Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Hard Choices

Leah touches on a simple point which doesn't get made often enough about morality, over at Unequally Yoked, which is that there's an unhealthy tendency to see the "hard" moral choices as being very borderline ones in which seemingly both options have major obvious benefits and evils, which are hard to weigh. This is what's behind many of the trolley or burning building dilemmas (though these usually aren't even real moral dilemmas, since they're based on weighing the worth of outcome rather than the intention and end of actions.)

But even weighing out these situations built around placing value on outcomes, often people picture the struggle to make moral choices being around making a clear moral decision in a situation where it bears a huge personal cost of some sort. Certainly, doing what you believe to be right despite huge personal cost is difficult, but Leah points out that most of the struggle of living a moral life is not struggling with one or two really big situations, but rather struggling with tiny ones:
I wasn’t talking being tempted to steal or kill at random, but about repeating a funny, unflattering story about a friend or lashing out when someone doesn’t seem to be listening to your answer to their question or responding to a friend letting you down by just resolving to rely less on other people in the future. People who know me in person will recognize a rogues gallery of my own weaknesses in the above, and I’m sure you can come up with other examples of petty-seeming sin.

The first examples that came to my mind are all sins of commission: when I do what I shouldn’t. The glaring omission is, well, sins of omission: when I fail to do something I should: not helping a lost-looking tourist, not paying enough attention to a friend to notice s/he’s upset and needs attention, not attending to the physical needs of the poor (through donations and political activism) or their dignity (by recoiling when approached by a panhandler).

Calling my struggles with these weaknesses heroic is as silly as labeling my quest to wake up at my first alarm ‘epic.’ But the small scale of the failing doesn’t mean it’s not hard to fix.
Not only is it hard to persevere in these circumstances because the lapses are apparently small (and yet the bad moral habits formed by those lapses over time can be anything but small) but the really hard-to-persevere times involve those situations in which external observers are absent. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith sketches out an essentially secular moral code based on the idea of the impartial observer. We act well in order to be perceived as someone who acts well. We also internalize this observer and thus act well in order to satisfy our internal observer that we are people who act well.

And yet, this internal impartial observer is someone that, we often think we can catch napping or buy off. A moral practice based primarily on regard is one which we find it almost impossible to maintain when not observed.

1 comment:

bearing said...

Good post.

This is why frequent confession is so eye-opening. You are forced to deal with much finer grains of sin, and you start to get a picture of what are really your besetting flaws.

And you know, they usually aren't very glamorous or exciting flaws. Evil can be pretty embarrassingly banal sometimes.