Doing the right thing

I quite like the quote. Shame about the bandana.

I’ve just been listening to Sam Harris interview Paul Bloom, both of whom I like, though a little less each year. They were talking about the way the human instinct to favour people close to them clashes with their desire to be even-handed in their dealings with other people. Though both men agreed it is natural and right to want to rescue your own child from a burning building before you rescue others, other kinds of favouritism, though understandable, are rather shameful. Sam and Paul’s conclusion was that though we humans are stuck with our innate preferences and prejudices in our everyday dealings with people, these shouldn’t be mirrored by our leaders at the level of national policy.

This all sounded perfectly fine to me though a bit obvious. After all, though I might run straight past a stranger to rescue my own child, I don’t necessarily want a fireman to do the same, and my guess is that most people feel the same. Do two moral philosophers really need to talk for half an hour before agreeing on this? Probably not, so maybe they were saying something more. The ‘more’ they were saying was this: a government should force its people to go against their selfish nature. Obama described this as ‘helping people do the right thing’ when he was peddling his wealth distribution programs. The problem is that ‘the right thing’ for the Obama administration is probably not the right thing for Donald Trump. Do Sam and Paul really want Trump to force them to do what is right in his eyes? Should they be forced to help build a wall along the Rio Grande since this is ‘the right thing’ In Trump’s eyes?

People like Sam and Paul always talk as though we are all our brother’s keepers and our government can help us to help others. However, this isn’t how I feel. I want my government to raise an army, build roads and do one or two more things that a private company can’t do so well. What I don’t want my government to do is to take money from people who earn it and give it to people I think don’t deserve it. I consider this ‘feeding the enemy’: bolstering a demographic I don’t want bolstering, no matter how needy or ‘vulnerable’ some people think they are. So thanks for offering my money but if I want to help someone I’ll do it through a charity of my choice.

I suppose it’s fine to want to be as good a person as possible and some people think this requires a bloodless even-handedness to anyone and everyone. So even when your country and culture are being decimated by hordes of illegal invaders you should reach out to them, simply because they are poorer than you. According to Sam, Paul and Barack Obama, the fact that you don’t know these people and possibly even disapprove of their way of life isn’t a relevant factor. Yet how far do you want to take this? Are you prepared to suppress your natural instincts if they clash with your socially engineered beliefs? I don’t know about other people but my beliefs tend to change quite regularly and I have come to think that any honest person, whose mind hasn’t yet been concreted over by habit, pride and dogma, should be constantly reassessing his beliefs.

This being the case, why should my changeable beliefs, which I have acquired more or less randomly, pull rank over my natural inclinations? Yes, my inclinations might be selfish but then again my beliefs might be mistaken and I might hold them simply because everyone around me holds them: no one is immune to indoctrination.

Like most people, learning that the sun goes round the earth and how counter-intuitive quantum mechanics is have taught me to be wary of trusting my intuitions too closely. On the other hand, putting all your trust in your beliefs, as the good Germans of Nazi Germany did, is also dangerous. After all, it is quite easy for smooth talkers like Goebels and Barack Obama to persuade people to go against their best interests. Therefore I would prefer not to completely suppress the voice of my possibly selfish nature since it might be tell me something true.


3 thoughts on “Doing the right thing”

  1. I used to naval-gaze for 4 hours everyday. My moral tribe encouraged me to do it. It fit well my beliefs and inclinations. In the end, it was a trap I had to escape by grappling with the premises of the system, the moral framework, that “blinded and binded” me.

    The other half of the moral equation: Happiness comes from between…the right relationships between ourselves and others, our connection and relationships greater than ourself (paraphrasing John Haidt in Righteous Mind).

    Beliefs and natural inclinations, as you refer, are not opposites or separate. Each as I interpreted them in the context you wrote seem to be components of a whole process or person.

    Your question why should I “blindly” care about “everybody”? What if we flip your premise and ask “why should I “blindly” care about myself?” Well, firstly we shouldn’t “blindly” do either. And who is this “everybody” anyway? I agree we need to pick our battles or carefully select where and to whom our limited resources will go. Our moral frameworks blind and bind us.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on your blog.

    1. Thanks for commenting Scott,

      I agree with you that our beliefs and natural inclinations often are well aligned. This is a pleasant state of affairs since you are unconflicted and ‘whole’. However, what to do when the two states are not aligned. At least one of them is out of kilter, your beliefs, your intuition or both. Sam and Paul seem to want to always come down on the side of beliefs but I don’t see why.

      I’m not sure that I get your point about ‘blindly’ caring for yourself. As far as I can see we all care for ourselves. It just comes naturally to us and we don’t have to be talked into it. The same is true to a lesser extent about the people immediately around us. However, it doesn’t come naturally for us to care about strangers, which is why Sam and Paul felt it necessary to opine that we ought to, even against our natural inclinations. It was that assumption I was taking issue with. And I used the word ‘blindly’ precisely because we are not following our natural inclinations but instead leave our choice of who we help to sages like Paul, Sam and Barack.

      1. Thanks. I think my point is not that we shouldn’t care for ourselves or our “own” tribe. But that we also fit into or are a part of a larger system of society and world humanity. The moral frameworks we have, I feel, need to include more than obvious and immediate self-interest.

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