The following is a piece on ethics and morality. Many of my works tend to be in the area of applied ethics, such as on matters of vegetarianism, peace, sexuality, and abortion. However, these are issues in the realm of applied ethics.
That is to say, they are the application of an ethical base — how an idea of “right” and “wrong” applies to the real world and the issues that confront us. For example, one ethic might be: “Any action that causes suffering is immoral,” and the applied ethics of this would be that to oppose euthanasia is immoral, that the abortion of an unconscious fetus is not immoral, that to eat meat and promote agribusiness’s murder of animals is immoral, among other things.
This essay differs from my other essays in this one aspect: I am not dealing with ethics as it is applied to our real world, but rather with ethics as it exists in its “primal form.” However, like my other essays, I can only hope that it is informative and not a drag to read.
Desire and action
It is not an uncommon incident to hear a person attempt to justify their actions with, “But I was drunk,” and it is not rare to hear someone similarly attempt to justify their actions with, “But I was under the influence of drugs.” In both situations (of which they are not very much intrinsically different), a person is trying to explain why they did something, whether it was something that embarrasses them or is immoral. Whether it justifies an action will vary on who you ask. I am not trying to question whether it is “acceptable” or “unacceptable” for such occurrences to take place. But the reason why a person will make such statements about their inebriated state is because it’s an explanation as to why they did what they did, and in a very sincere way, a sort of way of saying that no punishment should be given — or at least, if a punishment is given, that it is given with extreme lightness.
While alcohol or drugs may alter a man’s mental state, and might make a noble man cruel or a kindly man brutal, those are not the only incidents of chemicals being responsible for an attitude change in a person. Alcohol can affect a person by making them much less intelligent, over confident, or uninhibited, causing for various problems. Other drugs (because alcohol is a drug) can alter a person’s mind state by causing violent tendencies, or at the extreme end of the possibilities, cause hallucinations that will bring the person close to homicide or suicide. However, there are other substances that will alter the mindset of a person once they are in the blood stream; my prime example being natural hormones. Aggression and anger can be natural results of the brain chemistry. Sex drive is also caused by natural brain chemistry. So, when a person is violent towards those around him, it may very well be due to high testosterone levels. However, it would be unlikely that anyone would pitying him in our society, because he had been “under the influence of testosterone,” but in a very real way, it’s not much different than the claim of a man whose actions can be explained by alcohol.
What it comes down to then is the issue of a man under the influence of alcohol and another man under the influence of natural hormones — the substances affecting their brains making them prone to certain action. This action might be something destructive to those around them. However, there is no real difference between either of these men, but rarely is “testosterone level” used as a just explanation for rape or violence. A man’s desires and wants will be altered by the hormones that are in his blood, be they natural or unnatural, be they manufactured or produced by the body. In either instance, there is no real difference between a man whose actions are caused directly by alcohol or directly by high testosterone.
The next question, though, is…if a man was given a drug, a drug so powerful that it gave him extremely strong desires for violence and sex — desires so strong that he immediately acted upon them without thought or contemplation — could he honestly be blamed for the actions that he committed while under the influence of such a drug, even if it was taken by accident or offered with malicious intent? One would be hard-pressed to find a philosopher who would condemn this man whose will would be reduced to that of what scientists may say is “beast-like,” or entirely mechanical. But then it must be considered that many men drink alcohol, and many of them excessively, and they are still capable of controlling their violent urges or sex desires, and the same may be said of men with extremely high testosterone levels, who refuse to engage in violence or coerced sexual activity, much of the time for moral or ethical reasons. They are capable of fighting their desires, their instincts, which can easily be fulfilled by cruel and heartless action. So, simply being intoxicated or under the influence of bodily chemistry would not be a full justification for actions committed under such conditions.
The point I am attempting to demonstrate is that there is definitely a level at which every person will succumb to their urges which cause suffering to others. For example, consider the difference between a poor man and a rich man. If both of these individuals were addicted to drugs, there would be a variation in their behaviour. While the rich man could sustain their habit independently, without work or theft, the poor man would have to engage in criminal activity. Drug addiction is a foul disease to have, and a curse to any man. Depending on the drug and the person, it may cause a person to go to the ends of the earth in the search of this one substance that will appease their bodily needs. The poor man may not be able to work a regular job that would be able to sustain his habit, so he will resort to criminal activity. This is not necessarily because he is a bad person, but he has a drug habit that will cause him great suffering if he does not appease it. The result would be the poor man betraying the people he trusts, perhaps even stealing from his friends and family, and causing heartache to those who have been good to him. The rich man who has the same drug habit will not have to reach such “lows.” However, it will be asserted that the rich man is good because he harms none, while the poor man is bad because he harms those close to him — but it is undeniable, if they had their wealth switched, and the poor man became rich and the rich man became poor, their criminal and brutal behaviour towards their fellow men would ultimately change. So, though it is a matter of their drug habit which causes them to seek out drugs at whatever the cost, it is ultimately the fact that a rich man will have moral means to feed his drug habit, while such moral means are closed to the poor man.
Consider another example…Still, a rich man and a poor man, but consider an extremely poor man, treated like fodder in a developing nation. He works 16 hours a day for a day’s pay in his country, of what one would make in an hour in the United States. And so he works, his bones never resting, his body always bruised, never getting enough sleep, droning from day to day, and struggling to keep his sanity. But then he discovers that if he cooperates with a local, organized, crime syndicate, he would only have to work one hour a day, and he would make ten times the pay. And it would not be gruelling, dangerous, hazardous factory work, where he has to worry about the loss of a limb or his life. He would be able to wake up every day feeling refreshed, knowing that he had food to eat for that day. Would this man be immoral for working with the criminal syndicate? Perhaps so. That is, at least, what the rich man would say. However, if the rich man lost his treasure, was denied his wealth, and had to be forced into those same conditions, he would probably make the same decision as the poor man.
So, in a very real way, the actions of these men are not wholly governed by their moral character, but by the means to pursue their moral objectives. And it is also very true to understand that in that situation, some men would refuse to cooperate with the crime syndicate, even if it meant they had to work 16 hours a day for 50 years of their lives, they could still do it, but it would take such a gruelling, heartless toll on their mind, body, and soul — to think of such a person, their will and dedication in the beginning, and then their eventual decline in spirit…I can only think that the rational man would kill himself in such a situation. But the point still stands: while most people lack the determination and will power to refuse the crime syndicate, there are those who have such mental determination to do so. It must also be understood that the situation of a poor man working 16 hours a day and then deciding to cooperate with a criminal syndicate, this situation is not at all different than a man who has a drug addiction and engages in crime to suffice his needs — but in the eyes of our society, drugs users are typically portrayed as cruel, malicious, irrational fools, and I had to bring up this point.
These examples I am bringing up, though they are very realistic and easy to apply to our real world, they are only slightly grasping at the issues I am trying to deal with. I will bring up one hypothetical situation to try and determine what I am getting at, though such a situation will hardly be every realized in our world. Consider a man who is tied up and being tortured with numerous ways: the cutting of the flesh, salt poured into the wounds, beatings, whippings, needles, among other cruelties and heartless brutalities. And then consider this: his torturer says, “If you pinch this one girl, who has committed no crime and done no wrong, then I will stop torturing you.” Anyone will not be slow to admit that randomly pinching girls would be immoral. However, this man is being tortured, and his only method of escaping from such merciless brutality is to cause a slight immorality. One might say that the torturer was then guilty and immoral, but consider that the torturer was simply a computer, without a consciousness or awareness. In this situation, I cannot think of one man who would reply with, “I refuse to cause even one slight immorality! Torture me all you desire! I will never give in!” Such a person would grow mad with insanity, and that may be the only way they could refuse giving in. But it would be rare to find any person who would not give in to such desires.
Today, in our modern world, as well as in the works of the ancient world, we find that one action or another may be immoral, or unethical. That, to do such a thing, under any circumstance, would be a malicious act against truth and compassion. Yet, analysis into this will find one fact… Every man, under the worst of conditions, will resort to cruel and brutal behaviour, whereas every man, under the best of conditions, will resort to kindly and humane behaviour. Some men can sustain bad conditions better than other men without being immoral, whereas some men cannot — and while some men are good under good conditions, there are still those who resort to cruelties. The final point that I am attempting to demonstrate is that a man can only be as good as the physical world allows him, and will only be as bad as the physical world puts pressure upon him. Then, can we say that one action or another is moral or immoral? Perhaps the truth is this… That no action is right or wrong over another action and that the only true way that a person can be moral is only if they take into consideration those conscious beings around. Or, maybe it is the other solution: the most moral of men will refuse to cause cruelty to others under the worst of conditions, whereas the least moral of men will resort to brutality under only slight duress. But, then again, a good inquiry’s answer will render only more questions to be pondered…
Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski