On morality (a rambling train of thought…)
November 23, 2010, 6:40 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I believe it’s important for every person to think about what morality means, and what it means to live a morally good life. God that sounds so earnest and, well, unironic, that I cringed while typing it. But there you go.

So, morality. We tend to assume (well I tend to assume) that it is obvious what is moral, so obvious that it isn’t even worth spelling it out. But then you think about it for a while and it becomes more complicated than you could have imagined.

First off. When you do something that’s morally bad you feel guilt. That’s the purpose of guilt – it encourages us to live according to our moral principles by punishing us when we fail to do so. Except when I think of the last ten times that I heard someone say “I feel guilty” or something similar, they weren’t talking about anything to do with morality at all, they were talking about having eaten delicious foods that were high in sugar and fat. “I ate a whole pizza, and now I feel so guilty!”, “These brownies are sinful – go on, be bad!” How is eating chocolate cake and ice cream a moral question?

I asked a psychologist friend and he explained to me that integrating with the group is very important to us humans. Whenever we do something that goes against the accepted social mores of our culture, we feel guilt. It’s about needing to belong and be accepted by the group. In our society there is strong pressure on women to be very thin, and thus to diet, and so when women go against this pressure they feel guilt.

It makes sense but, obviously, chocolate-cookie-guilt isn’t real, moral guilt. It’s a kind of fake guilt that’s about peer pressure rather than being about actual moral principles. But in order to say that a certain kind of action does or does not fit into my moral principles, I have to say what my moral principles are. That sounds hard so I’m going to cheat and use someone else’s idea: a philosopher called John Stuart Mill came up with a moral system called Utilitarianism that has the simple principle: “Always do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” There’s a lot more to it than that (he wrote a whole book, which is really hard to read and which I gave up on after a few pages) but I’m going to stick to just that one principle, since it strikes me as being right. As I read it I find myself thinking, “yes, that’s what I think the word ‘moral’ really means”.

With this principle in hand I should be able to go forth and figure out which actions are moral and which aren’t. I started thinking that the thing a lot of people do in order to make the world a better place is to give money to charity. There are lots of different charities to choose from, but the principle ‘Do the greatest good for the greatest number’ gives a way of evaluating which would be the best charity to give money to. Say you can afford to give £20 per month, and you can either donate it to a UK cancer research charity, a charity that treats AIDS in Africa, and a charity that treats malaria in Africa. With just a little research it’s clear that the malaria charity wins hands down. That’s because the treatment for malaria is much cheaper than that for AIDS – so your £20 helps more people. In addition malaria is much more widespread – so more people need this help – and malaria can actually be cured, unlike AIDS. So malaria wins out over AIDS. Cancer research is an even softer target since you’re only paying for *research*, which doesn’t in and of itself do any good in the world (apart from providing cancer researchers with a good living). Despite billions of dollars spent on research there haven’t been any significant advances in breast cancer treatment, for example, in the past twenty years, and if a better treatment was found, it would doubtlessly be expensive, and only available to relatively wealthy cancer patients. So the £20 spent on cancer research can only do a tiny amount of good, and it quite likely does no good at all. From a utilitarian perspective giving money to cancer research is not a particularly moral action. In fact, if you suppose that if you hadn’t given the £20 to cancer research you would have given it to something more worthwhile instead, then you could argue that donating money to a cancer research charity is actually an amoral thing to do!

A funny thing: the ranking I’ve come up with is: malaria then AIDS then cancer. But if I ranked these causes by popularity and amount of money donated rather than by moral usefulness, the order would be reversed.


You’d think there would be some sort of academic study that could rank different charities and different activities according to moral usefulness per dollar spent. It wouldn’t be impossible, since outcomes like lowered death rates, longer lifespans, etc., can be measured.

Looking at the whole question of morality from a different angle, you could take a wider view and say that a really moral action would be one that removes the structural reasons for inequality, rather than simply attempting to be as efficient as possible at throwing a few crumbs to the people who are most screwed over by the current system. But, that’s another blog post.

One last thing comes to mind, before this thought-train runs out of steam: a lot of the ‘good’ things we do don’t strictly fit into the ‘do the greatest good for the greatest number’ scheme. Say your brother loses his job and you help him out with his mortgage payments for a while. That’s a good thing to do but you wouldn’t have done it for just anyone; you did it for your brother because he’s family. So this is about tribal loyalties, it’s about looking after people we have close ties with. I would say that a lot of what we think of as our ‘good’ actions are a mixture of ‘do the greatest good for the greatest number’, and tribal loyalties. This explains the ordering of popularity of charities: among people who are financially stable enough to give money to charity cancer is rather common, AIDS is less common, and malaria is virtually unknown. So people are more likely to give to a charity that tackles a disease that their own family or people they know might be affected by.

That’s enough for now, I still haven’t solved the problem of how to live a moral life yet, maybe that will happen after another blog post of two 😉


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