One of my favorite educational thinkers, Howard Gardner, says education should, at a minimum, provide students with a good understanding of three basic values: truth, goodness, and beauty. If we as a culture can agree that those values are important (and it’s by no means certain that we can), then it seems to me that there are a lot of people in leadership positions (in government and business) in this country that need to go back to school.
For the present, let’s talk about goodness.
Whether they realize it or not, all people who think at all about goodness eventually come to one of two conclusions:
1. Goodness is objective, consisting of universal principles that have an existence of their own—regardless of whether we choose to recognize or respond to them or not, or
2. Goodness is subjective, consisting only of impulses within the individual human mind.
At some point, we choose which of these positions to take, and that decision is the basis of all our moral reasoning.
I submit that morality resides in acknowledging that goodness is objective, not subjective.
Those who believe that goodness is objective—that some things are just inherently good or bad—conclude that goodness is rooted in doing what's best for others. They cultivate empathy, imagining how their decisions might impact others, and act accordingly.
Those who believe that goodness is subjective—that “good” and “bad” exist only in the mind of the actor or agent—conclude that goodness is rooted in culture and convenience. They act pragmatically, according to what they deem to be best for themselves, feeling obligated only to their own self interest.
From studies of the brain, we know that some people are born with more and some with less of a tendency to be empathetic—and, hence, to feel responsible for others. As in all human traits, there tend to be extremists at both ends of the spectrum. There are people whose tendencies toward empathy and compassion make it hard for them to set reasonable boundaries. They tend to be used by others and become “enablers.” At the other end of the spectrum are the true sociopaths—people who feel no empathy or compassion whatever. As is almost always the case with human traits, the “healthiest” position lies somewhere near the middle of the spectrum.
But here’s where moral reasoning comes in: The traits we’re born with are only tendencies. Our decisions consist not only of tendencies but also of choices. Furthermore, the choices we habitually make affect our tendencies (and actually, over time, change the structure and chemistry of the brain). We're not automatons, blindly acting without volition according to our genetic tendencies. We're people who can choose how to behave, even when those choices conflict with our natural tendencies.
This means that we can choose to act with moral responsibility toward others—even when we don’t tend to feel empathy or compassion. We can 1) deliberately cultivate a feeling of empathy or compassion by imagining ourselves in the position of the other, or 2) we can act in accordance with what reason tells us is right, even without feeling empathy or compassion.
This brings us to a subject that’s been very much n the news lately: torture.
I submit that, by any rational standard, torture is wrong. It doesn’t matter what the purpose or excuse may be—it’s wrong. It wouldn’t matter if it “worked” to produce valid information. (It doesn’t.) And it doesn’t matter who knew about it—however you choose to define “knowing about it.”
Deliberately terrorizing or causing extreme pain or discomfort to people who cannot defend themselves is torture. Torture is morally wrong, illegal, and antithetical to civilization. Those who torture are barbarians. Those who defend torture are evil and dangerous.
We must not allow anyone—Dick Cheney, his daughter, John Boehner, or anyone—to distract us from the essential facts: in the first decade of the 21st Century, the United States adopted a policy of depriving others (it makes no difference who) of their essential human rights, committing cruel, horrific, and despicable acts of torture.
It happened. There’s nothing to debate.
We can’t begin to recover our dignity, integrity, or moral stature as a country until we admit that and focus our public attention on making sure it can’t happen again.