How do you know if you’re right? Right in your beliefs? Right in your moral Truths? Right in your arguments and actions? Should I give 50 korun to the beggar on Charles Bridge, not knowing if that growing pool in her cardboard cup will be used for food or home-brewed heroin from the poppy fields out in Letňany? Because of UKIP’s bad media reputation, should I vote for an opposite party? Am I pro-life or pro-choice? What about capital punishment?
Some moral Truths have been historically fought for and, to varying extents, hard won. We know that slavery is wrong (now we can continue to debate what constitutes slavery). Genocide is not a viable option within or without war. You should not rape another person. You should not murder. People of LBGT orientation should not be persecuted. The same human rights should be upheld for people of all ethnicities and religions. If any person should disagree or find any exception with these moral ‘Givens’, they simply do not belong in a progressive society. Hold their opinions as invalid. They have nothing to contribute but detriment. If this is you, sort your life out.
Other issues: Our environmental and ecological effects on our planet must change to avoid further catastrophe and death. Animal rights require closer attention. The rights of a mother and the rights of an undeveloped foetus. The right to die. Of course there are many, many more – these are only a few of some highly debated issues today.
And I can’t offer answers to any of these. And nor would I dare to with my current lack of developed arguments in these respective areas. I can’t even convince myself – so why the hell would I try and convince you? That would be irresponsible. It would be like masturbating into the wind.
But I do have once piece of advice: if you are for or against one of these issues (or any other you consider yourself an ardent supported of), please ask yourself why. And then, after that, give yourself the evidence why. It is not enough to simply say “animals have rights, we should stop all slaughter”. What rights? Does a chicken have the same rights as a bear? A wild rabbit the same as a domesticated dog? A kangaroo the same as a prize race horse? Why/why not? How can we quantify these rights? Certainly not through sympathy. If animal slaughter stopped, would it make more people in the world happy or sad? And if it’s not about people but animal lives, do we have a coherent, persuasive argument without simply upholding an abstract belief of animals souls? Is it about animal pain or the degradation of our own moral responsibility as the all-powerful human? This is not a challenge, but a process.
Do not trust your immediate beliefs. More often than not, unless you have coherently thought them through and are able to persuasively argue them with available evidence, they will fall short of what you actually think they are – or outright wrong.
In 1785 Jeremy Bentham, in his paper ‘Offences Against Oneself’, advocated forms of sexuality condemned by his contemporary codes, a time in which sodomy was punishable by hanging. But this was not because of his belief. He didn’t just think ‘of course being gay isn’t bad’. He took a rational approach, analysed the situation, and actually struggled with his own conclusions, but supported them because they were in accordance with his moral method.
I have been tormenting myself for years to find if possible a sufficient ground for treating [homosexuals] with the severity with which they are treated at this time of day by all European nations: but upon the principle of utility I can find none. […]
As to any primary mischief, it is evident that it produces no pain in anyone. On the contrary it produces pleasure, and that a pleasure which, by their perverted taste, is by this supposition preferred to that pleasure which is in general reputed the greatest. The partners are both willing. If either of them be unwilling, the act is not that which we have here in view: it is an offence totally different in its nature of effects: it is a personal injury; it is a kind of rape.
Of course, today this is one of the hard fought for moral ‘Truths’ that we have been able to join with our collective Moral ‘Givens’ as a continually progressive, moral society. It follows, then, that what is morally best is not always what we think is right, and what we think is right is not always morally best. If people simply stuck to their ‘beliefs’ without further analysing, without being willing to be wrong, without accepting the possibility of struggling with their own conclusions – and perhaps even not wholeheartedly agreeing with them – there would be no moral change.
The worst mistake to make is believing that morals are always a given; to believe that morals are something that we are born with or something that ‘civilised people’ are automatically inclined towards, is very, very wrong and will only lend to further problems rather than solutions. Take the time to analyse your beliefs and moral standards. Take the time to understand why you believe in these things and do not rely on simple ‘rights’, which are essentially code for an abstract idea that hasn’t been given enough time to develop a sustainable argument. Simply saying, “I don’t like UKIP because on Facebook everyone says they are racist” simply isn’t good enough. What is their immigration policy? What is our current immigration policy? What will change and how will it effect you?
Of course, our moral Givens are Moral Givens – the capital ‘M’ morals which we must always maintain. But if you believe that you believe in something, if you think that, for some reason, killing animals is wrong or failing to recycle is wrong, gather your research, construct your argument so that you can successfully defend it, for one day it is sure to come under attack. And if you are not willing to do this, simply do not classify yourself as someone of this moral conviction. Be humble enough to admit your need to research and develop your stance, moral conviction and argument further and stand aside. Because there are plenty of other people who will step up to defend those ethical beliefs with perhaps much more passion, supporting evidence, tactical argument and conviction than you have at the ready. From these people, you can learn much. And there is nothing shameful in the challenging endeavour to develop your moral beliefs
A really shitty meme taken from Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. He is referring to animal rights, the first published concern of it’s kind. I encourage you to read the full quote below and also read a book called Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene:
The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor.* It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?