A Thought On Morality

Here is an intriguing article from http://www.davidyerle.com:

You’ve probably heard this sentence before: “if there is no God, everything’s permitted.” One of the brothers Karamazov says it in the famous Dostoyevski novel (which, religious apologetics or not, is one of the best books I’ve ever read).

But what does this sentence even mean? The most straightforward interpretation is we can do whatever we want. But this is true, with or without God. According to Christians, we have free will: we can do evil and we do, all the time. Evil is permitted. So how does there being a God change anything? Without a God, everything is permitted. With a God, we are in exactly the same situation.

The obvious answer is punishment. The existence of a God adds punishment to the equation, so that you will do no evil, in fear of being condemned to eternal damnation. To me, this is not morality at all: it is just a reward system, similar to training a dog. God tells you what to do and defines that to be “right” or “good.” If you don’t do what he says, you get punished. If you do, you get a reward.

How is this any different from a society with laws?

In a society with laws, if you do evil deeds (things that go against the law) you are punished: you pay a fine or go to jail. If you live in America or China, you may even be put to death. Now, one could say: “without laws, everything is permitted.” The morality argument for God is exactly equivalent to the morality argument for Law.

Dostoyevsky

To most people, the idea of a morality based on a reward system is repulsive. We shouldn’t do good because we’ll get in trouble if we don’t: we should do good because it’s the right thing to do. But what is the right thing to do? There are many possible answers. Some people will say: “look inside your heart and do whatever feels right.” It’s a line of argumentation that does wonders with sadists and psychopaths. Some will tell you what’s moral is what some philosophy says is moral. At the end, however, “right” and “wrong” have to be based on something. If they weren’t they would be completely random. Therefore, “right” and “wrong” are, to some extent, necessarily utilitarian, even in the case of religion. Dostoyevski’s point is moot: everything is permitted, no matter what. Whatever we decide to do or not to do, we do because of some reason. Those reasons have usually nothing to do with good and evil, though they are sometimes disguised as such.

To me, morality is something we need in order to keep people without empathy under control. I don’t need a morality and neither do most of the people on this Earth. I can feel other people’s pain, which is why I try not to hurt them. I don’t do it because it’s right: I do it because of how it makes me feel. As long as we have the ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s position, we don’t need a set of rules to tell us what to do. We can decide at each moment. Morality is a useful lie: we tell some people there’s something “right” and “wrong” because we can’t make them understand that other people besides them are also capable of suffering. So we put these ideas in their heads in the hopes that they will reign in the monster and stay their hand. When they don’t, we resort to state-administered violence in the form of prison or death.

However, my beautiful theory about empathy does not explain what I did this morning.

Sometimes I go to school by subway. The subway stop is a 30-minute walk away from the school: fortunately, the school provides a shuttle service. Today I left home too early and I got to the bus stop way ahead of time, so I decided to take a taxi instead. This way, I’d have 20 extra minutes to get all my stuff ready.

As I got out of the metro a taxi driver approached me. Now, I know the trip to my school costs 10 RMB, but I asked him anyway: “how much to the school?” To my dismay, he didn’t say “10 RMB.” He said 15. And that pissed me off. So I said: “forget it.” And I left. The man started to chase me and said “OK, 10!” But it was too late. I didn’t get on the taxi, even though it would have saved me 20 minutes of waiting for a bus in the cold.

Why, if it was exactly what I was willing to pay? Well, because it wasn’t right. I didn’t want the guy to think he could get away with trying to cheat people: I wanted him to know that, sometimes, being dishonest has consequences. If I had gotten on his taxi, I’d have been endorsing his behavior. And I couldn’t do that.

Doing this didn’t make me feel any better and probably won’t change this person’s behavior in the future. It was futile, absurd. But I just couldn’t get on the taxi. I couldn’t.

It wouldn’t have been right.

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An Unusual Punishment

Perhaps one famous term that comes to mind in the U.S. Constitution is the term “cruel and unusual punishment.” But in one case in the UK, there is no “cruel,” but just “unusual punishment.” Just check out this article: (click link) Yahoo! News- Pot Dealer in UK Gets Sentenced to Write 10-Page Essay, or you can see this video below:

So, basically, what happened was that a drug dealer got caught selling cannabis, and the original punishment was to have him spend time in jail and doing community service. However, because of a shoulder injury which meant he couldn’t do community service, the judge then decided to reduce his sentence into a punishment unheard of- writing a 10-page essay on why cannabis is bad.

Although it is unusual, it’s actually pretty smart. Let’s examine this. His original punishment was to spend time in jail and doing community service. Well, first of all, the jail part. So this guy’s going to just sit in jail wondering about his life, but how’s that gonna help him? The only reason I can come up with is that by going through a horrible experience of staying in jail, he won’t want to sell drugs anymore or else he’s going back to prison again. However, this reason is lame. Perhaps the jail he is living in is pretty comfortable. Not only that, there have been many many many crooks out there in the world who have been to jail many times but still commit the same crimes over and over again.

Pretty much, jail won’t work. How about the community service? The reason why this punishment of community service was even created was to have criminals go through an experience in which they realize how much help the community needs. That instead of screwing around with the police, they should have been dedicating their time to the community. Take for example a criminal who has stolen from many homeless people over the years. If he was forced to do community service in say, a homeless shelter, then he would perhaps be able to experience and see first-hand the pain, hunger, worries, and troubles homeless people go through. That criminal would begin to sympathize with homeless people and thus would be less likely to steal from them again.

So community service punishment is pretty smart, but it won’t work in all cases, such as this case of the drug dealer. By helping the community out, this guy won’t be seeing the badness of cannabis. More than likely is he going to sell cannabis again. What does Bennett need then? He needs an experience in which he sees the negative effects of illegal drugs. Perhaps the most effective way is to again have a first-hand experience, in which he maybe goes to hospitals to visit victims affected by cannabis.

But I still think this essay punishment is a smarter one. For one thing, a visit to the hospital is not always possible. But writing an essay is a task that can be done almost any time. Also, if he were to go to a hospital, he would probably see the pain and agony of the victims. With the Internet however, it emphasizes this three times over. For instance, in a hospital, there is only a limited number of victims he can see. In the internet, there are an unlimited number of videos, articles, and blogs about the experiences of victims of illegal drugs. Not only that, by researching on this drug and its various effect on the body, it helps truly identify the bad effects of it not only in the emotional aspect, but also physically.

So what can we learn from here? Perhaps we can implement this type of punishment overseas to the United States. I believe that this punishment is not only less harsh, but also more effective than the typical prison. This is what I call smart punishment.