Monday, November 21, 2005

All Americans Are Immoral. Yes that means you!

Welcome to the land of misanthropy friends, you're all basically immoral according to Mr. Peter Unger a professor of philosophy at NYU. I would go a step further and argue that a quite a few of you (PETA members) are worse than serial killers.

Now of course most of you will object by saying "but I am basically a good person, I am not actively going around killing or raping." True, but the good doctor replies:

Even in our rather materialistic society, a few work hard on behalf of the poorest and most wretched people of the earth. And a few give much of their money for the most worthwhile purposes, such as helping to prevent children from dying from easy-to-beat diseases. As most of us agree, these people are, certainly morally and perhaps overall, much better people than (almost all) the rest of us. As is no news, most of us aren't (morally) extremely good people.

What of our conduct, or our behavior? Because it's not wicked, and so on, most of the time, and to our credit, our behavior isn't extremely bad. But, and as the previous paragraph makes plain, most of the time our behavior isn't extremely good, either. So, we may agree on at least this: In terms of better behavior and worse conduct, pretty far from the great extremes, most of the time our own conduct lies somewhere in a vast middle ground: We could do a lot better and we could do a lot worse.[my emphasis]

The goodly philosopher borrows a technique from Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron in his "Way of the Master" series of Christian evagelism. Kirk asks if your a good person, then proves your not by getting you to admit to breaking many of the 10 commandments.

So it turns out you are probably not very "good." But does that make you bad? What is the moral status ascribed to such "common behavior" as failing to"contribute a few hundred dollars to a charity like UNICEF, [where] a prosperous person can ensure that fewer poor children die, and that more will live reasonably long, worthwhile lives. Our untutored response is that, while it is not very good, neither is the conduct wrong."

But according to Unger, our common sense and "untutored response" is wrong. It is quite immoral to not help out a little when the "payoff" is so great. You should be feeling as guilty as the "sponsor a child" guy makes you feel while holding up a starving child in those Christian Fund commercials . "Only 80 cents a day, the price of a cup of coffee, why haven't you done it?"

Since I am not a Hot Abercrombie Chick I won't digress into the details of his argument which you can get here or into the philosophical hair splitting of ethics and morality. Suffice it to say he is not a utilitarian , he argues that "that our intuitions about ethical cases are generated not by basic moral values, but by certain distracting psychological dispositions that all too often prevent us from reacting in accord with our commitments."

Those who know me, realize I subscribe to an odd personal sense of morality whose sensibility can be found in Ungers' philosophy (you can find more in his book Living High and Letting Die Our Illusion of Innocence.) I have lectured extensively on the merits of mediocrity and a certain idiosyncratic version of austerism. (If I don't have anything how can I feel guilty about world hunger?) At some point a search of this and my other blog archives will turn up some commentary on these points and I will post an update reflecting such.

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