allowed that many may be incorrectly derived from a value of life. The difficulty is whether to pursue moral absolutism, even when it may be ill-fitting or founded on incorrect principles, or to opt for variable-case relativism, which is, I will admit, philosophically and practically imperfect. Pojman observes that conventional ethical relativism founded on a virtue of tolerance quickly falls apart, because “if morality simply is relative to each culture then if the culture does not have a principle of tolerance, its members have no obligation to be tolerant.” Later, he concludes that we ourselves should be the arbiters of morality, acting on reason and compassion. This, I believe, neatly avoids the problems associated with rigid absolutism without slipping into the quagmire of relativism. Because moral absolutism asks us essentially not to judge, merely to react on the basis of sharply drawn lines between right and wrong, it may be infinitely inappropriate under principles with less than 100% universal applicability. On the other hand, life in constant and careful judgment necessarily risks errors in judgment, but it is a worthier moral cause because the human insight on which it is founded can bring us much closer to the central and subsidiary values that drive our existence, that we know almost intuitively.

The problem with the categorical imperative, accordingly, is that it is unconditional—although this deters a kind of moral waffling, life, as well as moral dilemmas, comes charged with conditions. From the value of life, we are lucky to derive even a few principles that may essentially be given as categorical imperatives, perhaps to 99.9% accuracy, with their potential for error being unknowable or ridiculously unlikely. The least problematic categorical imperatives are those most directly respectful of life—for instance, “Do not abuse others” is among the best I can think of, because physical, sexual, emotional abuse and cruelty are profanely negligent of the value of life.

I think we have developed a clear outline for how to act morally, even if moral decisions can never be made for us by unshakeable absolutes and what is right will always be difficult to discern. It is important, finally, to remember that we should act morally, because it is logical and correct to provide for a better world. When religion and fates beyond death are cleared from the picture, we are left with a view of a world that is (for our purposes) continuous, that stretches out far beyond the bounds of our transient existence. Anyone who feels healthy compassion for the rest of humanity will see the importance of life, and a respect for life as universally beneficial. Just as I have taken care to provide for your existence even when I can no longer live to see it, so must we all consider the larger tapestry that gives us some semblance of purpose and profound beauty in our actions.

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