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Moral imperative

Enter here to explore ethical issues and discuss the meaning and source of morality.
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Curtains
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Joined: July 8th, 2007, 3:51 pm

Moral imperative

#1 Post by Curtains » January 8th, 2008, 5:03 pm

How do you decide when you are morally obligated to do something?

In some situations, it seems clearly immoral not to do something. If I witness someone injured or killed by a hit and run driver and I have a mobile phone, it would seem immoral not to call an ambulance/police immediately.

But if I see a child who needs a good home, however, and I have a good home, but I don't want to provide my services as an adoptive parent, am I also immoral? Why or why not?

Is one obligated to give everything one is able to give to help others? If not, when does the obligation to help become a moral imperative?

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Alan C.
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Re: Moral imperative

#2 Post by Alan C. » January 8th, 2008, 5:23 pm

It's one thing to make a quick call on your mobile (if you have one) It's quite another to devote a large amount of your own life to look after somebody Else's child.
I would help any child (or adult come to that) in the short term, but I chose not to have children of my own, so I certainly couldn't commit to looking after somebody Else's.
I don't think this makes me imoral.
Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers.

Moonbeam
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Re: Moral imperative

#3 Post by Moonbeam » January 8th, 2008, 6:27 pm

I agree, Alan. There is no risk involved in making a phone call. There is a hell of a risk in making a commitment to a child!

Curtains, I think your question would be better illustrated by asking whether it is immoral not to give money to a charity if you can easily afford to do so, or not to give up some of one's free time to volunteer to help others if one has plenty of time to spare. Is somebody who lives a totally self-interested life actually immoral?

We usually use the word moral for people who actively do something we consider to be wrong, not for people who do nothing.

Lord Muck oGentry
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Re: Moral imperative

#4 Post by Lord Muck oGentry » January 8th, 2008, 6:55 pm

I think it may be relevant that we have passed on to the impersonal agency of the state responsibility for looking after those who are orphaned or homeless or destitute. Since this help is funded by taxation, it is harder to say that we are individually obliged to help ( although we may choose to do so, especially if state provision is inadequate). So we can draw a distinction between situations where the individual is the only likely source of help and those where he is not.
What we can't say, we can't say and we can't whistle it either. — Frank Ramsey

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Lifelinking
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Re: Moral imperative

#5 Post by Lifelinking » January 8th, 2008, 10:38 pm

How do you decide when you are morally obligated to do something?

my wife tells me
"Who thinks the law has anything to do with justice? It's what we have because we can't have justice."
William McIlvanney

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Alan C.
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Re: Moral imperative

#6 Post by Alan C. » January 8th, 2008, 10:57 pm

Lifelinking wrote:
How do you decide when you are morally obligated to do something?

my wife tells me
:pointlaugh: Nice one!
Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers.

Thomas
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Re: Moral imperative

#7 Post by Thomas » January 9th, 2008, 1:21 pm

Moonbeam wrote:I agree, Alan. There is no risk involved in making a phone call. There is a hell of a risk in making a commitment to a child!

Curtains, I think your question would be better illustrated by asking whether it is immoral not to give money to a charity if you can easily afford to do so, or not to give up some of one's free time to volunteer to help others if one has plenty of time to spare. Is somebody who lives a totally self-interested life actually immoral?

We usually use the word moral for people who actively do something we consider to be wrong, not for people who do nothing.
I think we are morally obligated to act when it is of no real cost to ourselves and that would include phoning an ambulance when one is needed (if one can). In my book, someone who doesn't do this is acting immorally. S/he's in the same category as the hit and run driver, who should've stopped at the scene instead of driving off. I wouldn't call somebody who fails to dive into treacherous waters or charge into burning building to save someone, immoral.

Some people argue that everything we do - even if it appears purely altruistic - is out of self interest. When we act consciously, by definition we act selfishly, our actions are driven by the self, by whatever motivates our self. But I don't really buy this: those motivations driving ourselves can be driven out of our consideration for others, which would seem to make them purely altruistic.

Diane
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Re: Moral imperative

#8 Post by Diane » January 10th, 2008, 11:46 am

Moonbeam wrote: Curtains, I think your question would be better illustrated by asking whether it is immoral not to give money to a charity if you can easily afford to do so, or not to give up some of one's free time to volunteer to help others if one has plenty of time to spare.
I think the whole area of charity is an interesting one in terms of morality. Donating to a disaster fund after a disaster has happened seems clear cut to me. If one can afford it, one should do it. If one gives nothing but goes out and spends money on some frivolous luxury item instead, I see that as immoral.

But I also subscribe to the school of thought that says that we benefit a great deal by forcing some level of self-reliance. If nobody needs to do anything - if we are all to be waited on by others -- we would find that we do nothing, and we are all worse off as a result. On the other hand, telling people, "If you produce, then you get the benefits of that production" tends to increase production, and make people generally better off.

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whitecraw
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Re: Moral imperative

#9 Post by whitecraw » January 10th, 2008, 1:07 pm

I have a problem with the whole notion of moral obligation anyway, as I explained in an article I reproduced in the other place.
Derek Parfit (Reasons and Persons, Oxford 1984) has high hopes for a non-religious ethics. With the development of such an ethics, he suggests, "both human history, and the history of ethics, may be just beginning."

What would an authentic non-religious ethics look like?

A genuinely non-religious ethics would have to be morally oughtless. This is because the very concept of moral obligation is hopelessly bound, in its signification, to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. This becomes apparent when we compare the thinking which lies behind our notion of moral obligation with that which informs our ideas about other kinds of (non-moral) obligation.

When we say, for example, that one ought (legally) to pay one's taxes, what we're saying is that there exists a set of rules (our tax laws), which have been drawn up by a recognised authority, and which require us to dispose of our income in certain ways. Likewise, when we say that one ought (logically) to draw certain conclusions from a given set of premises, we're implying that there exists a set of recognised, authoritative rules by which one is bound in one's inferences.

In exactly the same way, when we speak of being under a moral obligation, we're making the claim that there's a set of moral rules, laid down by some presumed authority, that requires us to conduct ourselves in certain specified ways. Our notion of moral obligation differs from our notion of non-moral obligation, however, in the following crucial respect.

In cases where one's normally thought to be under some sort of non-moral obligation to behave in certain ways, the obligation isn't universal but is limited by the extent of the jurisdiction of the authority imposing the obligation. Thus, one's obliged to pay taxes only to the government whose jurisdiction one is subject to. Similarly, one's bound to infer certain conclusions from given premises only by the particular system of logic one chooses to operate.

In cases where one's held to be under a more special moral obligation, however, the obligation is customarily supposed to be binding on all human beings, irrespective of when or where or who they happen to be. This is because our whole notion of moral obligation is underpinned by a belief in an authority with the universal jurisdiction that entitles it to tell each and every one of us, without exception, how we should conduct our lives.

In the pre-Christian pagan world, the idea of a special universal 'moral' obligation - as distinct from the more ordinary obligations authorised by the various local regulatory systems by which we organise the different facets of our day-to-day lives - was entirely unknown. The idea of an authority with universal jurisdiction over all our thoughts and actions only appeared in Western culture - in the form of God - with the intrusion of Christianity in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

At the other end of the Christian era, the subsequent 'death of God' in Western culture issued in, among other things, the 'death' of morality as we still, nevertheless, commonly persist in conceiving it. For, as Alasdair MacIntyre argues (After Virtue, London 1981), without the religious context within which our whole notion of morality derives its meaning, the very concept becomes an empty one; in the words of Philippa Foot (Virtues and Vices, Berkeley 1978), the whole idea of moral obligation appears, outside its religious context, 'free floating and unsubscribed'.
In short, the notion of moral obligation – and the whole duty ethics that depends on that notion – is undermined by the absence in post-Christian culture of any authority with universal jurisdiction to whom the obligation is due.

The alternatives would be some sort of virtue ethics (in which right and wrong conduct is defined not in relation to the notion of moral obligation but rather in terms of the cultivation of good character on the part of the agent) or some sort of ‘sympathy’ ethics (in which right and wrong conduct is defined rather in terms of a recognition of oneself in others). I tend to go for the first alternative on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the second on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On Sundays, of course, I’m ethically neutral, Sunday being a day for the idle contemplation of such matters.

So, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, if I were to see a car accident, I’d phone for the required services because it would be callous of me not to and callousness is not an admirable quality to have as part of one’s character. I would also ensure adequate provision was being made for the care of the child (whether by the child’s family or by the state) for much the same reason.

On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, in the first case I’d also phone for the required services because it could be me the accident had befallen and I’d want someone to make that phone call if I found myself in that situation. And I would also ensure the child’s care was adequately provided for because I was a child once and would not have liked to have been neglected in the way the child in question was being neglected.

On Sundays, I’d just put my feet up and ponder why we feel the need to justify our doing the right thing and to identify wherein the rightness of our right actions consists.

tubataxidriver
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Re: Moral imperative

#10 Post by tubataxidriver » January 10th, 2008, 3:50 pm

I think we are morally obligated to act when it is of no real cost to ourselves and that would include phoning an ambulance when one is needed (if one can). In my book, someone who doesn't do this is acting immorally. S/he's in the same category as the hit and run driver, who should've stopped at the scene instead of driving off. I wouldn't call somebody who fails to dive into treacherous waters or charge into burning building to save someone, immoral.
Society, at least in countries like ours, has another, less religious approach to this sort of problem and that is the common law. Under these case-law based principles, bystanders are obligated to assist if they can safely. If they could intervene safely but do not, they could be sued for negligence because a liability is created towards the victim because the rescuer happened to be there at the time and witnessed the event. Some jurisdictions have implemented in addition a statutory limitation on liability if the rescuer inadvertantly does damage during the rescue (for example you manage to pull the victim out of the burning car but because of their broken neck they become paralysed in the process).

Hence, the moral expectations of society that its members should act in a certain way has been settled upon and is now enforced through the courts.

One could of course argue that this expectation will have been religiously influenced (e.g. by the Good Samaritan story), but it is now religion-free.

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whitecraw
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Re: Moral imperative

#11 Post by whitecraw » January 11th, 2008, 12:10 am

Tuba

I think you might be confusing moral obligation with legal obligation. The thing about moral obligation is that it's supposed to be universal, whereas the sort of obligation you're talking about extends only to those who are subject to the law that imposes that obligation. A society somewhere might oblige its members through its system of common law to give a tenth of their income to the local religious institution. But that wouldn't be a moral obligation because it doesn't apply universally, but applies only to those who fall under the jurisdiction of that particular society. Likewise, the legal obligation we're under to render reasonable assistance to accident victims doesn't apply to those who don't fall under the jurisdiction of our system of common law (e.g. Amazonian Indians); therefore, not being universal, it can't properly be deemed a moral obligation, which is supposed to apply to all rational beings irrespective of who, where or when they are.

Also: the obligations that are imposed on us by the law can sometimes conflict with what we might consider to be our moral obligations. Imagine if society put us under an obligation to burn heretics; that would not in virtue of its being a legal obligation thereby impose on us a moral obligation to burn heretics. Indeed, one might argue that one has in such cases a moral obligation to disobey the law. The fact that laws can be morally wrong means that morality (right conduct) can't just be what the law obliges us to do.

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jaywhat
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Re: Moral imperative

#12 Post by jaywhat » January 11th, 2008, 6:43 am

Whether you donate or not to any chosen cause is entirely up to you and not a matter of morality IMO.
Whether you pay all the tax you owe is a moral issue. Or is it?
Paying for someone's services with a large amount of cash in order to get it at a cheaper rate (so that no tax is paid) is, in my opinion, immoral.

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whitecraw
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Re: Moral imperative

#13 Post by whitecraw » January 11th, 2008, 10:53 am

Whether you donate or not to any chosen cause is entirely up to you and not a matter of morality IMO.
Again, this depends on your ethics; i.e. your theory of morality. Morality pertains to right conduct; and there is a view that it is immaterial whether that conduct takes place in the private sphere or the public sphere.

Machiavelli took a different view: he urged his Prince that moral considerations should only govern one’s private life; that one’s conduct in public life should be governed only by instrumental considerations – i.e. how effective a given action will be in achieving a desired end. For example: while it might be morally wrong to steal your sister’s bracelet, it would be morally neutral to put a whole city to the sword to the end of maintaining peace in the kingdom. Hitler was by some accounts a very nice man in his private life. In this view, the question as to whether or not one should as a private individual donate to a charity is a moral question, while the question as to whether or not a government should provide aid to this or that country is properly a question of political expediency only.

There is also a sort of inverted Machiavellian view that moral considerations are only relevant to one’s public life. Thus it doesn’t matter if a politician or an evangelical preacher or a member of the royal family or a celebrity is, in his or her private life, a lying, cheating, thieving, grasping, drug-abusing paedophile; providing he or she is a paragon of virtue in their public life, what they do in their private life is their own affair.

In a sense, both these Machiavellian-type ethical theories try to ‘secularise’ areas of life by putting those areas ‘beyond good and evil’ and subject only to ‘worldly’ considerations like political expediency on the one hand and individual psychology on the other.

According to what we could call the ‘all-inclusive’ ethical view, however, you cannot remove the moral element from such private affairs as making a choice between giving and not giving to a charity. In pondering whether one should give or not give to a charity, it still makes sense to ask the moral question, irrespective of what one might feel inclined to do, or what one might be obliged to do by custom or law, or what it might be expedient to do: what would in this situation be the right thing to do? It would only be a morally neutral choice if it didn’t make sense to ask that question in respect of it.

FloatingBoater
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Re: Moral imperative

#14 Post by FloatingBoater » January 13th, 2008, 9:49 am

Whitecraw said:-
“it would be morally neutral to put a whole city to the sword to the end of maintaining peace in the kingdom”
How can this be neutral? Is this not the same sort of logic used by Islamists and endorsed in the Koran. They hold that the world is of two parts Dar al Islam (the world of Islamic peace) and Dar al Harb (the world of war). This gives them moral justification to either convert or kill until the whole world conforms to Islamic law and teaching.

Can't say I'm too adroit at this sort of argument, can anyone explain if I'm missing the point :shrug:
Let us accept that the difference between a prophet and a madman is not what they say but whether the crowd accepts the story and tells their children to believe it.

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whitecraw
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Re: Moral imperative

#15 Post by whitecraw » January 13th, 2008, 9:38 pm

How can this be neutral?
By restricting the competence of moral judgement to private life. The Machiavellian doctrine became notable in the 20th century as realpolitik: politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives. If you restrict the competence of moral judgement to private life, anything government or its opposition does will be morally neutral.

But you're right: this thoroughly modern idea is a feature of Islamist ideology.

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