Monday, November 4, 2013

The Dangers of Quantitative Morality

Jean Piaget, in his classic work The Moral Judgment of the Child, in his efforts to make the case for developmental morality, pointed out that when human beings are infantile and just beginning to develop their sense of morality (right and wrong) they understand morality exclusively in quantitative, rather than qualitative, terms. Ask a very small child whether it's wrong to steal one piece of candy and they will very likely say "no." But ask the same child if it's wrong to steal a handful of candy and they'll say "yes." Their view of morality is quantitative - big "sins" are bad; little ones, not so much. Piaget goes on to say that as the child "grows up" and matures as a person, they start to see morality in qualitative, rather than quantitative, terms - wrong is wrong, irrespective of the numbers involved. It's a child's morality that says "it's only wrong if harm is done to a large number of people." Making the same point, John Donne, the mystic poet, put it like this: No man is an island...Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.... Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Now, to my point. I find it interesting that when Jay Carney, President Obama's press secretary, was asked last week about the fact that millions of Americans are having their health insurance cancelled as a direct consequence of Obamacare, he responded by saying, "Well, let's be clear: Only 5% of Americans are affected." Of course, a little quick math translates 5% to 15 million people. But I digress. Moreover, Carney did not say that the ethic at work in the Administration's decision-making was "the greatest good for the greatest number." In a world where absolute good is rarely achieved (but still must be pursued!), I could have respected that. But that's not what he said. What he said was "Since only 5% are affected, all this talk about cancellations is 'much ado about nothing.'"

Carney's morality is infantile. (It is also very likely political; that is, at the end of the day "right" and "wrong" are wholly determined by "who wins," a zero-sum game in which "truth" is purely a function of who shows up to vote. Wasn't it President Obama who famously said: "Elections have consequences"? But that's a conversation for another day.)  Carney apparently only thinks harm is done if a large number of people are adversely affected.  Hmmm.  Ponder that for a while.

What is even more troubling to me is that very few have either seen this (the "quantitative" notion of morality latent in his remark) or pointed it out, and among those who have, most think it's okay, which is to say, they share his notion of morality. I find that disquieting. If you want to see how disquieting a notion it is, apply his principle to murder instead of health insurance and suddenly it doesn't sound so "reasonable," does it?

A little "critical thinking" on a Monday morning.

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