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.