Moral Dilemma: Cutting People Too Much Slack…?

Colorful notes with Right, Wrong or ? written on them

A reader writes:

Dear Dr. Hurd: A persistent problem I’ve had is why on earth people (and a lot of them) think that if they know a person, somehow that person’s bad behavior is exempt from moral condemnation. For example, let’s say I find out my uncle brutally beat his child. For me, I would condemn the man and try to help the child. But, other members of the family would pretend it didn’t happen and/or “feel sorry” for the man because he went to jail. Do you have an article that broaches this topic that I can refer to? I may have a philosophy degree, but when it comes to dealing with irrational people, philosophy doesn’t matter much.

My reply:

Actually, philosophy matters — but philosophy has died out as a force, in most people’s minds, which is why you don’t see it operative in these situations.

Most people associate philosophy with religion. While philosophy may be secular, and even atheistic, in its premises and assumptions, most people don’t recognize this fact. To most, you’re either philosophical and deeply religious, or not religious and therefore not philosophical. Conventional wisdom holds that philosophy is of no relevance to daily life. However, I have learned from years as a psychotherapist that people deeply ache for some kind of ethical and philosophical guidance. They look for psychology or therapy to fill that void, and understandably so; however, it seems that only a minority are open to psychotherapy because most see it as the realm of mental illness (much rarer than ethical or philosophical dilemmas), or anything psychological (like philosophy) as irrelevant and impractical.

Consequently, while religion has waned as an active, serious force in our culture (although a majority do claim to be Christian believers), philosophy has gone by the wayside, as well. It has been replaced with kind of a creepy, unstated and faux benevolence which results in the dishonest impression that almost everyone else has that, “Nobody else is judging, so I shouldn’t be doing so, either.”

The branch of philosophy relevant here is ethics. Ethics refers to a proper standard, or set of principles, of how people should act, live, and behave towards others. Ethics has been delegated by most people via an attitude of, “That’s someone else’s to determine,” which in practice means some kind of bureaucratic or government agency, or perhaps some vague sense of a group consensus as determining what’s right and true — but never, ever “myself,” because there are no objective means (the assumption goes) by which an individual dares plays “God” (or the group) in matters of moral conclusions.

Old-fashioned religion taught, “Who are you to judge?” This is a deep mistake, because it takes ethical reasoning outside the realm of human capacity, and therefore lowers self-responsibility despite religion’s emphasis on living what a particular faith defines as a moral life.

It’s hard to imagine how things could get much worse philosophically than old fashioned religion, in that respect. But it did. Nowadays, people are left with nothing other than a sense of “that’s someone else’s job” to determine or make moral judgments or conclusions about all kinds of matters, including issues in daily life. We wonder why morality and ethics are so overtly on the decline, paving the way for terrorist vultures, Big Brother government and all other kinds of afflictions for which the only alternative provided is, “Return to God … and believe.” What a mess!

A rational philosophy of life, I would argue, is not defined by relations with others, but by factually/objectively determined and defined self-interest. (Hence my strong agreement with Ayn Rand and Objectivism in issues of moral principle.) By that standard, it’s wrong to initiate harm against others, because this is self-defeating as well as harmful towards another. If we lived in a world where the ethical standard was that it’s OK to inflict physical harm on others, including children, then what ethical standard are we to count on in protection of ourselves, or our own children, if we are parents?

In today’s culture, as people of differing philosophical perspectives will likely agree, there are no particular moral standards dominant. In fact, in most people’s minds, to judge or have standards at all is wrong … or at least not “cool,” socially acceptable, or the means to being liked and regarded well by others (none of whom seem capable of moral judgments, either).

Of course, the truth is: we cannot escape standards. Whether you utilize the Ten Commandments, the Koran, your subjective emotions, or (my choice) rational objectivity based on rational principles of self-interest as your standard of morality … you have no choice but to default to some kind of standard, even if that “standard” is merely emotions and gut feelings or intuition.

Rest assured that most (if not all) of the people around you have formed some kind of attitudinal or moral judgment about your uncle’s brutality, as well as a host of other issues both mundane and profound. They cannot escape the requirement to do so, and if they try to escape, then their emotions (acting as subconscious value judgments) will do the judging for them.

The thing about today’s culture is that there are two unspoken commandments. One, “Thou shalt not judge.” Two, “Thou shalt not be seen as judging.” This is the philosophical-psychological atmosphere with which we’re all confronted, and without some kind of credible alternative in your mind, you will surely develop the depressive and anxiety disorders that dominate conversations in psychotherapy offices, and many other places as well. How could you not develop self-esteem problems, if one of your most important capacities — the ability to discern right from wrong, by some standard, as it applies to your daily life — is subverted or even destroyed?

That’s what you’re up against, when you have a moral conclusion to assert about someone — even a self-evident one, such as brutality towards a child — and yet you’re surrounded by people who (1) don’t think they’re supposed to judge; and/or, (2) certainly do not wish to be seen by others as judging, because that would seem mean and judgmental, and many people care very much about how they’re seen by others.

Other explanations and variables are possible here; but if you ask me, this gets to the core of it.

As for what to do, the guiding principle is this: You cannot change other people. You should not try, unless they are open to, or interested in, your own point-of-view. The most important thing to do for yourself (and others, if others are your concern) is to be open and (appropriately) vocal about your point-of-view — about your uncle’s brutality, for instance — and don’t pretend to be nonjudgmental as so many others will feel compelled to do. Don’t push a discussion if others are frightened or uninterested, but be very clear that you have an opinion, and you don’t buy the phony nonsense that, “It’s not for me to judge.” Perhaps you’ll inspire a few others to be the same way, and even if you don’t, you’ll at least be able to live with yourself.



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