The Snake in the Garden – the two contradictions at the heart of morality

Moral principles are culturally variable. In one culture it is bad to eat a pig, in another to eat a cow, in another a woman must cover her hair and in yet another a woman must shave her head, and so on. Yet these variable principles tend to be the least important, the least central of these moral systems. The hearts of all moral systems seem to be remarkably similar which is why it is possible for culturally diverse societies to live together.

Let us take the Golden Rule, for example: “do as you would be done by”. It lies at the heart of all the great moral systems of the world including its religions. The root of the success of all the main world religions has been their ability to extend the principle from being only applicable between people within a small group who share a genetic pool – tribal or national, for example – to those people who share our opinions, and onwards to humanity as a whole.

This rule is deducible a priori from the condition of being a social animal whereas the other principles mentioned may be characterised as culturally specific. On the other hand, the biosphere is by its nature cannibalistic: living things must live at the expense of other living things, even plants compete for space, light and air. In the natural world there may be respect between the hunter and the prey but there cannot be reciprocity. “The cut worm forgives the plough”, as William Blake formulates it. Within humanity too conflicts inevitably arise especially where groups compete for scarce resources.

Human existence is not solitary but social so humans need to have moral systems. But, another consequence of the social nature of human existence is that everyone depends on other people and therefore needs things from other people which they do not necessarily want to give. Ideally the survival of the individual depends on reciprocity and free giving but it doesn’t always work like that, and sometimes people are forced to be manipulative or coercive.

It is because of this fact that moral conundrums are most often not black and white. The real moral dilemma is the one where we have to weigh more than one bad option against another to work out which will have the least worst outcome. Parents tell children that they must not lie yet most adults find that they often have to lie to avoid situations where offence may be caused or more serious damage may be done.

A moral principle may be an a priori truth or it may be a cultural norm or custom. But even when it is an a priori truth the way in which it is applied is culturally determined and historically variable. Only a short while ago devout Christians in Europe thought that trial by ordeal and public executions were perfectly acceptable but would be likely to call them “un-Christian” in the twenty-first century. In other words, moral standards are a matter of what society decides they are at the time, and in other words again, they are a matter of point-of-view.

The other paradox that lies at the heart of morality is the illusion that all human individuals are uniquely valuable. From the point of view of the parent each of his or her children is uniquely valuable, other relatives and friends only slightly less so, but the effect tends to wear off with distance. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I care about the man on the other side of the world who assemble my bicycle as I do about a close relative though there may be reasons why I would not wish him any harm. For me, in truth, he is a means to an end.

Proximity in this analogy may be equated with love. On the subject of love Derrida says:

The difference between the who and the what is at the heart of love, separates the heart. It is often said that love is the movement of the heart. Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way that someone is? …

That is to say, the history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and the what. The question of Being, to return to philosophy – because the first question of philosophy is: What is it “to Be?” What is Being? The question of Being is itself always already divided between who and what. Is ‘Being’ someone or some thing? I speak of abstractly, but I think that whoever starts to love, is in love, or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. One wants to be true to someone – singularly, irreplaceably – and one perceives that this someone isn’t x or y. They didn’t have the qualities, properties, the images, that I thought I’d loved. So fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what.

Here Derrida identifies love as being an aspect of what it is to be conscious and human – part of being – and the paradox of valuing people for the value they have for others – trust, beauty, intellect etc. – or valuing them for themselves as fundamental to being human. It is so fundamental that if a person is not valued for themselves alone in the early years of their lives, psychologists tell us, the individual will grow up damaged and unable to take a full part in society.

This ability to love is uniquely human but it is part of the delusional picture we have of ourselves. Love does not exist yet we have to believe in it to make things work. It fulfils a function rather like i, the imaginary square root of minus one, does in mathematics. At an individual level we need love for society to function. Yet at a social or at an historical level individuals are not important. We all embody strands of our culture, experiences, thoughts and feelings that are also available to others. A loss of ten per cent of an army does not destroy the army and does not even alter its character appreciably.

Everyday technology develops and artificial intelligence becomes a more immediate reality. It is conceivable that within the next few decades artificial intelligence may replicate human intelligence and interface with it directly. Is it then conceivable that a machine might value another entity as a “who” rather than just as a “what”? It is not a mystery; it depends on how the programming code is written.

It is an important lesson from human history that a moral system that consists of a book of black and white rules to be rigidly applied is unlikely to be satisfactory and inevitably results in exacerbating the cruelty and injustice it was intended to avoid. Justice is a matter of balance and discretion and no one has the unlimited wisdom required to make it perfect.

In recent years the problem has become more difficult with the globalisation of trade and the accompanying mixing of groups with different cultural norms. It is a constant problem to reconcile conflicts between the moral principles of groups who live side-by-side? It is about to become even more difficult with an increasing impact of artificial intelligence and biological engineering, and the combination of the two, which will challenge all our customary points of moral reference.

Accountability and Intention

It is a commonplace that people should be judged on the consequences of their actions. The drunk driver who causes injury to another driver, the dictator who oppresses his people, the thief ready to be sentenced by the court are all examples where we shake our heads and say that people should be held accountable for the things that they do. But, is this always the case? And, more significantly, is this the best way to look at the matter?

It is especially when this issue is looked at in the context of political debate that the flaws begin to become apparent. It is typical of political debate in the UK at the moment that the Conservatives point out something that the previous, Labour, government did which has had some bad consequences. The go on to say that this example shows that voters should not vote for Labour next time. They say that they opposed this Labour policy at the time and this shows that they were right and Labour were wrong. In all democracies this game is played by all political groups all the time but the argument is fallacious.

Let us take an abstract example. Suppose that there is a chief of a poor village somewhere in a remote corner of the world. The chief is contacted by a government official who tells him that the village’s maize crop must be destroyed because there is a disease that has become prevalent in the area which attacks maize crops and makes them poisonous. The chief commands that the maize crop be destroyed but the local witch doctor says that it must not be done because it will offend the local gods who will be angry. The crop is destroyed but the food cannot be replaced because all the surrounding villages have done the same and the price of maize and all it substitutes has gone through the roof. The chief is blamed for the resulting hunger and the witch doctor claims that he was right because he had told them that there would be bad consequences.

I would suggest that the chief is not at fault because he acted for the best in the light of the information and understanding that he had at the time he made the decision. I would also suggest that the witch doctor should not be given any credit because he gave no good reason for the alternative course of action, which might also have had bad consequences in any case.

A prime example of this situation from recent history is the House of Commons debate on the Iraq on 18th March 2003 just prior to the invasion. The Liberal-Democrats have gained a good deal of prestige in the popular imagination because they opposed the invasion of Iraq at that time. And yet, their arguments were poorly constructed and unconvincing.

At an organisational level we find that so often people are reluctant to make decisions because they are afraid of being blamed if the decision has some negative outcome. As soon as you do something you can be criticised for it whereas not making a decision can be presented as appropriate caution. The prevalence of this kind of ‘blame culture’ has a bad effect on individual organisations and on society at large.

So, perhaps we should be more inclined to judge people on their intentions seen in the light of what they knew at the time rather than on the consequences of their actions. Is the drunk driver who causes no accident really any better than the one who causes a fatal accident? And, is the politician who makes a major decision which causes some harm really any worse than the other politician who opposes him just because it is his job to do so?