A couple of conversations in the last week have made me think about morality tonight.
In particular, I’ve been thinking about moral principles that I try to live by. For example “do no violence”, “be truthful”, “be compassionate”, “stand against injustice”. And I’ve been thinking about how these interact. Because they do. As I imagine gradually more extreme situations, any moral principle I might hold turns out to be a flexible guideline. And I realise that in very non-extreme situations I hold some other moral principles that I didn’t expect.
The interaction of moral principles seems to be hierarchical. There are definitely higher principles and lower principles.
For example, I am (in American political terms) pro-choice. But I also hold a moral position “don’t abort pregnancies”. That is a rather complex position: one where the severity of the moral prohibition changes based on the development of the foetus, and the situation of the mother. I think it a pretty obvious moral wrong to abort a foetus the day before it comes to term, for example. But I think while it would have been preferable to have a different outcome, it is no more immoral to abort an early stage foetus than it would be to impose the anguish of a pregnancy and childbirth on the undesiring mother. And even in the extreme case I can think of situations in which the abortion would be the morally preferable choice to worse evils.
This much is probably nothing new or insightful. But my attempt tonight to actually make explicit some of these connections has been interesting, and not entirely intuitive.
I believe in truth and honesty, for example, but if I’m honest, I compromise my integrity fairly often for social reasons. It may be not saying something that someone should know. Or else feigning more support for a position or person than I feel. Or emphasizing something that I know will lead someone to jump to the wrong (and a better) conclusion about me.
I guess we all do that. But the surprising thing to me is that, if I really think about them, many of those cases don’t feel morally wrong (sure, some do – mostly the ones that are designed to inflate my ego – they are morally wrong, but many aren’t). So I obviously have some kind of moral principle around “be social” or “be a good friend” that trumps my “be honest” sense. And I wouldn’t have thought that would be true about me. I would never have thought that my “be honest” would be an absolute (do you lie about the Jews in your attic to the Nazi officer? Hell yes!), but maybe not that negotiable.
And I’m not sure what is at the top. Maybe “protect your family”. I don’t know. The higher I climb the more far-fetched the imaged scenarios (“okay, I would kill the guy trying to kill my son, but would I kill the guy trying to kill my son if it meant dropping a bomb on a city and killing a hundred innocent bystanders…hmmm”), and the less I am at all confident that any intuitive response at that point is dependable.
If you think honestly about moral decisions you’ve made in the past, do you find that things you would have thought immoral actually don’t feel so?
A side note to bring things back to religion. As I’m thinking of these terrible scenarios, I can run to the most extreme: something like “is it moral to do X rather than see a thousand innocent people tortured to death over some extended period”. And I’m reminded why any Christianity which preaches a literal Hell can have no claims to its own morality nor to a moral God.