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February 8, 2016

Giving up on morality

Here’s something I took from Heidegger that may not be in Heidegger:

The basis of morality is the recognition that the world matters to each person, but matters differently.[1]

After that, I don’t know what to do except to be highly suspicious of anyone who cites moral precepts.

It turns out that I don’t find morality to be a very useful category since the way the world matters to us is so deeply contextual and individual: whether you should steal the loaf of bread has less to do with the general principle that it’s wrong to steal, and more to do with how hungry your family is, how much money you have, your opportunities to earn more money, the moral and legal codes of your culture, how kind the baker has been to you, what you know of the baker’s own circumstances, etc.

“Do unto others…,” Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the traditional Jewish formulation of “Don’t do unto others what you would not want done to you,” all are heuristics for remembering that the world matters to others just as much as it matters to you, but it matters differently. Trying to apply those heuristics without recognizing that the world can matter differently can lead to well-intentioned mistakes in which you substitute how your world matters to you for how theirs matters to them: you don’t believe in accepting blood transfusions so you refuse to give one to someone who believes otherwise.

This gets messy fast: You believe in the efficacy of blood transfusions, so you give one to someone who for religious reasons has stipulated that she does not want one. You are not treating her as an autonomous agent. Are you wrong? Once she’s under anesthesia should you let her die because she does not want a transfusion? I have my own inclination, but I have no confidence in it: Even the principle of always treating people as autonomous is hard to apply.

It’s easy to multiply examples, and very easy to find cases where I condemn entire cultures for how their world matters to them. For example, I’m really pretty sure that girls ought to be educated and women ought not to be subservient to men. I’d argue for that. I’d vote for that. I’d fight for that. But not because of morality. “Morality” just doesn’t seem like a helpful concept for deciding what one ought to do.

It can be useful as a name for the topic of what that “ought” means. But those discussions can obscure the particularities of each life that need to be as clear as possible when we talk about what we ought to do.

None of this is new or original with me. Maybe I’m just an old fashioned Existentialist — more Kierkegaardian than Satrean — but I feel like I could carry on the rest of my moral life without ever thinking about morality.

(No, I am not sure of any of the above.)

 


[1] That the world matters to us is certainly Heidegger. That it matters differently to us is more ambiguous. It’s captured in his notion of the existentiell, but his attempt at what seems to be a universal description of Dasein suggests that there may be some fundamental ways in which it matters in the same ways to us all. But it’s been a long time since I read Being and Time. Plus, he was a Nazi, so maybe he’s not the best person to consult about the nature of morality.

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