"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment... and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." -Thoreau

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ugh... why should I be moral?

Why bother with morality?
It's much easier to not care about whether it is right or wrong to do something, isn't it? So why care?

I have just finished reading two selections on this subject for my ethics class.
The first, a portion of Plato's Republic, "The Immoralist's Challenge." The second, Philippa Foot's "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives."
They raise some interesting questions.

In "The Immoralist's Challenge," Socrates is challenged to explain why justice is good in itself. Justice, in this dialogue, is portrayed as a painful duty performed for the sake of the social rewards correlated with acting "justly." The problem is, if justice is good because of the reputation and power with which the just are rewarded, then this creates a movement to present a facade of justice. You can have your cake and eat it, too- that is to say, you may relish the joys of performing injustice upon others AND present yourself as a paragon of goodness to be rewarded with praise and social status. Forget behaving justly- no one likes that anyway. You only pretend to be a good person so that others treat you well.
Mind you, Glaucon (the challenger who presents this model of justice) does not actually buy that this is the extent of justice. Rather, he entreats Socrates to persuade him that this sad, corrupted notion of justice is not the true nature of justice. Glaucon wishes to rank justice as one of those goods which is desired not simply for the benefits associated with it, but also- essentially- for its own sake, but he needs reason to do so.

To my great discomfort, the selection ended abruptly. Glaucon entreats Socrates to correct him, to restore his faith in justice- and end.

No answers? No restoration of faith?
Are notions of justice really naught but convenient illusions used to hold together precarious social bonds?
Plato, Socrates, help!

It was a bit disconcerting, really.
But it presents an excellent question. Why care about justice? Why is justice good for one?
Why aim to be just?
The point of the dialogue is, it has to be about justice itself. It has to be something about participating in justice that makes justice desirable. But what is it?

With these questions spinning around my head, I turned to the Philippa Foot reading (which in itself is a discussion of Kant's moral framework).
So... Kant. According to him, we have hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives (...what? I know. Bear with me.) Hypothetical imperatives are actions that must be done in order to achieve some end.
You want an "A" on that test? Then you should study. You want to get somewhere at 10:00? Then you should leave at 9:30.
In order to achieve your goal or fulfill your desire, you should perform an action or set of actions. Those are your hypothetical imperatives.

Then you have your categorical imperatives. These take "should" or "ought" to the next level, if you will. Categorical imperatives are actions that are "objectively necessary." They are ends in themselves.

Traditionally, moral judgments are classified under the categorical imperative category.
"You ought not kill."
BAM! That's it. Morally binding, unconditionally necessary.

But Foot wants to argue that there's something strange about relying on the magical power of "ought." What supports this reasoning? Essentially, categorical imperatives have a fundamentally duty-driven force behind them. They seem to say, this is your duty. Don't fight or argue, just do it. You have to.

To underline the problem, she points to etiquette. Even if someone doesn't care about etiquette, the rules still technically apply. If you're at some dinner party and flout all the rules, people will still say you should do otherwise, regardless of whether you actually care about it or not. That is to say, etiquette behaves like a categorical imperative, in the sense that it's not about "I want to accomplish this, so I should do this." Etiquette applies regardless of your desires. But... what if you just don't care?
This seems to put categorical imperatives under suspicion as magical forces of obligation. It's not enough to say someone ought to do something. The force of that statement is in their believing this to be true. If they don't care, then you have a problem.

So Foot suggests making the scary transition from classifying moral judgments as magical categorical imperatives, and instead thinking about them hypothetically.
Why perform acts of charity? Because I can empathize with those individuals and have an interest in seeing them happy.
That is to say, let go of the illusion that saying someone "ought to" do something holds genuine power. It is frightening to admit it, but that's not true. We must chose to care about morality. We give morality its power.

Foot's idea, on one hand, is frightening. But it is also wonderfully idealistic in its realism.

Essentially, Foot's ideas lend themselves to the following depiction. (Admittedly, it may be my relentless idealism seeping in. But I will maintain that it fits into her view.)

Morality is about a system of values. Morality relies upon a certain vision of hope... a yearning for truth, love, liberty, and justice. Moral individuals are those capable of envisioning the beauty of bringing those values to life, and of working to bring that beauty into realization.

Glaucon asks why bother with justice.
Bother with justice because it allows your life to cohere and deepen.
It allows you to create meaning. It allows you to look upon yourself with respect, to give and to receive love, to become a part of something genuine and beautiful.

So, that's why.

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