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Larry Barnett
Public Citizen
Larry Barnett

Disfavoring moral complexity

One of the dilemmas of modern times is effectively coming to grips with morality. The word itself is derived from Latin, meaning "proper behavior" but has become loaded with other connotations, religious and social. Our humanitarian, modern sensibilities incline us to disfavor moral entanglements in favor of legalistically enshrined "rights" but we find ourselves repeatedly encountering moral issues nonetheless.

At its core, morality is about discriminating between right from wrong and encompasses those social conventions around which custom and law evolve. The argument is sometimes made that morals derive from underlying biological drives associated with survival; the imperatives of individual survival have always come up against the imperatives of social groups. In order for human society to survive and thrive, individuals must sacrifice some level of individual imperative in favor of the needs of the group, be it family or tribe. An individual who cannot control his or her own personal behavior risks the disfavor of the group; in early societies, banishment was a death sentence.

As society evolved, organized religion came to play a foremost role in matters of morality, dictating and defining the rules of right and wrong. Less survival-based than geared to the smooth running of society, religious morality also encompassed ideas about one's place in the after-life. Virtually all the world's major religions embraced the concepts of Heaven and Hell and connected them directly to one's behavior in this life. Thus matters of morality remained connected to an idea of individual survival, even when that survival is reduced to spiritual concepts of an eternal soul or rebirth.

With the rise of psychological theory and modernist modes of thought in the 20th century, the connections between morality and individual afterlife were frayed or severed altogether. In its place, aided and abetted by human law, written constitutions, Enlightenment philosophy, democracy, and the elevation of scientific thought, moral complexity is now subordinated to the rational primacy of "rights." The court is today the final arbiter of right and wrong, not religious doctrine, but this development has not resulted in a peaceful resolution of matters of moral complexity. To the contrary, reactionary fundamentalism - both religious and cultural - and its return to the dogmatic absolutism of "good and evil" has been the direct response.

Despite legal rulings, the moral complexity of capital punishment, abortion, assisted suicide, poverty, healthcare and wealth accumulation continues to pervade and impact modern society. This attests to the fact that although human law always attempts to provide a reasoned and rational response to the most irrational of human behavior, namely the behavior of feelings such as attachment, repulsion, hatred, greed, jealousy, compassion, generosity and love, it's not possible to successfully legislate all feelings. The social effects of moral complexity always emerge and re-emerge from this truth.

Judicial attempts to satisfy moral complexity though a set of acceptable extenuating circumstances are extensive; evidence must be collected properly, witness testimony must be offered, and trials conducted using established rules of order and procedure, for example. Motive and mental health are considered in criminal cases. Mercy, however, presents a moral conundrum, as do other large and abstract ideas of morality, such as Justice, Harmony and Peace; harsh minimum sentencing laws vs. judicial discretion, for example, remains contentious as society oscillates between the imperatives of compassion and punishment. As a society, we are having trouble deciding on which side of the moral compass we wish to be.

Relying on a rational legal system of "rights" provides some clarity and seeming simplicity to society, but it comes with a cost, namely losing our ability to successfully explore moral complexity and find ways to accept the irrational nuances of human behavior which do not fit neatly into a difficult social situations. When conflict arises, opposing sides declare the absolute correctness of their opinions, ultimately using the courts to promote a narrowly and legalistically defined "winner or loser" dichotomy. This sometimes replicates the Solomonic solution of cutting the baby in half; nobody feels satisfied.

Admittedly, making decisions on matters suffused by moral complexity is difficult, and requires accepting and adapting to the many vagaries of context. The parable of justice for the poor man arrested for stealing medicine to save his dying wife is an example; by nature, moral complexity is not black and white, but shades of gray. Accordingly, it's no surprise we've generally moved in the opposite direction, finding fault and defining rights, but it is possible; restorative justice, for example, is a nuanced approach to punishment, as are flexible sentencing and the elimination of cash bail for minor offenses. These approaches to justice constitute the reinstitution of Mercy as a social principle, alongside recognition of the potential for Redemption; they embrace moral complexity.

Our Biblical "eye for an eye" may feel satisfying at a core emotional level, but its neglect of context and its adherence to punishment is inherently immoral, systemically. It is for this reason that rigid fundamentalism, either Christian, Islamic, Judaic, Hindu, or secular, feels too severe and unforgiving. Reducing all human interactions to matters of rights is comparably narrow. Our movement towards just and decent human law must incorporate the seeds of mercy and forgiveness that favoring the truth of moral complexity requires.

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