By Daniel Tippens
Please note that the ideas presented below are things that the author feels strongly on, but on which he hasn’t fully formed an opinion or argument. This is meant to be the start of a conversation, not the end of one.
We often portray our moral heroes with photographs such as the one accompanying this post. They appear to be both in deep thought and deeply concerned as their eyes remain fixed, their attention clearly turned toward their thoughts. Those same eyes reveal the effects of a mind constantly burdened with concerns for others and ruminations on what he or she ought to do. It is this notion of ruminating on what we ought to do that concerns me most. It concerns me because I don’t see many people in my generation (twenty-something millennials) experiencing moral uncertainty, or at least not enough. To be clear, this does *not* mean that I think other groups of people don’t also fail to experience moral uncertainty. I only focus on my generation, because that is the one I am a part of and feel most qualified to speak on.
When we ruminate on what we ought to do morally, we are frequently trying to resolve our moral uncertainty. Moral uncertainty plagues us when we have all of the relevant non-normative facts about a situation at hand, but we still don’t know what we ought to do. Here is a comic-book example to articulate the point:
The Green Goblin held a train full of children in one hand and Mary Jane (the woman Spiderman loved) in the other. Both the train and Mary Jane were suspended over hundreds of feet of open air. Peter knew all of the relevant physical facts about gravity and biological creatures to know that if the Green Goblin were to release the kids or Mary Jane, all of the released parties would surely die. When the Green Goblin dropped both parties, Peter was uncertain about what to do. Was it better for him to save the woman he loves over saving the train full of kids? Or was it better for him to save the train full of kids over saving Mary Jane? Peter was morally uncertain.
This kind of situation happens to all of us in one form or another at various points in our lives. A woman finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. She finds out all of the non-normative facts about fetuses; how much pain they feel, when their hearts start beating, and how abortion procedures are performed. Still, she is uncertain about what to do. An account manager at a large corporation is told that unless he cooks the financial books and lies about the company’s revenue, his coworkers will lose their jobs, health benefits, and the stability in their lives. What ought he do? What would you do?
There is one thing to be pointed out right away, which I don’t want to dwell on for too long. In cases such as the ones mentioned above, the morally uncertain person is a virtuous one. His or her display of moral uncertainty in difficult situations reveals that the person has a genuine concern for how his actions affect others. He recognizes what is at stake in the situation – that people are inevitably going to suffer – and his uncertainty about what to do reveals that he really wants to choose the action that is most sensitive to how he will affect others. Call this concern for how one’s actions affect others a moral concern.
Conversely, were he not to feel moral uncertainty in these sorts of situations, it would reveal a lack of moral concern. There are two ways of failing to feel morally uncertain that would reveal a lack of moral concern. First, there is a failure to feel uncertainty because one feels morally confident. Given that the aforementioned kinds of situations are not straightforward, if one felt immediately morally confident, one’s moral arrogance would reveal a lack of reverence for how one’s actions affect the course of other people’s lives. We would likely ask ourselves with an air of disapproval, “Considering what was at stake in these situations, how could he be so certain, so quickly, about what to do?!”
Second, there is a failure to feel uncertainty simply because one does not care about morality at all. One need not feel confident in order to fail to feel morally uncertain — one can simply shrug one’s shoulders when presented with the situation. Should such a careless agent need to act for some reason, then like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, he may simply flip a coin. His care about which action ought to be performed is as non-existent as the coin’s. Should he fail to experience moral uncertainty, because a lack of care, then it is analytically true that he displays a lack of moral concern.
Now, surely there are cases where a lack of moral uncertainty is not a vice, for there are some times when moral uncertainty is not necessary in a given situation, since we clearly know what we ought to do. Suppose you promise to help your friend move on Friday at 3 p.m. That time rolls around and you are lying in bed watching T.V. Should you continue watching T.V, or go help your friend? The answer is obvious: you should help your friend. Failing to be morally uncertain here wouldn’t say anything negative about your moral character. In fact being morally uncertain might actually be a vice. It might reveal that you value your selfish desires just as much as your promises to help your friends.
But when we have appropriately weighted the conflicting values that generate moral uncertainty, such as with Peter Parker, the woman considering getting an abortion, and the employee considering cooking the books, being morally uncertain shows one’s underlying virtuous character. One takes one’s moral actions and decisions very seriously.
Now let’s return to real life. Many of us want to be like our moral heroes. We want to be like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, fighting for equality and justice. There are, I think, at least two ways that we should try to emulate these moral idols. The first, is to adopt their moral aims. Adopting the belief that things like equality and justice are worth striving for and then valuing these things.
The second is to adopt their disposition to be morally uncertain, when it comes to achieving those aims. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi had to think very hard about what they ought to do, when their values for social equality and justice came into conflict with other moral values, such as violence and potential harm caused to others. These are not easy or straightforward questions. Should one achieve equality through non-violent means, which might take longer and allow for prolonged suffering for minorities, or should one use harmful means against others, but bring about better lives for minorities more quickly? Indeed, this plausibly falls under the classic conflict between utilitarian and deontological values. Do we do what we feel is our duty, or what will maximize happiness?
Even after MLK and Gandhi chose an action, there were likely times when they asked themselves, “Did I do the right thing?” They demonstrated their moral uncertainty not only prior to acting, but after acting. I find this to be worthy of deep respect and admiration. Their complete lack of moral arrogance and their adoption of moral uncertainty shows just how much they cared about these issues and the lives of the people involved.
I think my generation wants to be like MLK and Gandhi, I really do. But I fear that we have primarily only adopted one thing from these moral heroes – their aims. My generation wants to fight for things like social justice and equality, and this certainly is laudable.
But they don’t approach achieving these aims with great trepidation and moral uncertainty. Instead, I see moral arrogance. Suppose a child, Timmy, punched another boy, Greg, in the face as hard as he could. You ask him, “Why did you punch Greg?” Timmy responds, “Because Greg called me ‘stupid’!” This is a familiar situation that most parents will have to deal with at some point or another. Here, the child has not thought about what level of punishment or response is warranted, given a certain level of injustice. His default reaction was to punch Greg in the face, morally confident that this was the right thing to do.
A common parental thing to say would be something like this: “Timmy, someone doesn’t deserve to be punched in the face for calling you ‘stupid’.” The parent is trying to teach the child to start thinking about what levels of punishment are merited by different levels of injustice. The small injustice of somebody calling you “stupid” does not merit the level of punishment that a punch to the face delivers. The parent is hoping to start getting the child to feel less confident and more morally uncertain about what they ought to do, when somebody commits an injustice toward them. Should I punch him, or should I simply tell him how offensive his words can be? Which choice would be best for everyone?
This kind of moral confidence and lack of moral uncertainty is present in many millennials now, though not all of them, of course. Consider the difference in punishment merited from the injustice of a racist action as opposed to somebody being a racist person. A racist action is an action which had no mal-intent behind it, but is still racist, nonetheless. For example, say Vicki, ignorant of black history, says, “What’s up, my n-gger?” to the local bar’s bartender. Everybody in the bar knows that Vicki harbors no ill-will toward African Americans, she has many African American friends and wishes all the best for them. As a result, they might classify her action as racist, but still maintain that Vicki herself is not a racist person.
A racist person, by contrast, would be somebody who has underlying long-term beliefs about African Americans, and wants to see them treated unequally, something that manifests itself in his actions. He calls African Americans derogatory names, with clear indications of their mal-intent, revealing his underlying racist character.
Now, the injustice of being called the N-word by a racist person certainly warrants a different response from somebody who merely says the N-word, in the sense of performing a racist action. The racist action warrants some instructive response, “Vicki, you really shouldn’t say that word. It is very offensive to the African American community and causes various sorts of trauma to them.” You wouldn’t want Vicki to be fired from her job or to be publicly shamed.
A stronger response is clearly warranted for a racist person who uses the N-word. You wouldn’t lightly tell this person, “Hey, when you call somebody the N word it’s really offensive. Try not to say that word,” as you would Vicki. You might think that some sort of response, perhaps some kind of retributive punishment, is warranted. We might, for example, under the right circumstances, feel warranted in taking away the professorship of a racist person.
Unfortunately, my generation often condemns racist actions in the same manner one would a racist person. An isolated instance of a racist action is treated as deserving the sort of punishment we normally would reserve for a racist person. Punishments range from being fired from one’s job to social-media shaming, death threats, and more. This, to me, is reminiscent of Timmy. We lack a healthy moral uncertainty about what is the appropriate response to a certain level of injustice leveled. While Timmy punches a boy in the face for being called “stupid,” we get people fired, and publicly shame people for performing racist actions, such as Vicki’s.
I mentioned earlier that moral uncertainty can fail to arise in two ways, each of which showing a lack of concern for how one’s action affects others. One way was due to a lack of moral care. Some people just shrug their shoulders at moral questions and feel no moral uncertainty. This can’t be the reason for the millennials’ failure to experience moral uncertainty, because it is obvious they do care about the issues they speak about.
Instead, I see moral arrogance – obviously we are right to shame this person. The ends obviously justify the means. Or obviously this person deserves to be Twitter-shamed and fired from his job for his racist or sexist action. A job which, perhaps, has not only been sustaining him financially, but has also been the source of great satisfaction – the thing that has made this person’s life feel worthwhile. As you can see, these beliefs about what we ought to do are not obvious at all. They are complicated issues that should cause the virtuous person to experience dire moral uncertainty.
It is certainly plausible to think that a lack of moral uncertainty is a feature of youth generally as opposed to just millenials today. I’m sympathetic to this. But previous generations didn’t have as many eyes casting their gaze at them during their youth. As such, the stakes are higher, and we need to start a new paradigm, one which eschews our unwarranted moral confidence.
I want people to look back at the actions my generation took and see us as something akin to Martin Luther King or Gandhi. But in order for this to happen, we need to show that we take moral decisions seriously, something which is realized or manifested by moral uncertainty. I fear that we will be seen simply as a generation of Timmys.
Daniel Tippens is a research technician in the S. Arthur Localio Laboratory and co-founder of The Electric Agora.