Friday, September 07, 2007

On Morality...

Given the recent topics of conversations, the subject of rights and obligations has come up a bit on Feministe. I think that there are a lot of places people come from on the subject of rights and obligations, so I thought I'd do a little polling and see where people fall.

Generally speaking, when I, and I think most other people, talk about morality, what we're really talking about are rights and obligations against and towards other people. Moral theory is a pretty complex and highly debated field, and I'm not even going to try to sum up or explain all of the different sources of and theories of morality. Suffice to say that there's a lot of debate.

In our society, there's very little relation between "Legal" and "Moral." The two sometimes overlap, as in the case of, say, murder- but the fact that something is against the law doesn't make it immoral. It's against the law to jay-walk, but I'm not sure that I've ever seen someone try to argue that it's immoral. Likewise, the fact that something is legal doesn't necessarily mean that it's moral. It's legal to lie to and cheat on your girlfriend/boyfriend, but most moral theories would suggest it's probably not very moral to do so.

With regards to rights and obligations: When you are said to have a right, X, it implies an obligation in other moral beings. If I have a right not to be killed unjustly, then it follows that there's an obligation in other moral beings not to kill me unjustly. If someone else is said to have a right to personal autonomy, then I have an obligation not to unjustly encroach on that person's personal autonomy. Rights and obligations are sort of constantly pushing against each other. For each right you have, there are coralary obligations that other people have to respect.


I think that a point that many people get hung up on is the use of the word "person" within moral theory. In everyday language most people use "human" and "person" pretty interchangably. When someone says "I saw a group of people standing over by such-and-such" we parse that as meaning a group of human beings. That's not necessarily the case in moral theory.

When we talk about "persons" in moral theory, what we're talking about are moral agents. Some moral theorists believe that only human beings can be persons, but quite a few leave open the possibility for non-human persons. Think, for example, of Star Wars (I know, geeky, right?). Any of the sapient beings in the Star Wars universe could be considered persons if they're capable of being called moral beings. If they have the capacity to understand moral obligations, they'd be people. This even includes things like artificial intelligences- computers that are self-aware.

For more practical and (for now!) realistic examples, consider the possibility that some animals turn out to be smarter than we'd previously thought. If some apes or dolphin turn out to have human-like intelligence, and can understand rights and obligations, shouldn't they be included in the moral community?

Moving more towards my personal beliefs (although, by no means only mine), is the possibility that some things may have rights, but not obligations. I don't really want to weigh in too heavily in the animal rights debate right now, because, quite frankly, I don't have a horse in that race, and I haven't thought enough about animal rights to take a strong, educated stance, but even within the world of human beings we recognize that there are some humans that have rights without attached obligations.

To put it broadly: Human beings that aren't capable of understanding or acting on moral obligations are generally held not to have them. This is, I think, the main reason why we usually hold young children to lower standards of behavior than adults. If a child engages in theft, lying, or even some forms of violence, we generally don't hold them accountable in the same way that we'd hold a teenager or an adult.

When a six year-old hits another child, or steals a toy or candy, we recognize that part of this is likely because the child doesn't yet have a developed sense of moral obligation and behavior. You can tell a young child that stealing is wrong, or that hitting is bad, but it takes some time for the child to develop a sense of obligation towards other people. Children develop a sense of understanding beyond the self over time, they're not necessarily born with this.

This is also one of the reasons why people who are deemed insane are held to a different standard than those who are not. If you are unable to control your own behavior, or experience the world in such a way that moral behavior is completely impossible, then you can't be said to have the same obligations as a person who can make moral choices. Which is not to say that such actions go unpunished or no steps should or are taken to prevent future repeat offenses- but the standard is different, and we generally think that such people "need help" not just prison (as an example).

Anyway, that's sort of a brief run-down of where I'm coming from on discussions about morality and moral behaviors. Like I said, there's a lot of debate in the field, and my thoughts shouldn't be taken as an explanation for what every moral theorist has to say- some would agree, others wouldn't. I thought it might help understand where I'm coming from in some conversations, though.


Nique said...

Of course it's immoral to jay-walk. The reason it's illegal is because it is endangering your life and the lives of drivers. And endangering lives, even your own, is immoral.

Jus' sayin'

Obviously there is a scale of immorality, with murder at the top and say... telling white lies at the bottom.

Roy said...

Hmm. That's an interesting case. I'll buy that's why it's illegal, but I'm not completely convinced that makes it immoral, though.

In what kinds of circumstances is it immoral to endanger one's own life, and other lives? I don't generally think that it's immoral to endanger your own life- if it were, there would be an awful lot of activities that would be immoral. After all, what level of danger do we consider before something is endangering? Driving a car, while potentially dangerous, probably doesn't count- but what about sky diving or bungee jumping or deep sea diving, or even something like those people who work on fishing boats in Alaska, which is, unless I misremember, one of the most dangerous jobs you can have?

I tend to think that wrecklessly endangering other people is problematic. If someone wants to take a risk, that's their choice- but if you force them to take a risk, or if you're wrecklessly exposing them to risk, that's more problematic.

Good catch, though. =)

Nique said...

Just because someone WANTS to take a risk doesn't make it ethical. Any time you endanger yourself it's immoral, but that's just my opinion. Everyone has their own personal moral code they abide by.

Personally I think it is highly immoral to take drugs recreationally and in my opinion there are very few things more immoral than smoking for instance, but plenty of people do it without a second thought. I don't think this makes them "bad" people, but immoral people? Absolutely. Not necessarily wilfully immoral, but ignorant immorality is still immorality.

But again, this is just my personal opinion and I have a strict moral code I live by but I do not expect others to live by it. I hang out with my vegan friend even though she drives a car for instance (yes, I personally believe driving a car is highly immoral if only due to the strain on the environment) and she still hangs out with me even though I eat meat and wear leather (activities I acknowledge as being immoral but do anyway - heck everything is immoral when you consider the environmental impact of the activity).

I guess my personal view of shameful behaviour is much broader than yours but that doesn't mean I think you're "bad" or even "wrong". IDIC after all.

Doug S. said...

Well, one could argue that risking your own life for no good reason is immoral because if you die, it will hurt those who would prefer to have you alive and with them...

Roy said...

one could argue that risking your own life for no good reason is immoral because if you die, it will hurt those who would prefer to have you alive and with them...

Well, the problem there is considering what counts as "good reason", isn't it? Is personal gratification a good reason? Is it a good reason if you run into a fire to save someone?

The other problem that I see is determining what constitutes a life risking behavior, given that practically anything you do holds some risk. The level of risk varies, of course, but no action is without some element of risk to life or health. Even walking carries some risk, since it breaks down your joints, creates stress, and carries with it the risks that some accident might happen. Granted, the risk of those things is pretty small, but... I don't know.

Interesting takes, though. =)

jeff said...

"If some apes or dolphin turn out to have human-like intelligence, and can understand rights and obligations, shouldn't they be included in the moral community?"--roy
I'd say yes (even though this was rhetorical), but I'd also want to add: We likely want to grant some moral status to at least some beings that don't have even close to human-like intelligence. I think part of the problem with a lot of the arguments about animal rights comes to a head when different perspectives don't account for gradations of moral status, but instead try to argue for a being's being in the club or out of the club. I think it can be shown that we may have moral obligations to lots of beings that aren't as intelligent as most humans are (for instance, there are some human beings without much human intelligence, due to injury or other bad luck, and we'd likely grand them almost as much moral status the rest of the humans).

As far as jaywalking goes, I think this example shows that almost any act can be construed as an act that has moral implications--and part of the reason for that is that morality seems to be based (in part, at least) in the fact that we are social creatures who can, to whatever degrees, affect each other.