The limits of our moral sentiments

John Zmirak, in his review of Gimme Shelter, hits a bit of a personal note:

I wanted to look away.  I wanted to “pause” this film and go order a Tanqueray and tonic. I had too much in common, I found, with the well-groomed couple who wanted this girl and her problems to fade away — who wished to “intervene” and break the cycle of self-destructive behavior, even if doing so meant just a teensy bit of destruction [in this case, abortion].  A microscopic amount.  Just a bunch of tissue, really, if you can learn to see it that way.  Compare that tiny sin with the blight of the slums, those menacing crime statistics, and those pushy, demanding urban youths who have driven you into the suburbs. Are you really supposed to feel that every such life is somehow sacred?

No, you probably aren’t. If you try to extend your empathy to every human being on earth, from conception to natural death, you will simply fail — as liberals do, so they end up favoring free laptops for Rwandans, along with abortion on demand.  There’s not enough butter on earth to spread across that much bread. On the other hand, if you limit your moral concern to those with whom you can feel empathy, you will act like a moral monster. The answer lies elsewhere — outside the emotions, in the solemn and timeless rational truths that compose the natural law.  Whatever your gut pretends, the fact remains that every human being on earth, regardless of age, is starkly your moral equal. That’s true in the same sense that gravity and mathematics are true, and true regardless of how you feel about it. So act accordingly, and maybe your gut will catch up with your brain. Or maybe not. Do the right thing anyway: it’s called being an adult.

Elizabeth Anscombe once made the observation that the weighing of the costs and benefits of an act according to some sort of utilitarian calculus would have been considered being under temptation in earlier times – because when we are tempted to either do something evil or omit something good, it is the desire or fear of the consequences that pulls us.

And I’ll admit this: I find the utilitarian mindset itself to be a temptation for me. There are times when it seems not only easy, but responsible in that terrible realist fashion: “sometimes, someone just needs to make the hard decisions so that we can be happy.” Or as Caiaphas put it, “you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (John 11:50)

Most of us genuinely want to affirm the moral equality of everyone, because we are at this point in time painfully, painfully aware of how quickly we descend into barbarism if we waver in that a priori belief. Yet, as Zmirak notes, it really does stretch our ability for empathy very thin.

Utilitarianism itself is a form of sentimentalism – being an attempt to build an ethics on human emotions. It may appear to be hard, cold rationality, but even that is just part of the image. Being too fragile to fulfill the moral law, we reduce it to what our flawed self can handle. It can handle a lot of terrible things, it turns out.

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About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
This entry was posted in against killing babies, Uncategorized, What Is This Beast Called Man and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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