Tag Archives: ethics

Other Opinions #58 – The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?

In honour of the late Ursula K. Le Guin.

The story itself is still under copyright, but I highly encourage you to go buy it, borrow it,  read it. It is short, and brilliant, and will leave you thinking.

http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-leguin-scalzi-20180123-story.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ones_Who_Walk_Away_from_Omelas

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Mens Rea

First piece of context: I just binge-watched the first season of The Good Place. It is excellent, and since it’s weirdly anchored in moral philosophy (this is a sitcom that references Kant, uses the word consequentialism as a punchline, and calls its episodes things like “The Trolley Problem”) it was right up my alley. This of course means that a warning is in order: spoilers for the first season of The Good Place ahead. I haven’t seen the second yet since it’s not on Netflix.

Second piece of context: this TED talk that I ran across on Facebook recently.

It’s a great talk with a lot of interesting ideas, but a couple of lines in particular stood out to me because I just found them so… incomprehensible.

Sure, she’s dating down, she’s sleeping with a knucklehead, but it’s not like she’s going to marry the guy.

and

Dating in my 20s was like musical chairs. Everybody was running around and having fun.

Do people actually think like this? Does this phrase fit in the worldview of a normal person? Am I really that unusual in my perspective that I find this a little weird?

Now, it’s easy to assume my objections here are along the lines of “traditional Christian morality”, prudishness around sex, and a very marriage-is-the-only-permissible-outcome kind of approach. But that’s not the case. I have no problem with sex as a recreational activity, with no expectations of commitment or marriage. My problem is with the confusion of the two that is evident in these two quotes.

If you sit down with any of these people and ask them what they’re aiming for, do they have an answer? Do they even know if they want their relationship to lead to a long commitment or if it’s just for fun?

It’s fine if you’re just looking for fun, and that’s clear and everyone involved is aware. The opposite is also fine, if you’re looking for something long-term and serious. The thing that boggles my mind is that so many people don’t really seem to know?! Oh, it’s fun for now, and maybe it’ll become serious later? Maybe we’ll get married if we’re still together when I turn thirty? I really don’t get it.

Let’s bring this back around to The Good Place, and specifically motivation, which is where my mind originally started (thus the title) and is a topic that TGP deals with extensively. It is sometimes hard to know your own motivation for things; after all, most of our conscious thought is retroactive story-telling justification rather than actual forward-thinking decision-making. In this way I identify very strongly with Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the indecisive ethics professor who acts as “moral support” (how has nobody made that joke yet?) for protagonist Eleanor (Kristen Bell).

In that sense it maybe isn’t so surprising that people just don’t know what they’re looking for. As somebody who spends an inordinate amount of time worrying (for those who care the experiment was a flop and only survived about a day) about my own motivation for certain decisions and the various ethical implications there-in, this is something I am particularly attuned to and I still have no idea half the time.

But (again per the title) motivation is a critical part of what makes many actions ethical or not, in a common practical sense. Yes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and a pure consequentialist is free to disregard motivation entirely, but pragmatically it makes a huge difference. There’s a reason it’s a key part of law, and law is basically just a higher-order abstraction on ethics. Breaking somebody’s heart? Bad, but sometimes unavoidable. Breaking somebody’s heart on purpose? Legitimately evil.

If you’ve read this far, and maybe you’ve read my previous posts (1, 2, 3) on related topics, the theme that is finally standing out for me (hindsight is wonderful) is the following underlying question:

Is it possible to have an ethically sound romantic or sexual relationship?

Most people instinctively say yes, of course. I can’t disagree with the obvious conclusion without sounding crazy, but sometimes I wonder.

All My Childhood Heroes

It is perhaps ironic that, with all the crazy things going on in the world this year, the thing that has most shaken my faith in humanity is the news of yet another messy Hollywood divorce. It wasn’t even high-profile or particularly tabloid-worthy; if it hadn’t been for Google News’ creepily detailed knowledge of my tastes I might not even have found out (edit: it’s getting wider attention now, so I definitely would have found out, but anyway).

Why are all my childhood heroes terrible people?

It’s not like I have that many of them. I am a staunch believer in the fact that nobody’s perfect, and that getting caught up in hero-worship isn’t good for anyone involved. Even so, it is hard to avoid the occasional dalliance with the idea that a few chosen people must just be… special. Blessed by whatever gods that be with a magic touch, able to create or achieve magnificent things beyond the ken of mere mortals like myself.

Nor is it that I am indiscriminate in my tastes. Nobody is terribly surprised when a flaky reality TV star turns out to have cheated, or the Kardashians end up on the front of another tabloid paper. The culture of celebrity attracts narcissists like flies to honey, and the result is eminently predictable. Instead, my heroes have been people who achieved great things first, often repeatedly, before (if ever) being swamped by their fame. Indeed, retaining a sliver of normalcy and control over their personal life despite increasing fame is often one thing that endears me to them further.

And still.

The wheels of justice grind slowly, but grind they do. Eventually, it seems, all of my heroes will be brought low in one way or another, and every time it happens my faith is shaken.


From the outside view, there are a couple of conclusions we can draw. First, that I am just generally terrible at judging people’s character. It doesn’t seem to matter how confident I am that you’re a good person, I’m probably wrong. I’m sorry.

Second, and more importantly, outward behaviour seems to be no guide to character (this would explain why I’m such a terrible judge). It doesn’t matter how many years of service, how many excellent speeches, how many awards won; inevitably it seems that the truth will out: people are scum all along. The longer their time in my good graces, the better they were at hiding and pretending to be something else, nothing more.

It is said that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Perhaps that is all that is going on here, but if so then I must ask a more difficult question: am I any better? My self-image believes strongly in my own moral character, but that is an inside view. Since at this point it seems no human being is immune to the corrupting influence of power, the outside view suggests that neither am I.

The moral question then becomes: would you rather be good, or strong?

Other Opinions #51 – Tolerance is not a Moral Precept

https://extranewsfeed.com/tolerance-is-not-a-moral-precept-1af7007d6376

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

This one is a really interesting take on tolerating intolerance and that whole mess, and unpacks it in a way that makes a lot of sense, but also I think fails to line up with how tolerance is actually often used. I’ve seen people with both conservative and liberal viewpoints try to open up what are essentially peace talks in the current ongoing culture war around diversity, only to be shouted down in the name of not tolerating intolerance.

Liberals need to recognize that not every form of conservatism is a fundamental threat to their very existence (some are, sure, but it’s not exactly difficult to tell them apart), and conservatives need to stop whining about their viewpoints not being tolerated just because they’re unpopular right now.

Tolerance is a peace treaty, but peace requires minimal trust and good faith, both of which are sorely lacking.