This week a friend sent an article from the John Templeton Foundation titled, “Does Moral Action Depend on Reasoning?” While you think about how you’d answer that question, let me throw a couple of things out there.
The distance between Oklahoma City and Birmingham, Ala., is a little more than 700 miles. Once you hit Interstate 40 headed east, you can set your cruise control on 70 and, with a temporary slow-down here and there, you can motor without stopping all the way to Memphis. Then, after you turn southeast on Highway 78, there are no stop signs until you reach the outskirts of Birmingham.
The highway authorities in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama are all conscientious about posting the speed limit along this route. Keep your eyes open and you’ll always know how fast the law allows you to drive. For most of the distance, you can travel at 70 miles per hour. That’s 70 for me, for you, for the professional NASCAR driver, the 85-year-old escapee from the nursing home, the 17-year-old beginner, the fighter pilot, the absent minded professor — everyone.
Now the NASCAR driver could make a strong case for the proposition that it’s really not fair to impose this limit on him/her. These drivers are a lot more capable of safely handling a vehicle at 85 or 90 than some other drivers are at 60 mph. But we don’t take exceptions into account when we post speed limits. It’s a “one-size-fits-all” deal. The fact that it’s unfair on the margins doesn’t matter. That’s the rule.
So here’s the question. If you’re rocketing east on I-40 at 95 miles per hour because your accelerator sticks and your brakes won’t work, are you morally responsible for violating the speed laws?
OK, here’s another one. We all agree it’s inappropriate to shout obscenities in the presence of children (at least I think we all agree on this). But someone suffering from Tourette’s syndrome, who fully appreciates how wrong it is, can’t help it. Is it a moral shortcoming to do something you know is wrong if you simply can’t, by the exercise of will, stop yourself?
In our society, the assessment of moral quality requires some assumptions. One is morally commendable if one has choices, some good and some bad, and voluntarily chooses the good. The evil twin has the same choices, but instead chooses the bad. One is morally excused if one fully appreciates the difference, but has no real power to choose one or the other.
There is a mounting body of scientific evidence suggesting that our conscious choices — all of them — are a product of self-deception. Alfred Mele, the author of the article mentioned above, cites some studies suggesting that brain pattern activity can predict people’s decisions up to 10 seconds before they’re aware they’ve made a choice. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” the author discusses experiments where subjects unconsciously solve a riddle and express the solution physically before the conscious mind identifies the pattern.
These studies obviously pose problems for our notions of moral quality. If our mind is made up before we go through the exercise of excluding the bad in order to choose the good, these decisions start to look automatic and — yes — predetermined. This, of course, gives a ready-made excuse to anyone who commits an act we regard as morally reprehensible. Everyone has a moral “out.” You can apologize for what you’ve done. But it really isn’t your fault. The accelerator got stuck.
Mele doesn’t buy it and I don’t either. Of course, there are limits on free will. We can’t all be high-profile golf pros no matter how hard we try. (My wife Mary says it may be too late for me to start training now to become an Olympic ice skating sensation. We’ll see.) And, like it or not, some of us have wider ranges of choice than others. But each of us had the right to expect others around us to choose to act with decency. If I’m headed east on I-40 at 85 mph and get a ticket, I’ve got no one to blame but myself.
In ancient Rome, May 17 was dedicated to Mercury, the god of merchants, thieves and orators. If they have anything in common that justifies lumping them all together, I’m sure it’s not their fault.
I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
Wed, May 12, 2010
by Michael Hinkle