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.
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.