Saturday, March 03, 2007

Munchausen by Proxy

It has not been a very busy week for me. But there have been extraordinary events for my friends and family. It would be inappropriate for me to share any details, since a lot of it is private and quite personal.

Keeping with recent reports on how narcissistic young people are nowadays, I'm going to make this all about me. I understand that these events are more significant for my friends and family who experienced them. But they all made a profound impact on me as well. Some on an emotional and psychological level - no change to my life or plans. Others will really alter my day-to-day life. Not necessarily in a negative or positive way. Things will just change for me as a result.

After a fashion, this causes me to think on one of my favorite topics, systems of morals and ethics. I know, it sounds thrilling. Bear with me, though. The fact that these significant events in other people's lives impact me to such a degree is a great illustration of how humans are social animals (And by the by, what is the proper noun of assembly for humans? There's a gaggle of geese, a parliament of owls, a murder of crows. Would it simply be a crowd of people?). The interconnections are so common, so complex and dense, that any human event can send ripples, with unforeseen results.

This begs the question, how can we decided what is right and wrong, when predicting the full impact of our decision is so complex? Kant argued that there is a categorical imperative, that something is only right if it would be acceptable if everyone did it (oversimplifying some there). I've never been a fan of Kant, and here's why: the categorical imperative makes a solid argument against lying. Therefore, by Kant, lying is never right. But take a counter case from real life: if the family that was hiding Anne Frank and her family was asked by the SS "Do you know where any Jews are," Kant's system says the morally right thing to do is to say "Yes, in the attic." That was an example from my Morals and Ethics class in college, and it has stuck with me. I just had a gut level reaction to it, and rejected deontological ethics because of it.

I've always been more of a utilitarian - the greatest good should be the goal of all our moral decisions. But the difficulty of predicting that, the chaos created by the dense social network connecting all people, makes it nearly impossible. I have to satisfy myself with the fact that the perfect application of this moral system is unrealistic, but the moral thing to do is to make the attempt nevertheless.

And that moral system helps me respond to the recent events in the lives of people close to me. For those who have experienced trials and troubles, I can try to lend aid, though it may cost me. For those who have suddenly had incredible new opportunities open up, that may make my life less interesting, I can be excited and supportive. Because while these events impact me, they impact my friends and family more, so what is best for them determines the greatest good. Besides, any drawbacks for me are minimal. I don't want to come off as a martyr here, because I am not. I am genuinely excited for the good things, and truly want to help those who have suffered setbacks.

Which leads to another interesting question: is it a moral right choice if you are doing what you wanted to do anyway? That is to say, who is the better person: the person who wants to do the right thing and does it, or the person who wants to do the wrong thing but does the right? Are those who have morally right desires more or less laudable than those who have base instincts but still make morally correct decisions?

In less intellectually stimulating news, I logged into an online Halo slayer deathmatch for the first time this week. It was fun, but I got my ass handed to me on a platter. I got run over by a jet, again. Clearly, I need to be wasting more time on this, so I can get good at it.


Accidental Lichtenstein Invader said...

Clearly, I need my own blog in order to adequately comment on this post. And yet, I am not enough of a young narcissist to do so. Ha ha! What to do? What is my proper moral choice here?

Matt Boulanger said...


although I know nothing of the events you speak of, I find your discussion incredibly germane to recent events surrounding my own friends and particularly, my family. Events, where, perhaps there is no personal decision or course of action for me to take, yet even then there is the internal discourse over what to fell or how to react. In most of these situations, I guess I tend to hide my emotional reactions, or my guilt over not having what I view as appropriate emotional reactions, under some sort of guise of being a stoic. In my brief brush with Legal education, I recall running into the concept of utilitarianism in law, particularly criminal law. I wish i could recall the alternative now, but I do remember fancying myself a utilitarian as opposed to the alternative. And on the subject of narcissism, I guess why else would any of us start a blog, really? there may be some hope in the depths that it serves as a personal record of sorts but I guess I always hope that someone out there is reading...

Stoic Switzerland said...

My only educational exposure to morals and ethics has been through the dictionary. For certain specific situations, some more probably would have done some good for me.

One of the main reasons I do not have a blog of my own is my lack of discipline. Beyond the informational aspect, I have a feeling that many of the blogs you all maintain are worthwhile even simply as a regularizing force, organization for your thoughts - the habit of writing is great that way. Didn't you (Dan) say something about that a while ago?

BTW I saw Children Of Men last night. I'm still a bit shaken.