June 6, 2019

Acknowledging Ignorance

There’s obviously a whole lot of political upheaval lately over various issues, not the least of which is civil rights, gender issues, and sexual legalities. But, what I intend to argue here, while indirectly addressing some of these important issues, is that these issues aren’t actually the ones that are being fought about. I hope that has either intrigued or enraged you already, because then maybe you’ll read on....

There are three basic concepts at work when it comes to rights, actions, freedom, and other such aspects of society: morality, ethics, and law. Contrary to what a lot of folks might think about these ideas, they are not at all the same thing, nor should they be (although they do often overlap, kind of like a Venn diagram). They are three distinct and unique aspects of human society and are all very important to each other. But, it’s when they are conflated and confused that we get some of the greatest injustices, persecutions, and what is so appropriately called “altruistic evil,”* being evil things that we do under the assumption of justice, peace, or social correction.

Most often, we fight over how we define terms and what category an issue falls into.
To justify what I wrote earlier about what we are and are not fighting about, when we do argue, debate, or battle each other over social issues, most of the time, what we fight over has far less to do with the issue itself and far more to do with how we define terms (like what it means to be “human life” or even simply what “morality” is) and what category these issues fall into (i.e., morality, ethics, or law). For example, when it comes to socio-political stances like being “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” one can actually be both at the same time, but under different contexts. For example, one could be morally pro-life while being ethically and legally pro-choice. And, being "pro-choice" also doesn't necessarily mean "pro-abortion." It’s really all about making proper and healthy distinctions.

The term “morality” is the one that’s often used as sort of a scapegoat, at least as far as I can see, in politics and arguments over social justice. In fact, morality is a concept that is least at stake when it comes to laws and social justice issues. When you’re thinking about what is moral (“good”) or immoral (“bad”), you have to first ask yourself: Who’s morality are we talking about? Morality is often subjective, that is, subjective to one’s particular situation like religious stance, cultural background, or opinions. There are, perhaps, a few objective concepts in morality, but those are few and far between and ultimately not the issue here. And, even if they might be objective, nothing (I mean NOTHING) in terms of morality is absolute. I’ll demonstrate:

"Absolute" is just an ideal that real life just doesn’t live up to.

Here’s an objective moral principle—killing people is bad. We know this is an objective concept because of the very simple idea that we ourselves do not want to be killed. So, sure, I’ll concede that killing people is objectively “bad.” But, it doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize that even that very stark example is not absolute (meaning that it was, is, and always in every circumstance will be the case). Is it morally acceptable to kill someone attacking your child in order to protect your valuable offspring? It is acceptable to kill in warfare to protect your home and family? These simple examples show how "absolute" is just an ideal that real life just doesn’t live up to.

There is always some conceivable circumstance wherein something bad could actually be something good, and vice versa. So, morality then becomes less a measure of what action is good or bad, but whether our intention is good or bad. Even still, if I say “killing people is bad,” then, if you want to get all litigious about it (in terms of abortion, or example), then what is a “person?” Although I won’t get into bioethics and the definition of what a person is, I mean only to show that depending on how one person over another defines what a “person” is can make all the difference of how morality is assessed. This, though, is really where ethics comes in.

If morality is a measure of intention, then ethics is a measure of action.
If morality is a measure of intention, then ethics is a measure of action. While morality is subject to so many personal variables, making it largely subjective, then ethics can be thought of as slightly more (although not absolutely objective. Ethics is a concept that basically makes it possible for folks to live peaceably among each other. It’s what keeps us, despite our subjective differences, operating in society in a healthy and productive way. If something determines the quality of your action being supportive or destructive to your community (work, school, family, etc.), then it’s likely an ethical issue. You could say that the definition of the word “person” is an ethical issue, but it’s really more what you do with that definition. Do you use that definition to define a law? Is that law based on an objective ethical principle or a subjective moral one? Can that law justly apply to everyone, from every cultural, religious, and circumstantial position? Does the law limit, oppose, or impose subjective actions on everyone’s part, even a single person? Could you possibly ever know the infinitude of diverse circumstances in which the single law is applied???

So now, it sounds like law is it’s very own thing as well. Law is very simply a measure of control. It’s a social device that we invented to limit, prohibit, and/or punish certain actions that we as a collective society deem as unethical. Notice that I didn’t say “immoral,” I said “unethical.” Sure, morals and ethics often overlap, but not always. Why is it illegal to kill someone? I would argue (historical precedent aside), that it has little to do with the fact that it’s immoral and has more to do with the fact that, ethically speaking, it’s bad for humans living in society together to kill each other (to say the least). Theft is not illegal because it’s one of the “Ten Commandments” of the Judea-Christian tradition. It’s illegal because the law is designed to protect the individual’s right to property ownership.

If you’re not with me still, here’s another example. A drunk driver runs a red light and is killed by another driver passing legally through a green light (who survived the crash). Well, if killing a person is illegal because it’s immoral, then the sober driver should be charged with murder. There’s all sorts of complexities there, obviously, but the point is that, while the surviving driver may feel guilt or remorse over a regrettable situation, they objectively did nothing illegal, unethical, or even immoral. On a lighter note, insulting someone is typically immoral and unethical. But, thankfully, it's not illegal. Given the amount of F-bombs I've dropped in my life, I'd be locked up for fifty to life at this point.

Acknowledge your own inherent and enduring ignorance.

Circumstance and intention make all the difference, and is nearly infinite in individual complexity, and unknowable to any one person who is outside of the situation itself. It may be illegal to steal food from a store, even if it is to feed a starving child, but I wouldn’t call it immoral, even if it is still technically unethical(?). Just because it’s technically legal to pay minimum wages to some exceedingly hard-working and hazardous jobs, that doesn’t mean it’s moral or even ethical. Ultimately, just because you have the right to do something, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Inversely, just because you don’t have the (legal) right to do something, doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. And, just because you consider it immoral within your own subjective perspective, doesn’t mean it should control the actions of others whose circumstances could be incalculably different than your own. Acknowledge your own inherent and enduring ignorance, because it’s the only thing we can all count on throughout this wild ride we call life.

*Altruistic Evil was so well-characterized by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence.