3 Moral Misconceptions
Tauriq Moosa is a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently pursuing a Masters degree at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. He has published essays and articles on practical ethics, focusing on subjects like free expression, killing, sex, and religion in public life. He debated religion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the BBC documentary, the Tutu Talks, and has been featured on local radio shows. He is also an avid comic book writer and reader.
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When discussing moral matters, there are often misconceptions many of us espouse. To gain greater understanding on ethical topics, of your own and your opponents’ views, it’s important to correct several common “moral” misconceptions. Whether these are “directly” moral or related to just clear thinking, I regularly see these coming up in various debates. Here’s my attempt to untangle some of them. (I've discussed some before on the blog.)
1. “All criminals (or people found to have committed a crime) are bad people.”
Theft is a crime. If someone steals – without violence – to help feed his family, does this make him a bad person? I think in many cases, most of us would say no. I’ve frequently argued that people who have been found to have committed a crime – such as consensual incest, blaspheming on Twitter, helping patients with BIID by surgically removing healthy limbs – do not deserve scorn, let alone jail-time.
This doesn’t mean all criminals, since there are of course individuals who deserve our distrust and scorn, such as murderous gunmen. But we must avoid absolutist statements, such as “all” or “every”. (Furthermore, even if the crime itself is one worth hating, the criminal could be later proven innocent.)
Therefore, this misconception cannot hold: it’s too absolutist and ignores another problem…
2. “Legal means right: illegal means wrong”
This is too easy to undermine: South Africa had laws limiting the freedoms of non-whites, Saudi Arabia has restrictions on women’s rights (women still aren’t permitted to drive, though soon, they’ll maybe, probably vote), etc. And there are still more benign idiotic laws in existence (but I would urge readers to distrust many of those websites, chain-letters and assertions unless they are links to official legal documents). Thus, laws can be incorrect or morally wrong like those against gay marriage or miscegenation.
Laws don’t equate to morality, though they often do. Thus, someone who is charged for sitting where she’s not allowed to may be breaking the law – and therefore may be a criminal (as per #1) – but that doesn’t mean she’s done something wrong. This makes the law wrong.
Thus we should be careful when thinking something is wrong merely because it’s illegal. Like #1, there may be plenty of good laws but that doesn’t mean all laws align themselves rationally with morality.
3. "Because one criticised arguments for x, you must be against x/because you criticise arguments against x, you must be for x."
For example, when I posed whether incest or necrophilia was wrong, I engaged with arguments that asserted the affirmative. I showed, as best I could, why I thought these arguments mistaken for claiming necrophilia and incest to be wrong. Does this mean I think more people should be sleeping with their siblings or corpses? No: it simply means that arguments posed against such acts are wanting.
There might be good arguments for why these acts really are wrong (or right and to be encouraged), but we must be able to at least draw lines in the sand to focus on what we’re doing: in those posts, I was mainly attempting to counter common arguments against these acts. Maybe there are good arguments I haven’t encountered and I’m open to being wrong: but the arguments I dealt with in those posts, I found wanting.
Another example that might help clarify this is to think of equality. I find many arguments in favour of human equality, such as appeals to spirituality or god or something called “innate humanity”, to be lacking. Does that mean I think certain races are “better” than others, certain sexes more deserving than others? No, because those are even more flawed.
FORTHCOMING: More moral misconceptions...
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