Monday, September 18, 2006

Moral Dilemma

I often get asked the old question whether you can teach character and if not what is the point of teaching ethics. I don't think you can train people to do what they should do, especially not at the college level, but then I also don't think that is the purpose of teaching ethics. Doing the right thing is a two-step process: (1) figure out the right thing to do, and (2) do it. Only step (2) has to do with character. Step (1) is the one I can address in the classroom.

In everyday moral conversation when we discuss what would be the right thing to do in a given situation, we get so wrapped up in the topic that we fail to realize what's really going on in terms of the actual descision making process. Usually step (1) is trivially easy, but unfortuantely, not always. There are always those hard cases where it isn't clear what we should do. It is our inability to think carefully and speak well in cases of hard moral questions that has led to widespread subjectivism. Because we don't know how to talk about ethics, and all we see is the yelling of intuitions/politically inspired rants, many are led to believe that that's all there is. But the great contribution of analytic philosophy is to make us realize that how we think is as important as what it is we are thinking about if we want to get things right, and this is the case with ethical discussions as well.

I've been thinking recently of a situation I faced regularly as a kid. We had a neighbor, an old widow, who was slowly dying of lung problems -- most likely cancer. She was a smoker, I mean she was a SMOKER. We lived in an apartment complex near a strip mall and I would regularly pick up things she needed from the grocery store or drug store when I was going. She would give me a nickel as a thank you -- these were not "the days when a nickel was a nickel," when I was young it was just a nickel. I was doing it to be nice to a sick old lady. When she became house-bound, having to wheel her oxygen around with her, she would ask me to also get her cigarettes. These were the days of cigarette machines and blind eyes to minors, so it was not hard. She was clearly lonely and depressed. I knew she was asking me to get them for her, not only because she couldn't get out, but because she wasn't supposed to have them and didn't want anyone else to know she was getting them. I did bring them for her a couple of times and then eventually found excuses not to and pretended not to hear her gravelly voice through the screen when she would call out for me. I was very sensitive when I was young and this situation really used to get me churning inside. I felt deeply conflicted and it's only now as a professional philosopher that I really understand why.

The reason is that moral judgments have several components and sometimes they conflict. This multi-faceted nature is different from other kinds of judgments, say, telling the color of a thing. I look at grass and just see it is green. There is one experiential meaning of "is green" and in good light it is a one step process to tell green from not green. But in ethical questions, the property of morally right has a bunch of different moving parts. In the great majority of cases, these parts work together so well that it seems as if moral judgments are as obvious, clear, and immediate as color judgments. I just "see" that murder is wrong in the same way that I see that grass is green. And because this happens so often, we begin to believe that we simply have a sixth sense, a moral "eye" that gives us direct access to the rightness or wrongness of an action. But in a few cases -- most notably, the hard, seemingly intractable cases -- the parts oppose one another, the machine freezes up, and we need to rationally pull the gears one way or the other to get it moving again, but we aren't sure which way to pull.

In the case of the old woman and the cigarettes, I felt pulled in different directions for a number of reasons, the first of which is that there are rules that, all other things being equal, one should follow: The rule I was taught was that a good boy does what his elders ask of him. If an adult asks you to do something, you do it. On the other hand, I was breaking a rule because it clearly said on the cigarette machine that I as a minor was not supposed to be buying cigarettes.

The second is virtue: Of course, all things weren't equal and it wasn't clear that the rules applied to me because I wasn't buying them for my own use, I was giving them to an adult who was entitled under the rule to have them. I was just being nice and doing a favor for someone in need. Concern for those who need help is virtuous.

The third component of moral reasoning is utility, the effect that an action has: Now I knew that these cigarettes were killing her and that I shouldn't be helping someone do something harmful to herself. On the other hand, the damage was done, she was in pain from her illness, she lost her husband, was living alone, and now was going through withdrawal. Didn't she deserve a little pleasure and would that pleasure really be so bad?

The fourth piece is rights: She is a person and who was I, a kid, to be determining what she could and could not have? For a twelve year old to act paternalistically and remove the autonomy of an adult seemed problematic (I didn't use quite those words at the time, of course, but the sense was there that it was not my place to tell her what she could and could not have.) At the same time, this was the most vivid example of addiction I had seen. She was dying from the things and still wanted them desperately. She had surrendered her freedom to the tobacco.

The fifth part is care: This was my neighbor. I didn't want to see her in pain. But it seemed damned if I do for her and damned if I don't.

A moral dilemma happens when we have a hard time resolving the pieces individually or when the parts conflict with each other. In this case, I had both. When you begin to understand where the source of the moral conflict lies, where in the structure of the reasoning, it makes it easier to think clearly about resolving it. It does not, by itself resolve it, hard moral questions are hard. But at least you know what it is you are troubled by and how to think more clearly about it. Eventually, my neighbor passed away, but those trips to DrugFair still make me uneasy and that unease is perhaps where all philosophy starts.

So, would you buy cigarettes for the old woman? Which factor trumps the others?