Sunday, August 17, 2008

The benefits and drawbacks of moral codes

I am so glad I've started this site - I've been able to have some great discussions with people who comment (thanks, by the way). One of the discussions that started from my post on valuing religion as a source of good ideas was about adopting a moral code, as opposed to just judging your own morals as you go based on certain principles.

This is a key difference between the religious crowd and the non-religious crowd - those who are religious can say "Look, we have a list of things we're not supposed to do, and a bunch of things we are, too". Whereas the non-religious say things like "We live by empathy + doing that which causes the greatest good for the greatest number". And they both argue that their viewpoint is best. I thought first that the distinction was that the religious people had an absolute set of rules, whereas for the non-religious their morals were based on their own personal judgement of how to apply various principles. I've come to realize the distinction is a little less stark than that, and it's not just absolute/relative.

So which is better, moral codes or moral judgement-calls? I spent considerable time arguing for judgement-based frameworks, because they are more flexible. I hate when a set of rules gets misapplied, such as when "thou shalt not kill" prolongs the life of someone who is in great pain and has consented to end their life, but is unable to do so themselves. I know, assisted suicide is probably going to be very contraversial for lots of people, but it's the best example I can come up with.

The fact that that's the best example I can come up with says something, actually. It says that although religious people have written frameworks, they are, in fact, somewhat flexible (or I would have been able to come up with something less controversial to discuss). For example, "thou shalt not bear false witness" doesn't stop people from telling a little fib so they won't spoil a surprise party (or at least it wouldn't stop a lot of people). And with all of the other moral judgements that they have to make, they do have some flexibility. And it helps a lot, when the situation is ambiguous, to have a clear code to go back to and say "nope, not going to do this, the book says no." Sort of like my principle "When your moral principles are in conflict, that means you stop and think", except without the thinking, which saves a bunch of time and can be critical when you have to make a quick decision. Written moral codes are a safety measure.

That was a key insight I gained - the difference between religious and non-religious moral codes was that the religious ones were writen down and formally accepted by all members of the religion, whereas the non-religious ones were in everyone's seperate head. Not that we couldn't all appeal to higher principles we could agree on, but there was a lot more debate involved. And after discussing it, what I thought was a strength can also be a weakness.

Ok, this is getting longer than I thought. Here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to list the pros and cons of each approach, and as I think of more or discover more during discussion, I'll add to the list on an ongoing basis. Why is this important? Because I want to decide whether I really do object to the strict moral codes of religion. I didn't think they were a good thing at first. I thought developing your own judgement skills would give everyone better results over the long run. But they have merit now which I didn't recognize at first.

Judgement-based (non-codified) moral frameworks:
- More flexible: Can handle grey areas and tricky situations
- Encourage thoughtfulness when dealing with moral issues
- Can take new issues such as cloning, genetically modified organisms, etc. in stride - each issue is treated seperately anyway.

- Not agreed upon by all adherents
- More complex, can lead to personal confusion or inconsistent moral positions
- Require intelligence and careful thought to apply correctly (not suitable for 2 year olds)
- Subject to problems of human cognition (self-justification, incomplete information, probably many others I'll think of later)

Codified moral frameworks:

- Everyone agrees what they are (or at least can agree what is written as a starting point for argument)
- Easier to apply in complex situations (less ambiguity)
- Even those who are not all that bright can just memorize and apply, with non-terrible results most times
- Time-tested approach works for many situations


- If misapplied it can be harder to get someone to agree they've done something wrong
- If application in a particular situation is unclear or conflicting, people can become more entrenched in positions, and/or not be as used to having to weigh alternatives
- If elements of the moral code conflict, resolving the conflict can be difficult as there doesn't seem to be any prioritization of elements
- Not flexible. Changing the moral code to account for new scientific developments requires formal proclamation of change.

Overall, at this point, I think my position is that moral codes are good for society as a whole, but as you develop as a moral individual granting yourself some discretion can be beneficial if you've really thought it through. Yes, that's right, I'm sitting on the fence on this one!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

it seems to this 72 year old 48 years married roman catholic that allowing gray into the moral equation has created more problems then solutions. i base my moral decisons upon the moral mindset of the age in which they were created and act accodingly. if you examine carfully the 10 commandments as promulgated in judaism vs the various christion religions , there is a commonality and also a difference. the use of gray to obfuscate the absolutes of black and white has created the psychiatric and psychological problems of modern times. if we believe in black and white judgements absolutely, we do not suffer anxiety attacks. if we have to look for the gray in our actions, therein creates the anxiety.the decisions we have to make create the guilt complexes we may suffer.