Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Moral Labyrinth

There are things we know to be right and wrong. How we got to that point of differentiating right from wrong may vary, but the fundamental truths about what is incontrovertibly wrong remains the same. Don’t kill, don’t steal, etc. The imperative ‘don’t’ allows for no exception. Right and wrong is black and white with no get out clause or acceptable exclusion. As we get older, we realize that life is more complicated than binary oppositions allow for. In philosophy, the most often used scenario to illustrate this complexity is the following:

We know it is wrong to steal.  However, you have children at home who are starving. Do you steal the loaf of bread to feed your family or allow your family to starve because stealing is wrong?

Stealing is always bad and doing the right thing is always good does not hold up in this scenario. Full of grey area, the overwhelming majority of individuals who are presented with this scenario choose stealing over starvation. Even though this example is modeled to expose grey area, the choices seem black and white by appealing to a different part of us, the more emotional part that is unable to bear the thought of children starving. While allowing your children to starve is a question of ethics and morality, the root problem of stealing precludes starvation from being the primary quandary. Feeding your family has possibility for error; we cannot know if stealing a loaf of bread will keep our children from starving the next day or day after (a variable that leads to more stealing), we also cannot know if we would be caught in the act resulting in more serious consequences (leaving your children without a parent). Whereas, if we rely on stealing is wrong to answer the quandary we take on no immediate risk of error. But the question then becomes not the possibility for error but rather the risk.

How much are we willing to risk?

I use this as an example to speak to something obviously more abstract and full of grey patches—responsibility. How many times have you found yourself saying “if I were [fill-in-the-blank] I would have done this differently.” Most of the time, whatever we would do differently is fairly innocuous. It is not an ethical quandary but rather a difference of opinion; the stakes remain even whether Person A or Person B performs the task. But what about issues with legitimate consequence? Here, I am thinking of action in terms of activism.

What is our responsibility to be an activist/advocate?

Unless you find yourself as plaintiff or defense taking on the State this question will manifest in more low stakes terms, relatively speaking. Speaking out against an injustice done to someone else, fighting from another’s corner, simply getting involved in a cause. This type of activism has varying degrees of responsibility. Leading a campaign, heading up a committee or writing letters/making phone calls all meet different demands on the responsibility spectrum, yet are integral to the other’s existence. A campaign succeeds or fails because of the sum of all of its parts working together. But there is a center that for better or worse becomes the “face” of a campaign. Whether literally or by name alone, this person has found themselves at the center of a battle that they may or may not have wanted to be in in the first place. This role is neither elected nor voluntary, but one of pure happenstance. 

If we think about landmark Supreme Court cases that have changed the course of an historical trajectory, what becomes clear is the individual: Roe v. Wade, United States v. Windsor, et al. Norma McCorvey (alias Jane Roe and since a complicated example in women's right to choose arguments) and Edith Windsor didn’t actively seek out their positions, rather they became what I will call, “accidental activists” as a result of something being done to them rather than perpetrating the doing. The doing comes much later when they refuse to allow what has been done to them to go unnoticed or accepted. The victim then becomes the perpetrator in this instance and what is left is a call to social action. But initially they did not seek out their newfound position as activist.

In some ways their positions are a dream hypothetical situation for activists. Rarely do activists find themselves at the center of a cause but rather leading the action that surrounds it. But what is at stake for the center who has found themselves as a front-person for women’s, African American, LGBT, worker’s rights, etc.? Are we in a position to rely upon them, from our privileged point of view, to do “the right thing”? Can we even conceptualize right and wrong in this context? 

Of course, change cannot happen from the center alone. By which I mean that a decision that occurs seemingly overnight is the result of a spectrum of people who have brought forward their personal experiences to combat a perceived injustice. Edith Windsor’s battle against DOMA was unavoidably compounded with the cases, media outrages and countless testimonials of everyday incidents of LGBT discrimination. While Edith Windsor became the face that ultimately took down DOMA, she also understood (or I believe she understood) her responsibility to represent a collective minority that is currently being oppressed or ignored by the State. Which at 83 years old was still a responsibility she accepted in spite of all the associated risks and loss of privacy.

We all have opinions of what should be done in this scenario. I would even go so far as to suggest that a majority would say that our responsibility is to be an Edie Windsor, someone who contests their personal wrong to its logical end for the benefit of others, rather than someone who chooses not to fight or exploit their position as an accidental activist for the greater good.

There is a long-running radio program on BBC4 entitled The Moral Maze that debates the moral implications of a range of issues from economics and education to social issues and individual rights (amongst many many others). The titling of the show as a Maze seems deliberately non-committal. Mazes imply a kind of inescapable end with no clear points to start and stop. The word speaks to the circular arguments we can and often do have about these issues that at once are deeply abstract and yet have very real consequences. The sheer magnitude of complexity in the issues itself gets entrammeled in philosophical debate before action is ever presented as possibility.

I have deliberately likened this quandary to a labyrinth over a maze. Although the two may at first appear interchangeable, a labyrinth differs in its construction around a center. For at the heart of a labyrinth lies a point upon which all space becomes constructed and manipulated. A labyrinth has the potential for purpose. From the center one must decide which way to turn. One path leads to action while the other retreats with the possibility for more median paths in-between. A labyrinth has options. Unlike a maze that can continue indefinitely, there comes a moment of unavoidable decisiveness in the labyrinth. While we may not have intended to find the center when we began, our survival ultimately depends upon actively making a choice and trusting that our route leads us out of the labyrinth.  


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