Sunday, July 11, 2010


What techniques should one employ to make moral decisions?

Thanks to Steven, I’ve been stewing on this one as of late, and have arrived at two different conclusions. There is the PREscriptive world of “book learnin’” and theory- deciding on what is “The Good,” which I can’t really discuss for very long, apart from my love of Kant’s categorical imperative when I was in college: which basically proposed that you should act as if the maxim of your behavior became a universal law. It’s basically an eloquent way of stating the Golden Rule. I also got a lot out of the utilitarian view: act in a way that brings the most pleasure (tricky word, pleasure: more like "lack of pain and suffering") to the most people.

Contrasted with the academic propositions is the question that really blew my mind even more, how do I make ethical decisions? Or even more basic: do I even MAKE ethical decisions in my day-to-day existence?

So, for today I will opt for DEscription. I have concluded that ethical decisions are actually what happen to a behavior after the fact. The vast majority of things I say to people, and do or not do to and with them are all instinctive. I tend to operate on auto-pilot, unthinkingly, like a machine. I possess a set of behaviors and responses to situations that have been somehow learned over the course of my life.

An example: when a stranger talks to me at the grocery store, knowing myself well I know I will succinctly attempt to try to answer their questions or acknowledge their comment in as quiet, polite, brief manner as possible so as to dispatch them pleasantly and then go about my business. Another person, with another set of learned behaviors might see the same situation as an opportunity for a rousing conversation and stand there and talk to the stranger for several minutes longer. At no point during the event do I process the thought “mmm. person talking to me. must cut short. Ibidy ibidy” (to be read in robot voice with hands extended like flippers alternately up and down.) Only later, at the checkout line or on the drive home or even months later, while writing a blog (or maybe even never) do I even think about the moral or ethical value of how that interaction went.

Of course, analyzing after the fact, I suppose I have some criteria I use to judge any action or inaction, (in no particular order):

1) Would any other person have responded the same way I did?
2) Would any rational, reasonable person have responded the same way I did?
3) Did the way I responded likely have any effect on The Other? Was it a positive or negative effect?
4) Would my friends have approved or thought it odd or out-of-the-ordinary?

Then there are the nuclear options: “Would God have approved?” and its corollary: “Would the Jesus I know from Scripture have behaved this way?” These are the nuclear options for a couple reasons. One, in all honesty they only crop up for me with respect to the most dire, evidently important events: friends in need or in pain or suspiciously out-of-the ordinary interactions with strangers. Two, expecting Christ-like behavior from myself on a consistent basis is sure to end in frustration. I don’t have the goods to deliver that performance very often. And I’m not even sure I WANT the goods. The life of Jesus is difficult and the death he got for his trouble is even more difficult

So now, the issue of prime importance for me is this: what effect, (if any), do these ruminations on the past, these analyses of previous behaviors have as a corrective to future behavior? In other words, I said I act as a machine in my workaday existence. Is there hope of ever changing the programming of the machine if necessary? I think deep within me is an understood hope that yes, I can change. Learned behavior doesn't HAVE to be final. Sometimes it is. But not always. How is the programming changed? Well, I'm not exactly sure.

And I would say my programming needs changing for two reasons, if: 1) through a behavior or inaction I am harming someone in my immediate vicinity and 2) through a behavior or inaction I am harming someone I don’t know.

All of the preceding was the ideal.

Here’s the practical. For pretty much every behavior I participate in, a “victim” of some sort can be tracked down. Case in point: let’s say I bike to work because it is an “ethical” thing to do. (which by the way, is only one of several reasons I engage in that particular behavior.) I use less gasoline in my car, which has slightly less impact on the environment and if everyone acted like I did, there would be even more people taking slightly less from the environment. Let’s put those damn oil-producing, price-gouging companies out of business! Huzzah!

But an oil company is more than just a fat-cat CEO out on his yacht while a pipe bleeds oil in the middle of the ocean. An oil company is also made up of thousands of regular people checking gas lines, working on oil rigs, people at desks who put in forty hours a week or so, poring over feasibility studies, running numbers…They use their paychecks to put food on the table for a family. We put that company out of business and those other common everyday people don’t eat. And when the oil company has to tighten its belt, maybe that desk-job working, number-crunching person cuts out a few extraneous costs in their budget like their daily trip to Starbucks. Bad news for the Starbucks employee if a lot of gas company employees are cutting out their daily coffee. It goes on and on. How much, (if any) of that am I responsible for with my original decision to use less gasoline?

I become dizzy as I try to mentally appease all of the potential beneficiaries and victims of my collections of behaviors and abstentions. I think it was Sartre who said we humans are cursed to be free. We are cursed in that we are free to act, yet we can't know the full consequences of those free choices.

What do I do in the mean-time?

“Do my best.”


At 8:08 PM, Blogger Steven Stark said...

Great post, Mike.

I think you hit on one thing (and probably much more) that is super important to realize. There are no perfectly good or bad actions. A GREAT action is probably 90 percent good? But there is still 10 percent bad. And vice versa for bad actions.

Even a murderer is just trying to accomplish something that is good or at least benign. The acquisition of more wealth, the elimination of tensity in a relationship, a cathartic emotional explosion, etc. But the cost of the particular way the murdered chose to go about satisfying these desires is what makes it so bad.

A wise youth minister once taught me that sin was getting something good in a bad way.

And I agree, we are creatures of habit. We follow certain patterns, whether good or bad. But I also agree with you that we can change many of those habits with some mindful effort. Or at least it is possible in theory!

Thanks for the DEscription!

At 8:11 PM, Blogger Steven Stark said...

I meant "murderer" instead of "murdered" in the previous comment.

Also, the "What would Jesus do?" technique is certainly tricky, as you mentioned. Jesus is recorded as having done and said some odd things - though I tend to think that most likely he was the remarkable person most people think he was.

At 1:11 PM, Anonymous Patrick Franklin said...

Hey Michael, I'd love to email you sometime. Send me your address at sanhedrinx yahoo com.


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