Archives for posts with tag: morality

It seems almost unconscionable to ascribe a moral quality to ill health. It’s absurd to think that someone who has caught the common cold is some kind of sinister deviant, but as far back as the lepers being shunned and shuttered out of society, humanity has pointed at the unwell and called them devils.

Europe blamed the Black Death on the wrath of God, who was furious over the alleged impiety of His people. The mentally ill used to be incarcerated alongside criminals, their characters indistinguishable. Even lately, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s seemed only to punish those considered perverse. Consider how we inquire after cancer: did they smoke? Did they eat processed foods? Did they stay too long in the sun? What was their lifestyle like that earned them a terminal illness?

Disease is an unquestionable evil, but why are we so quick to point to its host as having responsibility for it? When disease becomes a moral choice, the pure among us become immortal. The myth that bad things only happen to bad people convinces us that if only we maintain our righteousness, we will be spared. Righteousness only as a veneer, of course, as compassion for the ill could only ever be a supererogatory act. Far simpler to pillory the sick and use the blind luck of our good health as evidence of our sanctity.


A meritocracy of health. God, I hate memes.

Where this demonization of illness is most prevalent is the disease that seems to be built on a long series of choices: addiction. It’s so immoral that it is literally a crime. Mitch Hedberg satirizes this mentality with his quip:

Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only one you can get yelled at for having. “Goddamn it, Otto, you’re an alcoholic!” “Goddamn it, Otto, you have lupus!”

One of those two doesn’t sound right.

Addiction is a reaction to trauma, neglect, and mental illness. Addiction is what happens when reality is so brutal that the body seeks any kind of escape from it. Addiction isn’t so much of an illness as it is the medication for when life is a sickness, and then through the obsession of escape it becomes a part of that sickness. Any sense of “choice” in the matter is illusory, any kind of “morality” illegitimate.

But people continue to yell at those whose lives have become diseased. Consider the top rated comment on a CBC article saying that in the first 8 months of 2017, the number of overdose deaths in BC had reached 1,013, compared to the entirety of 2016 which was 922:

I have a real hard time feeling sympathy for these people who have died. They knew fentanyl was out there. They knew that over doses were on the rise and out of control. There’s absolutely no way they didn’t know the risk that they were taking! Yet, they chose to anyways. So no. Finding sympathy is very hard for me.

1,013 human lives extinguished. That’s 1,013 families that have to deal with the grief and guilt of a loved one they will always wonder if they could have done more to save. Of course addicts know that there is Fentanyl in the streets. Some of them ask for it directly. The “risk” isn’t the point. The cure may be worse than the disease, but for many of them it’s the only option available, and some might see the risk of overdose as a potential escape from their sickness altogether. Can we truly judge those adrift at sea who drink saltwater rather than endure the agony of thirst?

But it’s fine. Sympathy is for the bleeding hearts. That could never happen to me because I am morally righteous. I am pure. I am better than them because I wasn’t raped, or abandoned, or abused, nor do I have voices in my head that only shut up when I shoot heroin into my veins. I get to tell myself that it’s my choices that make me noble. My fear of death, a bold reminder in the face of an addict, is well hidden behind the vitriol I espouse. But death cannot come for me. I am pristine. I am immortal.

If you’ve ever taken a philosophy course, or at least had the misfortune to talk to someone who has, it’s likely you’ve heard of the trolley problem. It poses us this moral dilemma:

A trolley carrying five people is barreling towards a barrier erected by the dastardly Snidely Whiplash. You, our intrepid hero, can save these five people from certain doom by pushing a button that reroutes the train onto a different track, but alas! Snidely Whiplash has tied someone else to that track, and in rerouting the train, you will be killing that one person. What do you doooooooo?


That mustache is so prominent, it really distracts from the fact that Snidely Whiplash wears a dress.

Most people’s first thoughts are going to be utilitarian. Morality can be reduced to a simple mathematical formula: five people is more people than one; you should press the button. Here’s the problem: first impressions are wrong; utilitarianism is wrong; you are wrong. Consider this second example:

You are a brilliant surgeon. Snidely Whiplash has been at it again, and has, through some dastardly plot, caused organ failure in five separate individuals who are now in your operating room. Their situation is dire: their deaths are imminent. Just at this moment, a box arrives with a note that says, “Each patient has a separate failing organ, and your assistant is compatible with every single one of them.” In the box is a gun. As a brilliant surgeon, you can save those five people by killing your assistant and using his organs to save their lives, or you can do nothing and allow them to die. What do you doooooooo?


Come now, Utilitarians! T’is simple maths, m’yessss?

Despite the framing, both problems are identical in content. In both cases, you can either passively allow five people to die, or actively kill one person in order to save them. I expect that most people’s first impression of the second example is to not murder their assistant, even if they would push the button in the first one, but what causes that discrepancy?

Lt. David Grossman analyzes the nature of killing in his book On Killing, and part of what allows regular human beings to kill, who otherwise wouldn’t, is a distance from the target. It’s easier to kill someone at range than it is up close. It’s easier to kill someone through a scope than it is through your bare eyes. It’s easier to kill someone with the press of a button than it is with a gun. The consequences of our actions become diluted the further we get from our deeds. If we consider life in the abstract, life becomes worth measurably less.

Part of the reason that a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima was that nobody wanted to send in ground troops. It’s easier to kill from far away, and the horrors of a nuclear blast became justified. We care more about being ghosted by somebody off Tinder than we do about the collective deaths of the entire Syrian civil war because what happens to us up close will always matter more, no matter how ridiculous the comparison might be. We don’t want to kill our assistant because we assume that we have a relationship with that person, but we’re fine with killing a stranger tied to some train tracks, never stopping to wonder if that person might be someone else’s medical assistant.

Ethics is obviously an ongoing conversation, but the importance of the trolley and surgeon questions are what we as human beings are capable of. Are we killers? I mean killers in the sense of killing people, regardless of how far away (literally and figuratively) from the victim we are, or how little we value their lives. We are in control of our actions; that’s what we must decide.

When considering the trolley problem, think to yourself. What would Batman do? He would obviously swoop over to the train and work some kind of bat-strategy to save everyone, but he would never push that button. Know why? Because Batman is a God damn hero.

You know who perpetually sucks? Those jerks in the out-group. They’ll never be as cool as us in our in-group. They’ll always be the Other, and as such, we will literally never care about them. At worst, we’ll go out of our way to kill every God damned one of them. Remember, it’s not because we’re jerks; it’s because they’re jerks.

Us and them have always been at odds, and that conflict has resulted in quite a lot of really tragic things, in hindsight. However, it’s a mentality that’s difficult to escape. Jonathan Haidt posits that there are five moral frameworks with which every human is imbued: harm, fairness, in-group, authority, and purity. The last three are often rejected by liberal-minded individuals, or at least not given as much weight, while all five are embraced by the conservative-minded, though the first two are generally less weighted than for liberals. Haidt suggests that while a focus on the in-group, authority, and purity can lead to terrible outcomes, they are needed for social cooperation in the long term. Cohesion requires solidarity, and solidarity requires some degree of enforceable rigidity.

We need union. We need to be a part of a group. We are social creatures. The nature of that group is important, however. Conformity within the in-group is problematic. Conformity means that abnormal behaviour, even benign abnormal behaviour, becomes stigmatized. Michael Warner describes a modern reality where gays are becoming part of a sterile “normal”, where they will be accepted so long as they blend in to the sexual status quo. Marriage is encouraged because it offers a legitimacy to a gay relationship, even if by doing so it still delegitimizes other, non-state recognized relationships such as polyamory, casual encounters, or cohabitation. Deviance is still deviant, and gays are only accepted so long as they conform to the generally puritanical sexual standards of the West. This is obviously despite the fact that homosexuality itself was once considered inherently deviant, and seeking conformity to a shaming culture belittles the underlying goals of the movement.

The shame of deviance is problematic for more than just sexual minorities. New ideas are quashed because they do not fit with the current paradigm. Information that is in conflict with the accepted group ideology is swept under the rug which means that any output generated can only be considered propaganda. Consider a political party; are they going to champion new research that disagrees with their values? Is the backbencher going to have a say if they aren’t going to toe the party line? Of course not. Social conformity on the macro level is just the expansion of partisanship to a larger ideology.

Can we have union without the perils of conformity? In truth, we cannot. There will always need to be a thread that interweaves throughout society that binds everyone together. However, the perils can be mitigated. Celebrating deviance from the norm is in fact a form of conformity. If everyone is called upon to support diversity, that is in itself a structure of conformity. Consider this quotation from Karl Popper:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

Relativism fails because it simply becomes an argument for nihilism, but absolute relativism, where relativism is itself something that is demanded, creates an ideology that can be successfully promulgated. There are of course other factors to be taken into account (universal tolerance could potentially lead to the acceptance of child molestation, for example), and to go through a full list isn’t something that I’d like to get into just now, but the basic foundation that Warner suggests is focused on personal autonomy. We decide how we behave, and society as a whole fights for our right to do so.

However, as with the paradox of tolerance, freedom is something that cannot be universal. There are two types of freedom: freedom from oppression, and freedom to oppress. I’m sure you can come up with contemporary examples of each on your own as people aren’t very subtle when they are describing the type of freedom that they are after.  The two are mutually exclusive, and society can only fight for one. Given the nature of Popper’s tolerant society, the choice ought to be fairly straight forward.