Sunday, January 03, 2016

Our Lives of Moral Mediocrity

By now, from the many posts, it will be clear that one pet peeve of mine is that for almost all--including me--the action does not match the rhetoric.  Which is why I blog often critiquing the committed environmentalist who eats meat, or the academic-freedom championing faculty ganging up against my free speech, or the saint engaging in questionable practices, or a beloved father-figure being a serial rapist ... It seems like an overwhelming majority of us mortals lead lives of moral mediocrity at best, and often practically immoral lives, all based on our own individual moral codes--not even somebody else's code.
Suppose it’s generally true that we aim for goodness only by relative, rather than absolute, standards. What, then, should we expect to be the effect of discovering, say, that it is morally bad to eat meat, as the majority of US ethicists seem to think?
Imagine that--we don't aim to be good for goodness sake, but only for relative goodness?  If a whole bunch of people around are crappy, then I need to merely be slightly better than them and I am satisfied with this relative goodness?
You might hope that others will change. You might advocate general societal change – but you’ll have no desire to go first.
Hmmm ...

The author of the essay that triggered all these thoughts writes that lengthy piece in order to discuss:
Are professional ethicists good people? According to our research, not especially. So what is the point of learning ethics?
Professional ethicists apparently are no different from you and me, who are not professional ethicists.
Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors, by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse. (There are some mixed results for secondary measures.) For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort – logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.
If even professional ethicists do not make sure their actions are consistent with their talk, then why complain about the everyday person who does not get paid to, for instance, think about killing animals for food or whether the rich should donate to the poor.
We aspire to be about as morally good as our peers. If others cheat and get away with it, we want to do the same. We don’t want to suffer for goodness while others laughingly gather the benefits of vice. If the morally good life is uncomfortable and unpleasant, if it involves repeated painful sacrifices that are not compensated in some way, sacrifices that others are not also making, then we don’t want it.
I’d be suspicious of any 21st-century philosopher who offered up her- or himself as a model of wise living. This is no longer what it is to be a philosopher – and those who regard themselves as wise are in any case almost always mistaken.
Such disconnect between the talk of moral code and action is why, for instance, Al Gore jets around in order to talk about the harmful impacts of jetting around, among other topics.  Or, from the other side of the spectrum, Bible-thumping Republicans who would gladly vote for tax cuts for the super-rich while taking away food stamps from the poor.
Genuine philosophical thinking critiques its prior strictures, including even the assumption that we ought to be morally good. It damages almost as often as it aids, is free, wild and unpredictable, always breaks its harness. It will take you somewhere, up, down, sideways – you can’t know in advance. But you are responsible for trying to go in the right direction with it, and also for your failure when you don’t get there.
Yep, it is up to you.  So, what's your call?


Anne in Salem said...

I have always struggled with the relativism of morality. Because of my faith, I believe killing is wrong, no matter who the victim or what he has or hasn't done. Followers of other faiths believe they gain paradise by killing non-believers. How can something be wrong for me yet not just right but celebrated for others? To what extent, if any, am I allowed to impose my faith-based moral code on others? Of course, we aren't supposed to judge either, so perhaps it is a moot point. I find that most teenagers and young adults today are loath to apply their moral standards to others. They are far more "live and let live."

The essay author's seven year old son is very wise in his observation about the application of ethics.

My mother studied for her PhD in philosophy at a large public university. She was the only member of the department and the only PhD candidate who professed any faith. It is then not surprising that ethicists, as defined by the author, do not see value in sacrificing now, in leading a good life now, if they don't believe there will be compensation in the afterlife. No belief in an afterlife would mean no reward for good behavior on earth.

I can't begin to extrapolate why the inverse of that premise doesn't apply to the general public, to the clergy he mentioned, or to the other professors with whom he compares the ethicists. Baffling.

Relative to Bible-thumping Republicans, who are mostly Christians, I don't recall from my reading of the Bible Jesus exhorting governments to take care of the poor. We personally are obligated to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, etc. It is not the government's job. Agree to disagree on this one?

Maybe Rubio is right. Maybe we need fewer philosophers!

Sriram Khé said...

A few disagreements, and not minor ones by any means ;)

1. "do not see value in sacrificing now, in leading a good life now, if they don't believe there will be compensation in the afterlife. No belief in an afterlife would mean no reward for good behavior on earth."
I have no belief whatsoever in an afterlife. There is nothing for me after death. But, as my blog-posts over the years show, my deliberations on good and bad and morals and doing the right thing are not because I want to earn any points for the afterlife. In fact, one of the problems that people like me have with "Mother" Teresa is that she was doing what she was doing only because she believed that was the way to get on to the best afterlife--it was an utterly selfish bottomline that she pursued.
Just because I don't believe in an afterlife it does not mean I do whatever I want to do. Even a cousin of mine recently told me "Sriram, live a little" ...

2. "I don't recall from my reading of the Bible Jesus exhorting governments to take care of the poor. ... It is not the government's job. "
In a village, people might take care of each other. Might. In Jesus's time, the typical person had no clue about people in different parts of the world. If they had been told that, well, chances are that they would not have cared for the poor and the suffering somewhere else.
Even if they wanted to, the typical person might have had less of an interest to help out somebody somewhere who believes in a different god, speaks a different language, eats different foods, ... my point here is that in a small and homogenous setting, it is easier to imagine that people take care of their own. We live in a different world now. A world in which even the believers (of any religion) lead as selfish and immoral lives as any other. If--and this is a huge if--we think we should help our fellow humans who are in need, then we can make that happen only via a secular structure. A government is that secular structure. The UN is that secular structure. Plenty of NGOs like MSF are those secular structures.

3. "Maybe Rubio is right. Maybe we need fewer philosophers!"
I recognize that this is a tongue-in-cheek comment. Nonetheless ... the world seems to be in a mad pursuit of selfish material interests, completely shutting out various underlying philosophical issues. Rubio forgets that even Adam Smith, the godfather of capitalism, was a philosopher to whom economic transactions were not disconnected from everything else. "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" for instance preceded his "Wealth of Nations." I don't imagine Rubio going on the talk show circuits in order to discuss Adam Smith's moral sentiments :(

I too find it "baffling" that ethicists could merely engage in discussions and then go home and do things that completely contradict the very ethical issues they talk about ... more than baffling. But, that is what happens when we do things for the sake of money.

Ramesh said...

Wow; this is some debate.

I am not so disheartened that we live lives of moral mediocrity, even by our own standards. We are human, not some perfect specimen. As long as I am trying to live a morally better life, I am OK. Its when I might stop trying that would be really scary and regrettable.

You are bordering on arguing for religious faith. I turn to my faith for a lot of moral direction. In crisis or when I am not sure, which is of course many a time, I derive support from my faith . The very act of going to a temple and being there for a while gives me the comfort and strength to take the right course.

Mike Hoth said...

Well I had been planning to stay out of the philosophy debate, but the snow and ice here has trapped me inside where I inevitably look for trouble. I'm not foolish enough to get it all from my wife, either!
Moral relativism is a very real thing, and it's why many moral grandstanders will talk about how their current plight is "only the beginning" of a downward spiral; eventually, that plight becomes morally acceptable. An environmentalist who eats meat or flies around the world doesn't surprise us, because lots of people do those things. If Al Gore put an oil derrick in his back yard, we'd never hear the end of it.
My sense of hope lies in the fact that some people continue to push past their peers to a better place. Bill Gates absolutely demolishes any other person when it come to assisting the globally poor, and the amount he invests into those projects continues to rise. As my colleagues spent winter breaks in college binge drinking all night, I was up all night helping run a homeless shelter.

And besides, ethicists don't behave better than other professors because a real ethicist would be digging a well in Haiti instead of drinking Nestle water in his office!

Sriram Khé said...

Ramesh, I am not sure how my comments border on "arguing for religious faith." I continue to believe that we can lead moral lives without any concept of god and without subscribing to any religion.
You write "As long as I am trying to live a morally better life, I am OK." What if in most instances you knew within that there are better ways in which you can behave and you still do not? That is the disconnect between rhetoric and action that I am referring to ...

Mike, you might have noticed not only in this post but in almost all posts my complaint is when people's actions do not match their own rhetoric. I.e., I am not comparing their actions against my rhetoric or vice versa. If the binge-drinkers are not the ones who are talking about the plight of the homeless, well, I have no hassles with that--though I disagree with the binge-drinking.

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