Saturday, November 23, 2002

A Rough Topology of Right and Wrong

The plethora of moral judgments that hold true in our modern, Western society cannot be systematized. No one has ever discovered any strict principles or rules that could not be easily debunked. Hobbes tried to reduce morality to self-interest; Kant tried to show that the golden rule (the “categorical imperative,” which he wrongly claimed was different from the golden rule) could tell you what was right in any case; and the utilitarians suggested that we simply do whatever promotes the most happiness. All went down in flames. As Aristotle said, moral life is too complex to be systematized or crammed into a finite list of rules.

But I can offer a bird’s eye view of our modern, Western morality, a sort of rough topology or description of its shape. In many cases, one has a right to act in his own self-interest. Also, everyone has a duty to sacrifice one's interests in order to help others in some cases. There is a restriction on harming; it is wrong to inflict harm in many cases. But, it is also wrong to allow harm in some cases. Finally, the degree of harm and self-interest at stake matters. Those are the features of the terrain. Now, what is the overall shape of the terrain?

You have no right to harm others, unless the harm to them is slight and the benefit you derive from it necessary to save yourself from great harm. For example, you may lean on someone’s shoulder without his permission, in order to get your balance and prevent yourself from falling off of a high balcony to your death. You’re not allowed to take wallets, however, or rob banks.

You ought to help others when they will otherwise suffer undeserved and severe harm and helping them will not be very costly to you. For example, you ought to call 911 and administer first aid if you see someone bleeding to death. But you have no duty to fund your neighbor’s college education.

In general, causing harm is permissible when it averts undeserved disaster, and helping others is obligatory when it averts undeserved disaster. In other cases, causing harm is wrong and helping others is not obligatory, because people have liberty and property rights, as well as a duty of self-reliance.

In other words, self-interested and altruistic desires take their shape in our morality as follows. The duty to aid others and the permissibility of harming them kick in when the balance of interests tips radically, such that aiding or harming will cost no one very much but help an innocent greatly. Otherwise, they don’t kick in. It’s wrong to cause grievous injury to an innocent, in order to save one’s own life. It’s permissible to let an innocent die, when the only way to save him is to sacrifice one’s health. Welfare nets should be minimal, not luxurious. Wealth should not be equalized; that would involve theft.

None of this is meant to be a rule-based system. It’s a rough topology of morality that will not help you solve any moral dilemmas. Once you descend from the bird’s eye view, the features of the moral terrain come into view in their vast complexity. We see that loved ones and friends may be treated differently from strangers, that manners count, and that projects shared amongst people can involve mutual fulfillment, as well as requiring altruistic desire. The complexities continue on from there.

This is the picture of altruism-based morality inherited from the British sentimentalists, such as Butler and Hume. Morality is a set of altruistic and self-interested desires widely shared in society and carefully shaped into a complex but coherent set by culture’s long history of experience. The task of figuring out the right thing to do is the task of deciding how the case in question fits into the topology of this set.