Friday, January 25, 2008

Principles, ethics, and morals, oh,my

I was reading the New York Times on-line the other day. (Sorry, Mr. Montgomery, I am guilty of media adultery. I have been seeing another newspaper on the side.) There was a long article about morality. The guy who wrote the article was a professor at Harvard University, Steven Pinker. His approach was to talk about brain research, which was beyond my feeble comprehension capacities. There were a few items which stuck out to me though.
The first was the idea that there is a sort of morality switch. Some things just tickle the switch. The ticklers are things which are merely unfashionable, disagreeable or imprudent as opposed to those which are truly considered immoral. His examples were a little dense so I am going to have a go at it in my own voice.
It is unfashionable in many circles to get a tattoo. It is less a sign of drunken sailorism than it used to be, but many people still find it déclassé. It is disagreeable to get a picture of Rosanne Barr tattooed on your chest. It is imprudent to get Bill O’Reilly’s face tattooed on your forearm if you are going to the Democratic Convention. But, when all is said and done, it is only immoral to get a tattoo if you use the blood of clubbed baby seals instead of ink. (Oh, boy, even I think that was a horrible thing to say and I’m the guy who wrote it, sorry.)
What is moral can shift over time depending on the general knowledge base of the culture. It was once considered reprehensible to lie, cheat and steal to further personal goals, to blatantly, even proudly, put one’s bad habits and personal shortcomings on display for all to see, to demonstrate human failings in such an overt manner as to lose all deniability or opportunity for forgiveness. Now we call these same behaviors the latest hit reality show on CBS.
Mr. Pinker lists five components of the moral sense found in almost every culture. Those five are: harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity. The concept of “harm” revolves around the idea that it is wrong to harm others. There are of course exceptions. It is okay to harm individuals who have committed an egregious act. Acts like stealing food from orphans, snatching the purses of elderly women, or helping to write, produce, distribute or market the latest Rambo film.
Fairness states that one should return favors, reward good deeds and punish people who cheat. Well, as a father of three, I have frequently heard the plaintive wail of a child saying, “That’s not fair.” (Somehow children can make the word “fair” into a veritable Wagnerian aria of displeasure when they’re really annoyed.) After reading Mr. Pinker’s article I am better prepared to battle that whiny cry of moral outrage. I can tell the nine-year-old boy staring at me with clenched jaw because the big sister gets to go to the movie and he doesn’t that sociobiologists have postulated that there may even be a gene which has evolved over time to enhance the reciprocity factors and cultivate altruism. Throwing that amount of logical sounding babble at him will cause him to become bored and go downstairs to the more controllable world of Lego Star Wars on the GameCube and I can take a nap.
Community can also be illustrated well using children. The fifteen-year-old and the thirteen-year-old sisters can call each other names, pull each other’s hair, and leave each other black and blue and miserable, but if someone outside the family even looks cross-eyed at “my sister” they turn into secret service ninja bodyguards bent on protecting the life, limb and reputation of the same person that just moments before they contemplated giving a wedgie of epic proportion.
The idea of authority means people believe it is correct and moral to defer to legitimate authorities and respect people with high status. Unfortunately in my life the list of legitimate authority figures seldom includes tired old dad. Also, in today’s society high status is bestowed on Tom Brady not assistant principals hidden amongst 550 fifth and sixth graders.
I do not have the credentials of Mr. Pinker, but I must disagree with him. He says purity is valued in all cultures. Have you read the ingredients on anything? Heck, even Ivory soap has sodium tallowate, sodium palm kernelate, water, sodium chloride, sodium silicate, magnesium sulfate and fragrance. 99 and 44/100% pure my Aunt Flabby!

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