Moral Dilemmas

In my early 20s while studying philosophy in college, I like many freethinkers, believed morality to be subjective.  I now believe this is not the case.  Morals can vary drastically between cultures, but I do believe there is a baseline morality that can be measured objectively through reason.  If we as humans can agree to a simple objective standard for morality, we will find two things.  First, that all cultures are not equal when it comes to questions of morality, and two, many moral codes are actually immoral practices hiding behind the guise of cultural freedom.

As author and neuroscientist, Sam Harris has suggested in his provocative books, morality answers questions regarding human and animal suffering and happiness.  That which brings about happiness or decreases suffering can be said to be moral, while that which causes suffering and misery can be said to be immoral. Freethinkers use this reasoning as a backbone for a sense of wrong and right. People of reason are for the most part, moral consequentialists; meaning we assess moral questions by weighing the consequences of the particular activity or inactivity.  Most religious people are not usually included in this lot.  Religious people are typically moral absolutists.  They believe that morality has been mandated by their supreme being(s) and therefore is cut and dry.  Simply apply what has been decreed in the holy books to the moral dilemma, and you have your answer.  Needless to say, this is illogical and is not appealing to anyone who prefers to think for oneself.  Moral absolutists are often times forced into consequential reasoning when their scriptures conflict or fail to even address a question (it is not uncommon for so-called divine holy books written 2000 years ago to lack the needed insight on modern issues such as contraception or stem cell research.)

If you have ever taken a class in ethics, philosophy or critical thinking, you may have been presented with exercises in moral dilemmas.  These usually start with some imagined quandary where you are given the power to make an either/ or choice and must decide which one has the more morally desirable outcome.  For example, you are positioned at a switch on train track.  A train is approaching and there is a person tied to the tracks who will be killed if you do not throw the switch and divert the train.  What do you do?  Almost anyone who isn’t a sociopath will choose to divert the train.  But then more details are added and one must re-answer the question with new information.  What if the switch sends the train off a cliff and will kill all those aboard? What if the person tied to the tracks is a convicted murderer?  What if all of the people on the train are Nobel Prize winners? What if the person tied to the tracks is a new-born baby? What if all of the people on the train are convicted murderers?  And so forth and so on.  This exercise in moral consequences is often used more to gauge the sensibilities of the participants more than anything else.  However, they are great critical thought training for the likely circumstance that you may one day find yourself in a real world practical application.  These same type of exercises are often debated in political science classes using real dilemmas from history (one of the more common, should we drop the atomic bombs on Japan to end the second world war?)

Moral absolutists run into trouble in these exercises just as they run into trouble in real life.  Their immediate instinct when faced with the dilemma is to seek guidance from the religious doctrine to which they ascribe. But as the variables shift and become ever more complicated, the absolutist often finds himself taking the less popular position and is often confronted with the consequences of his decision by those who have given the circumstances a bit more consideration.  Ask a devout Catholic whether or not giving condoms to kids is wrong and you may get an affirmative.  Now place the kids in Africa where AIDS is rampant.  The Catholic with the consequentialist streak now has a question.  The absolutist still follows the doctrine of his church believing it has divine authority.  When faced with the ACTUAL millions of Africans who have died of AIDS, and the actual teachings of the church in Africa prohibiting condom use, a consequentialist is appalled.  Clearly, using our objective definition of morality regarding happiness and suffering from the opening paragraph, we must conclude that this action by the Catholic church is objectively immoral.  It provides no increase of happiness and contributes to the suffering of many.   If you ever get the chance to run through these exercises with a group of varying people, do so.  It is a revealing lesson in human psychology.  One can learn so much about one’s peers from these exercises.  They often reveal the prejudices, biases and fears of the participants with stunning clarity.



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