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Heidi Maibom in her essay at Aeon Magazine explores some the psychological and philosophical insights into morality gained by observing the behaviour of psychopathic individuals.  I recommend going to Aeon and reading the entire article, its quite insightful.

 

“The psychopath’s response to people who suffer indicates that what we recognise as morality might be grounded not simply in positive, prosocial emotions but also in negative, stressful and self-oriented ones. This is not some cuddly version of empathy, but a primitive aversive reaction that seemingly has little to do with our caring greatly for the humanity of others.

Yet what exposes our common humanity more than the fact that I become personally distressed by what happens to you? What could better make me grasp the importance of your suffering? The personal part of empathic distress might be central to my grasping what is so bad about harming you. Thinking about doing so fills me with alarm. Arguably, it’s more important that I curb my desire to harm others for personal gain than it is for me to help a person in need. Social psychology research has focused on how we’re moved to help others, but that’s led us to ignore important aspects of ethics. Psychopathy puts personal distress back in the centre of our understanding of the psychological underpinnings of morality.

The last lesson we can learn concerns whether sentimentalists or rationalists are right when it comes to interpretations of the moral deficits of psychopaths. The evidence supports both positions. We don’t have to choose – in fact, it would be silly for us to do so. Rationalist thinkers who believe that psychopaths reason poorly have zoomed in on how they don’t fear punishment as we do. That has consequences down the line in their decision making since, without appropriate fear, one can’t learn to act appropriately. But on the side of the sentimentalists, fear and anxiety are emotional responses. Their absence impairs our ability to make good decisions, and facilitates psychopathic violence.

Fear, then, straddles the divide between emotion and reason. It plays the dual role of constraining our decisions via our understanding the significance of suffering for others, and through our being motivated to avoid certain actions and situations. But it’s not clear whether the significance of fear will be palatable to moral philosophers. A response of distress and anxiety in the face of another’s pain is sharp, unpleasant and personal. It stands in sharp contrast to the common understanding of moral concern as warm, expansive and essentially other-directed. Psychopaths force us to confront a paradox at the heart of ethics: the fact that I care about what happens to you is based on the fact I care about what happens to me.”

    We’ve all experienced the inner hardening, and turning away when faced with another human being in need.  Of course it isn’t indicative of us being a psychopath, but the ability to realize that ethical distance is trait we all share.  I realize the pain and suffering of people who are starving, but they are far away and I can turn away and ignore their suffering and get along with my life.

Seems kinda shitty once you think about it, and the fact that most people do it doesn’t lessen the gravity of this particular ethical failure.  Yet, the behaviour will persist, a dubious solution to the real life situations that run up against our moral understanding of the world.

This sort of ethical dilemma is illustrated in the series Breaking Bad.  I’m almost done (two episodes left) watching Breaking Bad, and the moral path Walter White chooses to walk seems to illustrate the how muddy ‘good ethical behaviour’ gets once it hits the real word.

To be clear, a moral injury is not a psychiatric diagnosis. Rather, it’s an existential disintegration of how the world should or is expected to work—a compromise of the conscience when one is butted against an action (or inaction) that violates an internalized moral code. It’s different from post-traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms of which occur as a result of traumatic events. When a soldier at a checkpoint shoots at a car that doesn’t stop and kills innocents, or when Walter White allows Jesse’s troublesome addict girlfriend to die of an overdose to win him back as a partner, longstanding moral beliefs are disrupted, and an injury on the conscience occurs.”

What quality makes people bounce back from a moral injury, or turn further toward questionable moral choices?  We’d all like to think we belong to the class of upstanding, moral citizens – but how long does that last once the unkind vicissitudes of life go into overdrive?

 

 

 

My undergraduate University days were nothing like what is routinely described as the ‘University Experience’.  It was a much more utilitarian experience – go to class, take notes, and then rinse and repeat the next day.  Add review said notes and study as test time rolled around.  The social aspect of University was pretty much all but lost on me at the time as the group of friends I had at the time did not attend.  In hindsight, not having friends doing the same thing made focusing on my studies much more difficult and it extended my stay at the lovely U by a few years.   Lessons learned and what not.

So, my Uni days were, to oversimplify, just highschool but harder.  My real learning started or at least the path to intellectual maturity started after I earned my degree.  It also helped that my partner was smart af and pushed me to become more rigorous in developing and defending my thoughts and arguments.  So when I read this essay I could understand what they where saying, but couldn’t really relate to what was being said of the state of university/college campuses regarding the moral/social development of their students.

For me, finding my moral and ethical centre was quite independent of the educational process, such as it was, during my tenure at the U.  Granted, of course, I was being exposed to and learning about topics that would, in the future, inform my ethical-self and boundaries, but nothing on the level which seems to happen in the US college scene.  So then while reading this quote intrigued me:

   “It is entirely reasonable, then, for students to conclude that questions of right and wrong, of ought and obligation, are not, in the first instance at least, matters to be debated, deliberated, researched or discussed as part of their intellectual lives in classrooms and as essential elements of their studies. “

What?  Isn’t inside the classroom where the great arguments and debates should happen?  I mean, it is in the university that you can hash out and grapple with the big problems with the help of professors and the knowledge that they bring and provide of the big thinkers that have grappled with these questions in the past.  The university is where you can make mistakes and get nuanced feedback that will sharpen your intellectual faculties and better equip you to lead the examine life, right?

(It’s funny – none of this really happened for me – sit in class, get taught stuff, regurgitate stuff – was the order of the day).  But yeah, in the formal sense, if you’re not going to university to grapple with the right and wrong questions, then why go?  Getting a degree for job is nice and stuff, but attending higher education is supposed to be more than that.

Here is an excerpt from Wellmen’s take on the the state of the university experience in the US:

 

“The transformation of American colleges and universities into corporate concerns is particularly evident in the maze of offices, departments and agencies that manage the moral lives of students. When they appeal to administrators with demands that speakers not be invited, that particular policies be implemented, or that certain individuals be institutionally sanctioned, students are doing what our institutions have formed them to do. They are following procedure, appealing to the institution to manage moral problems, and relying on the administrators who oversee the system. A student who experiences discrimination or harassment is taught to file complaints by submitting a written statement; the office then determines if the complaint potentially has merit; the office conducts an investigation and produces a report; an executive accepts or rejects the report; and then the office ‘notifies’ the parties of the ‘outcome’. 

These bureaucratic processes transmute moral injury, desire and imagination into an object that flows through depersonalised, opaque procedures that produce an ‘outcome’. Questions of character, duty, moral insight, reconciliation, community, ethos or justice have at most a limited role. US colleges and universities speak to the national argot of individual rights, institutional affiliation and complaint that dominate American capitalism. They have few moral resources from which to draw any alternative moral language and imagination. 

The extracurricular system of moral management requires an ever-expanding array of ‘resources’ – counselling centres, legal services, deans of student life. Teams of devoted professionals work to help students hold their lives together. The people who support and oversee these extracurricular systems of moral management do so almost entirely apart from any coherent curricular project. 

It is entirely reasonable, then, for students to conclude that questions of right and wrong, of ought and obligation, are not, in the first instance at least, matters to be debated, deliberated, researched or discussed as part of their intellectual lives in classrooms and as essential elements of their studies. They are, instead, matters for their extracurricular lives in dorms, fraternities or sororities and student activity groups, most of which are managed by professional staff. “

It seems less of an organic process, and more of a ritualized ‘thing ya do’ to start making the bucks in society.  It seems like such a waste that we have strict qualifications to get and to graduate, but at the same time that we’re not challenging people, making them stretch and reform their assumptions about the world.  Where else can we have the space to do such important life work?

Grab your morning coffee and enjoy your Sunday Disservice.  :)

 

   Howard Zinn was an active and vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.  He brings insight, like Noam Chomsky, to the issues that our liberal societies won’t acknowledge.   The diffusion of Personal responsibility – and no, not the ‘personal responsibility’ (bootstraps!?!!!!) wielded by the corporatist right to bludgeon the poor, but actual personal responsibility is what is being discussed in the quote.  It happens all to often when it comes to how we react to the actions taken in our stead by our government.

“I didn’t vote for them,” or “I’m just doing my job…” or <insert excuse here> does not make you any less responsible for the actions committed in your name.

“The fact that there is only an indirect connection between Dow recruiting students and napalm dropped on Vietnamese villages, does not vitiate the moral issue. It is precisely the nature of modern mass murder that it is not visibly direct like individual murder, but takes on a corporate character, where every participant has limited liability. The total effect, however, is a thousand times more pernicious, than that of the individual entrepreneur of violence. If the world is destroyed, it will be a white-collar crime, done in a business-like way, by large numbers of individuals involved in a chain of actions, each one having a touch of innocence.”

-Howard Zinn.  On War (second edition). p. 64.

The idea that spanking is somehow a valid parenting practice is disturbing enough.  What is more troubling is that people who practice spanking are likely to justify it within their own moral framework and not change their views on the subject.

   “To find answers, I looked at violence across cultures and history with my colleague Alan Fiske of the University of California, Los Angeles. We analyzed records of all kinds of violence, ranging from war to torture to genocide to homicide. While this was rather depressing work, it also led to some very interesting findings. We identified a pattern in that violence that was both predictive and explanatory.

   The commonality was that the primary motivations were moral. This means that the perpetrators of violence felt like what they are doing was morally right. In fact, when they were committing the act, they perceived that not acting would be morally wrong. It wasn’t about a breakdown in moral sensibilities, but more that their sense of morality was different. They viewed violence as the fundamentally right thing to do even if no one else could see any possible justification for it.

   With this lens, let’s go back to that spanking scenario. A child disobeys his mother, who spanks him because she believes it is her duty to protect him from himself and ensure that he becomes a responsible adult. She sees it as her obligation as a parent.

   Similarly, drill sergeants and gang leaders often haze new recruits, as they believe it is their duty to create lifelong bonds and instill obedience, which are required in battle. We can even see this mentality with terrorists. ISIL members believe they are morally justified and obligated to commit acts of terror, while US soldiers accept some loss of civilian lives to achieve the deaths of those terrorists. In all of these scenarios, the violent act is perceived by the perpetrator as virtuous. As details emerge about the California shootings, we will begin to see more about the shooters; whether they felt their violence was something they had an obligation to do, and if so, why.

   The general pattern we saw in the cases we studied was that violence was intended to regulate social relationships and sustain a moral order. The perpetrators are in control of their actions—they know they are hurting fellow human beings, and that is exactly what they intend to do.”

 

Tage Rai Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management

moralityjebus

Pancakes and shedding blood just doesn’t seem right.

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