Yesterday I watched an episode of “Law & Order –Criminal Intent” that featured a murderer obsessed with proving that people were not moral. He captured loving couples and forced them into situations where one killed the other to save his/her own life. Today I read about criticisms of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Evidently modern activists feel Atticus was not sufficiently outraged by the racism around him. As different as these seem to be, they are both based on pernicious and self-indulgent interpretation of human morality, an interpretation that is superficially perceptive and intelligent, but is in fact just sophomoric.
I understand that my own interpretation will sound shallow compared with the deep thinking that some of the chattering classes do about historical transgressions like racism or the Holocaust, but I think it has the advantage of being more useful. It has to do with capacities, and sometimes going beyond what we can expect of ourselves and other humans.
There are two types of judgments that are worthless: standards that are so high that nobody can pass and standards so low that everybody can. Both, unfortunately, are attractive because we can alternatively claim to have high standards or to be inclusive. I was on the swim team in HS, but I cannot swim as fast as Olympic champion Michael Phelps. But there are two sorts of swimming contests where I am his equal. If the test is simply the ability to swim 100 yards w/o any reference to the time involved in getting there, both of us can do it. If the test is to swim across Lake Michigan, neither of us can make it. It sounds silly when I put it in these terms, but that is what we constantly do in our moral judgments of others, especially when we are thinking historically.
If you prove that Michael Phelps cannot swim across Lake Michigan, have you proven that he is a poor swimmer? Of course not. What if you put a person into an impossible moral situation? You might conclude that this person is morally lacking, and you would be wrong. You might conclude that all humans were morally lacking and you would be right by the standard you set up, but it is a stupid standard. If nobody can succeed, the test is useless. Why do people insist on postulating such things? I think it is because it makes them feel better about their own personal moral shortcomings.
Just as a reasonable person – even a great swimmer – would avoid jumping off the car-ferry in the middle of Lake Michigan because he knows that he cannot swim forty miles to the other side, so a moral person avoids situations where he will be pushed beyond his breaking point. This is the moral thing to do. You need to anticipate challenges and take steps in advance to address them. In my experience, people who constantly get in trouble are not always worse at resisting temptation, but they are very clumsy about falling into situations where they cannot. Taken to a higher level, a good society is one that permits and facilitates moral choices. One of the biggest crimes committed in un-free societies is that they corrupt good people by making it very difficult for to make moral choices, or even recognize that there is a moral choice to be made. As they are threatened or enticed into poor moral choices, they slip farther down the slope.
I am not arguing for moral relativism when I say that we have to judge people’s choices in the context of their situations. There are standards we should uphold, but we have to recognize that when you are sitting in a comfortable chair in the safety of your home it is easier to postulate that you would make the right choice than if the Gestapo was asking you whether or not you saw someone hiding in a shed.
There is also the element of knowledge and experience. I know that I have become more interested in acting ethically as I have become older. I don’t think it is merely age. As I experienced more and learned more, my feeling of responsibility has grown. Some of us like to idealize children as innocents who instinctually know right from wrong. This is not true. It is just that we cut them a lot of slack and we don’t expect them to make the really hard choices. IMO, true ethics requires learning and introspection. In a similar vein, I am not a big believer in the noble savage ideal. I think Roseau was full of shit and besides his occasionally stirring phrases; he was harmful to the ethical development of humanity.