'What Makes Something Moral?'
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #28
‘WHAT MAKES SOMETHING MORAL?’
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #28
Is a knife good or bad? Are hierarchies intrinsically immoral? If ‘knowledge is power’, does that mean that both are desirable goals?
If you have seen someone stabbed with a knife, it will skew your view of knives toward being morally bad. Of course, if you have had a cancer removed by a surgeon using a specialized knife called a scalpel, you might feel very differently. It’s easy to think that ‘things’, such as hierarchies, you have seen used for good are therefore morally good, and things you have seen used for bad are morally bad. But do ‘things’ have moral content?
Throughout the universe hierarchies exist. Stars provide energy to planets, not the other way around. Their relationship is not symmetrical; at the level of energy transfer, there is a hierarchy. It may unnerve us that hierarchies exist in nature, but the truth of the matter is that the food chain is pyramidal not flat, and not every living thing is at the top of the pyramid.
There is no intrinsic meanness in the dance between the stars and the planets, nor in the give and take of ecosystems, because no intentions or motivations, malicious or otherwise, can be ascribed to suns, planets, whales and plankton. The nature of our sun is to give energy, and the nature of earth is to accept it. The nature of whales is to feed off plankton, and the nature of plankton is to be fodder for whales. They do not ‘know’ otherwise.
Humans appear to be different. With our high level of consciousness, including self- consciousness, and ability to reason, we can know more; we are imbued with a conscience. With the help of our mirror neurons and our tremendous ability to communicate we can understand others and care for them. We have the ability to know and appreciate when we are helping others or harming them, and they do as well. Morality centres on this reality: not only can we differentiate help from harm, we can also consciously choose to do one not the other.
A knife is neither good nor bad, it is the choice we make in how we use it on our fellow humans that dictates the morality. Any hierarchical system can be used for good or bad actions at our discretion. In other words, morality resides in our actions, not in the things we utilize to carry out those actions. Knowledge and power are the same in that respect; intention and motivation define the ethical elements of their use. My mechanic has a hierarchical advantage over me when it comes to the knowledge and ability to fix my car, and that can be used to help me or harm me depending on what my mechanic chooses. The same holds true for me with respect to my patients, as it does for political power and those who wield it.
How we use things matters a lot. That includes political power, mandates, money, influence, to name a few. When we use things in a way that has the potential to harm other people, morality dictates that we respect those people in the process of utilizing things by ‘doing unto others as you would have them do unto you’. When we don’t, it is too easy to utilize things that may seem beneficial or at least harmless in a way that in fact does cause damage, with or without intent to do so. Although we all have different talents and gifts that lie along a hierarchical spectrum, we must remember that our fellow humans are not ‘things’ and should never be treated in a hierarchical fashion, using them as a means to an end for our benefit primarily.
Have we seen evidence during the pandemic of things like power and mandates being used that could have or indeed did harm others? Did we try to understand beforehand that that was possible and try to minimize it? Did we involve those who might be harmed in the decision- making process? Did we monitor the harm and alter course or offer support or compensation for that harm as much as we could have?
Humans have a moral nature; the things we use do not. When we forget that, it is easy to get confused and think that we are morally blameless because we used something ‘good’. Any action, no matter how seemingly trivial, could have a moral aspect to it and reflecting on that before we act is almost always a good idea. And remembering that humans are not ‘things’ to be used as we choose should be our starting point.
J. Barry Engelhardt MD (retired) MHSc (bioethics)
CAERS Health Intake Facilitator
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