Lyndon Hood - BA(phil), Lower Hutt

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

When Will These Rhetorical Questions Cease?

Yesterday, as I understand it, the Dom Post concluded a series of articles under the banner “Are We in a Moral Wasteland?” From a cursory reading of the ones I saw, they answered the question with a resounding “things are different now”. And didn’t explain exactly what was meant by the implied accusation or quote anyone who was making it.

This disjunction* made it difficult to concentrate on whatever it was the actual articles were about; hence my superficial commentary.

So: are we in a moral wasteland? Are we less ethical creatures than in the past? Are the moral positions of our youth less finely judged or more generally wrong? Are people being lead astray by social factors or a crusading government? Do we use too many overblown sensationalist headlines for a mainstream newspaper?

In the name of inconsistency I won’t offer an answer, but I will provide some discussion material.

The idea of morality is the idea of an objective standard that says some things shouldn’t be done and, probably, that some things should. Intellectually, I don’t actually see how such a standard can exist, but that doesn’t mean that myself or society could go on if we acted on that assumption.

What that standard says about particulars is the stuff of moral debate.

We can, hopefully, have an ethical argument without accusing our opponents of being evil or amoral. Honestly, my grip on moral truth is as tenuous as my neighbour’s.

To claim that we are less moral these days, as a bunch of individuals, does sound a bit like the regular complaints about student’s spelling and the collapse of social institutions that have had people thinking that the end is nigh since the early Roman empire.

How would we test this? The big problem isn’t people whose moral opinions are wrong, but people who lack practise in the basic moral faculties, like empathy, and don’t have any moral opinions to speak of. Such people are strongly represented in the prison population.

Hearing sound bites of people on offender rehabilitation programmes, one can assume that they’re repeating jargon about facing up to what they’ve done and understanding an taking responsibility. Even if that were all, understanding these ideas well enough to talk coherently about them is progress.

The fact that basic morality can be taught is part of the reason offender rehabilitation programmes work as well as they do. And they do: next time a politician say they don’t work ask if he/she/it is also going to lobby against the less effective use of aspirin to prevent heart attacks.

What doesn’t work, in preventing reoffending, is punishment. Psychology knows that it’s a lousy way to train people, and this is especially true when the punishment is being locked up in a brutalising environment with a lot of psychos. Not that arguing morality from pragmatism is always a good idea, but it often works well, especially if you take long-term consequences into account.

Anyway, if we were overspending our moral capital we might see it in the crime statistics, checking back a few year to allow for when the perpetrator was raised rather than when they broke the law. As the 2001 Crime in New Zealand report has it:

The recorded offence rate rose steadily from 55 per 1,000 population in 1970 to an all-time peak of 132 per 1,000 population in 1992. This rise may be due to a real change in the volume of crime in New Zealand, to changes in recording practises, or to a combination of the two. The offence rate remained fairly steady between 1992 and 1996, before decreasing to 111 per 1,000 population in 2000. However, it remained higher than it was at any stage prior to 1984.
Make of that what you will. Much as I’d like to blame Rogernomics (note that ‘administrative crime’ has skyrocketed), correlation isn’t causation. I had a lecturer once who read out an anti-sufferagette pamphlet on how society would collapse, and I couldn’t help observing that most of the things it described have happened since. Actually, I think it’s more the pressures of modern society than a lack of moral leadership.

As for the nature of the human ethical sense:

While grabbing research material off the Holocaust shelves of the Lower Hutt public library I picked up Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, also recognised by its subtitle A Report on the Banality of Evil. I've since found the time to read it.

Although basically a report of Eichmann's trial, it is also a deep and thoughtful case study. Which made it one of the touchstones of debate over at least one of the big questions raised by the Holocaust: how could people do this?

The other names to drop in this context are the Milgram Obedience to Authority experiment and the Stanford prison experiment. Between them they suggest that the human moral compass basically orientates to what everyone else is doing, or what everyone else expects, right now.

The most shining examples of resistance to the final solution were entire countries, and definitely not on the allied side. Denmark, Bulgaria and Italy simply didn't take much action against the Jews. One or two others drew the line when they realised what was happening to the deportees. Where the Nazis didn't have the support of the population they had to abandon their efforts.

It's notable that in Denmark and Bulgaria the local German officials also worked to thwart the deportation of the Jews. They had, as it were, adapted to the moral climate.

*For those of you who enjoy using the word ‘disconnect’ as a noun: ‘disjunction’, perhaps? I mean, far be it from me to stomp on the development of the language. It’s not as if this use is as destructive as saying ‘refute’ when you mean ‘deny’. It just rubs me the wrong way. And I know how much you all want to rub me the right way.