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My ideas are constantly changing as I learn. Sometimes they even change midway through writing a post.

Tuesday, December 21

Comments about morality

A friend told me recently about a guy he knew at university who dodged train fares about once a week for 2 years. (He had studied the movements of the ticket inspectors and worked out an effective system).

So the train operator must have been defrauded of a few 100 pounds. But the trains would have run anyway, with or without him on board.

He wasn't caught. Did he 'get away with it'?

I say no. The reason is, in order to maintain self-esteem, everybody has to see themselves as a good person.

Most people do this by learning not to steal.

But the fare-dodger must adopt a false moral theory: "stealing is OK, even though I'm relatively well-off".

This theory cannot be mentally firewalled, it will skew his worldview and lead to mounting problems in other areas of his life.

Unrefuted, it may even cause him to do greater wrong, or be attracted to wrong-doers, for which we can expect him to suffer later on.
Tom Robinson | Email | 12.21.04 - 4:01 am | #


Originally, I was wondering about these ideas because I found it difficult to put into words for a small child. Saying something like, "It's wrong to steal", might not be enough information. Saying, "If you steal, someone might get upset and want to hurt you for taking their things", isn't really enough either. A child might think otherwise when they are not caught or when people don't punish or hurt them for it. (At least, not the way they might an adult.) It felt to me like something was missing from both explanations. It seemed to me that one ought to be able to make a much more convincing argument.

I am familiar with this theory - how going against principles of goodness hurts oneself - from Objectivism. I think the idea was that there's only so much of reality that one can keep in mind, so having rules or principles that cover what to do in a large number of situations is good. Working out when to steal and when not to steal is much more difficult and time consuming than simply having a rule not to steal. One could then focus all that time and energy on a way of getting what one wants in other ways that don't involve the risks of either being caught or harming a person unintentionally. In a way, it's deciding to focus on better things.

I got an interesting email on this subject a while back and really liked the direction it took. I had been using an example of more extreme uses of force, like killing someone:

I thought it might be because, at best, people need good relationships with others around them to be happy. So if an individual uses force, even without being found out, then they will know at some level that they have damaged another person. Even if they attacked someone they would never see again then the knowlegde that they were capable of an act like this would still affect their other relationships. Knowing this deadens sensitivity in their important relationships.

This still doesn't explain how one would discuss this with a small child, but it's a bit easier to get started if one is clear on the ideas involved.

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