Stumbling over my Morals

A speaker at school today argued that because it is hard to change people’s political ideas, it is better to discourage people who you disagree with from voting.  My initial thought: Very clever, and very wrong.

As I continued to think about this speaker’s remarks, I began to wonder why I never come up with these clever, effective, but “wrong” ideas.  The issue, I think,  is that I feel things are right or wrong based on my assessment of whether we’d all be better off by doing or not doing them.  But thinking in terms of how people should act, while ignoring how they do act, can lead to bad results.  If most people aren’t doing the “right” thing, and can’t be persuaded to, then it might well be stupid–and ultimately immoral–of me to persist in doing that thing.

Take the example of disseminating false information to voters. If we all told the truth, we’d be better off. But as soon as, say, the Pink party will not be truthful, then everyone else needs to engage on their level or lose.  In that context, Pink’s opponents should probably sacrifice moral compunction about methods of getting elected to the higher goal of being in a position to set their preferred policy. Unless having civility and compromise is an end in itself–and maybe it should be–that needs to take a backseat to success on larger goals.

I’m sure the political theorists out there could label this phenomenon for me.  But at the moment, I’m struck by how pervasively I let my moral feelings guide me, without thinking about whether my beliefs about what actions are “right” make sense in context because they help me achieve higher goals.  If doing things I feel are right in a situation leads to not accomplishing things I care more about, maybe I should drop them.

But how do I recognize when this applies?  How does one get away from moralistic impulses?  Where have you noticed yourself clinging to moral stances that block success on more important ones?

Comments

  1. “How does one get away from moralistic impulses?”

    Try necking and/or petting to get started and see where it goes from there?

    To answer more seriously, I tend to think that if you can’t win using morally permissible methods then it’s not a battle worth winning. Maybe it’s impractical in some situations, but it may not be worth defeating the monster if you have to become a monster to win the fight. In other words, better to take the high road and “lose” than to take the low road and “win.”

  2. Who was it?

  3. “You take the high road__and I’ll take the low road__ and I will be in Scotland before ye”.

  4. We’d all be a lot better off if fewer people voted. Especially those who go by Chris H. :)

    Frankly, from a Mormon perspective I think God cares more about results than process. It’s nice when they harmonize but ultimately the prize is the purpose of existence.

  5. I live in Wyoming. I might as well not vote.

  6. Natalie, these questions are really core issues in discussions about moral theory and moral psychology. I think there is value in considering them, even if we do not figure them out.

  7. You think the ends justifies the means is an acceptable way to look at eternity from a Mormon perspective? It’s the means that get you the ends as far as I can tell. Justifying bad behavior because everyone else is doing it won’t lead you anywhere good. If everyone else is lying you should still tell the truth. I agree that maybe that’s not a game you want to win. It’s better to try to get people playing your game by not giving into theirs.

    I often think in political situations why won’t they just tell me what they’ll actually do?! But sometimes we just have to realize that the “evil” ideas of others just come from having a different perspective. If we are doing what we think is right and they are doing what they think is right we might find out we can reach an acceptable place for us both even though we both thought the other was so wrong.

  8. PaulM, I don’t think I’ve ever played the Satan’s plan card, but I think I might have to play it here. For God, the ends justify the means? Or am I misreading you?

  9. Not sure if you are looking for the labels, but what you are describing is part of a foundational debate in ethics between deontological and teleological theories of ethics. Deontological ethics (rule or duty based ethics) are roughly what you mean by your moral feelings which tell you certain actions are right/wrong regardless of their consequences. Teleological ethics (consequence based ethics) suggest that the morality of an action is based on the outcomes of that action.

  10. Re 4 and 8,
    That was my immediate thought to: ” prize is the purpose of existence”.
    Yes, but the process prescribed by God is the one and only way to that prize. Satan did indeed have the same prize in mind. But it was a lie and unattainable, because it would have been impossible using Satan’s process.

  11. Yes, there are people who should not vote. The person referred to in the first sentence of the opening text should be banned from voting. Probably we should take away his right to free speach also. Such hypocrits are the major cause of problems in a democracy.
    John Stuart Mill, in his essay “On Liberty” (I found that it is also available on the internet by typing the title into Google), pointed out that true freedom of speach is when we allow a person to speak with whom we totally disagree. Unfortunatly, the enemies of Jesus and Joseph Smith did not believe that, so we should be valiant in defending it.

  12. I am in the process of drafting a letter than I intended on sending to a large number of political leaders asking that they refrain from campaigning on the basis of “the other candidate is a bad person and this is why” and start campaigning on the basis of “I am a great candidate and this is why”–I, like so many others, am getting sick and tired of so many people shooting for the lowest common denominator. And yet, as the OP states, it is easier. What is it about people that makes us okay with sacrificing the best way in the name of the okay way?

  13. I am a new reader of BCC, so I hope my comment here is not out of line.

    I thought of this very problem when I read that Harry Reid, in the midst of his recent campaign, spoke out against the Park51 mosque near ground zero. It is my guess that Sen. Reid took that position out of political expediency rather than personal conviction. But had he taken the opposite position, he might have lost to Sharron Angle.

    In the end, I concluded that I would rather have Sen. Reid win by espousing a position likely contrary to his feelings and offensive to mine, rather than lose and cause an entire nation to dwindle in unbelief (or, in this case, Tea Party rule). Have I sided with Satan’s plan??

  14. Examples from Mormonism where the ends justified the means (and I’m using the most charitable interpretation possible I think):

    Nephi murdering Laban
    Joseph sold into slavery
    Saul’s command from God to destroy every living thing
    The institution of polygamy in the early latter-day church

    Most of the time our choices are not between good and evil– typically choices are between good and better or bad and worse. The struggle is ensuring that we choose the better of two good choices or two bad choices. The mistake the OP makes is in attributing moral content to the wrong activity. The actual act of voting has no moral content (simply due to the fact that abstaining from voting is a legitimate choice) ergo discouraging someone from voting is devoid of moral content as well.

    Occasionally someone or something will be inadvertently juxtaposed between God and his Purposes and woe be unto him/her/it.

  15. MikeInWeHo says:

    Re: 9
    That’s very interesting, Jakob. Can you elaborate, specifically on where you think Mormonism lands in the tension between deontological and teleological ethics?

  16. Ron Madson says:

    Natalie,
    Leaving moralistic impulses aside, when it comes to good governance, for me I would propose that the problem is not LIVs (low information voters) but rather LICs (low information candidates). A study was done finding that most voters are relatively ignorant—I have a suggested solution if I may link it to this thread: http://themormonworker.wordpress.com/2010/10/24/livs-voting-for-lics/

    #13 Edward, my suggestion in my linked post above would have taken care of your Sharon Angle problem–and most of the Tea Party Candidates.

  17. #14

    I disagree with you on Joseph being sold into slavery and the institution of polygamy being “ends justify the means” situations, but think that Nephi killing Laban and God’s command to utterly destroy every living thing both present difficult cases where what I would think is normally the moral duty, or the general rule, is set aside for what is purported to be a greater good. A similar case might be made for God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son (though he didn’t have to do it in the end). I sometimes tend to gloss over these in my own mind or doubt that what they did was really right because I want there to be a consistent moral code. It’s a good reminder that God may ask me to do something that I initially think is “wrong.”

    #15
    I think Brother Joseph stated Mormonism’s position this way:
    That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, “Thou shalt not kill”; at another time He said, “Thou shalt utterly destroy.” This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.

  18. The apparent willingness to justify murder, or even genocide, as good is why divine-command ethics is a horrifying thing. Especially haunting is that such cases are often wrapped up in nationalistic or tribalistic narratives.

  19. Since my husband and I have differing political affiliations, our votes effectively cancel each other out. However, he also has a bad memory for dates and doesn’t watch the news, so if I just keep my mouth shut he’ll forget to go to the polls about 50% of the time (including the most recent election.) I should feel way more guilty about it than I do.

  20. Ron Madson says:

    #18, Chris, Exactly! The “ends justify the means” is the metric of evil when we go beyond voting manipulation to taking human life. Nephi uses ironically the same words of Caiaphas when killing a defenseless man–“it is better that one man perish then….” fill in the blank. When “one” man or any man is placed on the altar for our freedom, our security our agenda, then we continue the human sacrifice that Abraham told the religion of his day (the voice in his head telling him to do it in the first place) to go to hell. So today, we vote for neocons that continue listening the same voices–the “one percent doctrine” that allowed and continues to allow us to place on the altar the children of Iraq and Afghanistan…..http://themormonworker.wordpress.com/2008/12/13/in-defense-of-blackwater-gangs-neocons/

  21. If we all told the truth, we’d be better off. But as soon as, say, the Pink party will not be truthful, then everyone else needs to engage on their level or lose. In that context, Pink’s opponents should probably sacrifice moral compunction about methods of getting elected to the higher goal of being in a position to set their preferred policy.

    A less morally dubious and–in my opinion–far more obvious solution would be to speak the truth to expose the falsehoods that the Pink Party is saying. Am I missing something?

  22. I am not so much interest in discussing neocons. However, in my senior seminar on Global Justice. The human right not the be murders was debated to my surprise. The reason…Nephi did it. These were some of my good students, too.

    The Nephi/Laban story is not so much ends justifieds the means, but God justifies the means. It was okay because God commanded it.

  23. The Nephi/Laban story … was okay because God commanded it.

    Oh crap. Here comes the Divine Command argument…

  24. Most people think it’s better to take the high road, until they actually have to.

  25. Hint taken Scott.

  26. Chris–not hinting at all. Just ducking for cover.

  27. Steve Evans says:

    I will ban anyone who draws ethical conclusions from the Nephi/Laban story.

  28. That was not a hint…too direct to be a hint. Warning heeded.

  29. If we all told the truth, we’d be better off. But as soon as, say, the Pink party will not be truthful, then everyone else needs to engage on their level or lose. In that context, Pink’s opponents should probably sacrifice moral compunction about methods of getting elected to the higher goal of being in a position to set their preferred policy.

    A less morally dubious and–in my opinion–far more obvious solution would be to speak the truth to expose the falsehoods that the Pink Party is saying. Am I missing something?

    Time. Most candidates wait until the last minute to unsheath their best mud-sling. Lies and gossip travel much faster than corrections and retractions. Therefore I, being in the blue party, know that my truth will not travel as fast as the Pink’s lie, so I must come up with a similar lie and be ready to use it at a moment’s notice.

    This effectively makes the scenario what you and I refer to as “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” in Game Theory. More or less.

  30. “A less morally dubious and–in my opinion–far more obvious solution would be to speak the truth to expose the falsehoods that the Pink Party is saying. Am I missing something?”

    Example:

    Candidate Smith insists that Candidate Jones wants to use your tax dollars to pay for the needs of the lazy poor people.

    In the current political climate, the typical response from Candidate Jones is that Candidate Smith wants to kill your children and feed them to the poor, rather than raise taxes to pay for welfare.

    The “speaking the truth” policy would require Candidate Jones to simply explain why welfare services are necessary.

    Unfortunately, our sensationalist news services would much rather here crazy stories that can be captured in a 3-second sound bite rather than nuanced discussions.

  31. I think you’re speaking to a really large issue here, Natalie.

    There’s a long-standing debate about whether the ends justify the means. The best treatment I’ve seen of this is from Saul Alinsky. But since someone is currently borrowing my copy of Rules for Radicals, I’ll have to paraphrase from memory.

    Basically, the whole argument of ends vs. means is usually a way to stop people from achieving their goals.

    We let ourselves get caught up in our own importance – my own integrity is so important, that it is worth sacrificing a huge, important goal that will help many people to keep it intact. We call down morality for our cause, saying we cannot take part in an important cause because we might have to do something that would conflict with our values.

    I think such arguments are often a moral cop-out. We sacrifice the good of the community in order to retain our warm fuzzies and feel good about ourselves.

    The age-old example: Would you muffle a crying baby to save a group of Jews hiding from the Nazis?

    My answer is yes. I would feel horrible and wracked while doing it. But selfishly caring about my own tender feelings in the matter will cause the deaths of myself, the baby, and everyone else. I get to die feeling all warm and fuzzy, sure, but I actually acted quite selfishly in valuing my own conscience more highly than I value the lives of those around me.

    I don’t know how much of this can be applied to our current political landscape, where everything is basically a steaming pile of $#!@, but I think it is a very compelling philosophical question.

  32. ” Maybe it’s impractical in some situations, but it may not be worth defeating the monster if you have to become a monster to win the fight.”

    Ah, but that depends on what the fight is.

  33. “Basically, the whole argument of ends vs. means is usually a way to stop people from achieving their goals.”

    These arguments can be stupid, but if your goals do not have room for moral consideration…I would say that your goal is likely one I would oppose.

    As to your age-old example (which I have never heard before), I am disturbed by your answer which can only be justified be the crudest form of consequentalism. Why committing many immoral acts (lying, cheating, whoredoms) in the pursuit of saving lives is justified, I cannot think of a moral perspective that would permit the snuffing out of the child. In particular, the feminist ethic of care would say that your primary obligation would be to that child.

  34. “While committing…”

  35. Killing a child to save a group of people is repugnant–particularly when the killing is predetermined to be the “right” decision. The blood lust inspired and apparently excused in some minds by ticking bomb scenarios seems to be something of a national obsession whether Jack Bauer or a blogger is doing the necessary to make us all safe. Stalin did much the same. No, exactly the same. I think this may be the grossest idea ever discussed on BCC.

  36. 31 – A) I do not believe God is as Millsian as you do. Its fine that you believe that, but I definitely do not. For instance, I think that choosing the plan of Agency over Satan’s plan was an example of God choosing Kantian ethics over Millsian. In Satan’s plan, the greatest good for the greatest number of people would be served, in the plan for agency, many would be lost. I realize this is gross oversimplification, but I think at its base it is true.

    B) I think far more evil has been served in this world through a (like Mathew said in 35) Jack Bauerian approach of ends justifying means, than a moral approach of doing no evil even when your plans might fail by not stooping to a lower level.

    As for me I would let the baby live. If I die, I die by the hands of murderers and the sin is theirs. If I kill the baby to (possibly) survive, the sin is mine.

    That “feeling all warm and fuzzy” you refer to is called being pure before God.

  37. But Nat said muffle the baby, not suffocate it. Who wouldn’t make that decision to save many lives? Heck, I wanted to muffle a baby in an airplane cabin just the other day.

  38. I read muffle to include suffocating the baby in the process. Nat, correct me if I am wrong. It seemed implied to me.

  39. Mike (#15), kind of you to ask. My previous forays into posts about ethics (notably here and here) were not very successful, but if I ever get fired up to start blogging again I will probably take a few more stabs. I find meta-ethics to be fascinating.

    Mormonism is expansive enough to have leanings in both directions and vague enough to leave it up to us to figure out the ultimate ground of ethics. I think Mormonism is fairly hostile to divine command theory, but that’s about as far as I’d go. I enjoyed Blake’s attemt at situating Mormonism within the world of ethical theories which can be read here.

  40. All, maybe it is just shorthand everyone is using, but “the ends justifies the means” is a gross oversimplification of consequentialism.

    I was just watching a National Geographic on “the science of morality” (or something like that) instantly on netflix ftw and it had a segment on the baby smothering. It is a Kobayashi Maru by design, anyone who thinks the answer is obviously one way or the other has not thought about it deeply enough. Anyway, they were saying that in moral reasoning the thinking often triggers either the emotional centers or the logical centers of the brain. Those who say to smother the baby since not doing so leads to everyone (including the baby) dying have more logical neurons firing and vice versa for those who say not to smother the baby.

  41. Why are you “Jakob” here and “Jacob” at NCT?

  42. Hi Chris, for some unknown reason Akismet started treating all my comments as spam a few months back. At a few blogs I can comment again because they have fished me out of spam enough times, but at most sites I still go straight to spam. Here at BCC Scott B. has gone way beyond the call of duty trying to fix it for me but we can’t figure it out so I recently came up with this variation which seems to get me past the Akismet spam net.

  43. Cool, it just threw me off.

  44. Oops, sorry I didn’t get back to respond very quickly.

    When I talk about this thought practice, I’m talking about the several instances where it was reported to have actually happened, like here: http://www.indeonline.com/local_news/x124986974/Holocaust-victim-kicks-off-Big-Read-with-emotional-story-of-survival

    “Gold said the children were instructed to make no noise – not a cough, or a sneeze, or a sigh. After some time, an infant began crying uncontrollably, she said. The mother tried unsuccessfully to quiet the baby but nothing worked. She made a quick decision that took Gold a long time to understand – the mother suffocated her baby to save the lives of the others in the wall.

    “Us kids witnessed that,” she said. “That is a memory that will be with me for the rest of my life. I never forgot the mother’s face. I was angry at the time. I took a long time to understand why she did that.””

    This is not so simple as “the sin is theirs, not mine”, nor as simple as, “I’m going to find another solution.” You have the power to save or not save a group of people. If you choose to sacrifice your conscience and do something that I agree is completely repugnant (duh), you save them. If you let your conscience guide you, and save the baby, you then have the death of the whole group on your hands. It’s fine to point out that the Nazis are the ones who actually did the killing, but if you had the power to stop it, and you didn’t, you are also responsible.

    Of course, this is an extreme example. Pretty sure most of us won’t ever have to go through that. But we face such similar examples on a smaller scale in our lives.

    For example, you steal a loaf of bread to save your family. Stealing is wrong, yes, it might make you feel guilty, yes. But refraining from doing so because it would impugn your personal moral stature is actually selfish, and a moral cop-out, if by so refraining you allow the suffering and starvation of your family.

    Or, what if you just see someone steal food for their family? Simplistic lessons in honesty and integrity would tell us we should do something to stop it or bring it to light. But again, doing so would cause harm to a family. And doing so, so that you can feel at peace with your own simplistic set morals, causes harm to others.

    My point is, we can’t always make a decision based on, “Is this thing, right in front of me, right or wrong?” It is imperative that we assess the impact the decision will have on our community. Choosing what is “right” (ie: allowed per the concepts of some moral code) for ourselves, at the expense of the greater good, is often going to be, like I said, a moral cop-out. Sometimes you just have to do what’s right, even if you feel guilty while doing so.

    B. Russ, I definitely wouldn’t consider “God’s” ethics to be Kantian. We’re talking about the being who drowned the whole earth in order to prove a point about righteousness. Maybe Jesus is more Kantian, sure. But God commanded Nephi to slay Laban (woops!). And many people believe that God justifies war on a massive scale to serve some higher purpose. If you accept the God of the Bible, you cannot believe that God is a pacifist. I’m not saying God is utilitarian, but there’s some more complex moral stuff going on here then “do what feels good.”

  45. #44 – and maybe our scriptures are a good textbook about the evolution of humanity’s understanding of God – not a textbook about the actual nature of God.

    The most obvious example of the smothering dilemma in popular culture for those of us who are old enough to remember it might be the final episode of M*A*S*H – where Hawkeye’s breakdown was triggered by observing exactly that scenario, which he caused by his insistence on the mother stopping her baby from crying while the people in the bus were keeping silent to avoid being found by enemy soldiers in the area.

    Some things are relatively easy in an intellectual vacuum but much, much harder in real life.

  46. nat kelly,

    When you speak about your willingness to kill a baby, the give-away is that the predominant story is not about an unspeakable act, but our heroine’s noble sacrifice of her conscience/morals. In real life there may be rare circumstances when society will excuse actions outside the norms of civilized behavior. Society may properly rationalize those actions after the fact, but when it begins to normalize them before ahead of time it takes the first steps towards tyranny. Your argument is repugnant for the same reasons it is repugnant when George W. Bush uses the same argument to justify torture–you create a sense of necessity based on scenarios you aren’t confronting and use them to excuse the actions you want to take because that is the best way you can achieve your goals.

    Every time someone makes the rather obvious point that the world isn’t black and white I get a queer feeling in my stomach as I wait for the other shoe to drop. Couple that with the rhetoric of ignoring community norms for the good of the community and I have to fight the impulse to run as far away as possible.

    The fact is that George W. Bush could use torture in an actual ticking bomb scenario without the cover of a legal memorandum; our political processes would be more than robust enough to ensure that he suffered no adverse consequences. Likewise there is usually sufficient give in societal norms to accommodate the scenarios you continue to rely on to justify flaunting the norms of the community you claim to care so much about.

    I remain deeply, deeply suspicious of anyone who is intent on saving me.

  47. It is also true that you are suggesting the mother who doesn’t kill her baby is acting immorally, has “copped-out” and is acting out of a selfish desire to retain her warm fuzzies. I doubt you meant to do as much.

  48. Steve Evans says:

    “I remain deeply, deeply suspicious of anyone who is intent on saving me.”

    Mat is this what is keeping us apart lo these many years??

  49. 44 – First of all, exactly what Ray said in the first paragraph of 45

    Second, your assessment treats life as a virtue. Given the fact that we are A) all going to die B) judged according to the dictates of our own heart C) live for eternity in a glory higher than our current state (unless we be worthy of the name Son of Perdition) – I have to completely reject the idea that life in itself is a virtue. Life is a function. It is a means of reaching salvation/exaltation. It is given freely and taken freely by a loving God. The lives of others in my group and the defense thereof is not in itself a virtue, the decision to not murder is a virtue. Remaining pure before God is a virtue.
    If God chooses to put me in a position where I must murder to remain alive, then choosing to die is the only virtuous choice.
    God has never commanded “Thou shalt live” or “Thou shalt not die”. He has commanded that we forsake our lives for him.
    I fail to see what is gained by sacrificing the child so that you and your group of friends might live. You continue to live on this planet in this realm, congratulations, you are a murderer. Your children who you saved are children of a murderer. Your friends who you saved, are complicit in murder for not stopping you.

    Stealing bread to feed your family is not the same thing, that is a strawman. You’re not murdering anyone to steal bread. In addition to that, I don’t know of many situations (there are some, but not many) where a person is driven to steal bread where that person couldn’t find some other way to feed themselves – even if it means digging up plants and eating their roots, or hunting rats . . .
    The problem with stealing bread to feed your family, is that many times that justification is used by people who live in half million dollar houses and drive Denalis. Don’t believe me? Lets take a tour of Utah County and I’ll introduce you to a couple people who work in the MLM business. They’re just feeding their families!

  50. I do not think nat is advocating that approach to the situation. Instead, she is pointing out moral complexity of such situations. However, I think that moral relationship…emotional and otherwise…between the mother and child need to be fully understand. This is why the study of moral theory and moral psychology are important. They are far more than memorizing maxims.

    Yes, I am this boring in real life.

  51. And like I said in 36 “Its fine if you believe that”. I can understand why someone would choose to sacrifice a child in that situation. But calling it a “cop out” to not murder? Calling it “selfish” or insisting that a person would do it out of a misplaced desire to have “warm fuzzies”. C’mon, thats just sick.

  52. I do not think nat is advocating that approach to the situation.

    see 51. Her use of “cop out” “selfish” etc. would indicate otherwise. I’m quite aware that it is a complex moral puzzle.

  53. I do not think stealing bread is a strawman (probably because I used it). However, it is not a morally equivalent example.

    B. Russ: I disagree. Life is of inherent value. Salvation and eternity are at best myths…when making real life decisions. The consideration of life is not the problem, though it is complex. The willingness to dismiss life as such is why Nietzsche is write about religious approaches to morality.

  54. I do not think stealing bread is a strawman (probably because I used it). However, it is not a morally equivalent example.

    Alright, fair enough.

  55. I think life is of inherent value when one does not believe in salvation and eternity. I think if you take a religious worldview, then salvation and eternity are probably your reason for making said “real life decisions”. If you only use a compass when you know your way, and forsake it as mythical when you are lost, what use is the compass?

    I’m not trying to oversimplify the issue, I really do realize it is complex, and I would hope that I wouldn’t judge a person who chose differently in that situation than myself. But if the decision were mine, I hope I would not fear death and would choose to let my child cry, come what may.
    My problem, and the reason I launched into the discussion the way I did, was the callousness with which nat decided that everyone who saw the situation different than her must be naive. I have a problem with that.

  56. Mathew,

    I think it is important to assess the values that are reflected in our behaviors and goals before we act. I’m not Machiavellian. I don’t think we should abandon morals in the pursuit of our goals.

    I’m not arguing that sin can be justified carte blanche just because we want to get something. Smothering a baby would not be justifiable or moral if there was a sick person trying to sleep that was being kept awake. There is no higher moral imperative there that calls into question the moral imperative of “don’t kill.”

    George Bush’s goal was to consolidate his own power. His assessment of the justification for torture did not take into consideration that the subjects of his ethical experiment were human beings.

    As scary as it may seem to you, the world is not black and white, and very few moral laws are absolute all the time. We like to feel great about ourselves if we can reach some level of moral purity. But when we are living in the world, we have to live and make decisions each moment. We need to make sure those decisions are forwarding our values, and our idea of what a better world would look like. For example, off the top of my head, the values I prize are the intrinsic dignity of every human being, my goal that all people be able to live a liberated life, and my abhorrence for material conditions that degrade the dignity or health of a person. These are the big picture things. Smaller rules or commandments are useful because they generally push us to fulfilling goals like these. However, they do not always, and I am not going to sacrifice the larger goals in order to congratulate myself for strictly observing the smaller rules.

    For example, I’m not a pacifist per se because, while non-violence is ideal, I’m not prepared to say we live in a world where it is never necessary. There have been many violent revolutions in world history that were absolutely necessary. Now, when was the last time I was ever personally violent towards anyone? Never. But I admit to myself that violence may at times be necessary, and I am not arrogant enough to think that I am personally above doing it. If I am willing to admit that violence must be done, I have to be willing to do it myself, because my moral purity is no more sacred than anyone else’s.

    Of course, the difficulty is that not everyone has the same values and goals. I guess that’s where the battle between good and evil comes in.

    B. Russ, sorry if you took exception to my tone. It’s probably more a result of how I’m writing (in sporadic slow moments while at work, hiding my internet use from my manager) than intentional. I respect the great BCC minds.

  57. Nat,
    Specifically, which BCC minds are great? All? Just a subset? I need names.

  58. Scott, my momma taught me to never name names. :) But I’ve got a soft spot for quite a few of you.

  59. “I think life is of inherent value when one does not believe in salvation and eternity. I think if you take a religious worldview, then salvation and eternity are probably your reason for making said “real life decisions”. If you only use a compass when you know your way, and forsake it as mythical when you are lost, what use is the compass?”

    I likely do not believe in salvation and eternity.

  60. nat kelly,

    I would be interested in a list of violent revolutions in world history that were absolutely necessary. Even the revolution I admire most–the American–wasn’t necessary. But we can put that aside for now.

    Much better to create a list of situations where smothering babies is acceptable. When hunted by Nazi’s it is OK. When keeping up sick people, not OK. My point, of course, is that nat kelly is exceptionally bad a determining which innocents should live and which should die. You shouldn’t be bothered by that–you are no worse than anyone else. You should be bothered, however, that you think you are capable of making those judgments. And worse yet, you believe you are capable of making those judgments on an ad hoc basis. God save us from people with such a exquisite moral compasses.

    I’m not scared of a world that is not black and white, I’m scared of a world where people believe humankind or its condition is perfectible and who admit a willingness to discard process in their pursuit of the same. You get to the meat of the argument you actually wanted to make in 44 before you blundered into the baby killing business when you state that you are unwilling to observe the smaller rules while you pursue your big ones. And as I noted above, Stalin used the same line of reasoning to pursue a remarkably similar set of values.

    Revolution, violence, justified baby killing–all in the name of a higher cause. Where can I sign up?

    BTW, we don’t sit in judgment on a mother who actually smothered her baby. In fact, I like her chances–but that judgment too is reserved for God, or it is at least not for us.

  61. I likely do not believe in salvation and eternity.

    How about beatles? Do you believe in beatles?

  62. I believe in BCC…and the Beatles…and Ferris.

  63. I just plain lover Scott. My mother never said anything about naming names.

  64. That should be “love” not….crap.

  65. Chris, sometimes its hard to tell if you are being sarcastic or serious. This is one of those times.

  66. I am usually seriously sarcastic.

    But I do care a lot about this which is why I regret the reputation I have earned by being an ass about politics on the ‘nacle.

    I do believe in some sense of salvation and eternity. But not in the same sense that you do. They are not important considerations for me in making moral evaluations. My focus is more earthly.

  67. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 49
    “I have to completely reject the idea that life in itself is a virtue. Life is a function. It is a means of reaching salvation/exaltation.”

    Earthly life has no intrinsic virtue? Seriously? I find that assertion very problematic. It’s identical to the reasoning Al Qaeda, et. al., use to justifying their murderous acts.

  68. I agree. Anyone who disagrees with Mike is Al Qaeda.

  69. 67 – And yet nat kelly is using the opposite stance to justify the smothering of a baby. So apparently placing intrinsic value on life does not dictate whether a person is willing to sacrifice the innocent.

    No I don’t believe life itself is a virtue. That doesn’t mean that life doesn’t have value. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I can take the life of another. Also, I think value is different than virtue, and I probably should have caught that distinction earlier in the comments.
    I do value my life and the lives of others, I also believe that the decision of when a person should die, myself included, is God’s decision and not mine.
    I don’t however believe there is something particularly good or particularly bad about the simple act of living. Example: I think that there are hundreds of thousands of people that are simply living and not doing much else. They are connected to life support machines/given extreme medicine regimines/etc. just to stave off grim death. When the Terry Schiavo scandal hit America, there seemed to be a huge uproar of people that placed so much focus on life itself. I am of a different mindset and think that there is dignity in death, in dying after living virtuously. Hopefully this doesn’t start another tangent in the already complex discussion.

    Also, I think the outcome of most moral judgments arrive at the same place regardless of whether or not someone places virtue on the act of living. Its only a few isolated instances when the distinction makes a difference. Nat’s example just happens to be one of them.
    I can feel responsibility to help my neighbor, etc. regardless of whether or not I see his act of living as intrinsically virtuous.

  70. Life is not the intrinsic value. Human beings are the thing of intrinsic value and worth. Virtue is a slightly different question.

    Doing this on the run. I do explain much of my perspective elsewhere.

  71. But I do care a lot about this which is why I regret the reputation I have earned by being an ass about politics on the ‘nacle.

    Hope springs everlasting!

  72. Feels like people are taking blocks off the top.

    Thou shalt not kill is saying:

    Thou shalt be just.

    Or in other words again… Thou shalt not murder which is the unjust state of act of killing. Taking life is not ipso facto a sin, doing it unjustly is.

    Everything is a function of justice. God is God because God is just. If God ceases to be just, God ceases to be God? Justice is independent of God? You have to define the independent or self existent elements of justice before you can determine how the dependent elements are computed to determine the state of being just or not.

    So what it all comes down to is:

    Define justice.

    Justice seems to be based on opposition and consistency. I have no idea how to expand on that though… so I’ll just skip ahead a bit.

    Agency is clearly a very fundamental aspect of justice within the context of the plan of happiness. Every sin against somebody else trespasses agency. So it might be pretty safe to say that any means which violates agency can not be justified(anything dishonest immediately goes out the window)… That’s not completely and irreducibly elemental, but it can still give somebody a pretty solid check in determining if their actions are justifiable… I think?

  73. Ron Madson says:

    #72 hmmmm,

    “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image, when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” —- Anne Lamott or Fr. John Weston.

    Take this quote and change it to “…when it turns out that God wants to kill all the same people you do…”

    Just? Says who? Your God? Your interpretation of God’s will? OR your sense of justice?

  74. Justice is balance and consistency in a system of oppositions(the human system in this case obviously). Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth… nothing new there. To be perfectly just you have to understand that system perfectly, and the big idea is that God organized the system so he knows the balance, therefore the things he commands are just, because he has said that his godhood depends on it.

    Without presupposing that God exists(in this case the mormon god) and that he designed humanity with a universal emotional/spiritual/psychological architecture in the likeness of his own it becomes hard to believe that there are behaviors which are objectively just or unjust. There might be a few axiomatic elements of the human mind to loosely determine that certain behaviors will result in distress, but it’s not as deep as the concept of justice in religion. It wouldn’t have any more power than people give it. Everything becomes morally relative and the closest thing to ‘justice’ is the most broadly acceptable view.

    But anyway, within the confines of the LDS doctrine it would appear that dishonesty has no justifiable context while the taking of life does. I’ve never heard of a commandment to lie. What I have heard is that Satan is the father of all lies. It’s relationship with agency is my best guess as to why its not justifiable.

    That’s all I got.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,516 other followers