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by Joel Marks
People disappoint me. I suppose it’s due to my moral ruminating, which has resulted in a hyper-sensitivity to morally-tinged phenomena. Or it could be the other way around: a peculiar inbred sensibility has turned me into a moral brooder. Whichever way the direction of causality goes, I frequently find myself in a state of disillusion. As I get to know even a dear friend better, the experience can be like peering under a rock.
Here is an example to ponder. I heard that a colleague had come out with a new book, so, curious about it, I checked it out at Amazon. There were already several mini-reviews of the book there. Lo and behold, they all exhibited a striking, albeit banal similarity. Each was from a different reviewer (supposedly), but no names were given – just ‘handles’. It was clear to me that they were all written by the same person, and the simplest hypothesis was that that person was none other than my colleague, the author of the book, or else a friend who had been put up to it.
While shocking and discouraging to be sure, this was not yet the nadir. I had reached my conclusions about these reviews on the basis of fairly convincing circumstantial evidence, but they were bolstered by my previous negative impression of my colleague’s character and competence. My expectations did not have far to plummet, and hence were not dashed to pieces.
At this point it occurred to me that I myself was at a moral juncture. (When am I not?) I wondered whether I now had some obligation with respect to my new knowledge (or surmise) about my colleague. After all, we are professionals who, in return for certain privileges from society, are supposed to police ourselves. I would certainly want a physician to take some action if she thought she had detected an impropriety by a fellow physician, since nobody else might be in a position to know about it or do anything about it. Should I demean my own profession of professor by demanding any less of myself? On the other hand, one does not want to be a squeal or a busybody if nothing life-or-death seems at stake and the evidence is far from conclusive.
I decided to consult a couple of trusted colleagues for advice and dialogue. One of them, in his level-headed way, gave the standard recommendation to broach the subject with the suspect colleague before taking any further action. But my other colleague and good friend brushed off the whole incident, thus: “It’s no big deal. I did the same thing myself.”
Punch line of a joke or supreme disillusion? Make your existential choice, Dear Reader. Frankly, I do not know what the moral of this immoral tale is. My knee-jerk reaction is that the whole world is full of crooks and scoundrels. But how typical is what I have just related?
My subjective impression is that this sort of casual amorality has become routine. Certainly if one trusts the newspapers, it is the norm; but that is more likely due to an inherent bias in the ‘news’ towards the sensational and abnormal. It is not usually considered news that most people go about their daily business honestly and conscientiously; it is news when one of them bilks his customers of millions of dollars or pulls out a shotgun and kills her coworkers.
So instead I rely a lot on my personal experience to determine the reality of moral trends – and there, as I said, the experience has been a disappointing one. But here too could be a bias, analogous to that in the news: A couple of episodes like the phony book reviews can easily eclipse in one’s consciousness a thousand acts of honesty and kindness, not to mention occasional heroism – which I have also seen with my own eyes.
I also recognize that I may have a tendency to magnify not only the prevalence of immorality in the world but also its severity. Put differently: Is the quantity of immorality being artificially enhanced by bumping up too much behavior above the threshold of ‘unethicality’? Perhaps acts comparable to the book review incident are commonplace; yet perhaps also they are not terrible, but are instead a kind of professional ‘white lie’. But I do not believe that. I also see these minor acts as manifestations of character traits, whose influence could therefore be pervasive, and under other circumstances, more dire.
But can everybody be out of step but me? Of course I know that I am a flawed being too: “Let him who is without sin [etc].” But I don’t see how this recognition would address what concerns me, which is my disappointment at finding so many sinners out there, since it just means that there’s one more – me. It would still leave untouched the question of how significant these little transgressions are. Naturally I would like to minimize the significance of my own offenses and escape any negative consequences; but why should I be let off the hook? I don’t think the Golden Rule is intended as a sop to self-indulgence.
I am sure that my collegial friend with the book, when he admitted his own self-reviewing, immediately sensed that he had just diminished himself in my eyes. Whether that was due to a guilty conscience or resentment at my (perceived?) judgmentalism instead, I am not sure. If the latter, then I have jeopardized a friendship, and perhaps also made myself liable to his moral monitoring of my behavior and his eventual ‘retaliation’ in kind. If I could just adopt an attitude of ‘live and let live,’ that is, ‘sin and let sin,’ then maybe we could all be happy. But instead I act the prophet… or is it the prig?
© Joel Marks 2006
Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. Other of his essays can be found at moralandothermoments.blogspot.com