As the trash fire in my home country rages on, I’ve been thinking about morality.
Last week I read a novel set eight years after a flu pandemic killed 70% of the world population. The remaining population, at least in the United States, has concentrated in the cities, with a few scattered rural communities, leaving large areas of the country completely abandoned. A significant chunk of the book was dedicated to the author setting up the fact that one main character (Robert) is highly condemnatory of people who loot from the abandoned areas, followed by the revelation that another main character (Moira) had been one of the looters, as she made her way from the East Coast to the West Coast during the chaotic first wave. Robert is deeply disturbed by the fact that his friend and incipient sweetheart could ever have done such a bad thing.
Near the end of the book, as a second wave of the virus is taking hold, Robert gets into a situation which can only be solved by, yes, looting an deserted gas station, and has to rethink his rigid moral stance on the matter. Moira, to spare his sensibilities, even offers to leave cash on the counter … of a store that has obviously been abandoned for years.
This whole subplot just baffled the hell out of me, because it doesn’t track with my morality at all. I kept thinking, “Why would anyone care who is taking abandoned stuff?” It makes as little sense to me as the people who get angry at dumpster divers.
I then started really thinking about what drives my own moral sense, and realized that it involves a fairly complicated, and at least semi-conscious, process.
Subsequently I came to the theory that maybe there are two kinds of morality: top-down and bottom-up. There are people who trust and believe in societal rules (e.g. ‘looting is wrong’) that have been handed down to them, and then there are people who figure out ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ for themselves based on first principles. A quick google search demonstrates that this is not an entirely original idea. (Interesting aside: a lot of the current use of ‘top-down’ and bottom-up’ in the context of morality revolves around how to enable moral decisions by AI agents.)
Anyway, I am obviously the bottom-up sort. I suspect innate temperament to be heavily in play here, but my horrifically abusive childhood definitely primed me to distrust ‘authority’ and ‘rules’ from an early age.
All of this musing led to the even deeper question of what, exactly, are my first principles of morality? How do I decide whether any given thing is okay or not okay?
I’m not sure I have a complete answer to that yet, but I do have partial insight, including into an important way that my morality has shifted over the course of my adult life.
I’ll explain what I’m thinking in my next post, but in the meantime, I’d love it if some of you would think about this also. Is your morality top-down, bottom-up — or do you take issue with that construction? If you are building a moral sense from first principles, what are they? What questions do you ask yourself when you are deciding whether to approve or condemn an action?