Thursday, July 28, 2011

Every decision is moral

When one thinks of morality, generally one thinks of conduct with friends and family, and conduct within social constructs. One might think that the decision to steal something or not is a moral issue. It is; it is a deeply moral issue. But when it comes to buying fruit sprayed with pesticides, or deciding to invest in a car, or flicking on the light switch, are these decisions moral? I would argue that these decisions are as much about morality as they are about anything else. Indeed, most every decision we make in this world is a reflection of our morality and our values. Unfortunately, we've been told constantly (probably subconsciously) that when it comes to every day living and every day choices, morality can take a back seat. And given all we know about the massive problems that face us, it is this behaviour - a dichotomy between what we think is moral and our daily choices - that has perpetuated these problems. I want to write today a little bit about supposedly amoral or neutral aspects of our life - science and technology.

Many scientists and technologists practice their trade thinking that the results produced of their work are amoral or neutral - there is no moral baggage associated with the findings. Just because F = ma doesn't mean the result has moral implications. This is decidedly untrue. There are four reasons that come to my mind (and there are likely more):
  • First, because we know, we can use. Laws of science can be used to do many tasteful and distasteful things (like cook a nice meal, or develop a chemical for war). 
  • Second, data have import for people's lives, especially in cases like climate change. 
  • Third, the processes of scientific and technological development rely on what is available. Technology is not possible without science, but science is also not possible without technology. Where does technology come from? Technology is not made out of thin air, but is rather constructed through the same violent processes that we like to blame for causing ecological and social degradation, like mining and burning fossil fuels. And is this technological development that further allows us to investigate science, and so on, and so on...
  • Fourth, just because we cannot see or immediately feel the effects of many of our choices does not mean that the effects are not present. This culture has done a wonderful job of separating ends and means, with technology playing a key role. As Aidan Davison has written about in Technology and the Contested Meanings of Sustainability, the flipping of a light switch just to illuminate a room invokes massive technological and social infrastructures that we cannot see, and therefore, it is difficult to assign a moral value to the action.
In the end, there is no way one can deny the interconnectedness of oneself. It is true now that every choice one makes has had the hand of others in it, and will (unwillingly, at times) affect others, although unwillingly.

What does that mean for our daily lives? It means that we must try to take as much accountability as possible for our choices. It means that decisions cannot be made in isolation, but ought to be made with a full respect for forces at play. It means that we must question what is thrown at us, regardless of how "neutral" something may seem. Assigning moral values to our choices and decisions may allow us a much needed introspection.


  1. I have been thinking a lot recently about moral precedent (a term I just made up). Your post is very closely related to what I have been thinking about and so it was timely and I really enjoyed it. It seems to me that once there is a preced...ent for an action being morally OK people don't think about it anymore (this is what you talked about). I think that from an efficiency stand point there is a lot of value to having and maintaining effective moral precedent (something I don't think you acknowledged in your post). I think we can both agree that the current moral precedent needs a lot of changes. The way you discuss the issue it sounds like EVERYONE will have to constantly develop a new moral precedent for absolutely every situation and fully consider the impact of their actions (I know this isn't how you feel though). This sounds incredibly inefficient - as a society we shouldn't have to decide over and over if something is immoral and often we trust others to make the choice for us (seems problematic but I think it can work).

  2. It's good to hear from you. I was wondering where you have been.

    You hit on a couple of things that are worth elaborating on. First, I absolutely agree that moral precedents must change. With the second part regarding everyone needing to de...velop their own moral precedent, I think things are a little more complicated. My understanding and conceptualisation of sustainability is that things are different in different places, and what one does here in Michigan is very different than what one does in North Carolina, or India. The choices that we make will of course have to be environment specific. That doesn't mean that the moral guidance is different, it just means that the outcomes of moral choices look different in different places. What that means is that people must adapt to their surroundings, rather than making their surroundings conform to their whims, rather than bulldozing it and making it look like every other place.

    I think this is easily relatable to anthropocentric laws that, in a sense, serve as moral guides (this is a very cartoonesque depiction of laws, but you know what I mean). While philosophically people may "agree" (to a certain extent) on what "justice" means, the outcomes of justice are different (not that I agree with all of the outcomes). So for example, in the US, there exists capital punishment. In Scandinavia, capital punishment doesn't exist.

    Furthermore, there exists the dynamism of time. Time changes some things, and doesn't change others. How might our moral codes guide behaviour then?