Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

The Mistake of Immorality

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 15, 2011

There is a line that divides ethical schools into two different groups: negative ethics and positive ethics. Negative ethics is the more common type: it holds that certain actions are immoral, and will not be tolerated; some actions may be moral, but there is no imperative to do what is right, only an imperative not to do what is wrong. This is how the justice system works: you are not rewarded for good deeds (usually—there are a few counter-examples, but they are minor), only punished for bad ones. There is no punishment for failing to do a good deed: if you see a child drowning you have no legal obligation to save her.

Positive ethics frowns upon immoral actions, but also acknowledges moral actions. A positive ethical framework would consider it morally wrong not to save a drowning child. The problem that many people have with this is that it applies universally. You have an obligation to that starving child on the other side of the world just as much as you do to the drowning child right in front of you.

People don’t like this. Nobody wants to be obligated to help total strangers with whom they have no contact. A person can feel his obligation to someone nearby who is in imminent danger. But to someone halfway across the world? There is plenty of suffering around the world, and relatively affluent people have the capacity to do something about it just as much as they have the capacity to help a drowning child. There is no difference other than proximity. Still, when people are obligated to alleviate worldwide suffering, they feel overburdened. They do not want to have to face that much responsibility.

Since they don’t want to feel guilty about all the suffering that they’re not trying to prevent, they reject positive ethics entirely. They decide that they really don’t have an obligation after all. (I postulate that this is the primary reason why people reject positive ethics.)

This rejection of positive ethics stems from a misunderstanding of the implications of immorality. The unavoidable consequence of positive ethics is that people behave immorally by failing to relieve suffering. People are doing something wrong, but this does not make them bad people and it does not mean they should be punished.

It is an unfortunate consequence of modern society that punishment is so ubiquitous a response to breaches of good moral conduct. (Punishments were a lot worse five hundred years ago so we’re getting better about this, but there’s still a long way to go.) There are a few reasons why punitive justice is sometimes a good idea (deterrence probably being the most prominent one), but there are plenty of circumstances in which the response to immorality should not be punishment. Failing to prevent suffering is one of these circumstances. A society in which people are required by law to spend most of their time helping others would not be a good society to live in—there would be benefits, but it would be far too oppressive and the damage done would outweigh the benefits.

Many people are unwilling to admit that it is immoral not to help those who are suffering because they are afraid that to make such an admission would be to concede that they should be punished for not helping those who are suffering. But punishment should not be the response to immorality in this case.

Another problem that gets in people’s way of accepting positive ethics is guilt. Even if people know they won’t be punished for failing to do good deeds, they still will feel guilty about it.

Here, people need not feel guilty. Guilt is only beneficial if it motivates action, but guilt is not often a very good motivator—even when it is effective, it often motivates the wrong kind of action. A truly rational person who accepts positive ethics will try to do the most good possible with her available resources, while a guilty person will just try to get rid of his guilt by whatever means he can—which is why so many ineffectual charities continue to thrive.

In the real world, people are not perfectly moral entities. As such, it is unreasonable to expect that they will be perfectly moral all the time, or even anywhere close. People should not be punished for failing to do what is right, nor should they feel guilty.

What reason, then, do people have to act in the interest of the greater good when it is inconvenient to do so?

Those of us who determine rationally that the best course of action is to work towards the greater good can start to learn to make small sacrifices that have powerful effects in terms of increasing the welfare of the world. A commitment to a completely ethical life would have a profound impact on the world, but it would be profoundly difficult. A more practical solution is to follow something like weekday vegetarianism in all aspects of life. You may acknowledge that eating meat is harmful; perhaps you don’t want to give up eating meat entirely, but you can give it up five days a week and still happily indulge yourself on the weekends, and that’s 70% as good as full-time vegetarianism. Perhaps you would rather spend money on personal luxuries than on food for starving children, so you can set aside a portion of your budget for luxuries and another portion for charitable donations. There are many areas of life to which this principle may be applied.

Positive ethics do not demand that people behave ethically every moment of every day. They only ask that you take steps in that direction; any such step is commendable.

2 Responses to “The Mistake of Immorality”

  1. phynnboi said

    From a perspective, rewarding all good acts is equivalent to punishing failure to do good acts, since those who do good acts will end up “ahead” of those who do none (all else being equal). (By the same token, punishing bad acts is equivalent to rewarding not doing bad acts, since those who do no bad acts will end up “ahead” of those who do, at least ideally.)

    It seems to come down to balancing freedoms. The more acts we punish, the less freedom we have. So, we punish acts that take more freedom than they give. The gold standard is murder–we give up the freedom to commit murder because it’s just one thing we can’t do, but its commission robs someone else of all freedoms, forever. Punishing lack of action, I suspect, generally robs us of more freedom than it gives us, since instead of forcing us to not do a particular thing (thus robbing us of a small amount of freedom), it forces us to do a particular thing (thus robbing us of a large amount of freedom–that is, to do anything else!).

    Of course, one could argue that not helping the drowning child and letting it die robs the child of all its freedoms, forever. This, of course, assumes the would-be hero could actually save the child–that they know how to swim, that they know how to swim while towing a panicking human, that they’re physically and mentally fit to do either of those things, that the waters are relatively safe, etc. And therein lies the big problem with legally obligating such acts–are we all qualified to commit them? Should we be forced to be qualified to commit them, or at least, to be able to prove we couldn’t have committed them if we’re caught not doing so? What if there’s more than one witness? Should they all be forced to jump in?

    It’s an interesting problem. I thought about it a bit in response to a video that was floating around a few weeks ago of a couple of teenagers who brutally beat another customer at a McDonalds. Several folks commenting on the video seemed to think the employees should not only have involved themselves in the melee, but been legally obligated to do so! This gets into even hairier territory than saving drowning children, of course, since now we’re talking about getting involved in a fight. Even the police, who are trained to intervene in such matters, don’t always get it right. Do we really want the various and sundry who have no combat training or idea of what, e.g., hitting someone over the head with a chair (which one person swore they’d have done) can do to a person taking matters into their own hands? I commented that I did not, but the comment was not popular. Of course, I have a bad habit of trying to inject reason into mob spleen-vents and getting punished for it. Guess they don’t think I should have that freedom. 😛

  2. Linda said

    Nice article, Michael. Your discussion of small steps reminded me of the continuous improvement philosophy of Kaizen. It argues that enormous change can be made by continually taking small steps toward an improved culture.

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