Issue #3, 8/5/2006
Family Court Philosopher
"Natural morality" is my term for a code of conduct based on our actual experience of life and not on any call to authority. Formal philosophers may have other names for it, but I choose to start from scratch.
For example, one generally acceptable moral rule is "Thou shalt not kill." Why not? One reason to refrain from killing is because God, or someone claiming to represent Him, has told us not to. Another reason is because there are laws against it and you might get caught and punished.
Natural morality contends that you don't need either God or the law to tell you not to kill. You don't kill simply because it makes sense not to, based on what you personally know about the world, not on what someone tells you.
Killing is a bad policy for practical reasons, like the threat of going to jail, but also because of the moral liability it creates. This is a key concept in natural morality: When you take an action in the world, you are responsible for its effects. Therefore, your actions should be very judicious and measured.
Natural morality is based on our earliest experiences as children. We are born into a strange body without a clue about who we are, where we are or how we got here.
Gradually, we begin to figure things out. We are a discrete entity in a family of other entities who, hopefully, care about us. Social interaction is essential to us from our earliest days. Initially, we start out as the center of the universe, concerned only with our own feelings, but eventually we see that other people have feelings and inner conscious lives similar to our own. It is just a theory, but one we begin to believe in.
It may take a while, but in the course of normal development, we will come to see that the feelings of others are no less valuable than our own. We learn to empathize with others: When we are aware of another person's paineven pain that hasn't happened yetwe, to some extent, also feel that pain. We want to avoid causing pain to others, just like we want to avoid our own pain.
This is one of the starting points upon which natural morality is built: basic empathy. It is good to reduce the pain of others and to make their lives more successful.
Another starting point is that we have a great deal of control over our own bodies and actions but much less control over those of others. My body is my instrument through which all actions are accomplished; therefore, I need to properly maintain it and give it the tools it needs to accomplish things.
My own pain and productivity naturally take priority over that of others. If my fingers are being burned on a hot stove, I am obviously going to address that problem immediately before worrying about the needs of others. If my own instrument becomes damaged, it impedes my ability to help others, so obviously I should look after it first.
At the beginning of an airplane flight, the safety briefing tells you to put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist your children with theirs. This makes perfect sense. No matter how much you love your children, if you become unconscious, you won't be able to assist them at all. If it truly came down to sacrificing your own life to save your child, you might consider it, but under most circumstances, your first priority is preserving your own health and effectiveness, because only though this device can you help others.
If forced into a corner where there was no other choice, you would kill to protect yourself. This is natural, and there are accommodations for it in law. We also would not call it "selfish" to feed yourself, bathe yourself, go to the doctor, go to school or otherwise maintain your body or mind. It is just like owning a car, a chainsaw or any other tool: You need to adequately maintain it in order to get the maximum use out of it.
The moral issues in self-maintenance revolve around with whether your actions are necessary or frivolous. For example, it is necessary to change the oil in your car, but it is not necessary to wax it every week. We would not call an oil change frivolous, but the waxing would be. It is "selfish" in a way because it takes you away from helping others or improving your instrument.
Once your ability to help is secured, you can turn your attention to others. This is a more complicated than maintaining your own mind and body. The needs of the world are essentially infinite, and you are one small person with limited resources. If the feelings of every human are as valuable as your own, and there are millions of people suffering in the world, who do you help?
Deciding who to help is an exercise in triage. In a battlefield hospital, this word refers to the sorting of the wounded and the assignment of services to maximize the number of survivors. The lightly wounded might not be treated, because they will probably survive anyway. The most gravely injured might also be bypassed, if they are likely to die regardless of the resources devoted to them. Services are directed to the patients where they will do the most good.
Deciding who to help is a triage calculation. It is a balancing of factors that include the responsiveness of the subject, the responsibility of the subject for his own predicament, our ability to monitor the results of our actions, the cost to us, the potential gains for the world, our investment in the outcome and the potential risk to us.
An essential part of the calculation is our proximity to the subject: We will help our own child before we help other children on the other side of the world. The most powerful reason is that is simply easier to help those within our own home.
Deciding to "do good" flows naturally from our perceptionwhether true or notthat other people have feelings and are as intrinsically valuable as we are. Likewise, the decision to "not do bad" also flows from empathy. One reason we do not steal from or injure others is to avoid hurting their feelings.
If we found a wallet on the sidewalk, we would try to return it to its owner, even if we have never met him before. Empathy tells us that this person is probably in distress, and since it is within our power to relieve it at relatively little cost to us, we would usually do it.
But what if the wallet contained cash? We could easily remove the cash and give the person back their ID and other personal effects, which are probably more valuable to them. No one would know that it was us who took the cash, and maybe it is a reasonable "finder's fee."
Here we get into something more complicated than empathy. It is a matter of policy. We don't take the cash from the wallet because it would require us to lie in some form. Lying is a bad policy because it creates a dual reality within us: the thing we know to be true and the story we tell to others. Over time, maintaining this dual reality can get very complicated and prevents you from relaxing and being yourself. If you always tell the truth, then you never have to remember the lies you told.
On the other hand, "telling the truth" can sometimes be the most destructive and unconscionable thing you can do. For example, if a kid believes in Santa Claus and you are not his parent, then it is not your place to tell him that Santa does not exist. This is not enlightening but cruel. Everyone has their "Santa" delusions, and it is not necessarily compassionate or appropriate to dispell them.
This is where any policy must be moderated by empathy and by pragmatic concerns. Under natural morality, there are no hard and fast rules for anything. "Thou shalt not kill," is more of a guideline than a law. In most activities, there are general policies you should follow, but any policy can be overruled under the right circumstances.
The overruling of policies is the truest test of morality, because here is where you are using all of your intellect and reasoning power. "Thou shalt not kill" is a good general policy, but maybe today I might have to kill because of the special circumstances I am facing. You've got to sweat it out and consider all of the factors: What are the implications and risks if I kill, and what might happen if I don't?
You could pray to God for guidance, but that is not the way of natural morality. All the logic and evidence you need is available to you right here on earth. You just need to conduct whatever research you need, add up all the factors and make a decision.
It is your decision, not God's.
[End of allocated time.]
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