04 October 2013

What is Moral?

There's a supposedly "moral" question doing the rounds of moral philosophy at the moment which makes me wonder whether the whole concept of abstract morality isn't completely bogus. If you go looking you will be treated to a number of earnest discussions on this matter. The question is "Would you kill one person to save five?" There has been some rather dubious research published on this question which has sparked the interest.

It's presented as a "moral dilemma" and a "moral question" but I can't help thinking that its just a "dilemma" or a "question". Why do we bother to affix the word "moral" to this kind of question? But more than this, I think the question is meaningless for most people and that any answers are meaningless as well. 

Ethics and Morality

Firstly let me try to sort out some terminology which has confused me for some time, the distinction between ethics and morality. I confess that I tend to use the two words interchangeably, but when I have made a distinction I have been rather inconsistent. 

The word moral and it's cousin morality enter the English language in about the 14th century from the Latin via French. Latin moralis means "proper behavior of a person in society" and was (confusingly) coined by Cicero to translate the Greek ethikos (whence ethics). The Latin mos means 'disposition' and in the plural mores refers to the customs, manners and morals of a society. OEtD.

Ethics, as we have seen, comes from the Greek. It comes into English in ca. 1600. The Greek ethos means 'custom' or 'moral character'. OEtD defines ethics as the "science of morality". An ethic is a set of moral principles, and ethics (used as a singular) is moral principles more abstractly. However moral principles seen in the abstract are also referred to as morality.

So non-violence or ahiṃsa is a moral principle, and the Buddhist precepts taken together are an ethic, the Buddhist ethic. The study of various kinds of ethic is ethics or morality Confusingly non-violence could be considered an ethos 'a characteristic attitude'. Also confusingly ethics is the subject studied by moral philosophers (i.e. philosophers of morality).

When we say that the Buddha ethicized the universe we mean that the Buddhist worldview asserts that the principles that govern the universal are moral principles so that some people can talk about a "moral universe". Or we say that the principle of dependent arising, the principle on which the world/universe operates, is fundamentally a moral principle that gives rise to the Buddhist ethos and ensures actions have the appropriate consequences for the appropriate people.

A morality play is a drama in which characters represent the various moral principles and which tries to convey a moral i.e. a lesson on a moral principle or on morality more generally. Buddhists texts are morality plays with idealised characters, particularly the Buddha, representing Buddhist moral principles, who act in such a way as to lionise, eulogise, and apologise for, the Buddhist ethos and ethic.

For Christians, moral principles are not natural principles, they are rules given to the faithful by an all powerful god who rewards and punishes, primarily in the afterlife, depending on whether or not his rules are followed. It is only faith in God's omniscience that justifies the rules. Buddhists by contrast argue that in a moral universe, moral principles emerge from the operation of natural laws (particularly the natural law par excellence: dependent arising) and that reward and punishment happens, primarily in the afterlife, spontaneously as a natural result of the action without any agent. Some of the apparent complexity in the comparison is ironed out when science points out that Buddhism, though claiming to be a form of naturalism, still relies on the super-natural to close the loop on actions and consequences. There is, for example, no appreciable way for the consequences actions to follow us through death into the next life that is not filled with metaphysical problems and contradictions (particularly forms of strong mind/body dualism and persistent entities). In fact apart from the personification aspect of Christianity which is largely, though not completely absent from Buddhist ethics (viz. Yama as post-mortem torturer), the outlines of the two systems, as well as much of the content, are pretty similar. The idea being promoted by one of my colleagues at present, that Buddhist morality is "not about being good", is a thoroughly modern reinterpretation of Buddhism that seems to me to be more to do with rejecting Christianity than with embracing traditional Buddhist ethics. 

On the whole Western society is much less squeamish about killing animals, and leaves plenty of loop-holes to justify killing human beings. The thrust of Western rules about killing seem to be to limit the context in which killing is acceptable (self-defence, war, certain policing situations) rather than an outright ban on it. Even societies built on Buddhist principles compartmentalise killing in various circumstances (see e.g. the essay Buddhists: Beneficiaries of Violence by Shakya Indrajala and my comment on it). And note that the same ethical problem seems to crop up in Buddhist discourse, e.g. the case of the murderer on the ferry who is tossed overboard to stop him slaughtering all the other passengers [I've never come across the source of this story, but it comes up with such regularity that I'm inclined to accept it as genuine].

In any case most people reading this, including secular humanists, will have been inculcated with the principle that killing human beings is wrong. Now because this principle is about how we behave and places limits on how we should behave - it is a moral principle (or rule). But the word 'moral' is really redundant, we don't need to be told that murder involves behaviour or social conventions. And in this case 'morality' has become humbug. Somehow a word that connotes behaviour has become extremely emotive and polarising. As though just labelling something a 'moral' issue is enough to start an argument. A moral issue is one we feel strongly about. A moral dilemma is one which divides us and causes emotionally charged debates. A moral imperative is something someone else is failing to do that we're angry about that. And so on. 

Part of the reason for the emotion is that 'moral' philosophy was for a long time the province of religion. If we say something is a moral dilemma, we invoke organised religion and the strong feelings for and against religion that characterise modern society. We invoke the entrenched arguments for and against God and all that. In the post-Christian West we're largely confused about our ethic, our system of moral principles. Where there is no agreed framework for morality then we tend to default to what we feel strongly about as a guide. Our guts tell us what is right and wrong. We're individuals who make our own decisions about what is important. And thus we don't agree about what is right and what is wrong except in a few extreme cases like murder (without extenuating circumstances). 

Thus, despite the fact that the words have technical definitions, I would argue that the word 'moral' really doesn't mean anything anymore. The semantics go out the window in daily use. It's just a signal that the issues are emotive or emotionally charged. And a lot of what passes for moral debate is in fact nonsense, confused, or unhelpful because it simply involves people contending on the basis of gut feelings without being able to articulate why. 

Would You Kill and How Would You Know?

And so back to our question. Is it moral to kill one person to save five? We use "moral" because killing is a highly emotive issue. We're really asking if it is acceptable to kill one to save five. It's a strange question because it apparently ignores the compartmentalisation of killing in all societies. Soldiers are regularly awarded medals for killing one to save five. Generally speaking our society praises the effective soldier who kills many of our enemies at minimal cost to us, though we are more sensitive to the justifications for war and its expedients these days. Similarly for the policeman who shoots a terrorist planning to explode a bomb. And even if these agents of the state make mistakes and kill innocent people, the range of extenuating circumstances is so broad that they are seldom held  to be culpable. It's acceptable for sanctioned agents of the state to kill in error as long as it was not a gross error or a deliberate breach of applicable laws. Additionally there is clear law and legal precedent for killing in self-defence dating back to antiquity. 

Where we accept the principle of self-defence extends to state agents protecting the neighbourhood or the state, we are much less clear about capital punishment. Of course some countries still practice killing of those guilty of heinous crimes, though seldom without protest these days. In the USA and often in the UK one could expect to be summarily executed if one pulled a gun on a police officer, but if one survived to be convicted in court of the same offence there is some doubt over the state's response. In the UK an armed police officer could legitimately shoot and kill someone suspected of pulling a gun (e.g. in the high profile case of Mark Duggan which is once again in the news). Keeping in mind that UK police are not armed as a matter of course. That same person could expect, at worst, to be in prison for life if apprehended and tried. Obviously there is a glaring inconsistency in this compartmentalisation, but it is an ethos that has developed over a considerably period of history. It's not trivial or irrelevant to cite Magna Carta (1215 CE) in such a discussion in the UK.

The issues become considerably more complex when we consider the question "Acceptable to whom?" For instance many people believe, contra the law and the majority, that it is never acceptable for the police to kill. In the case of Mark Duggan riots ensued after he was shot dead. His family and friends, and the people of his neighbourhood generally, certainly did not accept the killing. An inquiry is currently underway to examine the circumstances surrounding his death. Had Duggan been taken alive, he would never have faced the death penalty, whatever his crime.

So the question about killing one to save five seems only to apply outside the compartments that routinely and conventionally allow killing. Perhaps the question is really about the compartmentalisation? Perhaps we are being asked to think about the routinisation of these compartments? In addition the implicit question is about to whom it would be acceptable to kill someone in these circumstances, to which there is seldom a simple answer.

In order to give us some traction let us assume that we are asking ourselves the question. Would I even be able to kill one to save five outside the usually sanctioned context of allowable killing.

In my twenties I trained in a form of martial art called Kempo. As part of our training we engaged in a kind of sparring. In this particular form of sparring one strikes at the opponent, but aims just short of contact - a light touch is acceptable. The implication is that any strike which makes it through a person's defences to the point of contact might have gone home to some vital point and significantly injured the opponent. The first to land such a strike wins the round. Hard contact does not happen except by accident, though it happens often enough to make one wary.

Part of the point of this kind of sparring is that one learns to maintain discipline and awareness while under physical attack. It's quite a difficult thing to keep your head when fighting. And this is my point. The reality of conflict is so very different from how we see it on film and TV or how we imagine it. If you have not starred down the barrel of a gun wondering if the trigger would be pulled then you probably cannot accurately gauge how you will respond. It's too far from your experience. Faced with mass murderers most people do one of two things: freeze or run. Even if they are armed.

So we have an abstract question that assumes that any possible action is open to you. But all possible actions are not open to you. A lot will depend on how you react to being terrified of immanent death and/or immanent killing. You might be unimaginative enough that the potential consequences don't flash into your awareness. They say that test-pilots are like this. When there is a crisis they just stay calm and work through the sequence of procedures collecting information until it is time to eject. But most of us find our bodies flooding with adrenaline and taking up the classic posture of readiness for fight or flight, and most of us have a strong preference for flight. Reactions at this level have nothing to do with customs or abstract notions of goodness, it's all biology and experience.

Of course there are others who glory in the thrill of a fight. Who seek out the rush that comes from confrontation. Not just the professional boxer or the amateur Karate-ka, but the street fighters and rednecks who just love a good punch-up (I grew up around people like this). When I started martial arts sparring I had a tendency to duck - in this form of sparring strikes to the really vulnerable parts of the body like the knees or groin were not allowed precisely because of the risk of serious injury and the head is the next best target. I vividly recall my instructor shouting at me "Mr Attwood, keep your head up!" Allowing someone to punch you in the head is not clever. I'm sure I don't have to make the evolutionary argument here that ducking your head away from harm is a natural response. But I did learn to control my ducking reflex and to engage in simulated combat. I started to really enjoy it and I got reasonably good at it (I competed fairly well for my age and grade). And in a way it's ironic because I know all too well the difference between the kind of simulated combat we were doing, and the real combat where someone is actively trying to hurt you. As a boy I was attacked and hurt in anger on many occasions. As a teen I even had a gun pointed at me from a passing car. Play fighting and fighting for real are just not the same. Imagination does not prepare you for reality. Only experience prepares you for reality.

We might like to think of ourselves as this sort or that sort of person, but the fact is that most people are not going to be faced with a choice like killing one to save five, and we simply cannot begin to imagine what it would be like. We might try to give the question serious thought and try to answer it, but in most cases the answer has no basis in reality. On a practical level asking this question is pointless and tells us nothing. Most of us don't know and will never know if we are capable of fighting let alone killing. Apropos this point, anecdote tells us that even in war most soldiers don't shoot to kill. There's quite a good summary of this phenomenon in Psychology of Killing (from a website on adding reality to writing military science fiction). My favourite statistic being that, in Vietnam the US infantry fired 52,000 bullets for every enemy killed!


Although the word 'moral' is attached to a variety other concepts, in most cases the word could be dropped with no loss of clarity. We face issues, dilemmas, and imperatives where we have to decide how to behave. Prefixing 'moral' to these concepts only muddies the water. I suspect that the presence of the word 'moral' causes so much confusion that it stymies any useful discussion. Also using extremes to gauge our values skews things. Most of the time the question is about whether or not a course of behaviour is acceptable and to whom. 

As a general principle we value life. Why we value life is actually less important than the fact that we do. There are obvious situations where taking life is broadly acceptable. Self-defence is pretty universal - it's acceptable (though not with consequence) to kill someone if they are trying to kill us. Most of us accept that the principle of self-defence extends to the defence of our community and our nation. So police and soldiers are allowed to kill under certain conditions. There are other areas where the value of life creates conflict, for example abortion. Is killing an embryo the same as killing a person? Some argue it is and some not, but in frameworks that are often unrelated. Similarly for killing animals. For some this presents no dilemma at all. For others it is never acceptable. The unenviable task of weighing these arguments is currently vested in executive and the judicial branches of government, though this authority is contested and challenged in many ways. Changes in values are a constant hazard for decision makers. 

In this day and age there is no guarantee that we will share values with neighbours. One of the problems of individualism is that it leaves us with a certain amount of freedom to judge what is acceptable. As individuals we're often at odds with society or other groups we're members of. Joining or leaving groups is generally speaking easy and has few consequences - most of us are no longer dependent on our neighbours for survival, they mostly strangers to us and we're free to ignore them (which most urban dwellers seem to do). We move jobs, towns, associations, start and leave families, all with relative ease because we don't form the strong ties that characterise communities. 

Without some agreed set of values leading to an external standard of behaviour we're just left with our own emotionally driven opinions. We may rationalise our opinions through intellectual discussion but the process results in a drift into relativism and social tensions as everyone has their own rationalisations. Pissing contests such as that between militant Atheists and militant Christians and Muslims are unhelpful because they tend to cloud the issues and exacerbate the polarisation.

One of the problems many people have with organised religion is that it requires that you align your values (if not your thoughts) with that of the group. If you don't then membership of the religious group is meaningless. And most groups have unspoken and unwritten values that take time to appreciate and come to terms with. Group membership is a natural thing for humans. We are both social and tribal by nature. There are pros and cons to group membership of course, but on the whole we do better in groups. Over twenty years I've seen quite a lot of strife caused by naive individuals (new and old) expecting the group to align to their values instead of the other way around. The disappointment that occurs when the group denies the will of the individual in these cases can even lead to a kind of madness. The eccentric has to beware of simply defining themselves negatively, in opposition to a group, because this seems to be destructive to their psyche. 

There's no simple answer to a question like: "Is it moral to kill one person to save five?" In many ways it is a dumb and unhelpful question because it partakes in so many unspoken assumptions and biases. Untangling the knot so that the question is understood is the largest part of answering the question. And in the end the answer is that it depends. There are any number of circumstances in which it is clearly acceptable to kill one to save five. Society won't blame us if we're a soldier defending our county, or a police officer defending our neighbourhood, or a parent defending our children. Other situations are more or less ambiguous. Life is not simple. 

It's possible that by defining what the acceptable and unacceptable situations are for ourselves we might get a better idea of what our values are. And by comparing answers we might see how our values relate to the values of others. However, I suspect that while most of us could say what we feel to be acceptable, very few of us could articulate why with feel that way. It's just gut feeling and that is the product of biology and a lifetime of social conditioning, and largely unconscious.

We really don't know how we will react in extremis. We can't imagine the reality of kill or be killed. We're like virgins talking about sex. By using more everyday challenges of which we have actual experience to draw on, we'll probably get a better idea of our values and how we might deal with potential future dilemmas. We can get a great deal of information from our every day relationships and especially where the tensions are in those relationships.

These kinds of abstract, hypothetical questions from moral philosophers are really a bizarre form of entertainment. Ticking away the moments of a dull day. It's worth challenging the premises they are based on in the hope that other people don't get sucked unwittingly into the interminable discussions they initiate, but reflecting about morality is more profitably done closer to home.


Related Posts with Thumbnails