The Demands of Morality

Saturday, November 21, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

This week we're asking about the Demands of Morality -- whether living morally adds or detracts from the goodness of a life.

The answer may seem obvious to some people.  When you do the moral thing, you're doing the right thing.  Violating morality is doing the wrong thing.  It’s good to do the right thing; bad to do the wrong thing.  You will always do better and live better when you do the moral thing.

But imagine the following scenario.  Suppose you live in a country full of tax cheats, but you’re honest to the bone and you dutifully pay your taxes.  What does that make you -- a saint among sinners, or a sucker?  How does doing the right thing improve your life?

Well, if morality is partly about how people are to live together, maybe it doesn’t require us to be absolutely honest when everybody else is being dishonest.  But how far are we willing to go with that line?  Does morality sanction a little stealing, or maybe a touch of random killing, if enough other people are into that sort of thing?  What’s the bottom line?

In the case of something milder like tax-cheating, you might feel torn.  You don't claim to be a saint.  You don’t want to cheat, but you also don’t want to be a high-minded fool, either.  It puts you in a pretty pickle: you want morality to be your guide to life, but it’s not giving you much guidance now.

Now you could argue that the tax-cheating scenario is morally screwy, and fortunately we aren’t always confronted with such screwed up options.  But morality isn’t much of a guide if it only works when things aren’t morally screwy.  We could think about it in terms of costs and benefits: a moral life can have its benefits, but it can also have its costs.  When you weigh up the cost of living morally against the benefits of a little immorality, the moral life sometimes comes out on the short end.  But some would argue that’s the wrong way to think about it, because morality is its own reward.  It has a hold on us that goes way beyond any kind of cost-benefit analysis.

Now consider a little thought experiment to test out that hypothesis. Suppose I’ve got a magical ring, which I’m going to give to you.  Only you know about it.  Only you can use it.  Whenever you wear it, you’ll be invisible, in fact completely undetectable.  With it you are absolutely free to do whatever you want, whenever you want, with no worries about getting caught --  no worries about sullying your impeccable reputation for moral uprightness.  Would you take my ring?  Would you use it to satisfy your most secret, most forbidden desires?  Or would you refuse it? 

That's a thought experiment borrowed from Plato.  He thought that however much immorality may appear to benefit you and morality might appear to burden you, it is always better –- intrinsically better, immeasurably better -- to do the moral thing.  So Plato would turn down the ring -- but in the name of what?  Some misguided ideal of moral perfection?  To win the favor of others?  Out of sheer cowardice, perhaps? 

Well, probably out of a concern for his own soul and its well-being.  As the old saying goes: it profits a man nothing to gain the world but lose his soul.  If that makes me sound like a Pollyanna, then consider Nietzsche, who dismissesed morality as a herd instinct and says that only weaker natures allow themselves to be guided by morality.  We may not want to go that far, but it still may not be obvious that living well requires that we always do what morality commands.  There are a lot more factors that go into to a well-lived life than morality alone. 

 

Comments (12)


Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, April 28, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

You can ignore N.N. Taleb, if

You can ignore N.N. Taleb, if you wish. Many folks dislike him immensely, and actively seek to discredit his body of work. But, with his ANTIFRAGILE: THINGS THAT GAIN FROM DISORDER, he has established himself as an intellect, and, a philosopher. His Triad: Fragile; Robust; and Antifragile is a foundation, deceptive in its simplicity, yet elegant for any thinking individual who has read his book. Taleb debunks all of those who might assert morality-based lives, without (as far as I can recall) even using the word. Well. Those who are interested may read the book. Those who have a contrary agenda may do all they wish to suppress it. Taleb won't mind. His position is, in his word: Antifragile.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 29, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I certainly hope a certain

I certainly hope a certain large company does not come after you for copyright infringement. But, I suppose you have already thought about that and cut some deal with them, some way or another. In any case, in case you have not noticed, morality gets little traction these days. All sorts of writers, be they columnar pundits, or tellers of great philosophical stories, try to moralize an apathetic public. But, in the immortal(?) words of one of the founders of that great TV show, In Living Colour: "I don't think so---Homey don't play that."
There are all kinds of reasons for moral apathy. Some are electronic; some, self-indulgent (see also: electronic);
and some defy any categorization whatsoever. And so, consider this notion, if you may: there are no (longer) moral demands---no, uh, moral imperative. No one has "skin in the game." Moreover, no one wants to.
This is why I enjoy working wood. It is warm---life-like in the best sense. And it cannot lie.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 29, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

There is a story of a banking

There is a story of a banking executive who, as preliminary to a promotion, had lunch with other banking executives. By the time he got back to his office, Security had packed up his personal belongings and he had been packaged out.
What had he done to deserve such treatment?
According to the story, his great moral failing was to have pocketed some of the packets of sugar that had been left on the table for use with coffee. The CEO had thereupon excused himself from the table and made fateful phone call.
Now consider the millions the banking executives pocketed while engineering the Great Recession of 2008 and then again soon after they were rescued with the aid of public funds. Hyper-morality is a bludgeon used by the powerful against the weaker.
I am not arguing against morality but against hypocrisy. Character is ultimately something to value.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, May 1, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

The question is: does living

The question is: does living morally add to or detract from a life, period/question mark, period

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, May 2, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I agree with Plato that it is

I agree with Plato that it is always better to do do the moral thing in spite of the benefits immortality may promise

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Thursday, May 2, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

PERUSING MORALITY

PERUSING MORALITY
There are three good tools to use when perusing morality (a difficult problem for philosophy).
They are 1. Definition, 2. Explanation, and 3. Speculation.
Definition: We must decide if we are talking ?social,? i.e. some consensus of a group that it is good to enforce some rule; or, ?personal,? in which an individual knows independent of the group he/she is a member of, that it is ?good? and ?right.?
Explanation: The contribution of scientific processes: what practices and beliefs are necessary for survival, for health, for physical success. Then these are codified by investing them with an almost mystical, magical significance.
Speculation: Endless speculation is the realm of philosophy. What is an instinct? Is there something instinctive about morality? In a one-on-one with Derrida, I asked him if one accepts the premises of deconstruction, and one could imagine (the impossible) end or absence of symbolism and reference and metaphor, what would be left standing as human. He said ?I?m not certain, and don?t quote me on this, but I think it is something like ?justice?.? I speculate that ?morality,? in all its meanings and forms, might be an expression of that innate justice Derrida was talking about.

MJA's picture

MJA

Friday, May 3, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Morality and Truth.

Morality and Truth.
Equality or truth is self-evident, and once its been found it must be practiced or lived.
Living the good life is more simple and less demanding when One understands that All is truly One.
To be good to the planet, to Nature, to One another is truly to be good to Oneself, and that makes the Way the only Way to be. To be or not to be, there is no question in me.
Just be,
=

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Friday, May 3, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I can't resist saying

I can't resist saying something more about methodology re this subject. Sorry to be so verbose.
MORALITY
The Greeks didn?t really use a word ?morality,? they instead talked (and I do mean spoken, as writing was seen as sophistic advocacy, and truth was arrived at through challenge, i.e. dialogue) about virtues ? very interesting, the distinction, in light of what follows:
Thinking about some objective notion of morality, I argue that there also is a very subjective morality, too. Lipman wants to codify (i.e., take out of the realm of religion (just because he doesn?t like religion)) VIRTUE not morality. He probably means at the very base, the golden rule: (better stated) DO FOR others the way you would have it done for you AND DON?T DO TO others anything you wouldn?t want DONE to you. Go ahead and try to legislate something like that, I don?t have any problem with it. Though it is more like a social contract we all agree to obey in return for protection and commerce.
The Greeks said virtue (i.e., being good) was basically forming habits of good judgment and behavior. Greek ?morality? was composed of knowledge and practice: think how much you have to know about history, science, psychology, biology to know what is truly good, and then think how you can practice behavior (practice in both senses of PREPARING and DOING) based on that knowledge. You have to INITIATE; you have to take ACTION; you are not moral if you just sit there and think, ?This defines the good.? The Greeks called it ?right action.?
To the extent morality is what I am calling ?subjective,? it is founded on ?belief.? This is a subject I have done much much philosophical work on. For very good reasons, humans (and probably animals) are compelled to various beliefs. Because everyone naturally wants to ?say what is right and what is good.? And golden rule morality is obvious and objective (there are exceptions, see Nietzsche); to say what is right and good about subjective matters, is based in belief. These are the moral issues we debate and disagree about, and fight wars and kill over.
What is always most interesting about ?morality,? after ?where does morality come from,? is ?which moralities are objective and which can we call subjective.? I did a study of ?fear?; think about what part of your fears are real, and what part imagined. What moralities are ?real,? and what are ?imagined.?
The moral philosophers most applicable to these issues are: Peter Singer (especially about animals. He is THE animal moral philosopher), and Bernard Williams (died recently; Oxford Dean of Moral Philosophy). And over it all are: the Greeks, the pragmatists, religion, Nietzsche (who wrote the ASTONISHING ?The Genealogy of Morality?) and Derrida on justice.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, May 3, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Mirugai:

Mirugai:
Seems to make good sense to me. Morality and justice are certainly linked, though sometimes in our modernity the connexion gets blurry. I really should read Derrida.
Warmest, Neuman.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, May 28, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Now, I think I get it. This

Now, I think I get it. This blog is largely (if not mostly) about assisting you with developing curricula. Should have gotten that long ago. I guess this is why you have doctorates---and I don't. I'll stick with what I know. Thanks for the print time...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, November 27, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I am always fascinated by

I am always fascinated by linkages and connections. Jung referred to something he called synchronicity, which seems to embody some aspects of a linkage/connection-oriented world. Many years ago (the 1970s, to be more precise), I read some books by a Robert Monroe, concerning what he said were out-of-body experiences he had had over some period of time. Entertaining and thought-provoking stuff, and, I was young and impressionable-ever searching for new frontiers and ideas. In one book (the first or second, I think), Monroe set forth a sort of credo regarding his thoughts about morality, life-after-death, good and bad, and so on. Fast forward to 2015 and Tom Campbell's My Big TOE (Theory-of-Everything). Campbell, it seems, knew Monroe and even conducted some research (with Bob Monroe's assistance) into the notion of life-after-death.
I won't go into a huge discussion of all this coincidence-any who are curious may research and read Monroe and/or Campbell for themselves. I will, in closing, say only this much: Morality can work to one's advantage, depending upon what best meets one's needs for comfort and acceptance. Criminals clearly have little use for or need of a moral life. Criminals, too, have some need of linkages and connections in their lives. Continuity, then, may be different things to different people. Just like happiness. And just so.
Cordially,
Neuman.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 2, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

The Demands of Morality your

The Demands of Morality your post title but sorry to say i can't understand what you want to say in your post. Over all your post really great. 

 
 
 

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