Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Four Angry Relatives and a Funeral

Recently I attended the funeral of a relative who, although close to me in a genetic sense, was more distant from me emotionally than the owner of my local corner shop. This lack of any connection between us meant that I got little from the event in an emotional sense, but in the aftermath I was profoundly affected in a way I didn’t foresee, which was far from the intention of the ceremony. Hand in hand with this came a valuable lesson in the damage that can be caused by adhering to a rigid moral code.

It had been years, may be decades since I had seen this relative prior to his death, so I knew almost nothing about him first hand. Most of what I now know I learnt the day of the funeral from conversations with other relatives and from the occasion itself.

The funeral itself was unremarkable. His personality was honoured by the Christian Minister who described the uncountable moments of humour and joy he brought to those around him before praising his commitment to his chosen profession in motoring journalism and public relations through which “he made his unique contribution to the world, which only he could have made.”

However, what I learnt of him from other relatives before the ceremony contrasted greatly with this image.

It turns out that he’d left his immediate family to deal with his debts including a (quite elderly) mother, and also abandoned his wife and daughter and in the process of leaving the country failed to pay the child maintenance money he owed them. And the level of contact I’d had with him over the past years seems to have been typical even for those much closer to him.

So for the first time that I can remember, I had a picture of his identity painted in my mind. The result of this was that for me the event felt utterly surreal. Moreover, I would hazard a guess that for many of the others in the audience —which included a number of the relatives involved in the incidents mentioned above— the picture they had of him in their minds and the image of him that the words said at the ceremony fought to create were in just as stark a contrast as they were for me.

Later that day my bewilderment began to subside as I realised that for me the account of his life given in the ceremony only gave rise to confusion, while for others it caused pain. This filled me with anger, as I imagined the resentment I would have felt, had I been in his daughter’s position, for having to listen to a celebration of his dedication to his career and extravagant cars, while the part this may have played in his abandoning of her was left unspoken: buried in the dishonest atmosphere of the funeral.

I was distressed and confused. Why, when so many of the people present were aware of the harm it could cause, either to themselves or to others, did this situation occur and was in fact even planned in this way? Unfortunately, it seems we were abiding by the rigid morality of respecting the dead: even though in this case it resulted in upsetting many of those still living. For those who could foresee the distress that the ceremony may cause them, had they not wanted to attend this moral code will have compelled them to regardless. The same morality then forbade the verbalising of anything that could be perceived to taint the memory of him, but had so little consideration for the living they allowed him to inflict a final stab of pain to those he’d already hurt.

Now I’m not saying I know best how this situation should have been dealt with. Maybe there was no better way for it to be done. But the morality that was followed seemed only to exacerbate the situation and its rigidity only hindered any objective discussion about how the least harm could be caused to those whom may be vulnerable. And quite strangely, even though it seems he made choices in his life that would be strongly condemned by the teachings of the Bible, in death these appeared to be forgotten. So maybe one way the ceremony could have been made less harmful is if more forgiveness had been exercised rather than forgetfulness. Instead, I came away with the feeling that had I been at a funeral following these same principles but instead for a man well known for having a chain of secretive affairs behind his partner’s back, then he would have been celebrated for his womanising skills in front of his widow.

I see this experience as a valuable lesson in the unfavourable consequences that can result from following a rigid and potentially outdated moral code. To explain what I mean by outdated, consider that in our current society it’s become increasingly acceptable and indeed common to devotedly pursue one’s own individual goals and desires, whereas historically one was expected by society to focus more on the best interests of the family. Perhaps as a consequence of this transition, the breakdown of marriages and families seems to be increasingly familiar. However, strangely, society's moral code still dictates that when someone dies, relatives - estranged or not - should attend their funeral, show respect and pay tribute to their life. In this way the code seems to remain unchanged, in a sense not ‘keeping up’ with cultural developments."

And the more I think about it, there must be countless other situations where we apply rigid, potentially outdated, moral codes.

Extending Morality through Space and Time

One example of a morality we hold that I think should be questioned is our tendencies to let the immediate life around us dominate our moral judgement. I believe that it’s important to update this morality now that we’ve grown to be capable to be affecting our planet so profoundly in ways that reach far through space and time and which many future generations will have to deal with. There should be no excuses made as we are well aware of the capabilities we hold and their possible consequences.

Forced population control is a subject where the implications of this morality are highly relevant. In the UK for example, where we each consume far more than our fair share of the world’s resources which is almost guaranteed to be detrimental to future generations, people are still paid more money to have more children, in honour of this basic human right. In stark contrast to this, the severe rules implemented in China to control their hazardous levels of population growth shatter our established morality.

Unfortunately, a vast number of social issues that have arisen in China have been attributed to these policies, and consequently they have been repeatedly criticised. But consider this thought experiment:

If a person were driving along a reasonably fast road and suddenly saw a young girl who looked to be about to wander directly into their path, if they were to swerve in an attempt to avoid her, crashing and severely injuring their passengers, should the driver be condemned? And should this verdict change if the girl did not in fact walk out into the road, or if it was proven that an emergency stop would have been sufficient?

From the little I’ve read, China’s policies seem to be excessive, and the reaction of the driver in the above scenario may have proved to be, too. But in the UK it’s as if we’ve just shut our eyes and kept our foot on the gas, and as we’re abiding by an established morality we receive little criticism for this. I’d guess that the optimum solutions for population control in both the UK and China, and around the world, probably lie somewhere between these extreme, opposing strategies.

If optimum solutions to the growing number of issues in the world are to be reached I believe we need to constantly question the basis of our established moral codes. The development of our societies, almost globally, in the past century or so has occurred at an astonishing pace, and hence we need to recognise that our morality needs to keep up. Moreover, it needs to be increasingly considerate of long term prosperity rather than short term comfort.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Cheating and Consumerism: Well at least I Haven’t Murdered Anyone, Right?

What’s your ‘personal fudge factor’? Whatever it is you’re probably happy with it, otherwise you’d instinctively make it smaller. At least, this is my interpretation of the behavioural trait which Dan Ariely suggested following his experiments on dishonesty.

The ‘personal fudge factor’ is the term he uses to refer to the little bit of cheating that we allow ourselves to commit, or the limit that we impose on our dishonesty in order for us to still be able to look in the mirror and feel like a good person. Furthermore, it seems we can be quite devious with our means of rationalising immoral behaviour so that it slips ‘under the radar’, i.e. our own radar, and we can retain a positive perception of ourselves.

Unfortunately however, this behaviour can become dangerous, as when a large number of people are engaged in a potentially harmful activity then the cumulative effect of all these little bits of cheating and dishonesty can be highly destructive.

So there is an obvious question to be asked: why do we allow ourselves these ‘fudge factors’ at all? Is it part of our nature, a product of some aspect of our culture, or a combination of both?
First, it’s possible to examine this question from an evolutionary perspective by considering the following quote made famous by David Wilson and Edward Wilson:

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary”.

In other words, on the one hand it’s advantageous for people to cooperate and behave altruistically within their group as it makes the group stronger, but it’s often of individual benefit (at least in an immediate sense) to behave selfishly. As a result of this —and whether you believe in group selection or not (see Steven Pinker’s essay for compelling arguments against the theory)— groups containing too many people behaving too selfishly become weakened, and at risk of dying out, unless altruistic behaviour and cooperation can be increased.

Clearly however, this mechanism is faced with some problems in the hugely complex interwoven society we now live in. In particular, the breakdown of strong communities in much of the West makes it very difficult to define one’s own group. This is summarised well by Jonathan Haidt, who likens us to lost, confused bees frantically buzzing around trying to find our hive. Left in the aftermath of this cultural shift appears to be an overwhelmingly individualistic society, and it seems to me that we are now in a situation where ‘selfishness beats altruism, and groups rarely exist.’ In this case is it at all surprising that we allow ourselves to cheat a little to get out ahead?

On the other hand, a more encouraging outcome of this connectedness of the world’s population is that a vast number of us appear to consider the whole of humanity, or even all sentient beings, as our ‘group’. The existence of charities for global development and animal welfare offer strong evidence for this.

So if this is the case, why do we still consider the little bits of immorality and dishonesty in our behaviour —i.e. our personal fudge factors— to be acceptable when they accumulate to cause such extensive harm in the world?

Clearly there are a number of explanations for this, such as the separation of our behaviour from its impacts in both space and time, and our knack for ‘moral self licensing’ (see my first post). But could there be other aspects of our culture that act as catalysts for our personal fudge factors?
I’m going to suggest one potential factor that I think maybe of some significance here, namely the media.

Take the Daily Mail Online as an example: on any given day of the week the front page will be overflowing with reports of murder, rape, and corruption, and a general message that all the world’s problems are due to these few villains scattered around the globe. Manmade Climate change seems to be perhaps the only example of a major issue for which the mainstream media regularly tells us that we’re all partially responsible for (although the Daily Mail don’t join in with this as they have their own way of interpreting the science).

This focus on major crimes gives a highly unbalanced view of the world, potentially shifting our moral frame of reference allowing us to more easily excuse our own seemingly insignificant sins.
After all, surely if we can look into our computers and televisions and see murderers, rapists, and other villains blamed for most of the world’s problems this makes it easier for us to look into the mirror and feel good about ourselves, even if we do knowingly play our small parts in an exploitative society? 

Now this may not be a proper real world example, but in contrast to the view painted by the media, Dan Ariely’s researchers found that the cumulative impact of the large number of people who permitted themselves a small, limited amount of cheating was far greater than the impact of the very few ‘bad apples’ they encountered in their sample groups of people, i.e. the 0.6% of people who they observed to cheat as much as the test allowed.

It seems to me that if we want to regard the whole of humanity (or even all sentient beings) as our ‘group’ —and I desperately hope that we do— then we need to recognise that the cumulative effect of all our little bits of cheating and immorality can very often cause more destruction than the acts of the few ‘villains’. If we can’t succeed in this then the world may well be preserved in its tragically unjust social state, and on its course of environmental destruction.

Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely, The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance
David Wilson and Edward Wilson. Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology