Does having to show how injustice affects “you” indicate a general lack of morality?

Sometimes in order to get people to act against an injustice, one needs to demonstrate how it affects them personally. I’m not talking about “what if something similar happened to you”, I’m talking about “you’ll really feel the effects of the war when petrol prices go up”.

It’s not usually something as trivial as petrol prices. You might have to say things like “the invasian of Iraq will fuel hatred and aggrevate would-be terrorists” indicating that it will ultimately make life less safe (rather than asserting that invading and occupying another country is simply wrong). Or maybe “intensive farming methods could result in contamination of our food supply” (rather than asserting that animals should not have to endure such appalling living conditions). It seems that we are more easily swayed by arguments that something is impractical or unwise, rather than simply unethical.

It’s selfish and prejudiced to make a moral decision based on how it affects you. You also shouldn’t assume an alterior motive when someone makes a moral argument (in order to deride the argument as self-serving). Arguments should be judged on their own merit, not by what someone wants to get out of it.

Are we really so immoral that injustice needs to have clear negative implications for us before we do anything about it?

On the other hand, is scare-mongering (rather than presenting an argument based on ethics) offensive to our potential for moral character?

9 thoughts on “Does having to show how injustice affects “you” indicate a general lack of morality?”

  1. Ethics are (finally) based on personal gain anyway. I doubt I have to argue that ethics are constructed rather than absolute – well, our societal values are constructed from what will eventualy be best for each individual. Where an individual accepts personal hardship for the good of others, it is (or should be, were we rational beings) because they wish to live in a society whose members are prepared to make such sacrifices, knowing that in the long view it will improve their lot.

    But I think to a large extent organised religion has perverted understanding of why the greedy algorithm doesn’t always work – if you just declare certain behaviours to be “God’s will”, you get out of the habit of thinking your actions through on the large scale. These same people wouldn’t consider physically murdering someone for personal gain, but if you asked them why you’d get no further than “it’s wrong”.

  2. … were we rational beings…

    Morals could just be part of our nature (as a result of evolution or divine construction). I don’t think rationality has to come into it at the base level. 😛

    These same people wouldn’t consider physically murdering someone for personal gain, but if you asked them why you’d get no further than “it’s wrong”.

    I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, and I don’t see how it’s related to the first part of that paragraph (?). I think that a lot of people (secular and non-secular) would just say “that’s wrong” without further consideration for why. I don’t think people need a rational basis for (what is general considered) a fairly fundamental moral decision. It’s when they becomes more detached from a murder that people start rationalising (to liken it to something more direct).

    I think it comes down to moral code (values) and moral core (following those value). We seem to have fairly well-developed moral codes (maybe due to evolution, or religion, or modernisation), but rather poor moral cores (complacent and irrational?). Hence, it’s often easier to appeal to selfishness (directly) rather than morality.

  3. Dunno how to quote, sorry.

    Evolution is inherently rational. (Divine intervention? Give me a break. That’s fine to allow as a possibility, but you have to assume otherwise or you’ve effectively Godwinned the discussion.) But societal evolution works slowly and chaotically, which is fine if you don’t mind being Darwinated* but once again if you’re having this discussion you’re probably trying to keep your society ahead of that curve. If you don’t want rationality to come into it, why are you even discussing it?

    Not sure unquestioning/irrational adherence to received morals (specifically about murder) is a bad thing? Hello? Abortion debate?

    It’s related to the first part because it’s an example of where people _don’t_ think just about personal gain. If people are taught they mustn’t think about those decisions, they don’t learn to think about them when they become too specific or complex for their existing doctrine.

    I tend to call those things ethics and morality. (but maybe moral core is better, because sometimes morality implies unthinking) I think the problems with moral core happen when people make bad or lazy decisions in situations not clearly enough addressed by existing code. Like all code, the source is much more effectively extensible than the precompiled binary.

    *Two proper verbs in one paragraph. Yeah baby.

  4. You can never really be completely morally or ethically just. It’s just where you draw the line.

    No matter how hard you try you will always be hurting or damaging something or fucking someone else over.

    eg. Your car pollutes
    Your clothes are made in sweat shops
    Meat comes from dead animals
    The metal in your computer came from mines.

    Injustice will always exist period.

  5. Greg: I feel that most of the population has a strong moral code and poor moral core (that’s what this post was about). My intepretation of what you are saying is that a lot of people adopt a poor (prescriptive and shallow) moral code, but maintain it with a dogmatic (although possibly misguided or delusional) moral core.

    Mash: I can’t do everything, so I’ll settle for nothing? I don’t buy that.

    Abortion debate: I think the argument for abortion isn’t necessarily strongly related to murder for personal gain. Many do not consider abortion of an undeveloped fetus as murder; so abortion just doesn’t map to the particular moral code condemning murder for personal gain.

  6. I guess it’s a question of whether you accept that a person really believes in a particular moral if they don’t act on it. Seems like you say they have the moral but act against it for personal gain, where I say they plain don’t consider the moral implications of things outside a narrow set of predefined laws. If you can’t tell WWJD because it never really came up in XXAD, then surely neither action could be morally wrong? Then I’ll take the most convenient.

    I don’t believe abortion equates to murder either, but the whole reason the debate exists is that millions of people do and millions of people don’t. Hence it’s an example of where unthinking adherence to received morals has caused a moral breakdown.

  7. Without trying to ascertain where morals come from, I think that they are intrinsic to most people (ie. psychopaths excepted). There’s the notion of being able to “search your heart” to see if something is right or wrong. I just think that most people don’t bother searching or thinking.

    I think morals exist prior to ingrained ideologies. However, I do think morals can be repressed by idealogies, social expectations, or psychological excuses (eg. it’s okay to picket this gay funeral because they offended god; everyone else makes fun of the black kid; whatever I do won’t matter.)

    I’m not saying that morals aren’t learnt; Maybe they are just learnt well before people are capable of learning idealogies. (Possibly through very early life interpersonal interactions?).

  8. Nothing’s intrinsic: if it’s learnt it can be unlearnt, and even instincts can be repressed, but changing your subconscious thoughts is _very_hard_work_ – can take a lot of resolve and even courage. Rather than intrinsic I’d say learnt so long ago that we now shortcut the conscious reasoning that led to it. Learnt instinct? I guess that includes things learnt by evolution.

    And it’s great to have the ability to move some things to autopilot. But it doesn’t mean you should never question where they came from or whether you should think about changing them. And when faced with a new moral dilemma: the subconscious works by association, not logic. When your conscious and subconscious thoughts disagree, you’re in trouble. Even if you can happily ignore the dissonance within yourself, you can only communicate with other people in conscious, logical terms.

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