November 18, 2008
I think there's a reason philosophy has remained unable to resolve certain problems, and by no means do I claim to have the definitive answers regarding the complicated question of morality. With that being said, I would like to comment on the role our access to knowledge plays in the formation of accurate moral judgments. In order to have this discussion, we need to assume at least the premise that a distinction exists between "good" and "evil" acts, and we'll touch upon our old pal Euthypro, and the question of whether morality is subjective or objective. The essential question is this: Is evil act X always evil? If so, then morality seems objective, but does that make it absolutely inflexible? If evil act X is not always evil, then morality seems subjective or relative.
The other day I ran into a scenario where these problems came up. We had went to the local fast food restaurant where they prepare submarine sandwiches. I ordered a sandwich in line, and noticed my friends had gotten chips and soda seemingly without waiting in line, and I never saw them pay. So when we all walked out together, I commented about their smooth techniques, adding that I'd barely even noticed them myself. That's when they assured me I was mistaken, and that they had in fact paid for the items in question. One of them said, "I'm not good at stuff like that. I've been stolen from before and I know what it feels like."
Pushing the conversation a little further, this friend relayed a story about the one time he did actually steal. He said that at one time, neither he nor the friends he was with had any access to food, so they snuck into the back of a store and grabbed some stuff. Now the argument exists that they certainly would have survived without stealing the stuff, but was what they did wrong? Why or why not? On what grounds?
I think there is a ratio between intelligence and morality, in the sense that the more somebody knows, the more justification they can provide for committing an otherwise evil act. If it was possible to know for certain what Hitler's ultimate course of action was going to be, should the being that saw such be held to the same degree if they killed Hitler in attempt to preclude his course of action? What is it that separates the hero from the murder suspect?
The statement "Thou shalt not kill" is not synonymous with the statement "killing is wrong absolutely all the time." In this commandment, there is a speaker and a listener, and what the speaker decrees for the listener is not necessarily 'always decreeable' for the speaker, not of special pleading, but because the ability to render accurate moral judgments is somehow inextricably dependent on our access to complete data / knowledge. The commandment in question is meant to make killing off limits to people. Why might this be? People can be dumb, irrational, ignorant, misinformed, prejudiced, hateful, and all sorts of other interesting flavors that make giving humans the power to kill a risky proposition. But if a being exists that is not flawed as humans are in their judgments, is it wrong for that being to kill at any time? Why or why not? And more importantly for you rationalists out there, how do you know?