Morality

Nathan Richardson

In a previous post, “What Makes Me a ‘Me’?” I described two conflicting assumptions about the nature of self in psychology. The first paradigm, Self-interest, assumes that selfhood consists of separation from other selves; we are entirely separate and distinct individuals, not inextricably connected or related to each other in any inherent way. The second paradigm, Other-interest, assumes that the self’s existence is created by the existence of other selves, which the self distinguishes itself from. That is, I am intrinsically connected to others because a Self implies an Other which the Self is not.

This belief or lack of belief in inherent connectedness has implications in the way we conceive of morality. (The following discussion relies in part on a thesis by Renée Beckwith,1 and I am indebted to her for her insights.)

Self-interest

In the first paradigm, morality consists of remaining free. Therefore each person must be free to choose her own values, which they decide upon through conscious thought.

In this paradigm, agency and freedom are only possible in detachment and separation from other selves; any connections imply unchosen obligations, and would mean the self was being governed by people or forces outside itself. Thus, there can be no universal morality, because that would be an involuntary obligation, which would negate the possibility of self-governance or agency. Freedom is the ability to choose independently of any influence, including universal moral standards.

Therefore, in order to be free, every person must be able to choose her own morality. This is possible because each individual is a “universe unto himself,” an unconnected island of being that is only incidentally sharing space with other selves. Universal virtues are replaced with individual values. What is “good” depends on each individual person, and the ultimate “evil” is to do something that you don’t want to do.

Perhaps more interesting is the way people in this paradigm advocate discerning right and wrong. Since knowledge is based in detachment and objectivity, discerning for oneself what is right and wrong requires rational, conscious thought. “In this paradigm, thinking clearly precedes relating to others morally.”1

People in this paradigm approach morality like a gourmet chef. Like choosing from a buffet, your values are based on individual preferences. There is no one “good” standard for a good meal; we can eat anything as long as it tastes good. This attitude is reflected in comments we hear more and more these days, such as, “Well, that may be true for you, but that’s your truth. I have my own truth,” or, “That way of life may make you happy, but I’m just different. This way of life makes me happy.” Morality is reduced to a matter of taste, and any assertions of a universal standard are seen as antiquated at best, and oppressive at worst.

Other-interest

In the second paradigm, freedom consists of remaining moral. Our happiness is governed by universal virtues, which we discern often intuitively and through encounters with others’ needs.

In this paradigm, existence inherently necessitate connection to other selves. Thus, the nature and obligations of those connections (morality) precede and produce selfhood and agency, not the other way around. Since all selves are connected, there is a universal standard of right and wrong that all must honor and operate by. “It is impossible for the self to independently choose some individual morality apart from the other. In fact, … acting for the good of the other is what defines morality.”1 Morality means, at least in part, putting the needs of the other ahead of one’s own and forgetting the self. Evil consists of not honoring the relations that inherently bind us together.

However, those connections not only imply a universal obligation to be moral (disheartening news for someone in the first paradigm), they also mean that what is good for the other is good for all, and what brings one genuine joy enhances, not diminishes, the joy of all the others. Thus, being moral does not decrease freedom; it increases happiness and turns our relatedness into fulfillment.

This paradigm is much better at describing how people discern right and wrong in everyday life. Since there is a universal standard of right and wrong, we do not choose our own values through rational thought. Most of the time, when we do something that is right, we do so impulsively, because it just “felt right.” After the fact, we may be able to articulate why it was right, but usually the moral choice is first discerned intuitively, and only later rendered reasonable, after the fact.

People in this paradigm approach morality like a dietician. Flavorful foods are wonderful, but there are some basic nutrients that everyone needs, no matter who you are. If you never eat vegetables or fruit, you’re going to get sick. Likewise, there are some substances that will harm everyone. Drinking antifreeze is bad for everyone, even if you like the flavor, and even if you don’t know it’s a poison.

Discussion

This reminder of universal morality can help us avoid a mistake made sometimes within the Church. Sometimes we talk as though our knowledge of the gospel is what causes sin to be harmful or to not bring lasting joy. For example, I’ve heard people respond to concerns about general immorality in the world by saying things like, “Well, they’ve never learned about chastity. It’s wrong for us because we’ve made covenants, but they haven’t made those same covenants.” Whether they know isn’t the point; sexual immorality will hurt people’s spirits whether they were taught chastity or not. We’re more accountable because of our knowledge, to be sure, but our knowledge of right and wrong is not what makes sin harmful. The nature of sin is what makes sin harmful. Sin will bring needless misery whether a person knows it or not; a correct understanding of sin’s nature helps us avoid it.



Notes

1. Renée Beckwith, “Exploring Maternal Ambivalence: Comparing Findings with Two Opposing Paradigms of Intent,” master’s thesis (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2003).

2. For example, an otherwise wonderful object lesson on JennySmith.net has a problematic explanation:

We point out that the other friends seemed to get great pleasure from their [sins] but that doing the same things can be a “bitter” experience when we know better. Things that work for their friends who are “non-believing” or “non-knowing” won’t work for them if it goes against their standards—we know pornography is sin, and so when we “taste” it, it tastes bad; we feel guilty.

The author is right that a knowledge of sin makes it a more bitter experience. But the explanation implies that one solution might be to lower our standards, or to not share the gospel so that others can continue enjoying sin.