Thursday, September 13, 2007

Morality , Psychology, and the Pursuit of the Common Good

What is Morality? The short answer is that nobody knows, but that doesn't matter. Here is a simple definition that will prove useful.

On a daily basis, you make decisions about how to direct their efforts and resources. You might go shopping for a new sports car to add to your collection, play with your kids, might help a friend fix their roof, volunteer at a community event, lobby for a non-special-interest political cause, or donate something to a global charity.

You have probably noticed the pattern in the list of activities above. Buying yourself a cool car benefits you directly. Playing with your kid may seem like a generous thing to do, but you really care about your kid, so you get a lot out of that activity. Helping your friends is generous but also selfish, because you know they are likely to return the favor. Volunteering for your community may help your reputation, but the clear material benefit goes to the community. Lobbying for a non-special-interest political cause, if successful, imparts great benefit to your nation as a whole, but is unlikely to be visibly worth your time. Contributing to a global charity is a complete waste of time and money for your household finances, and you might never know or personally care about the beneficiaries.

Your morality is a measure of how much more your action is justified in terms of the common good compared to your personal benefit. A completely moral action is one that supports the common good and you get no visible benefit.

Does morality exist? Not necessarily, but, again, that doesn't matter for the pursuit of the common good. What matters is that many people either perceive themselves as moral or want to be perceived as moral. It is the existence of perceptions of morality that will shape the reactions of the masses to the Freakwenter's attempts to clarify which personal behaviors bring about the common good.

In response to the blindingly bright and lusciously lucid comment of blog critic Justus below, the Freakwenter will take the unprecedented step of adding an extra clarification to the remarks on morality. As Justus noted, a more "bird's eye view" reveals how morality may be best viewed as a social construct, and as such, it can take many forms. If the Freakwenter had not been such an idiot, the above entry would have been more succinctly stated as something like, "Altruism is the dominant manifestation of the morality constructed or embodied by the philanthropic/nonprofit sector. Defining which behaviors most effectively promote the common good will influence the work of the this sector primarily through its love of altruism."


Blogger Justus said...

I hear you suggesting that "morality" is a measure of the distance between personal gain and the "common good."

I would agree that within one (1) particular system of morality (e.g. a small community of like-minded Mennonites), "morality"--or the extent to which one person is considered moral--could be measured by the distance between self-interest and the common good.

However, if you want to look at morality--or ethics, if you will--from a more birds-eye view, then consider the following position (of mine):

I would posit that systems of morality (or ethics) are used to define borders. Particularly, the border between my social identity and the Other. In this sense, morality becomes that which provides protection from our many rational and irrational fears about Death, non-existence, and the Other.

Those who control the calculus for a specific moral system (i.e. men in patriarchal societies, specifically priests or religious roles within society) have the power. Morality = the power to include or exlude from the assurance of, generally speaking, eternal life. Members of a particular group give their autonomy to a few exemplary figures who, in return, provide simple answers (good and evil) in the face of chaos (see, "transference").

In this quasi-Nietzschean perspective--"morality" is neither good nor bad (who can judge?); but it is the way the system functions that is important.

And since Nietzsche sees "The Will to Power" as the basis for human interaction, he would see systems of morality as systems to gain power and privilege over the Other.

Consequently, It is the system of morality (that which we use to define the ultimate Good) that pits Me against You, Us versus Them, in a struggle to define Reality ... and what lies beyond death. The system that leads us towards good, becomes the root of human violence.

12:54 PM  

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