Thoughts on morality

March 7, 2015

 

The “moral sphere” has extended in recent centuries, so that now such things as slavery, colonialism, racial segregation, and discriminatory treatment of women are considered wrong. But we still have a ways to go. There are the obvious left-wing concerns: horrific treatment of animals and the environment, brutalization of homeless people, demonization of immigrants, tolerance of degrading wage-labor, etc. But aside from these issues are ones that almost nobody talks about, which can be summed up in the observation that people are frequently not nice to each other. Being unkind ought to be considered immoral, not just unpleasant. Unkindness is ubiquitous, and in a sense it’s inhuman. Indeed, any act that demonstrates an absence of empathy should be thought of as immoral. For what is morality if not respect and consideration for others?

 

Broadly speaking, then—but also strictly speaking—it’s immoral, say, to ignore someone (ceteris paribus), whether a homeless person on the street or someone who’s talking to you at a party or a friend who sends you an email. That is, doing so has negative implications regarding your worth as a human being. If you want to be a good person, you should always act on the basis of empathy and respect. That isn’t always possible, of course, which just means that it’s impossible to be an absolutely good person, or to always fulfill moral imperatives. 

 

In fact, imperatives can conflict. Respecting human life is a duty, but one may also have a duty to kill a mass murderer if that’s the only way to prevent him from killing again. Or one may, in some extreme scenario, have a duty to lie to someone, even though lying is immoral because it shows a lack of respect and so forth. Moral values can also conflict with non-moral values—and it isn’t always right to follow the moral value in this case. For instance, it may hurt a person’s feelings to criticize an irrational belief he holds, but one’s commitment to truth and reason may justify so criticizing his belief. (It’s debatable whether commitment to truth is “moral” per se, but insofar as it doesn’t impinge on one’s treatment of others, a case can be made that it’s a non-moral value.) All this goes to show that no one, except maybe a very young child, is “innocent,” everyone is tainted, indeed in most moments we’re acting contrary to morality in some way or other (e.g., by not roaming the streets looking for suffering people to help). Still, the broader one thinks of the moral sphere as being, and the more one acts on that belief, the more one can pride oneself on being a “basically good” person.

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NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright