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Ethical Episodes

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Some Like It Hot

Joel Marks has an amoral moment.

I have been living by myself for several years and, as a result, I have got things in my home to be just the way I like them (apart from being alone!). On the whole this has seemed to me welcome, not only because I obviously like things being the way I like them, but also because I have come to appreciate how much there is to be aware of and how such awareness can enhance one’s power to make things better. The big disadvantage, however, is that I am making myself less and less adaptable to any future cohabitation, since the more fine-tuned to my personal preferences my living quarters become, not to mention my life in general, the less I could tolerate the different preferences of someone else. But is this inevitable? Why wouldn’t the increasing general ability to be aware of things make one a better potential partner? I think it obviously can.

But the ‘trick’ is to have a certain attitude. And, I submit, that attitude, or at least one such attitude, would be what I have of late been calling amorality. An amoralist (of the sort I have in mind) would not judge people or their character traits or their actions to be good or bad or right or wrong (in the moral sense of these terms, for of course someone could still be wrong that the earth is flat, etc.). Indeed, an amoralist would not judge a moralist to be in the wrong for being a moralist (although, again, someone might be a moralist for a wrong, i.e., false, reason, such as believing that certain actions lead to eternal damnation). Nor does an amoralist believe in objective values, such as the goodness of health or the badness of pain, however much we might desire or be averse to these things.

So consider how this works out in a particular case. My solitary living arrangement has given me total control of the indoor temperature, such that in the New England winter, with the right combination of layers of clothing in the daytime and blankets and quilt at night, alternation of fireplace and furnace, timed thermostat settings, open and closed ducts and doors, etc., I can enjoy both personal comfort and low heating bills. But suppose a partner were to enter the scene: Might she not throw a spanner in the works (and mutatis mutandis for my moving in with her)? The chances are slim that a newcomer would either share the elaborate set of preferences in place or readily adapt to them (especially so for folks in my age cohort, since we tend to be set in our ways). Suppose, in particular, that she had a strong preference for a warm indoor environment, whereas mine is closer to the brisk. What now?

parents and teenagerOne ‘solution’ is continual bickering, which seems to be a surprisingly common component of close relationships. But I suggest that the root cause is not the difference of preferences in itself but rather a shared moralism. For each party would typically believe not only that he or she had a given preference (for warmer or cooler), but also that his or her preference was morally right. Thus, I might say to my partner that she should not be so ‘delicate’; but she could reply with her own disapproval, thus: “A home should be a refuge from the out-of-doors and not an extension of it. We are not wild animals!” So then I might up the moral ante by adducing external consequences: “But keeping the temperature down is indicative of good environmental stewardship, which would help not only to sustain finite resources but also to prevent future wars.” But she would be ready with a retort: “Our biggest problem now is unemployment, and a booming energy sector would help ameliorate that.” I might then point out that lower heating bills would enable us to donate more money to charities, while my partner could reply that charities are what you give to after you have satisfied your own basic needs, one of which is shelter from the elements. “But look,” I’d respond in exasperation, “when inside you can just put on a sweater.” “Or you,” she’d return, “could strip down to your shorts, for all I care!”

Round and round we go. Nobody could ‘win’ this, unless eternal bickering counts as winning … which it probably does for some couples, and that would therefore be OK by amoralist lights. But for myself (and I hope my partner) I’d prefer almost anything to bickering.

Here is how I diagnose the general problem. When another person has a preference or desire that conflicts with one’s own, especially when we have things ‘just so’ to our own liking, we tend to experience the other’s as an imposition or an intrusion. This is because we attribute a very special kind of quality to the other person: free will. We naturally assume that a human being is unlike a stone in that the former can act of her own volition. We therefore further assume that a person can be responsive not only to the way things are, such as the local pull of gravity, to which a stone is also responsive, but also to the way things ought to be, to which a stone is insensitive. And by an amazing coincidence (wink wink nudge nudge), what we ourselves desire coincides with how they ought to be, and what the other person desires does not. Therefore we expect the stone to ignore our wishes but another person to conform to them because what we wish is right. Indeed, even a sympathetic or ‘chivalrous’ accommodation to the other is ruled out, since it would make oneself complicit in wrong-doing.

It turns out, then, that although morality is commonly touted to be the nemesis and antidote to selfish desire, in actual practice morality aids and abets it. For the most natural deployment of morality is as a check on somebody else’s behavior rather than on one’s own. And the explanation of this turnabout is that morality has no absolute basis that could act as a universal constraint. Thus, if it really were Writ On High that one shalt not, then it would be wrong not only for thine ‘enemy’ to do it but also for thyself; yet hardly anybody accepts this. We ourselves are the universal exception (to coin an oxymoron) to every moral rule. And even in the one-in-a-million case of a bad conscience, the pull of morality is typically so weak that the prohibited act may go forward anyway.

So I would like to urge an alternative conception of ethics. According to this, there is only the way things are and there is no ought-to-be, and what sets us apart from stones is only that we have desires. In other words, instead of a presumed moral fact that the situation ought to be such-and-so, there is only the psychological fact that we would like it to be such-and-so. The latter is an empirical matter, just like the local pull of gravity. Thus, if my partner opposed my setting the thermostat low, this would be in the same metaphysical ballpark as a bunch of stones tumbling down a mountainside and heading my way. In both cases I would face a fact which threatened the satisfaction of my own desire, in the one case to keep things cool, in the other case to avoid being pummeled.

But in neither case would there be a question of whether the person or the rock was morally wrong to be so preferring or behaving. The only question would be how to deal with a practical situation. There is no ‘easy win’ over the person by declaring her to be violating some presumed objective moral principle. Her opposed desire is just as implacable as the landslide (which is to say, as implacable as my own desire, which I can no more change by an act of will than halt a landslide). The only operative objective principles are laws of nature, whether they be physical or psychological. When the question is what temperature to keep in the home, a person who is no longer living alone would need to add to his or her list of considerations the needs and desires and beliefs (whether true or false) of another person. What is overlooked in the singling out of a newcomer as intruder is that it has never been a case of things being ‘just the way I like them’ – some personal Golden Age before the arrival of the benighted other – but was always under a set of constraints, such as the type of heating system in the house, the layout of rooms, and one’s financial resources. The newcomer’s desires simply add to this set. To see her or him as a moral agent is implicitly, and ignorantly, and to everyone’s disservice, to deny this.

Realizing these things has been, for me at least, a source of great relief; for I am no longer fighting unnecessary battles in a purely mythical realm of oughts. My partner wants it hot; I want it cold. How do we work this out? That is the question, not “Who’s right?” It’s a joint project for true partners, not a unilateral initiative against an adversary. Thus, instead of attempting to instill moral guilt in the other (almost always a doomed effort), each of us could moderate our language and tone of voice – for example, not “You should wear a sweater!” but “Wouldn’t wearing a sweater do the trick?” Furthermore, some of the reasons we have given for our respective positions are probably bogus to begin with; would I really be invoking the environment and she unemployment if we did not first have preferences on other grounds? I don’t mean that we are not also concerned about those other things; only that they are decidedly secondary to the matter at hand, and addressing them won’t resolve it.

Of course I would still be free to try to persuade my partner of any error in her thinking (and she in mine), or she to coax me into greater empathy for her discomfort (and I for mine), and so forth. But I (and, I hope, she as well) would now be dealing with realty and not invoking a mythical god of morality to make the rough ways smooth. What we need to figure out is how best to accommodate our respective considered preferences. “Would it work to place a space heater in the room where you spend most of your time during the day, but otherwise leave the house thermostat set low?” We would also have the whole picture before us, which is to say in this case, not just the matter of temperature, but also our relations with each other. Maybe I would decide in the end to suffer the heat in order to warm up her affections … or just because I love her. Or we might part after all on grounds of irreconcilable differences. It’s all one big system and not a set of commandments. That’s what I mean by amorality.

© Prof. Joel Marks 2013

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. This month’s column is adapted from his new book It’s Just a Feeling, which is just out. He wishes to acknowledge the insightful editorial suggestions of Vera Huffman and Allan Saltzman.


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