Wednesday, March 07, 2007

What is the moral context? (paca)

One thing I've discovered in my years is that what you think is reasonable or right depends as much on your perception of the context of the action as much as the action itself. OK, that's trivially true, right? Of course, whether or not shooting someone is the right action depends on the context - are you invading their home? are you on the battlefield at war? are you defending your life? Etc. So, let me just skip to my examples.

Many years ago when I was an undergrad, so early 90s as I gadjiated in 94, my father was telling me some story about a local guy having trouble with a beaver. The beaver kept putting a dam up or chewing one down or some such on the land, and it was actually causing real trouble. I made some sort of silly comment like, "go beaver!" (I should also confess that for many years my favorite animal was the beaver. yes, the beaver. At some point it switched to polar bears. But generally I like furry water mammals. Even the musk rat is cooler swimming across a pond. Do I digress?) My father made some sort of response like "you know, people have just as much of a right to use a river as a beaver."

He's right of course when you think about it a certain way. Beavers are not more important than humans and we get to use waterways, too. So if you just think about this one incident, you could imagine that it is best for the human to win out. The problem is that when you broaden the context, things change. If the human wins every single time because of his or her right to use a stream equally, then these "equal rights" don't seem equal at all. They really mean that people get everything.

A similar story comes from the Daily Show. There was a segment several months back where they did a mock interview of a guy who moved into some area of San Francisco with a really large gay population. And in this neighborhood there are lots of sex shops with very graphic displays in the windows - BDSM related items with leather and chains and huge items to be inserted into other people. So this guy moves into the neighborhood with his family and doesn't like his children going past this stuff all the time, so he was leading some sort of campaign to either close the shops or remove the window displays or something. Now, if you just consider this one neighborhood by itself, the father isn't being completely unreasonable. We regulate stuff like this all the time with where sex industry businesses can locate, what stuff can be shown on TV at what time, what businesses can be near schools, etc. But then, as part of a joke of course, the Daily Show puts up a map of the U.S. with one color, say black, for neighborhoods that are friendly to this gay subculture and another color, say green, for those who are not, and you end up with something like two tiny black dots, one in San Francisco and another in Manhattan, in the entire nation. If you think of it in that context, then the father's "reasonable" desire not to have his child exposed to this stuff really amounts to banning it for all, which is not reasonable if you think the government should stay out of what consenting adults do when alone. In short, if the context is a single street in San Francisco, the dad can make a decent case, but if the context is the U.S. as a whole, the case has a lot less merit.

You see this context problem all the time in discussions about religion and government. Many, many Christians particularly of an evangelical bent feel like they and their religion are constantly under attack. Some times the offenses are urban legends or misunderstandings, but they are often real as well. Typically, the Christian victim is looking at some individual incident and feels it to be wrong or unfair. The "liberal" for lack of a better term then looks up and says, "let me get this right. You are an oppressed victim who can't get his voice heard and yet Christians control every single branch of government and have since the founding of the nation...." If you ever read any political sites, you will have seen these discussions.

The difficult question of morality then becomes: what is the context to consider? Moral situations don't come with the context labeled conveniently for us. You might be able to shrink and grow the context of an action and get 10 different decisions due to the shifts. I would hazard a guess that moral disagreements arise from disagreements about what the proper context is as often as they do about the action itself.

My final example is the never-ending abortion debate. One reason that access to abortions is considered such an important right to defend among many feminist-leaning people is because they view abortion rights in a context of womens rights generally, societal patriarchy, and the social and political role of women. Letting access to abortion disappear for people with this view is not just to lose access to something important to many, but is an attack on women generally. That is the context.

There is probably some portion of pro-life people who also think of this context and have simply decided that the child's right to life is more important (or some other argument), but again I'm guessing that most pro-lifers don't even consider this context at all. It just doesn't occur to them. And I can confess I'm most often one of those people. I fall pro-choice when I have to say anything, but I fall that way because I think the pro-life position doesn't give sufficient weight to a woman's right to control her own body. Now that is different than the sort of feminist view. Indeed, my position could be argued in a sort of classical liberal or libertarian way. A woman's individual rights trump the rights of the child. This has little to do with the role of women in society and what gender groups maintain power. I go into all of this simply to make the point that even people who agree on some particular issue might be considering very different contexts when reaching their decisions.

I don't think there's an answer to this issue unless God's going to stick post-it notes on the world for us. But maybe by keeping the problem in the back of our heads, when we next have to make a decision, we can remember to play with the context consciously and make an actual informed decision instead of just whatever we happen to be assuming at the moment.


Anonymous said...

since when did you claim the polar bear as ur favorite animal? i thought it was lamas. i didn't know we loved the same furry water animals!! i LOVE them!

pacatrue said...

Well, it's moved on, I must admit. I'm not sure I have an exact favorite animal anymore. But when at the zoo, I'm very liable to hang around any display with mammals that swim around, especially if they are all furry. Manatees? Bah! Now, if the mammal can also build a hut? Score. I wanna see a manatee build a hut. I don't think so.

writtenwyrdd said...

Very nice article. I think we often forget the context of the argument and try to use a one size fits all approach to these sorts of debates, and that doesn't work.

AS far as abortion issues, I always say that it is technically slavery to insist that a woman loses control over her body, denied by the state for the rights of the unborn child. By being denied choice and insisting she much go through an unwanted pregnancy, the state enslaves her to the foetus. Just me, but that's how I feel about it.