Thought Catalog
October 24, 2014

Ethics, Morality, And Doing The Right Thing

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image - Flickr / Camilo ;o
image – Flickr / Camilo ;o

How do you — how does one, how do we — decide the right thing to do in any circumstance? Most of the time, we do things unthinkingly. We wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, tie our shoes. We go here and there, say this and that. We make decisions as a matter of training and habit.

Needless to say, not all of these things are necessarily the right things to do. Habit is not always right. In fact, one could argue that habit is the very thing we want to avoid, that doing the right thing is doing something knowingly rather than through blind repetition. In this view, it’s not the what that determines if something is right or wrong but the how.

Habit has a way of breaking down, especially as you age. After all, we develop these habits when we’re young(er); as we age, the very make up of the system in which habit operates changes its terms. I used to eat spaghetti almost every night and all was good. Now, at this point, in my life, I can’t eat pasta at all. Habit ran into the reality of my everyday as I began to experience dyspepsia. Suddenly, things that I took for granted became things I had to consider.

But how do I consider them? How do I decide the right thing to eat? Well, it’s a combination of lots of different kinds of information. There’s my history, things I’ve eaten and enjoyed in the past. There are cravings and desires I have now. There is research thanks to the proliferation of opinions and so called facts all over the internet. Which is all to say, deciding the right things to eat is a complex calculus of facts, feelings, principles, ideas, and habits which conspire to be this breakfast smoothie. Yum! (At least for now.)

How about when we’re out and about and dealing with others? How do we decide how to act? As a pedestrian, what makes me wait for a green light, cross when I see opportunity, or j walk? Again, it seems like a complex calculus of my desire to stay alive, a sense of respect for drivers, perhaps a fear of the law.

The law, however, seems like the least compelling reason to do something or not. Sure, there are some things I don’t do out of fear of being caught by the cops; I’m thinking of paying taxes. I wouldn’t pay taxes — at least not all of them — if I could get away with it without fear of retribution. But the law is certainly not the reason I don’t kill people, drive on the wrong side of the road, or rob banks. And there are some things I do which may be illegal but I feel pretty sure I won’t get caught. The mere fact of the law is definitely not enough to compel my actions — at least for me as a white, middle class dude who pays his taxes. Obviously, for some people in this culture, the law is a conspicuous, powerful, and coercive force.

Then there are principles of action to help guide our decisions. We sometimes call these morals, those hard and fast things we should never do because, well, because they’re just plain old wrong (these may or may not follow the law; more often, law emerges from them, unless the law comes from some rich douchebag). Always follow the word of the law! Don’t covet they neighbor’s wife, even if her every way of being melts your soul and she’s estranged from her husband and on the verge of divorce! Sure, there might be arguments as to why you shouldn’t kill or screw but morality doesn’t work primarily via argument; it works via fear and authority (hell and the wrath of god and all that).

There is always moral philosophy which does indeed work via a kind of argument rather than through fear. This is what the Enlightenment was all about: rather than God, they gave us Reason. Kant, for instance, claims that any action you do should be able to be an action everyone can do. I used to think about this when I’d pee behind a tree. If everyone peed in public, oy, it would be gross — hence, I shouldn’t be peeing behind this tree. On the other hand, most people don’t pee behind trees, so who cares if I do? And we let dogs piss any old place and they don’t pay taxes. So I can piss here if I want! Yes, this all went through my head — as I peed.

And then there’s Hobbes who argued that man is primarily base and violent. But because man has reason, too, he enters into a contract with his fellow man and agrees not to be base, to act in the interests of the social because that is in his own best interest. This idea that man is fundamentally base and needs to be controlled dictates most moral discussions. Without morals, we’ll just kill and rape and steal and masturbate all day long! Freud argued a form of this. Our id is primal and drives us; we need the super ego to keep it in check. (Yes, Freud is more complex than this.)

But by assuming that we are primarily base and hence in need of external constraints, we come to lean on these moral principles. Only our morals don’t always agree with each other, not to mention our morals don’t always agree with circumstance. And when we believe morals are the very thing holding everything together, then we have to defend those morals and make people who don’t believe them, believe them. Which becomes war and torture and the Inquisition and imperialism and most forms of violent domination and subjugation. Morality, alas, breeds self-righteousness: We must be moral! So you must be moral! Be moral, dammit, or else I’ll crack your head open! 

Ethics are of another order. Ethics are the modes with which we encounter the world, things as well as people. Ethics are premised on the idea that man is not first and foremost a wild, self-interested, violent creature but is, in fact, always already a social creature. Which is to say, contrary to what Hobbes and Rousseau say, ethics proffer that there was never a state of nature, that man was never outside the social. There is no contract; there is no movement from the individual to the social. We are, as individuals, already social.

Think about humiliation. It is a private sensation but it only exists in relation to the social. And so much of what we do is dictated and coerced by the terms of humiliation. I’m sitting in a cafe right now and everyone is so goddamned well behaved. I could sit here and pick my nose, fart, break into song, lie down on someone else’s table. None of these are illegal or immoral. But I don’t do it — not out of fear of external retribution but out of fear of humiliation.

Of course, one man’s humiliation is another’s glory. I, for one, find the idea of going to work every day, all day, to make someone else money humiliating. Many find that ambitious. These are the powers of what Foucault calls discourse, the powers of what we say and can say that define our conversations and, often, our feelings. This is why discussions of such things are so important: they shift the terms of discourse which shifts the terms of the social which shifts the terms of the individual, that is, what you and I feel and experience, what you and I decide is the right thing to do.

This is Foucault’s great move. Power doesn’t come from the top down, he tells us. Power doesn’t just say No. Power comes from all things. Power says Yes. The very terms in which we construct ourselves — I am a guy, I’m white, I’m Jewish, I’m an asshole, etc — are social as much as they’re private. The moral view of the world would imagine us alone in our rooms, free from the reach of the world and then deciding to do the right thing (or not). But we’re never alone, not really. We are always and already amidst the social, always negotiating the right thing to do. TC mark

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