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.