The dirty little secret about moral rules

| April 21, 2006 | 5 Replies

Many people feel that to be moral is to follow a set of rules.  But there’s an implicit unwritten preamble to every set of rules or commandments: they don’t apply equally to everyone.

Consider “Do not injure or kill other people,” for example. Assume that two people have fallen off a ship and you’ve only got one lifesaver.  One of the people is a stranger and the other is your mother.  Should you consider throwing the lifesaver to the stranger instead of your mother?  Most people would say no.

A second example:  you might voluntarily put your life in danger to save members of your immediate family, but most of us wouldn’t offer our extra kidneys to people we’ve never met. We walk around simply assuming that having an extra kidney (when someone else desperately needs one) is not a moral act.

Here’s a third example:  You have $100.  You want to spend it on a fancy dinner for yourself and your significant other.  You are aware that if you sent that same $100 to your favorite African relief association you could save the lives of two starving people.  Are you allowed to spend the money on the fancy dinner knowing that doing so will condemn two people to certain deaths?  Most people would say yes. The same dollars that could be used to save human lives can also buy jewelry, souped-up car stereos and expensive tickets to sports events.  If you ever bring up this undeniable fact to a guy who’s about to plunk down big money to buy a fancy new TV, though, don’t expect him to thank you. He will inevitably  get perturbed because you just exposed him to the toxic thought that dollars are “fungible” (there aren’t special kinds of dollars that buy only luxuries–every dollar that can buy a luxury can also be used to buy food for a starving person).

We have great power to manipulate ourselves by roping off troublesome thoughts, such as the thought that dollars are fungible.  Humans have limited attention. Our minds work like spotlights.  When we shine our attention here, we don’t attend to what’s over THERE.  We are thus exquisitely able to stop thinking about things that interfere with our immediate impulses.  NOT thinking about desperately starving people allows us to buy amusements and luxuries with clear consciences. 

Those who claim to live by rule-based morality (e.g., the Ten Commandments), like to pretend that all the rules simply “apply,” as though humans don’t retain the full power to decide when their favorite rules apply and to whom.  We are therefore able to instinctively “take care of our own” without any pang of conscience.  For most of us, it is OK to avoid those troublesome thoughts we’ve roped-off in some far corner of our brains. Out of sight out of mind is perfectly acceptable, we reason, as though deciding when rules apply is not a moral act in and of itself.

When desperate strangers beg from us on the street, we rarely hand over fifty cents, even though we’d empty our entire bank account to help a desperate sibling (even, for many of us, an undeserving one). When it comes to people we’ve never met, we are quite willing to let them starve so that we can pay for cosmetic surgery and vanity license plates. When we read that children in other countries are dying of horrible yet curable diseases, we think “that’s too bad.” When our own child falls and scrapes her knee, we immediately run out and buy her $50 worth of disposable toys to cheer her up.

The most primary real-life commandment is to decide which people we will care about–to designate who is in our realm of concern. This decision is the most important moral act, though the people who believe in rule-based morality don’t consciously consider these decisions at all.    And if we decide that only a small group of people deserve the protection of our moral rules, we aren’t being very moral at all. The most important moral rule is not to love thy neighbor as thyself; it’s to decide who qualifies as your “neighbor.”

So tell this to the next person who claims that he lives his life based on the Ten Commandments (or any other set of moral rules).  Tell that person this dirty little secret about moral rules: Unless you do the hard work to apply your moral rules far and wide, you’re living most of your life on the basis of impulse, prejudice and greed, not rules. 

In fact, to fail to fully contemplate your realm of concern is to act as if there were no moral rules at all.

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Category: Good and Evil, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    This essay opens up all sorts of intriguing issues. One that has rattled around inside my head for a long time goes like this:

    1) The Bible says the Ten Commandments are supposed to be God's moral laws that all people must follow, but…

    2) The Bible also says people cannot possibly follow the Ten Commandments to God's satisfaction, because of our fallen nature, so…

    3) If God is perfect, then why did He create a set of moral laws that He knows people can't possibly follow, especially if He was then going to damn us all to hell for not following them? Isn't this like telling your child, "I command you to jump 400 feet into the air; if you don't do it, then I'm going to punish you?" No parent in his right mind, much less one that truly loves his child, would ever do something like this…so, why would a loving God do so to the entire human race?

    Christians will answer this question by saying that this is the reason God sent Jesus: to save us all from God's catch-22. But this makes no sense, either: if God is perfect, then why did He create a catch-22 in the first place? Doesn't the need to send Jesus to fix the problem suggest that God isn't perfect after all?

    And speaking of God not being perfect…the Bible also says that God is omniscient, but if that's true then why doesn't the Bible ever mention that 1800 years after Jesus dies scientists will discover dinosaur fossils that will seem to contradict the Genesis creation story? If I were as perfect and omniscient as the Bible says God is, then I would have put something like that into the Bible, to make it obvious that I really deserved to be worshipped for my perfection and omniscience. You know, something like telling us that the earth isn't the center of the solar system (much less the center of the universe), or that boiling water will make it safe to drink, or that disease is carried by viruses and bacteria and not by evil spirits. Why didn't God put just one previously unknown scientific advance into the Bible — something that would be verifiable — just to tip us off that He really does know everything? Forget all the stuff about the miracles that Jesus supposedly performed, or about dining with his pals three days after he supposedly died — wouldn't it have been far more compelling if Jesus had taught people how to do calculus, how to forge steel, or how to harness electricity? Or even just mention that there was a whole new continent to be discovered by sailing west? Instead, we get stories that can never be substantiated about Jesus walking on water and turning water into wine — tricks that any magician of the time could have easily replicated. Just think of how many more faithful followers God might have if we could open the Bible and find Newton's law of gravitation, or the atomic structure of a carbon atom, or a recipe for really good beer, or an explanation of how the pyramids of Egypt were built, or even something very simple like how to perform cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. I bet there'd be a lot more people striving to follow the Ten Commandments if God had used the Bible to tip us off to some of His natural mysteries, which could be confirmed, instead of just His supernatural ones, which can never be.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I'm applauding this thought. Really and truly. Well said.

  3. Ricky Koppel says:

    I enjoy the spotlight metaphor. I had a similar idealism explained in opposition to a claim in an article of my own, in which I claimed that true scientific methodology is explicitly lacking in bias. What an individual proceeded to point out that any inquiry, be it philosophical, scientific, moral, or any other nature, is always inherently biased.

    This is shown because all inquiries are built upon wonder, in that we would not pursue truth if we were not biased to find an answer. And so human knowledge is not based upon its capabilities, but on only those capacities it has chosen to spotlight. The rest is in the dark.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Seeing as you (I would guess all of you) do not believe in the existence of God, how then do you explain the existence of the universe? You either believe that it has always existed which does not really make sense (less likely that you believe that) or that the Big Bang theory explains the existence of the universe which does not make sense either because then one must ask what caused the proposed Big Bang and it would go back eventually to something being caused by nothing, which breaks the scientific law of cause and effect. With God (defined as a supernatural being above the natural laws of this universe)in the picture you can see that it is perfectly logical that a supernatural being that has always existed (does not really make sense to our thinking but you must remember he is supernatural) created the universe out of nothing because He can break the law of cause and effect because He is supernatural. Otherwise you are left with the impossible explanation of how something came from nothing and no means to justify this predicament.

    "grumpypilgrim" it seems that you do not believe in the existence of God or that the existing God is not good because He damns people to hell, well your question is not revolutionary thinking in any way, it has been asked many times why a good God would curse people to hell, I suggest you look up the real christian answer to that question on your own (I do not have time to answer it myself), but by the way I would not answer that question by simply saying that "this is the reason God sent Jesus" as you assumed Christians would.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jonathan: Awhile ago, I wrote a post to address the arguments you just raised: http://dangerousintersection.org/2007/09/23/a-wid

      I would turn your question back toward you: Since you believe in the existence of God, how then do you explain the existence of the God? Was "He" always in existence? If so, then (as you so clearly argued) "you are left with the impossible explanation of how something came from nothing and no means to justify this predicament." To anticipate your response, I believe that sentences like the following are nonsensical words, not explanations: "He can break the law of cause and effect because He is supernatural."

      I would highly recommend that you apply your own rules across the board, and that you avoid selective application of your own rules to fit your own hopes and desires.

      At bottom, something seems to have pre-existed the universe we have come to know. Maybe it was a previous version of a universe or an inter-connected matrix of wormholes. http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/04/12/the-o… Maybe it was some sort of Supernatural being (though you correctly assume that I am not convinced of the existence of any supernatural beings). I put my chips on "I don't claim to know." Not that I haven't pondered this issue. I am willing to admit the limits of my knowledge. It sounds like you aren't.

      A cartoonist recently sketched it out the two most often-discussed versions of the creation of the universe: http://dailyshite.com/2010/03/timeline-of-the-uni

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