Moral Values That Aren't Valuable
By Steve Gillman
This is a continuation from the page, Moral
If morality is a matter of serving our own self interest,
what moral values are consistent with this? It may seem that
I'm saying you just naturally develop morally and can "feel"
what is right as you go along. I'm not saying that. The impulse
is normal, the development is normal, but the skills and knowledge
that help do not come automatically.
Self interest is the goal, so a moral system should help define
the "self" and achieve its highest values. What kind
of system does that best? It probably depends on the person,
but it has to obviously exclude any systems that start with altruism
as their premise.
In its highest form, then, morality has to exclude most common
moral systems that exist today. For example, it has to exclude
those that seek the "greatest good for the greatest number,"
or those that claim the the "will of God" as the highest
moral value. Other excluded systems are those that hold any group,
whether family, nation, or all of humanity as the highest value.
All of these moralities have lead to death and destruction
in the past. Of course those with selfish aims of the crudest
unenlightened form can also cause death and destruction, but
when have you seen this on a large scale in the name of
self interest? Even if we argue that the Hitlers and Stalins
of the world didn't believe their own stated altruistic ideals,
they only rose to power because others did.
People with an honest concern for themselves and others buy
into these altruistic philosophies without really understanding
where they lead. They don't realize that moral feelings are a
response to impulses of real self interest. They also don't understand
that instead of helping others as they wish to do, promoting
these philosophies will usually hurt more people than they help.
An example will help explain this. In some college classes
on ethics, moral dilemmas are thrown out there for the students
to ponder and perhaps argue about. One that I have heard is about
a mother facing a choice. Her child is tied to the train track
and a train is coming, which will kill him. Four other children
are tied together to the track a short distance away, and they
will be killed as well.
The dilemma is this: If she had time to save either the group
of four children or her own child, which should she save? To
make it more personal, the students are usually asked to put
themselves in the mothers place and decide. Those who think the
"right" choice is to save the four children, face a
conflict between what they really would do (save their own child),
and what they think they "should" do. They feel like
a hypocrite saying they would save their own child, or feel inhuman
if they say the opposite (how could you let you own child die?)
to preserve their moral integrity.
As an aside, I sometimes wonder if this is less of an exercise
in moral philosophy and more of an attempt to make people doubt
their own virtue. Helping others feel guilty has long been a
way to feel better about one's own moral doubts, or to push ones
To answer the dilemma, though, I would save my own child.
This is completely consistent with my morality of self interest,
of course. But what is interesting is that a strong argument
can be made that it is consistent with other moralities as well.
Where Moral Values Lead Us
Consider for a moment a world in which mothers routinely put
the lives of others above those of their own children. Consider
how different the relationships between parents and children
- as well as between husbands and wives and friends - would be
from the current reality. To any honest observer, we currently
DO value our own family and friends above others. At least most
of us do, and this more "selfish" love provides a level
of predictability and trust that makes for a decent world.
In other words this state of affairs is perhaps best for all,
despite the apparent logic of moral philosophies that indicate
otherwise. Wouldn't most of us rather know that our friends and
families place our welfare above that of others? Wouldn't we
be happier in such a world? And if most of us do prefer this,
how could there be any benefit to the majority from a more altruistic
philosophy? If most of us feel this way, we ARE the majority,
Saving four children instead of one would make perfect sense
to a stranger, but not to a person who loves the one. Consider
what else a morality of "the greatest good for the greatest
number" or any of the various altruistic moralities can
lead to. For example, if the good of the larger group is the
only moral criteria, then why wouldn't this eventually mean killing
off "undesirables" for the good of mankind?
Of course we don't have to speculate about whether this moral
ideal might lead to that. It already has done so repeatedly in
history. The banishing of diseased people from churches (which
is even prescribed by the same Bible that most Americans believe
is the word of God) in ancient times, the killing of witches
by the Catholics in the middle ages, the killing of Jewish people
in Nazi Germany, and even the recent attack on the the World
Trade Center buildings were all done in the name of some "greater
good" or altruistic "moral" philosophy.
We may disagree about what the "greater good" is,
but once people buy into the general idea of altruistic morality,
logic is on the side of atrocities. For example, killing those
with serious communicable diseases might make for a healthier
world population - and an altruistic morality can provide justification.
I vote for leaving people in peace, but then I have no "greater
good" except that which proceeds from my own selfish love
and respect for other humans - real human individuals, not human
Sadly, the idea of altruism as a basis for morality is accepted
by most people. Fortunately, in practice they mostly limit this
philosophy to treating people decently, which can be good, and
as I've argued, isn't necessarily altruistic at all. It is our
salvation that people don't take these religious and moral beliefs
too seriously. Those who do often become very dangerous.
Continued here: Moral Reasoning
I'm exploring new ideas here, and may change my mind on these
issues. But there is a clear distinction to be made between the
a normal impulse to help others and philosophies which prescribes
altruism as a moral obligation.
Experience tells me there is a "natural morality"
which we almost all feel as a sort of "moral compass".
To act only according to preconceived moral laws perverts the
normal development of this moral sense, by making ethical behavior
a matter of impressing others or ourselves rather than seeking
the guidance of our true conscience.