Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What is Morality?

I read an article by Michael Valpy in today's "Globe and Mail" that got me thinking about what people mean when they say the word "morality". Specifically, the article makes the assertion that "conservatives are more likely to embrace a world view that seeks certainty and abhors ambiguity, and hold the belief that morality is more important than knowledge". This statement really grabbed me by the lapels and shook me up. Why is there a contradiction between "morality" and "ambiguity"? Even more to the point, why is there a contradiction between "morality" and "knowledge"?

When I think about "morality", it seems to me that there are several underlying issues that are intrinsically involved in being a moral person. One of which is being "truthful". And by this, I don't mean in the sense of being honour-bound to never tell a lie---such as in the old, moronic "situational ethic" argument about whether it would be right to lie to the Gestapo about whether or not you know where the Jewish family is hidden. What I mean instead, is that a "moral" person should be willing to follow the "truth" where it leads---no matter how much difficulty that might cause the individual in question.

An example in point comes from a documentary movie I once saw about the abolition of slavery. Early on in that struggle a person brought a suit to an English court about whether or not it was legal to have slaves in England. (A fellow from the colonies had brought along a personal slave servant, and he decided to "jump ship" in England.) I recall the judge made reference to a legal maxim of "Fiat justitia ruat caelum" ("Let justice be done though the heaven's fall".) The idea was that even though there would be a great deal of anger from slave owners about their loss of "property", the law said that there should be no slavery in England. (As I recall, the reasoning was based on a medieval case against slavery where the judge had written that "the air England is too sweet to allow a slave to breath it".)

How would it have been "moral" for the judge to not follow the case law and agree that the person arguing against slavery was right? It would have been a lot easier to simply agree with the other side and not alienate the wealthy and powerful. But would it have been moral?

If we agree that intellectual honesty is part of the foundation underpinning morality, then surely "knowledge" is not only not existing in opposition to morality, it would seem to be an essential element of its composition. Moreover, if knowledge is important, then it seems that ambiguity should also be an intrinsic element of morality. It is a truism that "the more we know, the less we think we know". But if this is the case, then surely ambiguity follows on the tail of knowledge. And if morality consists of following the truth wherever it leads us, then the moral path must also lead us into the valley of ambiguity more than once in a while.

This is a very practical issue because it strikes me that the conservative people I meet are people who are anything but moral in their behaviour and outlook. Indeed, I would argue that they are often the most immoral people I have ever met. I say that because they seem to almost invariably refuse to believe that "truth" has any sort of intrinsic merit. Instead, their morality is based on submission to some sort of authority----governmental, scriptural, ecclesiastic, etc. The "Bible tells me so", "my country right or wrong", etc is good enough for them. Lay out a reasoned argument that shows that they shouldn't be following their particular chosen authority, and they invariably derail the discussion in one way or another.

I had an experience of this a few years back when I was involved in an email discussion with a Jesuit priest. He said he honestly couldn't understand why people would be opposed to children being given a Catholic education. I wrote back that with all due respect the image that many people have of the Catholic church is pedophilia, homophobia, misogyny and intellectual dishonesty. For these people, giving children a Catholic education is a form of child abuse. The priest didn't respond, he simply cut off the conversation. We have met since then, but he never, ever makes any reference to the conversation---it's as if it never took place.

I would suggest that this is not only a cowardly thing to do, it is also profoundly immoral.

Another incident teased out a further complexity for me.

Years ago the mayor of my city got caught cold copying a large amounts of an official speech. Lots of my friends were very angry about this, but her supporters seemed to honestly not understand what all the fuss was about. It strikes me that the reason why people with a university education made such a fuss was because it is probably the absolute worse crime (short of fudging research) which an educated person can commit. Lots of students fool around sexually, take drugs, etc, but what will get you booted from school no ifs or buts, is plagiarism. I can remember in grad school that the professors were absolutely ruthless about this and would expel undergrads without any mercy for copying. And, if you think about it, this makes sense. All scholarship is based on a degree of trust. No authority could possibly fact check every single piece of research that gets done. Universities simply have to be able to trust their scholars and scientists.

This raises one last point. Is morality authoritative or consensual?

Conservatives would argue that all morality comes from some sort of authority: the Bible, the constitution, the Pope, etc. But scientific truth seems to be based on the development of a consensus. A person puts forward a theory and performs an experiment, then writes it up in a paper. The paper then goes in front of a jury of experts in the field who decide whether or not it is worth publishing. Then it gets published and enters the discussion that constantly goes on between members of the field. People try to recreate the experiment, design others to disprove it. Eventually, a majority of people in the field decide to either discard it as a failed model, or accept it and then try to build further on it.

In retrospect this different attitude explains the way my friend the Jesuit responded to my honest attempt to engage him about the public view of Catholic education. I tried to engage him in the consensus-building dialectic of intellectual discussion. Instead, all he saw was an attack on the authority that he had built his life around.

I've had friends say that this is the problem with religion, that it is authority based instead of being experientially or consensus-based. I agree, it seems to me right now that this is the key problem with regard to existing dominant religions. But I don't think that they need to be. I recall reading somewhere that the Buddha said that the religion he was founding was bound to die out and be replaced as it got old, became corrupted and ceased to serve society. I also have read a quote that said that he felt no one should follow his teachings on authority---instead, he counselled people to be a "lamp onto themselves". I like to think that Daoism is similarly based on personal experience and consensus between free individuals instead of slavishly following some authoritative text or teacher. (I know that Buddhism and other non-authoritarian religions often fall far short of this idea and that there are non-authoritarian streams in Western spirituality, but I am only making generalizations to illustrate different tendencies.)


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your engagement!

Martin Parkinson said...

Golly! Yes, congratulations indeed!

Christophe said...

I think that some people fear knowledge because of the very fact that you highlight: the more we know, the less we think we know. This sense of uncertainty can make some folks very anxious. It's therefore more comforting to cling to a little book that supposedly contains all the answers in the world and fits in one's pocket. One can read and know it all, quote it in response to any challenge, and be soothed by the idea that he or she is on the righteous path.

I don't really have a problem with that, except that this kind of fear tends to spill over and fuel intolerance of anything that threatens the dogmatic faith, such as science for example.