Conscience does make cowards of us all


I don’t think I’ve thought of myself as being in a moral quandary for a while now -at least not since I retired, anyway- but I do remember the feeling of opposing forces pulling in different, if not opposite, directions; the feeling that by yielding to one rather than another, there is always a loser; the feeling that I simply cannot win…

And yet, it seems to me that doing nothing -making no choices- is merely relinquishing agency, being swept along like a leaf in a river with no control where it ends up. But leaves still fall, rivers continue to flow, and although I understand that I should choose the path I take, I am still confused. It seems to make little sense that no matter how noble my intentions are to do the right thing, there is still a loser; that is the nature of choice but errare humanum est, perseverare autem diabolicum. So, what to do? Persist in error, or give up in frustration?

Fortunately, as is often the case, there are other ways of approaching the dilemma -other ways of negotiating the labyrinth. I discovered a truly insightful essay by Irene McMullin, a professor of philosophy at the University of Essex in the UK in the online publication Aeon: https://aeon.co/essays/how-should-you-choose-the-right-right-thing-to-do

I’m not sure she was able to convince me that she has found the ‘right thing to do’ but I think that she has certainly provided a convincing framework to understand the moral predicament of choosing. ‘Conventional wisdom depicts moral struggle as an internal conflict between a higher moral self and an untamed dark side. This picture pervades popular imagination: the angel and the devil on either shoulder… It resonates with religious traditions that place us between angels and animals in a Great Chain of Being.’

Decisions are a sort of combat in which there is always a loser. And with morals, ‘Any difficulty in doing the right thing results from (evil, selfish) resistance, not from the fact that one cannot do all the good or valuable things that one is called upon to do… In other words, the key issue in many cases is not whether to be moral at all – but rather how best to distribute your moral resources in conditions of scarcity and conflict.’

As McMullin points out, there are at least ‘three different classes of goods that regularly give rise to incommensurable but competing legitimate moral claims, each revealed through a different practical stance that we adopt towards the world as we try to figure out what to do and who to be.’ The first is satisfying my own desires, the second is helping someone else achieve theirs, while the third is seeing those many others in the world who would benefit from my help.

A helpful way to understand is to ‘think of these in terms of the traditional literary distinction between the first-, second- and third-person perspectives. A novel written from the first-person perspective provides access to the protagonist’s struggles from the inside… In the second-person perspective, the focus is on the other person: the ‘you’ takes centre stage. When written from the third-person perspective, every character’s struggles are viewed from the outside… Though some characters might be more important than others, typically none is singled out as providing the primary lens through which the world finds its meaning.’

So, ‘From the second-person perspective, you understand yourself and the world through the lens of other people… From the third-person stance, you understand yourself as one among many, called to fit yourself into the shared standards and rules governing a world made up of a multitude of creatures like you.’

Of course, McMullin has a lot more to say in her essay, and I have no idea just how seminal is her idea of viewing morality through the traditional literary lens, but I find the perspective it reveals helpful -compelling, in fact. As she sees it, from the first person perspective, my body, for example, disappears into a task, and only surfaces if there is an injury, or episode of pain, say. It is, in other words, just me. But, ‘Think of how differently you experience your own body when you’re alone, as opposed to when someone suddenly enters the room.

‘From the second-person perspective, your body appears as an object of experience for the other person… From the second-person perspective, one’s own body might seem awkward, desirable, average, ineffectual and so forth.’ Critically, ‘Now imagine that same body of yours being examined by a doctor. Then your body shows up for you as something quite different from a seamless expression of agency or the manifestation of self before another individual. Your attention shifts to a third-person perspective such that your body is revealed as a physical object subjected to the rules and categories of other physical objects… During a medical examination, you experience your own body as an instance of a general physical type, capable of being helped or hindered by generic procedures and processes developed for managing objects of that kind.’

‘The point is to see how these different perspectives give us access to different forms of meaning, value and reasons – though we never occupy one stance in total isolation from the others. While occupying one perspective, we don’t simply forget the others.’

In fact, it seems to me that by occupying one, I can better judge the worth of another by its difference; by seeing the issue as if I were writing the story from the perspective of another person, I have another lens. For a time, I am that other person and can see the world through their eyes; I am the doctor assessing generic others who I expect will conform to the properties that they would exhibit with similar needs. I know, then, what to do.

I appreciate McMullin’s trick of shadow-shifting: seeing the problem from different eyes. Different shapes. In fact, these different perspectives remind me of the memorable ending of Robert Burns’ poem ‘To a Louse’:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us…

Thank you for the idea, Irene.

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