Archives for posts with tag: morality

You gotta love charity, right? I know it’s my favourite. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. You know that feeling? I get to feel, deep down, that I’ve helped some miserable wretch. These people certainly can’t help themselves, so it is up to me to wander in and solve their problems for them! I’m better than them, and I am graciously spreading my goodness, not to necessarily elevate anybody, but to alleviate suffering. Temporarily, of course, because eliminating the problem so that nobody needs any kind of condescending “help” would mean sacrificing some of my own privileges. I could never do that, because then how would I know that I’m better than other people?

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One above, one below. The very image of giving to a homeless person belies the hierarchy the act places each into.

That warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from being charitable appears to be unique among traditionally moral behaviours. Telling the truth, for instance, kinda sucks. It sucks when it’s a moral action, that is. If someone asks you about the weather, and you answer truthfully, it’s not really a moral action. If someone were to lie in that situation, it would invoke concerns of pathology. Telling the truth is moral when it generates personal consequences. You tell the truth when you leave a note with your information on the windshield of a parked car you dinged. You tell the truth when you slip after a few years of sobriety and call your parents to admit your transgression. Kant’s killer at the door is a test of morality because it calls into question one’s commitment to their own values.

It is not just honesty. Loyalty really only matters when temptation is present. Temperance only counts when anger is deserved. Forgiveness only makes sense when there is something to forgive. Jesus told his followers to turn the other cheek only after the first had been struck. The entire point of morality is to regulate relationships and situations that might otherwise escalate wildly. It’s not to feel great about how swell of a human being you might be.

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Moral temperance would be recognizing the context that leads to violence, but choosing an alternative. Even if the violence would end up being hilarious.

Which brings us back to charity. Giving a few dollars to a local non-profit is about the equivalent of telling someone that it’s raining when it’s raining. In short, it is not a moral action. What would be the charitable equivalent to telling your girlfriend the truth about how her butt looks in those pants?

There is the Peter Singer option, to start. Singer invites us to imagine having just bought a $100 pair of shoes. We’re walking home in our new shoes, and we see a small child struggling to stay afloat in a pond. The child goes under the water. What do we do? Singer suggests that there are few people who would even hesitate to jump into the pond to rescue the child, the status of their shoes be damned. If most people would save a child, despite the loss of their purchase, then why is it that the status of our charity is so pitiable? Singer wants charity to take on a much more extreme role, where individuals donate all their income minus enough for their own basic needs, and argues that this is our basic human drive anyway based on how we would approach these life or death situations if we were ever faced with them in person.

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Do you offer a receipt for tax purposes?

Redistribution of wealth is certainly one way to address poverty, but it is not the only way. Another might be to restructure the current system that stratifies people into class hierarchies into one that allows people to take care of themselves (such as through communal ownership of property), which eliminates the need for charity entirely. If everyone has their basic needs met, then poverty will have become inconsequential.

There are probably more moral ways to address poverty, but charity certainly isn’t one of them. From my arguments, you can join the fight to implement social policies that will help the working class, or you can start a revolution. Neither of them will give you any warm fuzzies, in fact, they’ll require great sacrifice, but at least you’ll be behaving ethically.

Immanuel Kant is a famous philosopher dude who said famously that ‘ought implies can.’ What this means is that in order for something to be a moral imperative, one must be able to perform that action in the first place. For example, a person in Canada is not responsible for the actions of a foreign government, whereas we are responsible for our own government due to the ability we possess to elect, petition, and remove that government. Another example could be that if a person is being crushed by a large boulder, we are not morally responsible if we can’t lift that boulder, and it crushes them to death. To misquote Uncle Ben, “Little power prevents relevant responsibility.”

This can also be measured in degrees. If, for example, a train ticket costs $1, and one person has $10 000 to their name and another has $2, both in theory are able to afford that train ticket. However, if they both hop the turnstile, we would condemn more harshly the individual with $10 000. This person is significantly more able to follow the moral imperative, and therefore they become more responsible to adhere to it. I guess Uncle Ben would have been more appropriate here, but I’ve already used that reference, and I like it better as a misquotation.

God, being infinitely powerful, would have infinite ability to act in every circumstance. The largest inequity imaginable in our temporal framework would still be less than a trifle. This means that every instance of immoral behaviour that does occur is the result of infinite neglect. The moral repugnance of His allowing evil to flourish becomes universal in scale. Now if you’re thinking, “What is evil?” like some kind of nerdy philosopher, remember that both God and Kant are duty-oriented ethicists.

“He works in mysterious ways” is the desperate attempt by apologists to skirt around the magnitude of God’s moral failing. We prefer naive confusion over the stark reality, avoiding with every effort the cognitive dissonance that’s sheer weight would crush any inkling of a just or benevolent deity. Infinite neglect. Not the scale of $10 000 over $2; beyond the pecuniary, beyond every measurement, on an infinite level.

If ought implies can, then the being with infinite ability is infinitely responsible. Or in this case, infinitely irresponsible.

Suicide isn’t all that difficult to condemn. It’s like murder. Nobody likes murder. Except it’s sad feels rather than angry feels because the person is killing themselves rather than the countless other people who deserve it far more. I mean some might say that all life is sacred, and all killing, the self or otherwise, is reprehensible. We’re going to ignore this because black and white morality is mind-numbingly dull. Suicide is at best seen as a crushing tragedy, and at worst as a selfish act ignoring the impact on those who care about the suicidee. But let’s look at some suicides that people look upon favourably, just to spice things up a bit.

Jesus Christ killed himself. I mean, not like Kurt Cobain-style which would have made for some much more interesting Christian iconography, but as an omniscient God, He is commonly believed to have been aware of His pending fate and lovingly allowed it to happen as a means of forgiving humanity our sins. He allowed His death when He could have easily prevented it. Sure, it was on some boring ol’ cross, but God sacrificed His son (which is to say, Himself). That’s suicide, baby.

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Can you imagine this decorating beautiful stained glass windows? Tell me it’s not the better imagery.

Next, in his penultimate life before he became the prince Gautama, the Buddha came across a family of starving tigers. Judging by my theme so far, you can probably guess that the Buddha gave himself to this family of tigers to sustain them… as their food. The tigers ate the Buddha. That’s literally how the story goes. Though much more personal than Christ’s sacrifice, the idea of allowing death for the sake of others is a common theme in divinity.

Bringing things back down to earth, in the Jain tradition where non-harm is considered the paramount duty, it is not uncommon for the fundamentalists who have reached the final stage of their life to go out into the wilderness, and simply meditate until their death. There is life within even the vegetation, (and the water supply, as microscopic organisms have the same life within them as everything else), and Jains don’t harm life. This devotion to non-harm at the appropriate time comes to its obvious culmination: the least harm one can do is to allow oneself to die.

In Japan, Seppuku is the honourable way to die for samurai who supremely fucked up in life. For those who don’t know, Seppuku is ritualistically stabbing yourself in the belly, and disemboweling yourself. This form of suicide was considered the opposite of selfish, as it restored honour rather than removed it. Also in Japan, the Kamikaze pilots would kill themselves for the glory of Japan. Again, a great honour.

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Japan stopped with Seppuku, and now we have anime. Go figure.

Soldiers throw themselves upon grenades to save their comrades-in-arms. Secret service get shot in the belly to protect the president. People shield others with their bodies during mass shootings. Suicide can be heroic. It can be divine. So why, when we say the word suicide, do we automatically assume negativity? Readers might want to suggest a difference between suicide and self-sacrifice, so let’s look at that distinction.

Self-sacrifice is a utilitarian measure. Utilitarianism is the moral system of creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people: maximize happiness, well-being, utility, whatever word you want to use, make the most of that thing. Though one life is snuffed out, the overall well-being of the rest of the world is increased. Jesus may have died, but now humanity is redeemed forever. That’s a pretty good trade. People dying for a good cause, self-sacrifice, creates better worlds. The good outweighs the bad. That is classic utilitarianism. That is trolley problem utilitarianism.

However, utilitarianism works both ways. If someone sacrifices themselves, and they possess great suffering, eliminating that suffering means that the world now has more well-being within it. The average goes up. If the suffering of the sacrificee outweighs the suffering of those who would be impacted by that sacrifice, utilitarianism would say that it is moral. There is no ethical difference between the two. Suicide and self-sacrifice are indistinguishable if the measurements come through. Boom. Ethics.

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See kids? Suicide is great because everyone will finally respect you, they’ll all realize how poorly they treated you, and the world will be a better place without you because everyone will learn a valuable lesson.

Now, you might be saying, that’s dumb; if that’s ethics, ethics is dumb. And you’re right. Utilitarianism is a terrible ethical system, but what makes it so terrible? I’ll give you another example. If a rapist enjoys rape more than the person being raped doesn’t enjoy it, then it’s moral. That’s how rapists think, and that’s how rape happens. The person who decides how happiness, well-being, whatever, ought to be maximized is going to be biased. I kinda think that any potential victim of rape would never reach that same conclusion, and yet they don’t get consulted. If they did, it wouldn’t be rape, because that’s how consent works.

What this means is that if you get feedback from your friends and family about how they’d feel if you killed yourself, and they came back to you either ambivalent or in favour, then sure, go for it. In Canada, we see this most commonly in what is termed medically-assisted death. People with terminal illnesses are able to commit suicide because the suffering that they endure is greater than the suffering of the loss felt by their friends and family. Loved ones should be consulted, obviously, but the utilitarian premise with the caveat of consent holds firm.

See? There can be a moral suicide. Just gotta make sure you talk it out with your loved ones first.