About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Moral Monster or Moral Master?
It seems to me that all philosophizing ultimately boils down to ethics, broadly conceived. We just can’t help ourselves. We’re social primates who need to know how to act and how to tell others how to act. No matter which branch of philosophy we consider, the normative component is present like stink on a skunk. Metaphysics? We want to know what types of things exist in order to adjust our beliefs accordingly, because our beliefs guide our actions. Epistemology? We want our beliefs to be instances of genuine knowledge, so that we know how to live in light of that knowledge. Aesthetics? The genius of Kant notwithstanding, aesthetic valuation is decidedly not free of interest. If I think cyberpunk anime is the most beautiful cinematic experience possible, so should you. Ethics? Well, that’s just another word for philosophy.
Though I said that all philosophy is but broadly conceived ethics in fancy dress, what I really mean is that all philosophizing is really directed towards how we interact with others. Educating oneself in metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics certainly reaps benefits for one’s own life, for one’s own fulfillment; but equally important are the consequences for how we treat others. To that end, I’d like to conduct a little thought experiment. I’d like to tell you the tale of two brothers - let’s call them John and Peter.
John is of less than average height and build, affable, altruistic, circumspect and non-confrontational. There isn’t a mean bone in his body, and he’s been that way since childhood. Peter, on the other hand, is tall and muscular, aloof, self-centered, impulsive and combative.
Both John and Peter are soccer players, and they play on the same team. They have an unbreakable sibling bond. During one game, John gets fouled by one of the other team’s players and is temporarily injured. The foul was fairly dramatic, prompting the referee to give the offending player a red card. John winced in pain and fell to the ground, clutching his leg. Peter, seeing this, became enraged and rushed to the scene of the foul, knocking over the offending player by the sheer force of his stronger frame. Peter receives a red card for his blatant retaliation and is ejected from the game.
Peter has always been acutely aware of his superior physique. He’s always been taller and stronger than most of his peers and opponents. Whenever there was conflict, he had the confidence of his sinewy strength to bolster his engagement in it. Though he doesn’t necessarily like to start fights, he has no compunction about finishing them. And his confidence probably gets him into more confrontations than most others.
John, on the other hand, never really gave much thought to his physical presence. Though just as active as Peter, he rarely experienced any conflicts with peers or opponents. It’s not that he felt inadequate because of his size; the inclination toward friction simply isn’t present in him. He has always been the peacemaker. When others commanded, he obeyed. When others asserted authority, he submitted.
Peter is powerful and he knows it. Since he experiences so many conflicts, he regularly fantasizes about them: he rehearses various scenarios, imagining the potential thrusts and ripostes of both himself and his adversaries. He knows that he will always experience conflict, and he wants to be prepared. Sometimes he even looks forward to conflict because of his intensely competitive nature. But even though he is aware of his overwhelming physical and intellectual prowess, he has nevertheless been reared in the same moral milieu as his brother, John, and accordingly he refrains from gratuitously overpowering others or violating their equal rights.
For John, not only is he literally incapable of prevailing in most conflicts, the impulse to engage in them in the first place simply never arises. At the first sign of dissonance, he instinctively withdraws like a turtle into its shell. If he is inescapably drawn into the conflict, he seeks the path of least resistance for all parties involved. If by pure happenstance he ends up wronging someone, he immediately and thoroughly provides restitution. His mental rehearsals are filled with scenes of sympathy and unity. His reveries are of summer love affairs, and swallows dipping and swerving after insects over wind-kissed waters.
When it comes to morality, we have two basic options: there are things we should do, and things we shouldn’t do. We should perform certain actions, or we should refrain from performing certain actions. When it comes to Peter and John, we’ve seen that both of them are able to refrain from performing certain actions, but Peter is the only one with the capability to perform immoral actions. He has to fight himself, conquer himself, struggle against his nature. For John, it just comes naturally.
So now we come to the moral of our little tale: Is Peter a moral monster or a moral master? Who is more moral, Peter or John? Does one of them deserve our praise? Does one deserve our condemnation? Or do neither deserve our praise or blame?