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April 29th, 2009


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01:58 pm - Musings On Moral Choices
pyat posted a fascinating essay about the limitations of morality in popular media, which is well worth reading. However, in the comments someone stated something that I've repeatedly heard as a truism – that all serious moral choices are difficult/painful. I've never remotely understood this statement. The entire idea of agonizing over a moral choice, or in fact spending more than very short time considering the situation and then coming to a single definitive choice is entirely alien to me. I suspect that my lack of having such difficulties is a result of being a fairly serious utilitarian [[1]] and having a highly conscious set of rules that I live by. This doesn't mean that I am at all lacking in compassion, the fact that performing some action would hurt others and seeing others in significant distress makes me seriously unhappy is an important component of the choices that I make.

Instead, my own process for making such choices is primarily unconscious, but when it's conscious, it's also fairly simple – what choice minimizes overall suffering and also specifically does not cause me to suffer. If there are multiple options, at that point, then I go with ones that maximize happiness, including my own happiness. I've literally never had a problem with this methodology, and have never been in a situation where any moral choice I made was at all painful or more than minimally difficult. While I realize that my own morality is a bit odd , I do wonder if my experiences are really that unusual.

Poll #1392017 Difficulty of moral choices

When making moral choices I

find them to pretty much be universally easy and obvious
0(0.0%)
find that there are a few exceptionally difficult & painful choices
11(61.1%)
find that a few choices are slightly difficult, but never seriously so
4(22.2%)
Other - explained in comments
3(16.7%)
ticky box
0(0.0%)


[[1]] Which in no way means that I agree with all other people who are ultitarians – the most glaring example being Peter Singer, who I think is a total nutcase, in large part because to me the rights & preferences of intelligent beings matter considerably more than those of non-intelligent beings. Thus, while I am an advocate of organic humanely killed meat, I'm still very much of an omnivore.

(16 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:andrewducker
Date:April 29th, 2009 09:19 pm (UTC)
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The problem with utilitarianism is that you're weighing things against each other and sometimes the figures are very close, or even into that blurry area of "I dunno".

I value friendships highly. I value peace of mind highly. Sometimes those things are not both achievable at the same time. (Just as a forinstance).
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From:xi_o_teaz
Date:April 29th, 2009 09:22 pm (UTC)

Here's my explanation of my "other":

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I hold several ideas from a few philosophies. I firmly believe that every situation is individual, so I'm a relativist. I'm also a Pragmatist. I tend to like the Utilitarian model, although I hardly follow it to the letter.

Ethics was always the field of Philosophy I cared about the least ;-)

I guess my real answer to this is this:

"I find them to be individually relative, but rarely to a difficult and painful level." I don't think they are always "easy" and "obvious," but they most often are.
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From:slothman
Date:April 29th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC)
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The difficult ones for me are where all available choices cause some sort of harm, and I have to pick which one.
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From:heron61
Date:April 29th, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC)
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I find such choices rather easy. Not harming me or the people I care about always wins out over any other possible choice. If the choice is between not harming me and not harming the people I care about, any option that does not directly involve harming me always wins. However, I've also rarely found occasions where harming me or harming the people I care about cannot be resolved through some third option.
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From:alephnul
Date:April 30th, 2009 03:52 am (UTC)
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I think an important part of it is that we live a life of ease and comfort without meaningful power. The only time we ever find ourselves close to having to make hard moral choices is if we go through a long series of bad choices first, and even then our choices aren't all that hard. When was the last time you had to decide which of your loved ones should go starve, or whether you should all risk starvation so that none of you were certain of starvation, or anything similar? Or had to decide whether to shoot the suspicious looking person now rather than risk them getting close enough to set off a bomb and kill the people under your command? 'Should I hurt one of my loved ones by chasing after a new romantic relationship in ways that my lover has told me not?' to is really not on the same level at all. Nor is 'should I lie to my parents?'
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From:cusm
Date:April 29th, 2009 09:47 pm (UTC)
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That's typically what gets me. Specifically, I was tinkering with some of the tests on yourmorals.org today (funny how parallel discussions like this come up, love the internet for it) and one stood out in particular as difficult. It was basically, what if you had to kill your baby to save yourself and a group of people with you. It pits kill life to save life against personal attachment. Its just ugly any way you cut it.

(Deleted comment)
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From:heron61
Date:April 29th, 2009 09:46 pm (UTC)
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You are indeed correct.
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From:teaotter
Date:April 29th, 2009 09:47 pm (UTC)
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A moral code? Is all about making those choices faster and easier. If you know what your code is, you don't have to spend a lot of time measuring out yuor morality every time something comes up.

The difficult part of a moral choice, for me, is kicking myself out of my usual thinking/behavior patterns and actually *examining* the situation morally. The question is often: 'Do I have the energy to pursue the moral solution?' rather than 'What is the moral solution?'

'Moral dilemmas' are slightly different. Those are the (often stereotypical) situations portrayed in stories wherein the protagonist's only remaining choices are immoral/unethical. The choice between stealing medicine or letting someone die, for example, is a moral dilemma. I find that these come up relatively infrequently in real life (wherein there are usually many ways to get medicine, and a single dose is rarely what's necesary, using the above example).

Those people who have signed up to put themselves in dilemma-like situations on a more regular basis -- soldiers, police officers, attorneys, judges, social workers, healthcare workers, etc -- usually come up with more detailed plans/codes for making those decisions.
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From:krinndnz
Date:April 29th, 2009 10:48 pm (UTC)
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I voted "a few exceptionally difficult & painful choices" because that's closest to my experience. My experience is that most moral choices aren't difficult. It's sort of an inverse-square relationship between difficulty and frequency: some moral choices are very difficult, but they're not ones you have to make often. I also think that that's because if they were frequent, there would be more guidance/consensus on how to deal with them and they'd become less difficult.
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From:heron61
Date:April 29th, 2009 11:10 pm (UTC)
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What makes such choices difficult?
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From:krinndnz
Date:April 29th, 2009 11:12 pm (UTC)
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Paucity of information.
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From:erelin
Date:April 29th, 2009 11:32 pm (UTC)
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As I am facinated with ethics, I checked "Other" as, when I have the leisure, I ponder an ethical choice through numerous different angles. In these moments, I look at my ethical priorities, but I am also fond of Kant's maxim to "Act as though all others should act the same in the same circumstances." I don't tend to view myself as utilitarian, mostly because I believe that sometimes my best interests will not be served by the common good, and I think that "feeling I have done the right thing" is more of an indicator of a good ethical decision and not a factor that makes a decision inherently moral.

When I do not have the leisure, I usually rely on gut instinct and course correct. Upon introspection, I have found that there are a few things that I value more highly than others, and that I defend these things first and that this "gut instinct" has a priority set I am fairly comfortable with.

Among my realizations is that I have discovered that "personal well-being" is fairly far down the list for me. Whether this is due to believing that I will always come out okay (a premise I agree with more often than not) or believing that there are things more important than my own safety/life/well-being (a premise I also agree with) I am not sure, but only because both could be said to apply.

I also find that the more comfortable one is, the easier the moral choices are. For instance, if a person isn't starving, has a roof over their head, and has people to call one's own, one doesn't make the kind of moral sacrifices one makes when one lacks these things. If a person is not thrust into difficult situations often, the morality of the situations they do face is less critical. This doesn't make people in difficult situations more or less moral than others, it merely means that their choices are harder.

For instance, I do not have to steal in order to eat. Given my skill set, my knowledge, my society, and my status, this will probably never become a real concern for me. Ergo, I do not have to choose between "Maintaining my well being," and "Preserving the social code that says I do not steal." I also have not (as others have throughout the history of war) ever had to kill someone, particularly someone innocent of any real crime. As a result, I have not had to make the choice between "Be a good citizen/soldier" and "Don't kill innocent people."

When people say that serious moral choices are difficult, they are also (classically) talking about decisions where there are two conflicting ideals- neither of which will be satisfied by the choice at hand. To take it into business/ecology ethics: If you are deciding whether or not to build a factory for Widget Z, comparing the environmental impact (What harm will the factory do to the planet?) to the business impact (How many more people will gain employment from this?) to the market impact (What is the need for Widget Z?) is a tough decision if it isn't ideal. If the factory will cause major environmental damage to a local area but will employ 500 (or 1,000, or 10,000) people who desperately need the work to support their families, is it worth it- assuming there is no other way available to you to solve the problem? What if the product saves lives? What if the environmental damage isn't limited to the local area? These factors are difficult to quantify and difficult to argue.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:April 30th, 2009 12:35 am (UTC)
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By definition, the term "moral choice" involves pain for me. I am only conscious of making a moral choice when I am brooding over a mistake I have made and need to make it right (such as saying something that offends someone or accidentally stepping outside my place in the social hierarchy). I don't have a well-articulated set of principles like you do. My ethics and social code seem to be the same thing and is based around being inoffensive. My choices change depending on the people I am around at the moment. I have chosen more than once to do things like not speak about certain topics at all or not disagree with others for the sake of keeping the peace. This is what I choose to do.
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From:hasufin
Date:April 30th, 2009 04:02 am (UTC)
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Selection bias - most moral choices are really easy, but since they're so easy we don't think much about them. It's the difficult ones - the ones that involve weighing the possible outcomes, consulting philosophical texts, composing arguments - that we need to devote more time to and thus consider more. Most moral decisions are so obvious that we don't even think about them as involving morality - it doesn't take a lot of soul-searching to whip out a cell phone and call an ambulance when a co-worker has a heart attack or to keep from stabbing the person who just cut in front of you in a line. These things are obvious - but nonetheless they are moral choices.
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From:xuenay
Date:April 30th, 2009 01:15 pm (UTC)
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I suspect part of what sets you apart from others is that you have a far greater tolerance for uncertainty than most (a less charitable interpretation would be that you're overconfident about your reasoning abilities - pick the one you prefer ;)). For me, the problem with moral dilemmas is usually uncertainty about the consequences. If I knew for certain the option that did minimize overall suffering, then I'd usually have as little difficulty picking it as you. However, in those case I usually don't know which option minimizes the suffering, and the probabilities don't differ enough that I could even be certain of which option was more likely to minimize it. Therefore the difficulty.

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