On Morality 3: Bad Judgement

Ah, NPR… why you always making me think?

The above link is to an article about how we, as a society, judge parents for exposing their children to entirely imaginary risks. Letting kids play in parks by themselves, putting kids in cars before we return our shopping carts to the store. Leaving a kid at home alone when we can’t find a baby sitter. Choosing between watching our kids and having a job. It’s not just a think piece (like this is) but an overview of and interview with the authors of a recent study; it illuminates a lot of interesting problems.

We’ve know for a long time that humans, as a species, are terrible at risk assessment. We think things we do every day, like driving cars, are safe. We’re afraid of things that hardly ever kill anyone, like airplanes and sharks– which is why I have to remind myself how safe I am every time I board a plane or ride a shark.

We figure this will be safe. Or we don't. Hard to say which is worse.

We figure this will be safe. Or we don’t. Hard to say which is worse.

What the University of California, Irvine study shows is that the problem is even worse than we thought. We’re not just bad at risk assessment, we think there’s a moral component to it. The over 1,300 participants in the study thought that it was less dangerous for a parent to leave a child alone unintentionally (hit by a bus) than intentionally (had to go to work) and if the interviewers added an element of moral outrage (left their kid alone to visit a lover) then the participants thought the kid was at much greater risk. The actual risks didn’t change, just the circumstances surrounding them. We tend to think bad things happen because people deserve it.

In Judeo-Christian terms, this goes all the way back to Deuteronomic Law– “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son,” that sort of logic. Logic that I should add is completely refuted by The Book of Job, a righteous man who does nothing wrong but loses everything– he even watches his family die– purely because God and Satan are hanging out and gambling in Heaven. It’s a compelling story of an unjust universe, but somehow humanity has never moved past this idea that people must be sowing everything they ever reap. It appeals to our gut, and guts are hard for ideas and facts to argue with.

The Internet, great gift that it is, has also become a breeding ground for public shaming. One wrong tweet and– because The Internet never forgets– a person’s life can be ruined. Under extraordinary circumstances, a family loses their home in order to save their child’s life after both their satellite phone and their ship’s radio fails them… and The Internet’s rage descends upon them before any of the facts are actually known. Of course, the facts didn’t matter– taking an infant and a toddler on a months-long sea voyage seemed like an immoral risk to people who (like myself) know nothing about sailing.

Reality is not objective. It’s one of the great problems with advocating a reality-based approach to morality. In the Age of the Internet it’s especially true that anyone and everyone can find a comforting set of facts that support their carefully nurtured presumptions and and prejudices. When we’d rather feel right than be right– most of the time– Truthiness conquers Truth, Self-Righteousness replaces Right, and so forth. For many people the belief that they have a monopoly on reality is the problem, the reason they go forth and harm people that fail to conform to their vision.

The thing is, these aren’t plays being put on to test our moral judgement. These are people’s lives, and we’re not asking “who am I helping?” I can’t know why people make the choices they do, but it feels like self-righteousness and pride. That’s a shitty reason for a kid to be taken from a loving home and placed with Social Services.

It reminds me Sandy Hook and 9/11 Truthers, of Westboro Baptist protesting at American soldiers’ funerals– people that have long since exchanged facts for feelings, people who have stopped thinking about the individuals they are hurting as ‘people.’ People I automatically assume that I’m better than, that I tend to dismiss without any sympathy or human consideration.

I guess that’s why the idea of secret Lizard People undermining our society remains popular among the conspiracy-minded in our population. It’s the same reason that old women were accused of witchcraft and lynched– excuse me, and still are. It’s easy to feel superior to literal monsters and no one has to worry about the monsters getting hurt.

By User:Gojifan99 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32173893

“I have feelings, you know.”

When people do bad things, it’s never for no reason. It’s usually for bad reasons, reasons they fabricated, reasons built on imagination instead of facts. I’m kind of a hyperrational guy; I make the mistake of thinking I can float above emotional stuff, like Sapphire on Steven Universe. 



I think of things like  information literacy as moral imperatives. None of that makes me immune to the above tendencies, of course. I tell myself stories where I’m the hero. We all do.

That’s why taking that moment to consider whether what we’re doing is actually heroic is crucial. Who does it help? Who does it hurt? Shame has a long history but how often has it helped anyone? Make no mistake, shame has a body county, too. Shame has killed more people than most ideas and feelings.

If you want people to be better then jog their imaginations with your own good behavior. Show them how good they could be. Trying to force morality on people, via shame, threat, or violence is a dark path. But that’s a topic for another post– where evil comes from. Even as a believer in a supernatural universe, evil strikes me as a wholly human creation. And I think it starts from trying to make everyone else “objectively” right and good.

On Morality 2: Substitute Heroes

Perfection is a terrible substitute for reality.

That’s what I need to keep in mind on days like this, days when I’m not satisfied, days when I’m not feeling it. Days like today.

Perfection is for eulogies, when we forget the person we loved and idealize the idea of that person.

Perfection is the realm of ideas, of concepts, of hopes. And when we get confused about which things are real we get in trouble. Mileage may very, the trouble may be deep or shallow, but it’s always trouble.

There’s this Funny Super Hero team, The Legion of Substitute Heroes. Decades before The Tick introduced us to Four-Legged Man and Sarcastro, they were a team comprised entirely of members whose powers were so questionable that even the Legion of Super Heroes wouldn’t accept them. The Legion accepted such luminaries of questionableness as Matter-Eater Lad and Bouncing Boy into their ranks, so being a Substitute Hero is a kind of inverse achievement.

Inverse. Achievement. Unlocked.

Inverse. Achievement. Unlocked.

There are some stories where the Substitute Heroes save the day, because of course there are. A guy whose arms can pop off or an oddball who can turn into a (immobile) rock are still easily distinguishable from the heroes you want, need, or deserve if your day needs saving.

If only things were so easy in the real world.

Day to day, I find myself confused by a bewildering array of substitutes for reality. The Internet, webcomics email, Netflix– they aren’t just time wasters. They provide the illusion of accomplishment. I’m a completionist, so even watching another episode in a web series feels like a kind of achievement. It’s something on my internal ‘to do’ list, something I’ve been meaning to do, something with no real impact on myself or anything else. It’s easy to do, and nearly impossible to do incorrectly.

It’s a closed system where nothing of any value is accomplished. It’s perfect. And since I’m one of those people who regularly feels like doing stuff is a burden, that finishing anything should get me off the hook from having to do anything else…it’s a very effective substitute for life.

I like games– no, I love games!– for very similar reasons. You can learn a lot from games but the stakes are typically low. They provide simulations of tactics, strategies, adventures, even other worlds and all they typically ask for is your time. They also provide good excuses to bond with other people; the shared experience is often the only direct benefit you get from a game. Which is good. Friendship is never perfect but it’s always good.

A good game, of course, is very nearly perfect– complicated but finite, difficult but comprehensible. I’m starting to believe that perfection is the first symptom of illusion, of unreality. Given time, the perfect is always replaced by the epically flawed, poorly written reality we all share. It’s not a happy conclusion, but it is a useful one.

There’s no such thing as a neutral life. If we’re not doing good then we are consuming, using up resources that someone else needs. It’s not my duty as a human to judge anyone, begrudge anyone food or health care, but there is a cost underlying every human life. If we’re trying to create something, give something back, then things get better for the world as a whole. We get better. It’s not a perfect system, so I figure it’s probably real enough to work.

I like to think of us– humanity– as flawed heroes, silly but striving, capable of unexpected victories and unanticipated depths. We don’t do good because we’re the Justice League, judging the world from our satellite. We do good in spite of ourselves, in spite of our very unlikely talents, in spite of the fact we were never built to win.

When did the Substitute Heroes become so real?

On Morality 1: I’m Better Than You

Morality. The big topic. The reason I put “philosopher” in the title.

For me, morality is the most worthwhile topic philosophers have tackled over the centuries. The basics of right and wrong and the infinite permutations therein. That and whether meaning in language is arbitrary, intrinsic, or both… but I figure that’s more of a niche interest. Lets talk about the more popular thing.

The true nature of morality is something I ponder a lot. My basic theory is that morality is about real world outcomes– actual effects matter more than the theoretical things we are afraid of. It’s a question of who is helped– helpless people?– and who is hurt, qualitative and quantitative. I think of this approach as “reality-based morality.”

Could I possibly be more arrogant?

When the phrase “the reality-based community” came into parlance during the W. Bush years it seemed funny. After the invasion of Iraq in a search for imaginary weapons of mass destruction (or, as W himself put it, because “that man tried to kill my daddy”) it truly seemed like Liberals had a monopoly on reality– or at least like fundamentalist* conservatives had decided to opt out. We still haven’t recovered from that disastrous era of invasion and deregulation. Our country’s objectively, statistically much better off than it was after 8 years of W, which formed a 21st century nadir for America and ‘Merica alike.

8 years later, I still feel right on a fundamental, instinctive level. Because of course I do. Having the courage of your convictions means believing you are on the side of right, goodness and Team Valor**, that every blow you strike is “For the Horde!” Almost none of us are Death Eaters in our own view; in spite of all the human race’s infighting, our guts tell each of us that we’re part of Dumbledore’s Army. It’s part of how we get out of bed in the morning.

Today, I can hear the arrogance behind the jokes. The claim that anyone who doesn’t see things my way is not just wrong, but deluded and ignorant. I hear it coming from the Bernie Bros who won’t let go on the floor of the Democratic National Convention. I hear it in their detractors’ voices.

You can’t compromise with crazy people; you can’t negotiate in good faith with the devil. These narratives have poisoned all sides of American politics, paralyzed our nation, have made many of our supposed leaders into trivial beasts, prouder of their supposed “purity” than of any real world accomplishments.

I’ve come full circle, back to reality-based morality. What have you achieved? Who have you helped? They’re just better questions to ask than “Did you show them? Show them all?” will ever be. In the first case you may or may not be a hero, but in the second you’re definitely Lex Luthor.

Not exactly the poster boy for “Reality.”

Looking at these problems, it’s easy to be discouraged if not terrified. It’s not like we don’t have genuine enemies to unite against, but we can’t stop making up imaginary crimes to accuse each other of. Genuine problems like a major presidential candidate’s apparent bromance with Vladamir Putin isn’t helping either.

So, let me end with this link to a story about cops and Black Lives Matter members having a cookout together as a reminder that our divisions are often arbitrary. We’re not enemies, we’re Americans. We’re people who love life and family, for ourselves and others. Very few of us are genuine fascists or secretly trying to promote Sharia law in rural Kansas. Let’s try to appreciate the absurdity behind our rhetoric and to genuinely appreciate each other.

There are, of course, plenty of people I personally think are stupid. Or wicked. Or Wrong. But I also believe this:

We’re better than the worst of us.

If we act like it’s true then it becomes true.

*I don’t mean religious fundamentalists here. Their reality is different from mine, but as long as they don’t try to hurt anyone I can respect that. Any ideology can have its own fundamentalists, though, and conservatism is no exception.

**Some teams are arbitrary. We still take the teams, and loyalty to teams, seriously even when this is true.