Do ethicists make the most morally upright citizens? Not necessarily so, most people would respond.
After all, doing good depends a great deal on personal motivations. Yet an interest in moral reasoning does not equate an interest in performing prosocial actions. Rather, a moral philosopher may be more attracted to the intellectual thrill of academic debates, rational exposition and genesis of novel ideas. The choice of ethics over other scholarly disciplines as his area of specialization may be merely a result of its everyday familiarity, the cognitive appeal of some intriguing subject matter like the Plank of Carneades dilemma and/or, at most, a desire to see others (but not himself) act morally. Indeed, whereas philosophy prides itself on cool-headed analysis, ethical behavior is often born out of emotions—the signposts that tell the mind which outcomes hold significance, what values it ought to prioritize and thus which action to take out of multiple reasonable approaches. Reason may, for instance, inform the brain that killing a pet kitten for food is overall as physically rewarding as ordering a roasted chicken, especially if legal sanctions happen to be non-existent, but a sensation of sadness for the prospective loss of a young life coupled with guilt over murdering a close companion of mankind stop many people in their tracks.
But are reason and emotion sufficient, even when present together, to drive individuals to behave morally? Journalism-themed drama Pinocchio first thew down this gauntlet: you may criticize a group of people for their moral failings, but if you were to become a member of the group and subjected to constraints and challenges that hinder or distract them from doing good, can you really perform any better than them? To answer this question, it had its male protagonist, Dal-po, who lost his family after the media incited persecution of them while wrongly accusing his missing father of negligent manslaughter, enter the reporting profession to show his nemesis (the journalist chiefly responsible for the persecution) that he knew enough about the job to judge it. Together with Dal-po, the audience dived into a world where news were hard to fish, hollering supervisors demanded reports every two hours, sleep was a rarity and personal hygiene next to non-existent. Fortunately for Dal-po, his perfect combination of brains, street-smarts and nerves of steel enabled him to net stories with high efficiency.
Still, it is one thing to get hold of stories, another to elucidate truths, so the show presented a litmus test: a heavily obese woman whose ex-husband recently remarried died after overexerting herself at a gym, and rookie reporters were required to piece together a full account of what happened for the night’s broadcasts. After extensive research, Dal-po submitted a lucid and coherent narrative of the events: the woman, seeing that her ex-husband had married a slim and elegant woman, became so consumed with envy that she began an extreme workout plan, which resulted in a fatal heart attack. It read like a perfect story, but some minor facts did not sit well with it—the deceased woman stuck with old-fashioned outfits and a filthy coal transportation job, both of which would dent her makeover efforts. In-ha, Dal-po’s slightly less talented friend at a rival TV station, though, ferreted out the correct cause of the tragedy—the obese woman had a child who needed a liver transplant urgently but she could donate her liver only after cutting down her weight by 30 kilograms. In other words, Dal-po, who was most emotional and vocal about journalistic integrity, had unwittingly distorted an act of noble maternal sacrifice into a tale of reckless vanity, the way reporters he despised jumped to conclusions and tarnished his father’s reputation all those years ago.
Now, the drama suggested that Dal-po and In-ha had both arrived at the jealous ex-wife theory at one point of the show and experienced niggling doubts about it. Why did the more brilliant, vehement critic of irresponsible reporting wave off his suspicion while his more ordinary (albeit smart in her own right) friend dig deeper into the incident? In the drama’s universe, the root of the issue was a rare disorder In-ha was suffering from, which caused her to hiccup whenever she refrained from telling the truth. To transmit her report without a (literal) hiccup, she must be fully convinced of its veracity. Thus, she had no choice but to probe further and further into the case. Dal-po, for all his anti-media rants in front of his senior colleague, had the bodily luxury of closing the case directly.
Moral behavior is often conceived, at a subconscious level at times, as a package of cerebral knowledge, whether in terms of rationality and/or emotional perceptions, and physical action. An individual is given moral credit if he has performed an act beneficial to one or more other persons with the intention of helping them. That intention is, as discussed above, worked out and accomplished with the aid of his intellect and moral affect. Dal-po’s irony, however, suggests that one element has been overlooked: bodily intuitions. Frequently, situations necessitating ethical care do not label themselves as such when they are encountered in real time. Neither is time always set aside or available in the hustle and bustle of everyday life for considering the implications of one’s actions or resisting the immediate temptations of immoral decisions (e.g. prospects of conserving personal energy by going with the flow). Conversely, making up one’s mind to adhere to broad ethical principles like truthful reporting is relatively simple, but it alone does not bring about an instinctive commitment to carry out the requisite actions, which, in the case of Dal-po, entail examining his doubts early on and extinguishing them through even more thorough investigation. He might have benefited from a bodily routine that, like In-ha’s magical hiccups, forces him to entertain no margin for uncertainty at all times. Like the skill of cycling, which is attained not by mere virtue of putting one’s mind to it or reading a book but by accustoming one’s muscles and weight with the vehicle, moral behavior probably comes more naturally to one when he trains himself to react automatically in the appropriate manner whenever a certain cue is presented, which may include hitting the pause button to remind himself of his ethical stance at the slightest prick of his conscience.
In a sense, truths are plants that take careful attention and nurturing conditions to sprout from their seeds and develop into full bloom. This applies to both hard facts and moral truths (rightful behavior). Nudging out what is real and cultivating what is right require time and continuous efforts. Even then, many aspects of the process remain inexact science. What exactly is the ideal routine for a particular person? More precisely, what is the appropriate reaction for a specific ethical concern in a certain situation, given the precise capabilities (e.g. physical/mental agility, first aid skills) and resources (e.g. contacts for help) of the individual? Is it practicable to force an automatic counter-response in all scenarios, at every minute sensation of ethical uncertainty, or will it only increase the risk of harm? What then are the conditions under which things should be allowed to take their course? Other than such sensations, what are the physical cues to look out for? How can training take place successfully, especially if thoughts about the personal costs of prosocial actions keep overpowering the will at the last minute? Notably, the myriad scenarios possible, their intricacies and plausible consequences are probably too innumerable to predict and prepare for in advance. These questions may therefore take a large amount of trial and error to resolve. An identification with an ethical position is unlikely to enable someone to master his desired ethical behavior overnight, even with the best of intentions.
This does not mean that moral philosophers and proponents of morality have no place in ethical behavior. On the contrary, ethical positions are the seeds from which morally relevant intuitions and actions develop. Moral philosophers help to scrutinize the robustness of these positions and scan for gaps in ethical thinking (e.g. neglected moral danger) using their analytical skills and extensive knowledge of ethical issues. They can even come up with solutions to reconcile two conflicting ethical positions or maximize the benefit-to-harm ratios of disconcerting positions. Proponents of morality, on the other hand, promote and drum up support for ethical positions. Yet, without integrating the necessary behavior into the natural rhythm of everyday life, those seeds stay dormant.
At the end of the day, ethics is a matter of habit.
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[Editor’s note: This comment was originally posted in response to an image in a prelude to this post.]
What a curious photo… looks like Japan or Singapore in the last century, with those pink flowers, that young girl with braids… but the phone suddenly shocks so much!
That’s my daughter … or so one would want to say!
There’s a cute story behind the photo. The Korean girl in question was texting her mum after their parents divorced and, together with her dad, she moved to the countryside, where she found that her delirious granddad had adopted a boy her age as his eldest son, making her a niece to someone shorter than her! What she did not know, however, was that her mum had lost her phone, which was in the possession of another boy. 13 years later, the girl (In-ha) grew into the woman you see in the color images above and finally realized the truth. She and the second boy, who had been receiving the messages and photos intended for her mum all these years, ended up working in the same broadcasting station as her mum, where he helped mother and daughter mend their bond and lent a listening ear to In-ha’s woes about developing feelings for the first boy (Dal-po).
The above passages should not be interpreted as an attack on any of the characters. It’s foolhardy to judge a person from ten minutes you see of his life (as visitors well-acquainted with the story would know), and no more wiser to judge a character from a post that dissects only one aspect of the drama. In all likelihood, what has been depicted is just a passing phase in the characters’ development. As the trailer for this week’s episode suggests, Dal-po, in particular, is on his way to becoming a truly respectable journalist by the end of the series.
Great post. It’s so easy for some of us who produce a plethora of elevated thoughts about morality to reach the facile conclusion that we are highly ethical. We all need to learn to hic-cup, don’t we?
There is also this theory of moral credentialing, which says that people who have built up a moral image tend to feel less compelled to act ethically, just like someone who has exercised feels more comfortable about eating chocolates:
I was a nun for nine years, and after I left the convent, I realized that simply wearing a nun’s habit had made me feel just that little bit morally superior. I’m not saying that is true for all nuns — it emphatically isn’t. And besides a lot of nuns today don’t wear full-fledged habits anymore. But I think religious garments in general carry that temptation to self-elevation.