Moral Boundaries: Stepping Over the Line

“Stepping over the line” is, I think, a concept generally regarded as doing something that is unforgivable—something immoral. It’s interesting that we were asked to reflect on peoples’ motivation to stay within the line, since I think that the “line” is different for every person, and some people don’t have a line at all. Last week, we talked about rule-based or consequence-based ethics. It seems to me that those who consider themselves a deontologist are likely to find the line well-defined by a set of guidelines and rules which they live by, while a consequentialist might find reason to debate what the line even is. A friend likes to talk about words such as “should” or “duty” in terms of what we, as humans, are obligated to do (he says nothing, I disagree). But the fact that the two of us, both agnostic, have opposing views on ethics is interesting to me in that even though we have similar beliefs, we act on them in very different ways. He, for example, does not believe it’s our job to ensure that the environment is clean for future generations and doesn’t care about recycling or composting (don’t hate on him! He’s working on it!). This, I think, comes from his upbringing in New York City where recycling wasn’t a big issue. I, on the other hand, am a big recycler and composter, since I grew up among farms and with gardens where we actually used our compost and upcycle old things. Though this is a very minor example, he believes that he is being perfectly moral and he isn’t crossing any “line”, but I think he is. Essentially, he is crossing my “line” but not his, and this is what I find interesting. In All the King’s Men, Willie Talos believes that he is doing what is right for the people by prying into Judge Irwin’s past so that he can blackmail him into supporting Willie’s politician (though I’m still not clear on the entire purpose of this, I think that Willie thinks it’s good—I think he believes everything he is doing is good). Jack also seems to believe this, though possibly he can see what Willie is doing that is so wrong. Regardless, Willie’s “line” is a far cry from the line that the people of Burden’s Landing have—Anne, Adam, Judge Irwin, the Scholarly Attorney, possibly Jack, and as a third-party observer, I don’t know whose is more “right”. It is often our background and how we were raised that lets us make judgments about what is right, wrong, or within the “lines”. In Amos, though I didn’t quite recognize it at the time I was reading, we see how an entire people are falling outside the lines by “turning justice into poison” and using “dishonest scales” to cheat buyers (among other things). But these lines are as seen by Amos, whose background is rooted in religion and the rules of God. Perhaps most of us would also see many of these acts as “falling outside the lines”, but not necessarily everyone will. Or, as is possible in the case of Willie Talos, they see that as the lesser evil, and maybe there are actually several lines and at least their actions are inside some of them (I’m imagining concentric circles, where the center is the “optimal” or “most moral” place to be). In reflecting upon education, I think it’s important to keep in mind that each student and parent and colleague that I will encounter as a teacher will have their own idea of “within the lines”, and part of my job will be to stay within as many of those lines as I can (as pertaining to the classroom) but also to educate students about the different ways their actions can be perceived. I mentioned last week that kids need to be aware of the consequences of their actions, and I still firmly hold to this. This means they should also understand that sometimes, something they think was funny (a joke about another kid’s eyeglasses, or laughing when they fall) may not be funny to the other person. And though I listed some minor examples, even things as small as light teasing can be considered immoral if it hurts the other person.

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Bring on the Ketchup!

This week’s question about whether I consider myself a consequentialist or a deontologist was an interesting one, since it was basically asking me why I consider the things I do “right” or “wrong”. For me, the answer is consequentialist, and it was an easy choice for me to make. Quickly, to define:

Consequentialism: the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct

Deontological ethics: judge the morality of an action based on that action’s adherence to a rule or rules. Also duty- or obligation-based ethics; the rules bind you to your duty

Personally, I am not much of a rule-follower. I dislike being told what to do based on someone else’s view of what is right or wrong, because I feel that I can make that judgment call myself. However, there are rules I follow—not because they are rules and I should follow them, but because if I don’t follow them, there are consequences. In my mind, consequences—for others or for myself; e.g. if I killed someone, the consequence would be that person’s death and the hurt I dished out to their loved ones—are the primary motivating factor in life. I go to school, because as a consequence, I will have a degree with which I will have a job that I enjoy. I don’t steal, because that would be taking something someone else worked hard for, or received as a gift, which I have no right to. I often jaywalk, because although there is a law against it, I understand that the consequences of that action are my own (and it’s not like I jump out in front of a moving car).  In II Samuel, the consequences of David’s actions are that his child is killed because he broke the rules. While this would make more sense to me if the consequences had been laid out ahead of time rather than done as a reactive measure, David should have known that what he chose to do was hurtful to others and would have a negative impact on their lives and his. In a classroom, I think a consequentialistic approach is more effective than a deontological approach. Children do not follow rules because they are there (maybe some do). What’s more important is that children understand that their actions can have consequences—both positive and negative—and they need to be aware of these consequences. As teachers, we should be teaching them the pathways their choices can take, and help them learn to make positive choices so that everyone benefits rather than hurting others. In All the King’s Men, Cass Mastern made some choices that were against the rules. He didn’t think about it more than that—he knew it was wrong, but he didn’t understand why. Only after Duncan Trice, his friend, killed himself and Annabelle and he went down their own individual paths of guilt and destruction, did he realize that his affair with Annabelle has consequences, and they were harmful to his friend, his lover, and himself. In a classroom and in real life, students need to be aware of these pathways before they happen, not after. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis describes a situation with eugenics where humans are changing the fate of their children without realizing that they are really taking away their children’s power over nature. He seems to take a more deontological approach, where he says that those who follow the rules of the Tao will succeed in having a better future for their children. However, I see it as those who are selecting traits for future generations (in a more modern sense, I’m thinking of genetic manipulation) are attempting to overpower nature without understanding the consequences of their actions (which Lewis believes will be the “abolition of man”). They don’t know the pathway they are on, only the “rules” of society. I recently heard a funny analogy about the difference between a proactive and a reactive approach, and I think it can apply here: when you order fries at a restaurant, would you rather the waiter anticipate your desire for ketchup and ask you before (or bring it with your fries), or would you rather have them ask you as they bring your fries, and give you ketchup after they have all gone cold? Though obviously less extreme than Cass Mastern’s case (his was a bit too extreme), the point is the same: kids need to be able to see the positive effect of bringing the ketchup and the negative effect of not bringing it, and be able to make these choices for themselves.