Common Morality and Moral Agreement

Let’s not forget our common beliefs

Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-11-17

Some people were not happy with the outcome of the 2012 election. Rocker Ted Nugent called it “spiritual suicide.” Tens of thousands of citizens in some states have signed petitions asking for their states to secede from the Union. And Matthew Staver, dean of the Law School at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, explained: “Millions of Americans looked evil in the eye and adopted it … Abortion, same-sex marriage, and immorality carried the day.”

Some states legalized marijuana. Some other states legalized same-sex marriage. And a Democrat was re-elected president. It’s not clear that there is much new, or especially evil here. Ten years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional. Marijuana has been available for “medical use” in California since 1996. And abortion has been legal for 40 years.

Despite our disagreements about these issues, we tend to forget how much we agree upon. Consider, most importantly, the fact that the election and transition of power proceeded peacefully. We take that for granted. We also take it for granted that most of us agree most of the time about what philosopher Bernard Gert called our “common morality.”

Gert maintained that morality could be reduced to the basic idea of minimizing harm to others. He pointed out that no one thinks that it is morally acceptable to hurt someone simply because you don’t like him. While this sounds trivial, it is the broad heart of our common moral agreement.

It is remarkable, for example, that no candidate or referendum advocated harm to others out of malice or hatred. It wasn’t always so. In the bad old days, it was possible to advocate harming others based upon mere dislike. Racism is the idea that some others can be harmed simply because we don’t like them. But no one in American public life can get away with advocating racist ideas today.

Even those who disagree about homosexuality, marijuana and abortion would most likely agree that freedom matters. No one should be forced into a homosexual relationship. No one should be forced to smoke pot. And no one should be forced to have an abortion.

The abortion question is complicated by the question of the moral status of the fetus — and yes that is a tough question. But if a mother were forced to have an abortion, we would all agree that this was wrong.

It is easy to forget our agreements because we tend to focus on our disagreements. But our common morality becomes obvious when we think about our common ideas about a variety of issues.

Consider women’s rights. We would agree, I hope, that forced marriages and honor killings are wrong. That’s not true in other parts of the globe, where girls are forcibly married and murdered for dishonoring their families. Perhaps this shows us that our “common morality” is not common to all cultures. Much more needs to be said about cross-cultural standards and universal human rights.

A further problem is that our common morality does not extend in the direction of charity. While we agree about minimizing harm, we do not agree that there is a duty to assist those in need.

Gert’s idea of common morality is fairly modest. He only thinks that we have a duty not to harm others. But this does not mean that we have a duty to help them. Of course, people are free to give their money to help others. But the common morality does not require charity. This common morality may not be very useful for dealing with the problem of poverty.

Despite the talk of secession and evil, we will most likely continue to expand our agreement about the need for liberty with regard to activities that do not harm others. But we will continue to disagree about whether there is a duty to help. And we will continue to disagree about specific cases — such as about the moral status of the fetus.

We should not let our disagreements cause us to forget our general agreement that it is wrong to deliberately inflict harm on another simply because you do not like her. And we should not forget that in some parts of the world such ideas are not yet common.

Work, Pay, and Morality

Pay and work issues raise deep moral questions

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-10-20

Human beings are working animals. We thrive when engaged in meaningful, goal-directed activity. And we dutifully take care of things that must be done. While money is a concern, work also involves moral necessity and intrinsic reward. We flourish when we have good work and do it well. In an ideal world, work would be rewarding, spiritually and financially.

During a recent Fresno State Ethics Center lecture, James Sterba, a professor from Notre Dame, defended liberal ideals about work and wealth. He argued that there is something unjust about a system in which rich people build up surpluses while hard-working poor people barely survive. He claimed that poor people have a right to have their basic needs satisfied. To solve this problem, we would have to tax the wealthy in order to support the poor.

Critics worry that taxes may discourage the well-off from working. Mitt Romney explains on his website that high tax rates “discourage work and entrepreneurship, as well as savings and investment.” On this view, workers would see that it doesn’t pay them to work harder when the government takes more of what they earn. A related concern is that those who receive welfare will have no incentive to work. From this perspective, work is motivated by external necessity and the hope for monetary reward. If we didn’t need to earn a living, we might not work. And if we were taxed at a higher rate, we might choose to work less.

This makes sense in a world in which people can rationally weigh the costs and benefits of work and monetary reward. But most workers do not have the luxury of deciding whether and how much they should work. A lot of the most important “work” is done without choice or compensation. Consider how much time is spent every day doing housework and yardwork, caring for children or for the elderly and disabled. It is significant that this sort of essential but uncompensated “work” is traditionally done by women. What would our economy look like if we found ways to pay the family caregivers who now work for free?

Perhaps caregiving work provides intrinsic rewards. Maybe there is joy in changing diapers. But caregivers are often at a disadvantage. According to Legal Momentum, the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, “people in single-mother families had a poverty rate of 42.2% and an extreme poverty rate of 21.6%.”

It would be nice if all work were both rewarding and fairly compensated. But many must work at dull and demanding jobs to put bread on the table. Unfortunately, even these jobs are scarce. The unemployment rate in Fresno is above 13%; one in four of us lives in poverty.

Sometimes, due to the vagaries of the economy, hard working people cannot find work. Some people are unable to work because of illness or disability. And children can’t and shouldn’t be forced to work. In these cases, it seems that social support is justifiable.

But what about able-bodied adults who refuse to work, should we also support them? This is a deep moral question. Liberals tend to think that every human being deserves to have basic needs fulfilled, regardless of what they do or have done. Conservatives tend to think that able-bodied adults should be left alone to fend for themselves.

I wonder whether there really are that many able-bodied adults who are unwilling to work. If work were available, if work were meaningful and if work were fairly compensated, I suspect that most adults would choose to work. There may be a few sponges who game the system. But the bigger problem is that the work that is available is meaningless drudgery paid at a less than a living wage.

For many, the question is not about meaningful work but about basic survival. This brings us back to Professor Sterba’s conclusion, which is that there is something unjust about a social system that leaves many impoverished, while others enjoy luxury.

I would add that there is something unjust about a system in which much of our most essential work is uncompensated, in which single mothers and their children are disadvantaged and in which many jobs are spiritually deadening and poorly paid.

Justice, Mercy, and the Death Penalty

Ballot offers choice between justice and mercy

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-10-06

Proposition 34 aims to repeal the death penalty in California, while replacing it with life imprisonment without parole.

Those arguing in favor of Prop. 34 claim that abolishing the death penalty will save money which can be used to pursue criminals. The election booklet clarifies this focus on law enforcement by saying, “we cannot let brutal killers evade justice.” The argument also claims that abolishing the death penalty will ensure that innocent people are not executed.

Opponents of Prop. 34 argue that without the death penalty, murderers would indeed evade justice. That argument claims, “Proposition 34 lets serial killers, cop killers, child killers, and those who kill the elderly, escape justice.” The argument then describes a number of cruel and brutal murders.

This points toward some deep moral issues.

Justice appears to require an equivalence between crime and punishment. The retributivist idea of “eye for eye, life for a life” may have developed as a way of restraining the desire for revenge. Consider, for example, the ancient Greek story of Achilles. When his friend was killed, Achilles went on a rampage, slaughtering every Trojan he could find. Achilles defiled the body of his friend’s killer and ritually murdered a dozen Trojan prisoners. From the standpoint of “life for life,” Achilles’ revenge was unjust.

The “life for life” ideal may establish a duty to execute. Immanuel Kant once argued that even if society were to collapse and the prisons were to be dismantled, we would still have a moral obligation to kill every murderer awaiting execution. For Kant, we have an obligation to the murder victim — and to the murderer himself. People should be given what they deserve. If murderers deserve to be killed, we ought to deliver justice, even if it is inconvenient or expensive.

An alternative to retributivism is an ethic of mercy. When we show mercy, we give people less than what they deserve, perhaps because we feel compassion to them. The ethic of mercy is associated with Christianity, with Jesus recommending that we “turn the other cheek” rather than taking an “eye for an eye.” The Catholic Bishops of California have argued in support of Prop. 34, connecting it with a larger “pro-life” view. The California Catholic Conference website explains: “we consistently proclaim the intrinsic worth and the God-given dignity of all human life, whether innocent or guilty.” They claim that if society can be protected from violence through the use of life imprisonment, this is preferable to killing the murderer.

This points us toward the question of protecting society and the deterrent effect. The question of deterrence is a complex one, depending on a variety of psychological and social factors. Are murderers rational? Do they value their own lives enough to engage in cost-benefit analysis, weighing the risk of punishment before they engage in their crimes? There is no proof that the death penalty, as currently employed, has a deterrent effect on a murderer.

One reason for this is the infrequent use of the death penalty. The November election book explains that since 1978 about 900 people have been sentenced to death. But only 14 have been executed. When you are more likely to die on death row of natural causes than to be executed, there is not much reason to fear a death sentence.

If we really want to deter crime, we may need swifter and more certain system of execution. But opponents will argue that this could lead us to execute some innocent people, who are protected by the lengthy appeals process. For deterrence to work, we might want to return to public executions–public hangings or the guillotine. The spectacle of a brutal execution may in fact scare people away from crime. But our current practice emphasizes the painless killing of lethal injection.

This brings us back to the question of justice and mercy. We no longer cut off criminal’s heads or hang them in public. Why not? Perhaps we are simply squeamish about doing what justice requires. Maybe we just don’t like to see blood — even when we believe that it is justly spilled. Or perhaps we are convinced that mercy and compassion are important values. We’ll see whether justice or mercy wins out in the November election.

Politicians and the Truth

Unraveling the political art of the repeated lie

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-09-22

Politicians are adept at exaggeration and obfuscation. They spin the truth, occasionally telling outright lies. Large numbers of people then repeat the latest political hogwash, forwarding it, posting it and replicating it in the media echo chamber. With enough reverberation, even obvious humbug can sound like truth.

It is not surprising that politicians stretch the truth. Five centuries ago, Machiavelli noted that a successful politician had to be as cunning as a fox. A sly political fox knows how to manipulate, ingratiate, provoke and inspire.

A good politician understands that social life is lubricated by white lies and insincere pleasantries. We say thank you when we don’t mean it. We give unwarranted compliments. And we smile and nod even when we disagree. Social life would be cold and hostile if we were unwilling or unable to dissemble.

It is interesting that we are so willing to go along with the fakery and deception. Machiavelli explained that “the one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.” Politicians know how to appeal to our basic credulity. We are social animals who respond to the moods of our fellows without much concern for truth. We like to repeat gossip and rumors. We tend to believe and trust those who are like us.

We prefer stories that reinforce our other ideas and beliefs, pleasant stories that are easy to understand. No politician is going to admit that public affairs are incredibly complex, that human behavior is difficult to control and that unpredictable events will disrupt even our best-laid plans. The politician tells us instead that he or she has a clear plan for success and confident knowledge of the situation. And we are glad to believe. We desire certainty in an uncertain world.

Psychological well-being may hinge upon our ability to deceive ourselves in the face of uncertainty and failure. When you make a mistake, suffer rejection, or embarrass yourself, you have to find ways to downplay and ignore the truth so you can move forward. Self-doubt and self-recrimination can be paralyzing. It is useful to fudge the truth about yourself and your own abilities.

There may be an evolutionary explanation of our ability to deceive and dissimulate. The struggle for prestige involves a large dose of bluff and bluster. Outright deception is useful in struggles for scarce resources and in battles for territory and mates.

Mating rituals are obviously colored by deception. We fix our hair, our faces, our clothes — putting on a show for potential mates. These embellishments work, even though we know that beauty is only skin deep. Our tendency to fall in love with images and appearances might explain our tendency to believe political bunkum.

In an interesting recent book, “The Folly of Fools,” Robert Trivers explains that you will be more effective at lying to others if you are able to believe the lies you tell. The best liars sincerely commit themselves to what they are saying, somehow concealing the truth, even from themselves. Trivers suggests that the ability to believe your own lies provides an evolutionary advantage. He even argues that good health involves the ability to deceive yourself about your own well-being. Self-doubters will not do very well in the struggle for existence. Confident fakers will tend to succeed in battle, in the bedroom and in the ballot box.

Of course, this raises another question: Is it really a “lie” if you sincerely believe it is true? Lying is usually thought to involve a deliberate intention to deceive. But the best liars are those who are so sure of themselves that they don’t even know they are lying.

This brings us back to the political echo chamber. The more a lie is repeated, the easier it is to believe. It is possible, then, that politicians don’t deliberately lie. They may believe the tales they tell, supported in this belief by the reverberations of partisan advisers and supporters. We have an instinctive need to believe our own stories and the stories of those like us. Although they may appear to be cunning foxes, politicians may in fact be like the rest of us, herd animals who can’t help believing what they hear and what they say.

Adventure Sports, Religion, and Extraordinary Experience

Testing of limits isn’t just for the adventurous

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-09-08

I watched a group of hang gliders launch from Glacier Point a few weeks ago. The gliders leapt into thin air and swooped majestically out across Yosemite Valley. Unfortunately, the last glider in the group clipped a tree just after taking off. The kite spun out of control and careened into the talus slope just above the precipice. The crowd of spectators let out a collective scream.

I scrambled down the rocks to the glider pilot. His face and body were smashed, hanging under the mangled kite. He was groaning, barely conscious. Later, in the meadow below, I chatted with the injured pilot’s friends, imagining the beauty and thrill of the flight, while also recalling the horror of the crash.

I concluded, at the time, that hang gliding was crazy. But just the other day I crashed my mountain bike, flipping head over heels in a boulder field. A dent in my helmet shows where my head hit a rock. My legs and ribs are still aching.

I still love mountain biking and will go again. Even the crash was exciting. Maybe those hang gliders aren’t crazy after all. Or maybe it’s normal to seek risk and to want to defy gravity. Somehow the rewards — the thrill, the challenge, the novelty — outweigh the risks. The same fact might explain why people use drugs and alcohol, and even why people explore religious experience.

Human beings appear to need something more than ordinary experience — more than working, eating, and sleeping. When Karl Marx described religion as the opium of the people, he meant that religion provided an escape and consolation from a world of suffering and injustice. Marx thought that the desire for transcendent experience was the “sigh of the oppressed creature.” The same explanation might be given for drug and alcohol abuse. Real opium can provide an escape from oppression and suffering.

But oppression is not the only explanation. Rather, it seems that human beings are fascinated by the strange, the thrilling, and the extraordinary. We are curious explorers of the world and of consciousness. By pushing the limits of ordinary experience, we hope to experience wonder, joy and meaning.

The link between religion and drug use was explained recently by the neurologist Oliver Sacks in an article in The New Yorker. Sacks explained that we seek “transports that make our consciousness of time and mortality easier to bear. We seek a holiday from our inner and outer restrictions, a more intense sense of the here and now, the beauty and value of the world we live in.”

Sacks’ adventures with drug-induced altered states of consciousness is a cautionary tale. The highs of his drug-fueled “holidays” were followed by a crash: unwanted hallucinations, addictive behavior and possible psychosis.

Is it ethical to pursue such experiences — whether leaping off a cliff, exploring religious experience, or ingesting psychoactive chemicals? Libertarians will argue that you should be free to experiment, so long as you are not harming anyone but yourself.

The question of harm is a vexing one. Risky sports do not seem to pose a harm to others, except when the rescuers have to pull you out of danger. Drug use appears to be a private matter, unless you take the wheel or your loved ones have to deal with addiction and decline. And exploring religious experience seems unproblematic, except for religious experiences that turn fanatical or religious disagreements that disrupt families.

It is important to acknowledge the social aspect of even private choices. We should carefully consider the impacts our choices have on others, especially the strangers and loved ones who pick up the pieces when we crash.

We also need to acknowledge our desire for the extraordinary. Human beings have an exploratory urge and a desire for meaning, euphoria, and value in a short, uncertain life. That urge cannot be denied.

It would be nice to find safe venues for exploring extraordinary experiences. But the thrill of the extraordinary comes from the danger of flouting conventional expectations, defying gravity, and making dangerous leaps of faith. Those who make these leaps help to expand our understanding of what is humanly possible. They also occasionally remind us that what goes up, must come down.