Last month, a commenter dropped this interesting nugget:
God’s existence implies accountability’s existence…
More broadly, our discussion was about whether morality can be grounded in a non-theistic framework. I thought yes; he thought no. For him, God is what makes the “moral code” real, objective, absolute and authoritative. Fair enough, and his position has been the position of most people throughout recorded history.
But let’s look at recorded history. I will argue that my commenter hit the nail on the head when he said, “God’s existence implies accountability’s existence,” but accountability is not the same thing as morality — at least not what most of us mean by morality.
There is a story that a high-level Russian official visited America during the Reagan presidency and was shown the abundance of goods in American stores. He was astonished at the bountiful display and how it compared to the meager offerings in his home country.
“Who planned all this production?” he asked.
“Nobody,” his hosts replied. “People just decide for themselves what they want to produce and sell.”
He thought they must be concealing something. “No, seriously. Tell me: what authority is behind all this?”
“We assure you, this did not come from a central plan. People are free to go into business as they like and produce what they want, and what you see on the shelves is the result.”
As the controversy over Confederate monuments played out this year, I came to believe that Muslims had it right: don’t render an artistic likeness of anyone, least of all our heroes, lest we slip into idolatry.
If we had followed that principle, we would still have the dispute over whether General Lee was a good man, but there would be more room to be honest because all sides could admit that he was good in some respects but flawed in others. A statue makes the issue more black-and-white: either we pull the statue down, or we leave it up. Nobody wants half a statue. And the statue itself is only going to portray the general in a one-sided manner, most likely in a noble pose on a stallion.
Section 377 of India’s Constitution was in the news this week. It states, “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for [a] term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.” Although Section 377 does not spell out what is “against the order of nature,” conservatives have interpreted it to bar homosexual activity, among other things.
So it was big news this week when India’s Supreme Court ruled that “In a democratic Constitution founded on the rule of law, rights (of minorities) are as sacred as those conferred on other citizens to protect their freedoms and liberties. Sexual orientation is an essential attribute of privacy.”
In the movie Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (a.k.a. Batman) is acting the part of an outrageous playboy in order to maintain his cover. At the tail end of one escapade, who should appear but Rachel Dawes, a friend from years ago whose admiration he craves. He tries to explain that what she has just witnessed does not represent the real Bruce Wayne.
Rachel devastatingly replies, “Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.”
Is that true?
You are standing at a fork in a trolley track, your hand on the lever that can cause the trolley to go one direction or the other. A trolley is coming toward you. If you do not pull the lever, it will go down the fork where five children are on the track. They will surely be killed. (They are tied up, or facing the wrong direction and deaf, or what have you.) If you do pull the lever, their lives will be saved, but your own child, who is immobile on the other fork, will be killed. What is the ethical thing to do?
This is possibly the earliest in a famous series of ethical dilemmas known as trolley problems.
The fun begins when we vary the scenario to tease out people’s moral intuitions. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson posed the most famous version:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? [quoted in Wikipedia]
In my childhood, comedian Flip Wilson was big. His Grammy-winning album, The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress, took its title from this routine he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show:
Flip is playing the character of a preacher who wants to know why his wife, Geraldine, has bought a third dress in the course of a week. Their interchange is an enlightening study in the theory of knowledge, or epistemology.
GERALDINE: I didn’t want to buy this dress. The devil made me buy this dress.