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The Great Moral Compass

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Posted September 14th 2013 at 05:48 AM by Mahray

The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of moral crisis, remain neutral

Dante said it, a very long time ago now. While I don't believe in a literal hell, and I'm uncertain of a metaphorical hell, I do have serious issues with people who try to remain so neutral when times are dire enough to warrant action. The problem is, of course, that this implies that in a time of moral crisis, there is a choice. That's true, though, there's always a choice. If there is no choice, then there cannot be a moral crisis, or any form of morals.

Here's the other big problem. I've made a number of assertions there, mainly that morals require choice. Now I have to back them up. That's what this essay is all about, morals, ethics, and where they come from. What it means to make a choice (or to choose not to choose, which is a choice in and of itself). A number of examples will be used, some very topical, others not so much. Again, I'm not trying to advocate a particular path (well, not directly advocating), merely provide a glimpse into my own psyche and understanding.
Let's start of with some definitions. Firstly, what is a choice? What does it mean to have to make a choice? It's not as simple as it seems on first glance. Is it still a choice if you don't have all the information and only see one option? Is it still a choice if you react without thinking, such as hitting the brakes at seeing an animal run on the road? To me, to be able to make a choice, you must be able to see at least two options, even if those options are to do something or nothing. If there are not options in the eye of the maker of the choice, then there is not a choice. It does not matter if a dispassionate, separated observer could say that there were or were not options. The person making the choice is not that dispassionate, separated observer.

This of course implies a further argument, that judging another's choices and decisions can only be made in the context of their knowledge, not an objective assessment of the facts. This may explain why so often we make choices that seem, to others, to be completely counterproductive. To understand a choice, we have to understand the context.
Having accepted that, then we can move on to what morals are. Let's go for the dictionary definition as a starting point, because this time it's pretty useful.

Moral A person's standards of behaviour or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.

That's pretty much what it comes down to, a standard of behaviour about what is and is not acceptable for someone to do. I would argue that a a moral is a standard of behaviour about what is and is not an acceptable choice. This is simply because sometimes we may act against our morals, but not through a conscious choice. I tend to use morals and ethics more or less interchangeably throughout this essay. There are differences, but they can wait until another time.

Time for an example, one that is a bit shocking to consider (deliberately so). It does illustrate the point, regardless of whether or not you disagree.
The scenario is this:
*Frank is an old man, who has been diagnosed with incurable cancer. According to Frank's personal moral structure, suicide is an option when there is no hope of recovery and there is severe pain. Frank has just been told that he has weeks to live. He is living in daily pain and requires a constant flow of oxygen. Without the oxygen he would slowly suffocate and painlessly die.

Jill is Frank's daughter. In her worldview, suicide is not a option (we won't bother discussing why this is the case, just accept that she does not see suicide as a moral choice).

Jo is Frank's robot nurse, and has the responsibility of maintaining Frank's well-being and equipment. Jo has been programmed to follow the instructions of doctors and family members (within the usual limitations). Jo is not able to actively assist in suicide.*

From Frank's perspective, he would most likely make the choice to commit suicide, as according to his moral code it is an option of last resort. Jill would actively resist Frank committing suicide, as it is against her moral code. Jo is a robot and has no morals.

So that's our situation. I'll describe what happens next, and then I'd like you, dear reader, to consider if a moral choice has been made.

*Frank, or someone that Frank knows, manages to reprogram Jo so that the robot tells Jill Frank has entered a coma with no brain activity. Jill reluctantly makes the decision to turn off the oxygen flow, based on the 'fact' that Frank is brain dead.

The question becomes, did Jill make a moral choice?
I am compelled to state that Jill made a choice consistent with her moral code, given the information that she had. To an external observer (such as, perhaps, Frank himself) she assisted in suicide. From her own perspective, the act was not suicide, but was merely ending the continuation of the physical shell of Frank. Yes, Jill acted against her stated moral code, but she did not know that's what she was doing. This is a demonstration of why the ability to make a choice is restricted by knowledge.

Of course, if there is an omniscient being, then that being would have no option but to make choices relying on all the information. Humans are not and never can be omniscient, so we must rely on our code of ethics and morals to guide us in the right direction, and trust that the choices we make are the best that we can make given our knowledge.

We now have a shared understanding of what a moral is, and the limitations of choices. It does not matter if you agree with me, as long as you understand the starting point for my arguments.

Now it gets really interesting. Who gets to decide what is 'right' or 'moral'? For those with a literal understanding of the Bible (or other religious text), morals are handed down from a Higher Being. For others, these religious texts provide a useful framework of morals that should be interpreted and applied to current circumstances. That's one way of gaining a moral code, and as long as that code relates and is appropriate to current circumstances, then there is nothing wrong with it. It does not matter where a moral code comes from, as long as it does not conflict with mine then I have no problems with it. This may seem like a rather self-centred approach, but a moral code not in conflict with my personal code will be acceptable to most.

Other people look to community standards, either unspoken or codified in law, as their guidelines. This may seem to be a good idea, a way of staying current. The problem arises from the fact that there have been just as many unjust laws as just ones. You simply have to look at various histories to find discriminatory laws and practices in every country. It also shifts responsibility for deciding what is moral or right from an individual outwards, which is a part of the appeal for some, perhaps. This also raises an interesting point of what to do when your personal moral code contradicts the laws in a particular place.

It would be simple to say that if a law contradicts with your personal moral code, then breaking the law is justified. A counter example shows how ridiculous that is, of course. It would not be considered justified to kill someone just because your personal moral code permits or even encourages it. It is also clear that acceptable moral codes change with time, as society moves. However, there are obvious unjust laws that should not be obeyed, and there are many who have lost their lives fighting against laws that are now considered to be unjust. So the question remains, when is it appropriate to disobey a law in preference of a personal moral code? Unfortunately, this is not a question that is easily answered, nor is there a blanket answer. It simply comes down to individual circumstances, and the only judgement that can be made is after the fact.

Due to my agnosticism (that's such a lovely word), I don't accept the bible as providing the only source of morals (or any other religious text, for that matter). However, careful consideration shows that these codes, or parts of these codes, are closely aligned to my own. It then becomes a question of where does my own personal moral code come from? My moral code is constantly in development, because each time I encounter a new situation that requires a new choice it needs to be considered and applied. The fundamentals are similar to most peoples', I would imagine, and most likely developed from my upbringing (as most moral codes are). The fundamental basis of my personal code is to avoid harm where possible. This applies to both myself and others. Obviously, it is not possible to always avoid harm, so then it becomes necessary to reduce harm. This is very similar to a utilitarian approach, I will admit. I also will seek to enjoy life, keep my sense of humour, and basically do unto others as I would have them do to me. It's very difficult to codify my moral code, because it's not something I often consciously think about. Instead, it is something that I live, breathe, and inhabit.

In general, my personal code does not conflict with the law, or with that of other people. Occasionally I have differing views on what constitutes harm, and how best to deal with situations. This does not mean that I am right and the other person is wrong, or the opposite. In fact, conflict between moral codes, to a certain extent, can be healthy - if both parties in the conflict are willing to examine the situation and compromise if necessary. Other conflict simply arises when the parties involve possess different, incomplete, information. In the end, my personal moral code allows for me to work with others, to try to understand them, and to only block their efforts if, in my opinion, they're going to cause harm. Yes, that's a big responsibility, but it's a responsibility we all bear, if we are to be moral beings.

It comes down to choices, the choices we all make every day. We can choose to blindly follow another's code, from any source. We can choose to live our lives in a carefree manner, caring only for ourselves. We can choose a middle path. Regardless of the choices we make, they are all inherently flawed due to incomplete information. All that we can hope for is that our choices and actions reflect our beliefs.
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