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Moral Musings

imagesWhence morality? Last month, in an unrecorded interview, Pope Francis is supposed to have said of conscience that “everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.” Has he been wrongly reported? The interview drew widespread criticism as well as doubts over the accuracy of the Pope's words.

Is our "morality" based on emotion or on reason? Why is burglary often considered immoral?  How can we explain moral behaviour in an intellectually satisfying way?


i highly recommend the work of frans de waal on this topic. here is a link to a ted talk he did:

Thank you. Very interesting piece on animals in this context.
Surely it is a little of each? Burglary is a good case to investigate: a man stealing from a poor family to feed his own knows that he is taking the bread out of another's mouth. While he can make an emotional argument to justify his actions on the grounds of need, he cannot make a moral one, as he has deprived someone in just as much need as himself and he cannot make an intellectual one because he has opened himself up to the punishment of the law at the same time as causing hardship to another family.

The same man stealing from a rich family can make a moral argument for the theft: he knows that it will cause them no hardship and that his great need outweighs their trifling loss. But it still falls down on the reason front: the crime remains illegal, and while he isn't simply transferring starvation from one family to another, he is weakening the concept of ownership that individuals rely on in a Western democracy. If it's all right for him to steal a goose and a bag full of vegetables from the garden, is it all right for him to take a deer? If it's all right to take a deer, is it all right for him to take a Range Rover? If it's all right for him to take the Range Rover, is it all right to take a million pounds? There is no real difference in the crime, only the magnitude.

In rebuttal, the man could argue that the magnitude is not a simple sliding scale, and that there are still levels of theft at which the moral argument in favour of the theft outweighs the reasoned argument against it. A goose and a bag of vegetables would be well within that limit. And happily our courts recognise that. For the law as well as the perpetrator, morality and reason act in concert a lot of the time: reason being more generally ascendent on the side of the law, one hopes.

One of the great problems in the West is that many of our politicians and much of our media spend an incredible amount of time arm-waving about easy targets, like the man stealing the goose from the millionaire, while turning a blind eye to crimes that utterly fail the morality test. I read today that $1billion pounds are lost to all forms of benefit fraud in England every year, while $25billion are lost in unfair tax avoidance schemes over the same period. Yet politicians uniformly run platforms promising to crack down on the 'scroungers' – usually in ways that harshly affect the law-abiding poor, such as the bedroom tax debacle – and I am yet to hear one stand up with a real action plan to make large corporations pay more towards the societal infrastructures they benefit from so enormously.

Of course, I've just written a paragraph in which I expect politicians and the Murdoch press to act with morality and/or reason. This is definitely a sign I should have gone to bed some time ago!
Much appreciated. But what is the purpose of acting 'morally'? To avoid courts of the land? How (why) should parents teach their children to be honest, etc.

Edited at 2013-11-29 15:57 (UTC)
In terms of purpose, I again think that it is a combination. It has the benefit of meeting the laws of the land and the laws of the church – both of which are significant motivating factors to a large part of the population. It is a case of doing unto others as you wish to be done to, which helps to give a society cohesion. It removes a simple but risky way of acquiring wealth and objects, leaving the more complex but low-risk option of work, which helps to foster ambition and an added desire to education. It also removes a simple but risky method of dealing with problems (thumping the problem person) and replaces it with the need to use persuasive words or the courts of the land, both of which again make education more desirable. In short, morality is desirable because it will give you a better life and society on the whole – a statement that is as true for me, a third-generation atheist, as it is for this good new Pope.

It has been my experience (which is not the same thing as a fact, but I am too lazy to go off and research the point) that families who do not work to teach their children to act morally are families in which concern for the power of both the state and church is weak, and in which they have few societal links to make them feel engaged.

This is why I dislike neoliberalism so. Yes there were flaws with both the old Conservative methods of religious or private charity and patronage and the newer Labour methods of state-based charity: there was cruel abuse in some of the religious and state institutions and numbers of children from poor families reaching a better university never increased to anything like a merit-based level. But broadly, they served to connect people to society out of a sense of responsibility and mutual benefit. This new world in which the poor are labelled scroungers while rich bankers are bailed out to the tune of billions serves only to make many feel as if there is no point, and they may as well take what they can get and lash out as they wish.
Why does it have to be only one or the other?

If my logic told me an action was ok but something in my gut told me it was wrong, I probably wouldn't do it on the off-chance the gut was on to something.
The word "moral" is empty of meaning for me.
How do we lead a life doing as little harm as possible?
The Wiccans say - "And if it harm none do as thou wilt".
But where is the harm? If I purchase from Walmart have I harmed or helped the worker in the fire trap in Bangladesh?
Does the tree cut down to make the paper I write on harm the bird or deer in the forest?
How obligated am I to find answers to these questions?

On a more practical level closer to home, do my actions and words harm or hurt?
Am I sharing my resources so that others may be better?
Do the political choices I make lead to a better world for my fellow inhabitants of this planet?
Do I try to understand people and their circumstances?

That person who annoys me - what do I say? How do I act?
Do I pay my fair share?
Do I cheat so that another is disadvantaged?

"In this is the whole law ... Love your neighbor as yourself"
Yes, as you say: "In this ...."
Apart from the Divine Law does anything else really matter?
What other basis is there?
I'm not sure I would call in "divine law" but the essence of "good behavior".
It is a wise teaching.
“everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

Is our "morality" based on emotion or on reason?

The words 'idea' and 'conceives' pertain to reason. Are you assuming that the Pope meant to abandon ideas and conceptions, and use emotion instead?

Of course the whole quote needs clarification. What language was he speaking in? Who transcribed it? Is there a tape or video?

Imo our best guide to such matters, especially to statements by traditional Christian leaders, is Lewis's THE ABOLITION OF MAN (Brit title MEN WITHOUT CHESTS).

I wager Lewis would tell you, that it depends on whether the man is trying to find an action that best serves, combines, ALL the imperatives (roughly the same list as the Ten Commandments) -- or whether he is taking ONE imperative and using it to violate all the others (eg the Marxists killing and oppressing many for the sake of helping the poor).
PS. Lewis's MEN WITHOUT CHESTS meant men who do not have the right emotions, ie the emotions that support the right balance of values. And that we develop those emotions by resonding to the right kind of literature (or, in our age, films).

So for those people who have the right emotional reactions programmed in, emotions can be a good rough guide to morality, or at least to the 'lesser evil' in particular situations. Isn't 'following your heart' -- ie, love, compassion, loyalty -- the right thing in most cases? (At least temporarily, til you can think of a way to better satisfy both requirements.)

Edited at 2013-11-30 05:24 (UTC)
I think the golden rule will get you 90% there. The last 10% comes from consciously cultivating a mindset of loving kindness and compassion. Morality does take a bit of effort.

BTW - I rather like this new pope.

Edited at 2013-11-30 15:00 (UTC)
Don't we all, God bless him.