Kryptonian Muscles, Everyday MoralsMarch 3, 2005
by Isaiah Campbell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
An essay in response to Jeff Dubbin's essay "More Truth and Justice than You'll Ever Protect"
In the middle of Germany, a train zooms around a curve, completely unaware that the bridge over the 1000 ft drop has been destroyed in the recent storm. Brakes squealing, people screaming. Out of the sky drops Superman! He catches the train in midair and guides it across the chasm to safety.
In the middle of Nebraska, a four year old boy is playing hopscotch in the street. Suddenly a car going too fast appears just over the hill. A teenage girl runs from her yard and grabs the child, just barely pulling her to safety.
Two heroes. Which one is more of a "moral" person? In fact, do actions by themselves determine morality, or is it internationality or capacity? Does the existence of a person who regularly and consistently is involved in moral activity that exceeds my abilities automatically place me on a lower pedestal of morality? These are the questions posed in Jeff Dubbin's essay.
In order to truly discuss morality, we must first define morality. Many times when we talk about a person who is moral, we are really talking about a person who is ethical. Although these two words are similar in meaning, they are different enough to drastically affect this discussion. If a person is an ethical person, it means they live their life in accordance with a standard of right and wrong, ie. Ten Commandments, Hammurabi's Code, American Legal System, etc. A persons knowledge of right and wrong does not change how ethical they are, instead their ethical qualities are measured by their ability to do the right thing, whether they understand it or not.
A moral person, on the other hand, is a person who can discern right and wrong situationally, and chooses to do the right thing. In other words, even if he has never been in this situation before, because of his moral qualities he is able to determine what is the right thing for him to do. Looking at the antonym of "moral" helps us to understand it even more: there is "immoral" which means that a person chooses to do the wrong thing when he is in a situation, even though they may have the ability to discern between right and wrong. Then there is "amoral", which means that a person is incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong.
Now, before we continue, the issue of motive must be addressed. At first glance, a fireman would be considered a person who is moral using the following logical formula: Saving lives is moral, firemen save lives, therefore firemen are moral. However, once we begin to examine the motives of a situation, the formula could begin to look like this: Doing the thing for a selfish reason is immoral, firemen save lives because they make money to do it, therefore firemen are selfish and thus immoral. Unfortunately, this formula has a far too simplistic view on human motivations.
Any time a person chooses to do something, we are flooded with literally thousands of thoughts and motivations. When my wife asks me to get her some medicine, I choose to do it because I care about how she feels, because I know that when I bring it back to her she will be grateful, because I don't want her to be angry at me for not caring about her, because I want to get a soda anyway and the medicine is right by the fridge, etc. Does the presence of selfish motivations negate the morality of my action? No, my action becomes selfish when my PRIMARY motivation is selfish. I doubt highly that a fireman, when running into a burning building, is mainly thinking about asking for a raise because of this rescue (although I do acknowledge that it could happen). Because the primary motivation of firemen is to help other people, their motivation cannot be viewed as selfish.
Back to our discussion, let us put two people in the same situation and see what happens. Superman and Perry White are both standing at the bottom of the Daily Planet when they both notice that Lois is standing on the ledge outside her office ready to jump. They both discern that there is a right and wrong thing to do in this situation. The right thing would be to help the person in need, the wrong thing would be to ignore her. They both decide to do the right thing. Now comes a process of evaluating possible actions, determining what they are able to do in this situation. Perry White takes the elevator up to the thirtieth floor and goes to the window and begins to talk to Lois, hoping to coax her inside the building. This is the greatest moral action he is able to do.
Superman, on the other hand, remembers his flying ability and zooms up, picks Lois up in his arms, and safely deposits her on the ground. This would be (hypothetically) the greatest moral action he is able to do. Does the fact that Superman's abilities are different than Perry White's abilities make Superman a greater moral person? No, they both were presented with the same situation, they both discerned the proper moral decision, and they both went to the fullest of their abilities in order to follow through on their moral decision. Morality is not about outcome, nor is it about levels of activity. Morality is the ability to discern right and wrong and then choosing to do the right thing.