Sunday, September 30, 2012

Your morality

Here is an online quiz from researchers intending to explore the relationship between morality and politics. The goal is to understand "Why do people disagree so passionately about what is right?" As I took the quiz, I found myself disagreeing passionately that it was a useful quiz. The way it works is you indicate, on a sliding scale, whether you find something "relevant to your moral thinking", with the examples ranging from "not at all relevant" to "extremely relevant." A sample of the questions:

Whether or not private property was respected.
There are times when private property should be respected and times when it shouldn't. If someone is drowning, then it's not relevant that running on to their property to save them is trespassing. Or, if the pool is behind a fence you can't get through, that running your car through the fence to make a hole is not respecting private property. If you are parachuting into Normandy in 1944, it's not relevant that you aren't respecting the property of whomever's farm you land on. But if you happen to like your neighbor's new Ford Mustang, it is relevant that it is his and not yours, and you can't just take it.

But more deeply, "respect" is inseparable from the notion of "private property." Private property for which it is never relevant that it be respected simply isn't private property at all - which is why logically consistent Communists reject the notion of private property altogether.  So positing private property at all necessarily posits respect for it. This question isn't so much about whether respect for private property is relevant as whether logic is relevant.

Whether or not someone's action showed love for his or her country.

What's interesting about this one is why it is not simply the absolute "Whether or not someone's action showed love." Everyone would say yes to this. But if you would say "yes" to the question absolutely, there couldn't be any particular instances when you would say "no." No matter what finishes "Whether or not someone's action showed love..." the answer would always be yes. What the authors are probably after is whether something really counts as love of one's country, e.g. protests against the Vietnam War. The substance of the difference between Vietnam War protestors and their critics is whether the protests count as showing love for country; but both groups would claim they love their country. Because love is always good, isn't it? But if you answer "yes" to this one (because you think everything should be done with love), the researchers are probably going to mark you down as a conservative or Archie Bunker type. Nonetheless, logic demands an "extremely relevant" answer to this question because love is always extremely relevant.

Whether or not an action caused chaos or disorder.

Aristotle begins his Nichomachean Ethics by writing that "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good." If someone does something not intending that chaos result, but it does, how could this not be relevant? Whatever he intended to do (i.e. the good intended) is threatened by chaos (for the nature of chaos is to be indiscriminant). On the other hand, if chaos is intended and it does result, then in this instance it is both relevant and good; for example, in the case of a commando parachuted behind enemy lines with the mission to sow chaos. So sometimes chaos is a legitimately intended result and sometimes it isn't. But an individual who is entirely uninterested in whether chaos results from his actions isn't so much immoral as irrational - he's like a child who hasn't yet begun to think about the consequences of his actions. This poorly worded question is probably intended to get at the difference between conservatives - who tend to value stability - and progressives, who are more willing to shake things up for the sake of change. But for both people, the conservative and the progressive, chaos and disorder are relevant. The conservative wants to avoid chaos to preserve the already existing good, and the progressive wants to (sometimes) sow chaos to "bring down the system" so change becomes possible.  So whatever your political or moral views, it is irrational to answer anything other than "extremely relevant" to this one.

Whether or not someone conformed to the traditions of society.

It's good to conform to the traditions of society when those traditions are good (like the tradition of fathers taking care of their children) and bad when the traditions are bad (like female circumcision in certain Islamic countries).  This is what conservatives really believe... but the notion that one should "conform" simply for the sake of conforming is the caricature of conservatives embedded in this question. I would have to answer "not at all relevant" to this question because mere "conformity" is not a good.

Whether or not someone suffered emotionally.

Like the question about love of country, why is this one not simply the absolute "Whether or not someone suffered?" Emotion is one form of suffering among many, and surely someone for whom suffering (emotional or otherwise) is simply not a relevant moral consideration is just immoral full stop.  Does anyone other than a sociopath really believe this? Just like love is always relevant to moral questions, so is suffering, so this one would have to be answered "extremely relevant."

Whether or not someone showed a lack of respect for authority.

This one is similar to the private property question; the very notion of "authority" involves the notion of "respect"; an authority that shouldn't be respected simply isn't an authority at all. The disagreement over authority is never whether it should be respected, but whether what is claimed to be an authority truly is. Dissidents from the teachings of the Catholic Church, for example, don't argue that they should not respect the authority of the Pope, but that the Pope doesn't have the authority he claims in the first place.  So again on purely rational considerations, this one has to be answered "extremely relevant" for an authority by nature should be respected (to the extent that it is in fact an authority.)

Whether or not someone acted in a way that God would approve of.

Even an atheist thinks that God should be obeyed; he just doesn't believe there is a God to be obeyed. Someone who believes in God, but also thinks that God should be ignored, is surely a very rare bird. This question is little more than a proxy for belief in God. Why can't they just ask it directly?

Whether or not someone was cruel.
Whether or not someone acted unfairly.
Justice is the most important requirement for a society.

"Cruel" and "unfairly" are virtual synonyms for "immoral." No one thinks anyone should be treated unfairly; what they disagree on is what constitutes "fair" in any particular circumstance. The liberal and conservative both think the wealthy man should be treated fairly. The liberal thinks it is fair to confiscate his wealth for purposes the state considers good; the conservative thinks it is manifestly unfair to take from someone that which is rightfully his.

It is better to do good than to do bad.
This is tautological. The good is precisely that which it is better to do.

If I were a soldier and disagreed with my commanding officer's orders, I would obey anyway because that is my duty.

The military makes a distinction between lawful and unlawful orders. It always a soldier's duty to obey lawful orders, and always his duty to disobey unlawful ones (like shooting prisoners). Agreeing or disagreeing has got nothing to do with it. Like many of the questions in this survey, it is based on ignorance.