Good and Bad; Understanding and Empathy; Right and Wrong
To begin with, we can almost certainly agree that there are things which we, individually, would see as good or bad things to happen to us. (That’s “good” in the sense of “we want that,” as opposed to “bad,” not “good” in the sense of “versus evil.”) These things are matters of individual taste, and can depend on circumstance, the time of day, and a wide variety of things; for example, one person might find an unexpected kiss from a perfect stranger perfectly delightful, while another would find that a frightening assault. One person may love chocolate cake, and be tremendously excited to receive one; but that same person, receiving one as a gift the day after a diagnosis of adult-onset diabetes, might be profoundly saddened instead.
Now, because these tastes differ from person to person and time to time, we can never know with certainty what someone else will like. But nonetheless, we manage to function in the world, and often do nice things for our friends and not-so-nice things to our enemies! How do we do this? We think about it, and in particular, we use two cognitive faculties. First, we understand the physical consequences of our actions — what will happen in the world if we do X. And second, we have a faculty of empathy: an ability to estimate how another person might feel about those consequences.
This faculty is necessarily imperfect. Like any skill, it can improve with time and with practice, and with circumstance. I am far better at estimating what my wife will like than a perfect stranger, although I can still guess that most perfect strangers would not appreciate my dropping a hammer on their toe. I am definitely better at estimating what people would like today than I was as a younger man; I often think back to romantic relationships in my earlier days and shudder about what a prat I often was. In fact, the steady improvement in these two types of understanding is one of the defining features of growing up; small children can rarely understand the finality of death, for example, and teenagers are only learning about what long-term emotional or physical consequences can look like.
Now, if we combine these two faculties with free will, we can consider individual, specific choices that we make. At any given moment, I could do a large number of different things. I can imagine their physical consequences, up to a point; I can’t guess what will result, ten years from now, if right now I write this essay instead of taking a nap. I can likewise imagine their consequences on the people involved, again up to a point, and through the faculty of empathy, I can consider whether all of those ultimately affected will see the results as good or bad. And if (and only if!) this is a decision where I have free will, then I can choose between those results.
Morality is a property of a specific, individual decision, and only applies so far as I know the consequences of my potential actions, the way in which people (including me) will experience those consequences, and I have the power to choose between alternatives. It is the choice to cause good or bad outcomes for people, as they, not I, perceive them.
This is how I define morality: it is the property of a specific, individual decision, and it applies to that decision only insofar as I know the consequences of my potential actions, the way in which people (including me) will experience those consequences, and I have the power to choose between alternatives. “Good” and “evil” describe the choice to cause “good” or “bad” outcomes for people — as they, not I, perceive them.
Things I just glossed over
There are a bunch of subtleties in this definition, so let me address a few.
First, it is easy to underestimate just how imperfect our faculties of understanding and empathy can be. Social and structural differences in society, for example, can easily be invisible to people not routinely harmed by them, but that does not make them less real. The likely consequences of calling the police may be profoundly different in your town, depending on the race of the people they encounter — and unless you have taken active measures to find out, you are unlikely to be able to estimate those realistically.
Similarly, we often fail to appreciate the extent of individual differences. The Golden Rule can be thought of as a simplification of the idea of empathy suitable to explain to children; it simplifies by assuming that what you would like is a good proxy for what other people would like. While appropriate for robbery and murder, convincing yourself that “I like it, so they must like it too!” is also a great way to become a rapist.
Second, and more importantly: one thing this framework does not try to answer is how to balance between consequences for multiple people. This is perhaps the most important gap in this discussion, and it is one which I hope to find a good answer for in the future.
You could easily imagine some obvious balancing rules which are terrible ideas. For example, one might weight one’s own feelings far above those of everyone else; this gives you a morality in which robbing and killing people for the slightest joy is A-OK. Alternatively, one might weight everyone’s feelings equally, score them somehow, and add them up; this is the idea of “classical utilitarianism,” and it has all sorts of problems. For example, Robert Nozick asked what would happen if there were a “utility monster,” some being capable of experiencing tremendously more pleasure from any action than anyone else does. So clearly, by this theory, one ought to do nothing but please this monster, since that would increase the overall sum of joy more than anything!
These two examples are obviously bad, and one thing which makes them obviously bad is that anyone who used them would be a danger to others. But beyond these extremes, there seem to be more realistic rules which people actually do use. We seem to have some kind of shared intuition of the levels of joy and suffering that a person can experience, which do not extend to infinity; and in fact, suffering can become a lot worse than joy can be good. These levels are a sort of “score” that we add up, like the utilitarians, but because there are limits we never think about utility monsters in real life. But as we add them up, we do not weight everybody equally. Effects which are less certain and more likely to be changed by other factors, such as effects in the far future, we downweight. Similarly, we weight the effects on people close to us more heavily than those on strangers.
I suspect that the range of moral perspectives in humanity largely comes down to variations in these last two questions: how heavily we weight the future relative to the present, and how heavily and where we draw the boundaries between “us” and “them,” or more generally between people whose welfare we care about and people whose welfare we don’t care about.
But even without being able to answer the question of which weighting function is the “right” one, we encounter something interesting: two people may have entirely different weighting functions, so that even if they have identical faculties of understanding and empathy, they would make specific choices differently. Both would see themselves as acting perfectly morally, and the framework I have given doesn’t tell you which one is right.
What’s important is that, even though I have no way to really know anybody else’s weighting function (and could probably barely articulate my own!), and therefore I have no way of knowing whether they are acting morally by their own lights or not, I don’t need to know the answer to that question to make any of my own decisions. If the person I am encountering is Dylann Roof, who seems to believe in perfect faith that he and his entire race are in profound danger from the existence of Black people and so he must murder as many as he can, I do not need to ask how genuine this belief of his is; I simply need to know that, left to his own devices, he will continue his career of mass murder, and my own moral compass lets me act to stop that.
This relates to a third limitation of the definition, which is that not only can we not know the moral status of other people’s actions, but the moral status of our own actions is limited by the extent to which we meet the three preconditions: knowing the consequences, knowing how they will be felt, and having free will. As our abilities on any of these three axes are always imperfect, what does this mean for uncertainty?
Our actions only have moral weight insofar as we can satisfy these conditions; beyond that, they are morally neutral, neither good nor evil. This is precisely why we consider children to be less morally responsible than adults: their ability to understand the physical and emotional consequences of their actions is reduced. It is also why our legal system treats them differently: quite apart from this reducing the moral weight of their actions, it means that their previous actions give us less ability to predict their future actions, as they acquire more understanding. A toddler accidentally shooting someone would not predict that they will grow up to be murderers in adulthood!
However, we cannot avoid moral consequences by crippling our own moral capability. Our ability to understand consequences and people’s emotional states limits our moral responsibility. However, if the limits on those abilities are because we have chosen not to expand them, then our failure to act morally as a result is a consequence of that earlier choice. Put simply, not having studied isn’t an excuse for not knowing the material on the day of the test.
This is especially important in the case of material we don’t want to know. I’ve been regularly surprised at the depth of people’s urge not to discuss things like institutional racism or sexism, or generational poverty, or how power imbalances in society mean that seemingly “identical” behaviors are in no way identical. But if you fail to understand this, then you will routinely engage in “identical” behaviors which are anything but — for example, expecting that someone move in with their family until they can get back on their feet, when not everyone has a family they can do that with. The harm you cause this way may be entirely surprising and unclear to you, because you never learned about the things which cause your actions to lead to it. But if you had the chance to learn it and didn’t, then the moral bill is on you.
A murderous example
The definition above seems simple, but its application can require careful thought. To illustrate how complex even simple questions can get, let’s construct an almost artificially simple example, in which Alvin has been convicted of murdering Bill, and we sit in the position of a judge trying to decide on a sentence.
Many approaches to this question begin by talking about exactly what Alvin has done, and what he deserves as a result. The word “deserves” is a warning that we would really be trying to judge Alvin’s moral state at the time of the murder, and (for a variety of reasons, including the ones above) this is almost impossibly hard. It is certain that Alvin made certain choices, almost certainly very bad ones, in the course of this murder; it is almost as certain that there were many things far beyond Alvin’s control which put him in that place to begin with. From the perspective of “deserts,” this is a challenge: if Alvin was abused as a child, for example, or exposed to high doses of environmental lead, does that lessen his culpability for his actions today?
In the framework I’m proposing here, this is the wrong question to begin with. Instead, we should recognize that the sentencing is itself an action, one we are doing right now, and one which will have consequences — and so we should evaluate it in those terms.
We don’t waste our time on silly options; yes, one option is to resign as a judge and become a nomadic yak herder, but that’s not really likely most of the time. Instead, we consider a range of sentences from probation, to a short prison term, to a term of effectively life, to execution.
First and foremost, we have to be honest with ourselves about what will actually happen if we choose any of these options: what will happen to Alvin, what will happen to Bill’s kith and kin, what will happen to the people who encounter them in the future, what will happen with the public at large.
A first question might be what Alvin would be likely to do if set free, either with immediate probation or after a short time in prison. This is the place where we consider Alvin’s conduct and choices, and whether they suggest that he might (say) murder more people if let go. If the circumstances of the murder were truly unusual and not likely to recur, and Alvin has shown no signs of wanting to be a murderer for its own sake, this is a good sign. If, on the other hand, Alvin seems to be quite ready to find his next victim, it suggests a need for prevention.
Here we would need to be aware especially of our own biases and blind spots, which could cause us to estimate this very badly. We tend to focus on the positive aspects of people who we see as similar to us; we also tend to associate things like Blackness with being dangerous. (That’s true no matter what the race of the judge, incidentally; racism gets internalized by everyone.) The combination of these two can blur our judgment of consequences profoundly: is the defendant a bright young member of the Stanford swim team with a promising future, or a callous rapist with no sense that his actions were even remotely wrong? Was the victim a threatening young man dressed like a thug, or a teenage boy on his way home from buying candy?²
Blind spots include a need to understand the actual, not hypothetical, consequences of our choices. Probation or a short sentence will lead to Alvin being released soon, but with a felony conviction and tight restrictions. If Alvin is rich, he may no longer be allowed to work in his previous career, and have to start over; if Alvin is poor, and even more so if he is Black or Hispanic, he may not be able to find work at all. A long prison term may prevent Alvin from killing anyone outside of the prison ever again, but not inside the prison; and if Alvin was a Dylann Roof or Anders Breivik, a race-inspired mass murderer, then prison would most certainly not prevent him from actively converting others to his cause, unless he were held in solitary confinement. A death sentence, depending on the state, is more like life in solitary confinement with the occasional possibility of execution; very few states simply execute people anymore.
Murder is, perhaps, too simple an example, because the options are extreme. If Alvin had robbed Bill rather than killed him, we would likely be focused on shorter sentences. Robbery is almost entirely an economic crime, done for gain, sometimes driven by a need driven by things like addiction; all of these are highly circumstantial, and it is likely that Alvin, in a different situation, would not do it again. But perversely, the effect of a criminal conviction and time in prison will be to make Alvin more likely to need to resort to crime to live; will whatever “rehabilitation” or opportunity is actually provided by the prison outweigh that?
Beyond the consequences of Alvin’s potential eventual release, or behavior while in prison, there are the consequences on Bill’s friends and family, and beyond. Would a lenient sentence for their son’s killer be a signal to Bill’s entire community that some people are allowed to kill them with impunity? Would it be a signal to people who see themselves as like Alvin that they may kill? Here both personal and social issues come into play, especially if Alvin and Bill are not part of the same community, even more especially if one community has much more power than the other; or if Alvin and Bill are part of the same community, but occupy different social roles within it, as happens in most intimate partner murders.
Right or Wrong?
Right or Wrong? How many times must an individual be faced with those three words in a lifetime? What makes them choose one or the other? Is the right choice always necessarily the moral choice? Who decides what is right or wrong? These are all relevant questions in this struggling issue in life. Could the belief in karma be enough for one to lead a "good" moral existence? The finger is always pointed towards one's self interest and one's outcome of their decisions. In Thomas Nagel's paper, Right and Wrong, Nagel attempts to explain the differences and the thoughts behind right and wrong decisions. He makes references to personal benefits, religion, and punishments of decision-making. Nagel's paper truly defines thought processes as well as how human beings come to decide life choices and pathways for their futures.
As children we are taught right and wrong. We know that if we take a cookie from the cookie jar before dinner; that is wrong. How did we learn this? Punishment from our parents is usually a good reference to learn from. We knew that if those cookie's were touched before dinner, a time out or no desert at all was given. Eventually, we continue to learn through middle childhood and early adulthood. Most of us learn that if we hit other children on the field or do not share, our teachers become the teachers of right and wrong. If that homework is not completed on time, the failing grade will be given. Then in the long run, we start to discover media and what our society considers right and wrong. We see that if someone commits a crime, the law takes effect and the offender is punished. We learn through trial and error, but what goes on internally? What is the thought process that makes us choose?
At first Nagel references his paper to any individual faced with an ultimatum. As a friend comes to a familiar face with a poor decision, you become stuck in the middle. You have the choice to make a right decision, or a wrong one. If an outside influence comes to put you in a position of wrongdoing, it becomes your individual hesitance that decides the outcome. Fear of what might happen toys with the outcome. After all, most individuals would not put themselves in a position where unfortunate consequences will result. Could a friend be just enough to persuade you to make that one wrong move in life?
When is comes down to it, everything comes down to ought. What ought I do? What should my choices be in order to fulfill what I ought to do? Values are the basis of our individuality and who we are. Values break down into categories. Self-interest is one of them. Self-interest breaks down into two divisions, short term and long term. What will happen to me now? What will happen to me in the future? As short term only focuses on cheap consequences, long term is the true outcome of our decisions. What values can we establish to help the question of right or wrong? Can or values be the ending factor or does there have to be more?
Nagel continues to discuss rules. He states, "to say it's wrong is not just to say it's against the rules(Nagel 59)." This interprets to a deeper meaning of wrong, not just following guidelines. He ties rules to laws. Traditionally, law adds order. Although there are many definitions of laws, one states that it is "a rule or body of rules of conduct inherent in human nature and essential to or binding upon human society." Law is fallible. It can make mistakes. Just because something is law, doesn't make it right. Law has made many mistakes in it's time. One can be referenced to racial discrimination as Nagel refers to it. In the end, wrong and right differ from the rules. Without rules though, there could be no interpretation of right or wrong actions.
Wrong requires discomfort. If there is no discomfort in wrong, then why do anything right? There has to be a desire to perform right. Thinking of others sways wrong and right. The decision to perform right in the thought that others would hurt prevents wrong, not only to others, but to authority as well. Right and wrong have to be resulted with authority. Just the thought of wrong has to impact an individual enough to create the outcome. The all ending question comes down to, who cares? If a person has the mindset of, who cares?, why do anything right. If there is no consideration of others before self, right has no benefit or no need in one's thought process. Plus if there are no consequences, why do anything right? Consequences should come from internal before external.
Morality is one of the biggest influences of right and wrong. Morality's definition is very clear and distinct with the basis of right and wrong. It states: morality is the "concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong; right or good conduct." Many different aspects come into play with morality. Who decides morality? Nagel ties God to morality in his essay. Although the traditional theory is that God is moral and therefore decides what is moral, questions arise with his creating of rules or guidelines. The concerning question is if God's commandments are moral because God commands them, or is God moral because they are moral? Once again it comes to value theories. If all moral judgments are value judgments, one must have the best morality to perform the best judgments. If God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good, how could he create wrong? He created choice. Without choice, there is no wrong.
Nagel continues to discus a more realistic motive to God's rules. To perform right is to return the love that God has for you. However, three objections come into play. One: even people who don't believe in God still make right judgments. Two: if God exists, and forbids what is wrong, that isn't enough to make it wrong. If God made unrealistic rules to what is wrong, we would be advised not to do them, but it wouldn't be wrong. Three: fear of punishment and want of reward should not be the basis morality. If a person thinks it is wrong to kill or steal, he or she should not want to do those things. With these said, God obviously does not have to be a major player in the role of