Friday, June 4, 2010

Moral Clarity: Do Morals Make Sense?

Many different people advocates morals for different reasons. The Greek philosophers advocated that in the long run it is intrinsically more pleasant to be moral than amoral. Thus, for the Greek philosopher, as they are watching other people around them have more fun gratifying their immediate desires though unmoral activity, they are consoling themselves by telling themselves that in the long run - the moral person will be better off and also by telling themselves that deep down it is more satisfying by being moral because it is a true extension of our identity as humans. Then there are the religious people that often advocate you need to be moral because there are eternal consequences for your day to day actions - so you better shape up if you want to be happy in the long run.

Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity looks at both of these extreme. It advocates against the Greek philosophers view that in the end it always turns out best for the moral person by showing that we live in an unjust world where you can never be guaranteed that moral activity will be rewarded. It also challenges the religious viewpoint by questioning why we need to look to the after life for motivation for moral activity today.

Rather than supporting either of these views, she argues that we have an intrinsic morality in us - it is part of what makes us human. By tuning into that inner morality and living consistent with it, our human struggle can make sense. Living with high moral standards may never result in success, comfort, or pleasure, but it can enable our lives to have purpose.

I remember hearing a story of one of the worst forms of torture in German Concentration camps. There would be a pile of bricks at one end of the yard. The workers would have to cart the bricks from the one pile to a new pile on the other end of the yard. The next day, they would have to cart the brick from the second pile back to the first pile. They would back and forth like this day after day. Their tasks were utterly meaningless. After a few days of doing this, people would start to go crazy and some would commit suicide. It is not in our nature as humans to be able to continue to exist in meaningless activity. Our lives need to make sense. Our morality needs to make sense, it needs to have meaning for us to continue to struggle to do the right thing when it is so much easier to cast away moral restraint.

Susan Neiman tries to make sense out of morality by showing example after example of people that risk their lives and everything else they hold precious to help another person. The person that risks all they have does not gain anything, they only engage in an opportunity to act constant with a deep moral identity. In that moment, they sense the resonance of their whole being engaged in what it means to be human.

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