Of Morality

Of what worth is morality if it neither distinguishes and protects the innocent nor marks and shames the guilty? Judgment is inherent to morality — judgments of competence, intent, alternatives, and actions — as well as of relative proximity.

Children and animals are not appropriate subjects for our fuller moral judgments because both their perceived and their real choices are relatively and absolutely limited by physical, cognitive and emotional immaturity. To fully condemn children by judging their intentions as though wholly developed, or their actions as though fully intentional, would itself constitute an immoral act.

The fifth criterion in the evaluation of morality is relative proximity. If a child were drowning in a lake shallows, it would be more immoral for the man at the shore to do nothing than the man at the crest of a nearby hill. Likewise, if one stood beside a half-dead starving child with a sandwich in hand and yet chose not to share it, then, assuming the sandwich owner weren’t himself dying of starvation, that person would be immoral — much more so, for example, than someone living halfway around the globe.

A moral person would not allow the innocent or the relatively-innocent to die, especially if it were only so as to preserve his “lesser” rights, e.g. his property rights. It isn’t that the dying child or even a relatively-innocent adult would have a claim on or an entitlement to the former’s property; but that morality itself would dictate that the dying stranger be aided.

Morality is not simply what is voluntary or consensual. Yes, one could voluntarily, perhaps even legally, stand by and watch a child die of starvation, offering no food or aid. But one would also betray the moral sophistication of a robot or a roach. Morality must be anchored by a loving appreciation of innocence and a firm judgment of guilt.

By extension, a truly moral society would not stand by and let either the innocent child or the relatively-innocent adult die of deprivation; it would dictate that all innocents be protected. No stable, heterogeneous society could remain free or viable unless a mutual respect first and foremost for the lives of others prevailed and only secondarily for property.

For if a society were to fail in securing the very survival of a significant number of its members, even a society with full property rights, then those citizens starving or otherwise struggling for their lives would reject the property rights of those successfully surviving and dissolve the society into a Darwinistic free-for-all —  and rightly so.

Survival trumps property ownership. And life itself comes with no guarantee that others must respect any ownership claims at all. But in a human society we mutually agree to an abstraction called “rights” as a means of non-violently settling disputes that might otherwise devolve into an interminable struggle for survival itself. Thus, the right to live, even if it were not legally enshrined into law, underpins society’s existence.

Equally, the right of free speech has no meaning where the right to live is not first and faithfully secured. So the right to life supersedes all other rights: it is the prerequisite to all other rights. And, at least to the extent we would not imperil or sacrifice our own lives in the offing, we are obligated to defend the lives of the law abiding.

A moral society, however, would only ensure the survival of those adults who could not ensure survival for themselves: not those who refused to do so — solely those who lacked the competence or an alternative to do so, i.e. “relatively-innocent” adults.

Our current system of taxation and welfare programs, in handing out essentially coerced contributions, makes far too little effort to identify those few adults who respect others’ rights yet truly face immediate jeopardy to their lives. Too many recipients of government support actively defraud the system, endangering both the accepted legitimacy and the fiscal solvency of the system itself.

But in a moral system, where the government were in fact making such finer moral distinctions, it would be immoral for it not to dictate that dying people be saved, even at the sacrifice of the absolute property rights of those successfully surviving within the system. To whatever extent dying people were not cared for directly, voluntarily by the people around them, those in their relative proximity, the government must intervene to save them.

And this is where the term relative proximity also contains a pun: For the relatives of such children and adults are in more intimate proximity to them, one hopes, and so have a stronger moral obligation to protect them than a stranger “on the crest of a nearby hill.” In fact, absent signs of impending danger, any private citizen would be justified in hanging back — in assuming that children and adults would be protected by those in closer proximity to them — as it ought to be.

Proximity affords better opportunities to familiars than to persons “on the crest of a nearby hill” to judge the character and the predicament of adults in jeopardy, deciding if this is someone worthy of help — someone facing death through no choice or fault of his own.

Yet if a person in jeopardy truly were acting only to preserve his own survival, imperiled through no choice of his own, then he would be perfectly justified in seizing any property he could, even were he already refused it. He might even take the lives of those who tried to stop him from seizing their property if it would truly save his life. He would remain moral; and they selfish and property-obsessed, i.e. immoral.

Morality is a criterion for judging the social adaptiveness of behavior. What would happen to the world were everyone to engage in a given act? If no harm would befall others, the act is at worst amoral, but it isn’t immoral. The state of the world would be none the worse, even were all people to engage in such an act.

But only that which actually benefits the innocent stands as a truly moral act.

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One response to “Of Morality

  1. Nicely done! I think of myself as a compassionate conservative, but not with another’s property. For property is the fruit of one’s hours of labor, one’s life. Deprivation of one’s property is tantamount to taking one’s time and time is all life offers any of us.
    I agree that an innocent starving human should be aided. He can surely have my sandwich, because my time and decisions have been blessed. I would want the same in return should I befall hard times. But I do not want government to be that agent of involuntary redistribution. As you have pointed out, it will and has bred a system that is itself immoral.

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