Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Long ago and far away

Interesting comment about altruism and emergencies: Paula Hall posted this morning at NoodleFood about a scene in The Dark Knight. In her post, she mentions Ayn Rand's essay, "The Ethics of Emergencies". Her post also contains spoilers, by the way.

Ms. Hall wrote, in part (starting with an excerpt from "The Ethics of Emergencies"):
The psychological results of altruism may be observed in the fact that a great many people approach the subject of ethics by asking such questions as: "Should one risk one's life to help a man who is: a) drowning, b) trapped in a fire, c) stepping in front of a speeding truck, d) hanging by his fingernails over an abyss?"
Her point was that altruism doesn't tell you how to live, but only under what conditions you're supposed to sacrifice your life. Rand explained this approach to ethics as follows:
If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, he suffers the following consequences (in proportion to the degree of his acceptance): ...

[A] lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality--since his questions involve situations which he is not likely ever to encounter, which bear no relation to the actual problems of his own life and thus leave him to live without any moral principles whatever.
Altruism is the dominant morality in our culture, meaning there are a lot of people for whom morality is irrelevant, most of the time. Yet no-one wants to think of himself as amoral. So when can an altruist take morality seriously? In a hypothetical life-or-death situation. The ferry dilemma in The Dark Knight provides a perfect outlet for seeming to take seriously the morality of altruism--in a fantasy world where it doesn't matter if you practice what you preach.
One of the commenters to this post, Grant Williams, wrote:

"This post clarified fully for me why so many Americans choose to fixate on every random, minor, more or less inconsequential injustice that occurs in the world."
This had the effect of concretizing for me how some people are able to accept altruism. Since they cannot consistently apply altruism to their own lives - due to the fact that it is impossible to practice in reality - they grasp at anything which alleviates the sense of guilt which results.

Moral fantasies about helpless people suffering in need somewhere, out there, far enough away that they do not have to see altruism's flaws - or as Ms. Hall put it, "where it doesn't matter if you practice what you preach" - give them a cover for their evasion.

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