Circular Thinking in a Square Bowl

My expectation when I awoke yesterday was that I would write a post about morality. I did, in a way, but it was not the post I anticipated writing. I got derailed by my own thinking. Today, I will write what I considered writing yesterday. My words will be different than they might have been twenty-four hours ago, but the concepts will be the same. Except they won’t. Not really. Twenty-four hours affords plenty of time to think and re-think and, perhaps, over-think ideas and beliefs and positions on matters both vital and irrelevant. I can’t know, today, what might have been, yesterday, if I had done yesterday what I will attempt to do today. I am different today than I was yesterday. Time and context have altered me in ways I cannot quite understand unless and until I explore my thoughts today and compare them to the ones I had yesterday. But that’s not entirely realistic, is it? Without reliving every moment and recording every thought, I would have no realistic hope of reconstructing, in my mind, yesterday’s experience as John Swinburn. Fortunately or not, I have no such recording to which I might refer and compare. If I did, I might constantly attempt to re-create yesterday in my thoughts, and mimic it today, so I would not have to acknowledge that I change every day, depending on circumstance. I am who I am, not who I was, nor who I will be. But this moment—and my identity—is in constant flux, so I can never be anyone for more than a nanosecond, if that long. These ideas are both enlightening and frightening to me. They suggest I can never know myself as I am, only as I was. And even then, my knowledge of who I was has been irrevocably transformed by my experiences between then and now. So, finally, I know no one, including myself. When I try to understand myself, or anyone else, I am chasing knowledge that is impossible to find.

When I awoke today, I discovered that snow continued to fall last night. My uneducated guess is that about two inches fell. Unless swept away by the wind or sucked into the atmosphere through evaporation, it will stay on the ground. I’ll rephrase that; it won’t melt, at least for quite awhile. The temperature is hovering around 7°F and may fall a degree or two just before daybreak, which is not far off. The predicted high, as of this morning’s up-to-the-minute forecast is 13°F. Brisk!  But my intent is not to write about the weather. It’s to write about morality as a flexible measure of acceptable behavior based on culture and circumstance. Morality probably plays no part in weather.

Because morals cover such a wide range of thoughts and behaviors, I will limit my comments to just three: adultery, murder, and theft. I prefer adultery to infidelity because, in my mind at least, adultery does not so clearly convey judgement as does infidelity. Murder and theft are simply murder and theft; but as I’ll suggest  in a moment, there’s more to them than those simple concepts. Let me start by saying I base all of my comments that follow almost solely on opinions, not necessarily (though possibly) on scientific evidence.

Some cultures (I’m not willing, at this hour, to explore which ones, but I know they exist, so bear with me) permit adultery without judgment. Sex between consenting adults is, in the view of those societies (and my my view, as well), no one’s business but the consenting adults. It’s not that simple, of course. Our society has inculcated in most of us a belief that sex and the behaviors leading up to it should take place between only two people to the exclusion of anyone else, for both partners. We have been taught, as well, to embrace exclusivity as an absolute requirement for a joint commitment between partners. Absent that exclusivity, we have been taught that feelings of betrayal, distrust, and a deep sense of being wounded are natural to be expected from the “harmed” party in a relationship.

But I contend that humans are no more naturally monogamous (as defined in zoology) than they are naturally polyamorous. We shape our behaviors through societal pressure. For reasons that may or may not retain validity today, our society encourages monogamy and we use guilt, stigma, and other emotional and legal tools to enforce it. Not all societies do that. And even those that do use varying degrees of “enforcement,” suggesting the importance of monogamy to society depends on factors unique to a given society.

My point in all this is to suggest that adultery is not inherently wrong. We may not like it, we may not approve, but it’s really none of our business. To the extent that its practice may wound an uninvolved partner emotionally, we can bemoan that fact, but we really have no legitimate stake in the matter. In my opinion, we’d all be better off if we accepted the fact that people can be attracted to more than one partner while possibly being simultaneously more seriously committed to just one of them. I’m speaking hypothetically. Whether I would take that laissez faire attitude if my wife or lover were involved in an illicit affair is an untested unknown.

We have more important matters that should concern us. Like murder.

I mentioned yesterday the idea of accepting or supporting the death penalty while simultaneously believing murder is fundamentally wrong. How can those two beliefs exist in the same head? In my view, it’s not necessarily an example of opposite beliefs. More likely, I think, it’s an example of assigning complex values to the lives of multiple individuals and even to society as a whole. A person can be deeply opposed to murder, as most of us are, but can support the death penalty because the person sentenced to death has presumably taken a life and, importantly, has therefore affected the lives of multiple others. In the death penalty supporter’s mind, the damage done not only to the murder victim, but to the other victims impacted by the murder must be “undone” in some fashion. Repairing the damage done to the friends and family and other supporters of the murder victim may require (in our individual’s mind) taking the murderer’s life. Taking that life outweighs moral opposition to murder by the state. But even more likely, I think, is a sense of revenge.

Consider a situation in which a criminal is about to slash the throat of an innocent three-year-old baby but is stopped by a person who shoots and kills the criminal. Who would consider the shooter’s act immoral? If the situation were different and the shooter saves the baby by wounding but not killing the criminal, how would we want to treat the criminal?

Revenge obliterates moral opposition to murder by “painting over it” in certain circumstances. State-sanctioned murder is, in such cases, not murder; it is an eye for an eye.

Context, then, is critical.

I used to support the death penalty. Fervently. I haven’t, though, in many years. My primary reason is not so much my belief that the state should not be a party to murder (though there is that), but that the likelihood of sending a wrongly-convicted person to die is much, much too high.

Now, for theft.

Society teaches us that theft is wrong. Period. And I agree; not only because society tells me it’s wrong, but because I view the victims of theft as undeserving of the consequences of having their “stuff” stolen. But there are exceptions. And, again, the exceptions depend on what sometimes are extremely complex circumstances.

If someone steals to support his drug habit, I favor forced rehabilitation, using a model shown to have actually worked (assuming there is such a model). That forced rehabilitation should be adequate to satisfy those who call for retribution, revenge, and what have you. But the consequences should be increasingly severe for subsequent offenses. At what point, though, do we say, “enough!” and decide he is not worth the money and effort to rehabilitate him? Do we ever just give up? What part of our moral code allows us to do that without deep feelings of guilt and regret?

If a person steals food to feed themselves or to feed their family, I favor putting the person to work by the state and paying them enough to compensate the victims of the theft and to feed the thief’s family.  Simultaneously, some form of public assistance to find work should be part of the thief’s “punishment.” But, wait. What if the person steals from a bank so he can buy food? Is that different in any way?

But what of a person who, barely scraping by but who does not have the money to buy food for an unrelated starving family, steals food to help that family survive? How should we treat her? Does it depend on who she steals from? If she steals food from a major grocer, is that different than stealing from a mom and pop grocery that is barely getting by?

I’m getting away—far away—from what I intended to write. That’s what happens when I start writing and thinking along the way. My fingers do the thinking for me, sometimes surprising me with their wisdom and sometimes embarrassing me with their gross ignorance.

My points, if they haven’t been clear, are that morality depends in large part on context and that situational ethics are sometimes simply rigid morality made flexible through compassion.

What if I shoot and kill a man attempting to slash the throat of a starving married woman, then steal food to give to her, successfully luring her into an adulterous relationship with me?

Never mind. I start getting giddy around 8:00 a.m., engaging in circular thinking in a square bowl; more coffee should calm me down.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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