Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Morality and Practicality

A couple of months ago, NPR's Talk of the Nation featured psychologist Steven Pinker discussing the evolutionary roots of morality with host Neal Conan (Steven Pinker on Morality as a 'Sixth Sense'). About ten minutes into their talk, Dr. Pinker mentioned a bumper sticker I have also seen: "If you're against abortion, then don't have one." As a person who supports abortion rights, I have thought this made good sense, but Dr. Pinker argued that it misses the point: "If abortion is a moral issue to anyone, then just agreeing not to do it yourself is not an option.... The very fact that it's considered moral by some people means that, necessarily, it has to apply to everyone."

I had always thought of morality as a set of principles shared by a common group of people for their mutual benefit. For example, it is wrong to steal, or it is right to give to charity. These are black-and-white examples, but what about the many gray areas? At what point does a practical matter become a moral issue, or vice versa? Meat is considered a component of a normal diet by most people, but there are strict vegetarians who would argue that it is immoral to kill animals for food. Divorce was considered immoral by most people up until recently; now it is more commonly viewed as unfortunate but sometimes necessary.

In most cases, it is the attitude of the majority that determines whether an issue is widely considered to be practical or moral. Our laws generally support the majority, but the opposite has also been true. Prohibition was passed when alcohol consumption was considered immoral by a powerful minority, but making liquor illegal did not change the attitude of the majority and the law was eventually overturned. The abortion issue is similar. A vocal minority is trying to make abortion illegal, but until they convince the majority that abortion is more a moral issue than a practical one, they will be unsuccessful.

The difference between morality and practicality then becomes a matter of extent. If you believe a principle to be a moral imperative, that it is universal and applies to all, then it is not enough to follow that principle yourself or within your like-minded group; you must fight to ensure that everyone believes as you do. This provides some excellent insight into the thinking and actions of abortion opponents and other moral crusaders.

No comments: