Friday, March 14, 2008

Moral Priorities

"It is no easy task to be good. ... Anyone can get angry -- that is easy -- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble."
-- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 9.
Why are moral and political issues so difficult? Why isn't it easy to find answers to them that everyone can agree on?

Different Goals in Competition

Sometimes the reason moral and political issues are difficult is because doing the right thing conflicts with our selfish desires or involves sacrifice. But not every moral conflict is a conflict between good and evil, right and wrong, altruism and selfishness.

Rather, sometimes the problem is that there are several morally good goals for us to strive for. There are a variety of morally good things that we can accomplish, a variety of moral obligations we have to follow, a variety of moral rights we have to respect. And sometimes these different moral goals, obligations and rights are in competition with one another. Accomplishing one of them frequently involves giving up on another. The morally good things in the world often can only be grabbed with both hands, so to speak, meaning that holding one forces us to let go of another. Rather than a conflict between good and bad, we often face a conflict between good and good, and we have to figure out which good is greater.

(The above view is different from moral relativism. Moral relativism claims that there are a variety of moral goals, duties, and rights, but that they are not universal. According to relativism, a duty or value that applies to you might not apply to me. In contrast, what I'm describing is a situation in which there are a variety of moral goals, duties, and rights, that are universal, they all apply to every one of us. This view could be called moral pluralism.)

Intentions, Actions, and Consequences

One of the ways this pops up is in how we try to figure out what the right thing to do is. We typically judge an action by the intentions behind the action, the nature of the act itself, and the consequences that result from the action.

When it comes to intentions and motivations, altruistic, helpful ones are preferred over malicious, selfish ones. If I'm acting out of a motivation to help people, that's better than if I'm intending to harm people. (Virtue theories of morality tend to focus on intentions and motivations. They also tend to be more concerned with judgments about whether a certain person is good or bad than with whether a certain action is right or wrong.)

When it comes to the actions themselves, acts that are helpful, serve justice and respect people are preferred over acts that are harmful or violate rights and obligations. Giving to charity, helping someone, or telling the truth, for instance, are preferred over killing, stealing, or lying. (Deontological theories of morality tend to focus on the character of actions, rather than the intentions that lead to those actions or the consequences that result from them.)

When it comes to consequences, consequences that involve people living, being happy, or flourishing are preferred over consequences that involve people dying, suffering, or being corrupt. An act that results in people, say, being able to get food and medicine more easily is better than, say, an act that causes them to starve or be unhealthy. (Consequentialist theories of morality, as the name implies, tend to focus on the consequences of our actions, rather than the nature of the actions themselves or the intentions or motivations that lead to those actions.)

It would be great if we could come up with simple rules to follow -- give to the needy, don't kill, don't lie, don't steal, don't hit. But it's easy to think of exceptions to these rules. An act that is intrinsically good can have very bad consequences. And an act that is intrinsically bad can have very good consequences. Moreover, some acts have a mixed character: they have good and bad qualities. And the same goes for consequences: one act may have both good and bad consequences.

So we wind up facing moral dilemmas: Should we lie in order to protect an innocent person? Should we conduct military operations that will harm or deaths innocent people if it will also result in the deaths or capture of dangerous enemies? Should we agree to let a criminal off the hook if he or she provides us with information that allows us to prosecute other criminals? Should we punish someone who, out of malicious intentions, performs an act that has good consequences? Does the end justify the means?

Sometimes it's clear what should outweigh what. But many times it isn't. Dilemmas often involve vagueness about what moral considerations should take priority (that is, what morally good things outweigh what other morally good things).

Moral Considerations

Below are some of the moral goals, obligations and rights that enter into moral dilemmas:
Compassion: giving aid to those who are in need
Defiance: protesting, rebuking, or punishing harmful or unjust behavior
Honesty and Faithfulness: keeping obligations and promises, telling the truth
Forgiveness: repairing harms and fixing our moral flaws, and acknowledging those who have done the same
Loyalty: giving extra consideration to family, friends, and those who have helped us
Merit: praising and rewarding those who have made sacrifices or contributions

Below are examples of moral dilemmas illustrating how difficult it is to set moral priorities. (Many also involve difficulties in making predictions about the world.) Some of these dilemmas may seem artificial and implausible, but they do raise many of the moral conflicts that we face in real life. Thinking about them can be instructive in addressing moral issues more generally.

Investigating moral dilemmas will, hopefully, make us less likely to conclude the worst about those who disagree with us on moral or political issues. Too often, we're inclined to think that those who disagree with us are selfish, malicious or immoral, or that they are just stupid.

But, as the moral dilemmas below illustrate, it is very difficult to establish clear moral priorities. The fact that someone disagrees with our assessment of what is right or wrong shouldn't lead us to instantly demean them.

How would you respond to them?
While traveling in the wilderness, you encounter a grim scene. A group of armed bandits has captured 20 people from a local village, and is about to kill them. Even though they are murderous towards the local villagers, they are overjoyed at your presence, because they are hospitable to outsiders. To celebrate your arrival, they offer a bargain: they will free 19 of the villagers, so long as you do the honor of killing one of them. If you turn down the offer, the bandits will kill all 20 villagers. Do you shoot the villager? More generally, should you kill one innocent person in order to save two others? How about five others? Ten? One hundred?
This sort of dilemma brings the the fore the issue of moral agency. Also at issue is the judgment of whether to do something harmful in order to bring about good consequences (in other words, does the ends justify the means?).

A runaway trolley is hurtling toward five people, and will surely kill them unless it is diverted. You are near the lever controlling the trolley tracks, and can switch the trolley onto a second track. But there is one person on that track. Do you divert the trolley so that it kills one person instead of five? What if that one person on the second track was a child, while the five were all adults? What if that one person on the second track were you?
Again, moral agency figures into this example, as does ends and means reasoning. The variants also raise the issues of the relative helplessness or need of the victims, as well as self-sacrifice.

Amy loves Bob, who lives away from her on an island in the river. From the shore of the river, Amy sees that Bob is injured. The only way she can get to Bob to help him is by boat. She asks Cara, a boat-owner, for help, but Cara refuses. Dan also has a boat, but he won't let her use it unless she sleeps with him. Desperate to help Bob, Amy does so. Afterwards, she reaches Bob and helps him. Once Bob learns that she has slept with Dan, however, he spurns her. Depressed, Amy tells her story to Ed, who, outraged, beats up Bob.
The above is a variation of one of the Kohlberg Dilemmas, a set of dilemmas used by the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg in his studies of moral development. (This particular one I believe is called "Alligator River", and I'm recalling it partly from memory.) Kohlberg asked people to rank the five characters in the story from best to worst. Considerations of need, loyalty, and defiance figure in to this particular dilemma.

A young man lives in France in 1940. As the Nazi German army invades France, he is tending to his sick mother. Should he remain with her? Or should he leave her, heading to the front or fleeing to Britain in order to fight the Nazis?
The above is a dilemma posed by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. At play are considerations of loyalty, helplessness and need, and defiance.

Two young girls, your daughter and her friend, are swimming at the beach. It becomes clear that they have both been caught in a strong current and risk drowning. You can only save one of them at a time. Your daughter is the stronger swimmer, and has a greater chance of surviving if she has to wait for you to come back for her. Who do you save first?
This example is a variation from a "top 10" list of moral dilemmas (it's a good list, I encourage you to look at them; the list of proposed solutions in the comments section is also worth looking at). Again, helplessness and loyalty figure in to this particular dilemma.

You are a medical professional and you come upon an accident in which a drunk driver has struck a pedestrian and then crashed into a tree. The pedestrian is hurt to the degree that, without immediate attention, they will likely suffer long-term damage, such as limb loss or brain damage. The driver is more seriously hurt, and will almost certainly die without immediate attention. You can only help one. Which one do you help?
Considerations of need, defiance, professional obligation and punishment factor in to this dilemma.

Again, you are a medical professional and you come upon the scene of a car accident. In the car is your spouse and another person, and you realize that your spouse has been cheating on you with this person. Both your spouse and the lover are at risk of dying without immediate medical attention, the lover perhaps more so. You can only help one. Which one do you help?
This example is also from the "top 10" list of moral dilemmas. Again, need and professional obligation play a role, as does loyalty.

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