Upon watching this whole TED Talk, I knew by the end that I disagreed with everything the speaker said. The second he began speaking about altruism, I knew I was out. I listened to the whole talk because I enjoy Australian accents and thought he might end up saying something useful or profound.
But what really got me was that he caught me with the hook. Watching the news report about the little girl in China who got ran over by two trucks, had multiple people walk by without offering assistance, and later died, struck me as abhorrent and awful. I assume it would most everybody. I initially thought yes, people should absolutely have tried to help this poor little girl.
But as the talk went on, it was the speaker’s correct parallel that drove me to rethink this initial reaction. He says, “does it really matter that you don’t have to walk around these children as you walk down your street?” Implying that your failure to help a child dying in front of your eyes implies the same level of “moral fiber” as does a failure to help a starving child on the other side of the world.
I found this to be completely accurate.
This led me to rethink my initial reaction because I, in fact, do not believe that I have a moral obligation to help every child in the world who is starving or who is at risk for catching malaria. So I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that I would not be morally obligated to help the little girl in that video if I were to come across her laying bloodied in the street.
I think I would help her. And I think that most people in that horrible situation probably would too. But I do not think it would be immoral not to.
To think that it would be immoral to not help her leads us down the dangerous path of moral altruism. Indeed, it leads to the very parallels and examples that the speaker gives. If the need of the little girl creates a moral obligation for you to help her, then the need of anyone and everyone across the world would create an equal claim.
And there is a lot of need out there.
To assert that the need of someone in front of you demands action on your part, but the need of someone around the street corner, or across the world doesn’t, is totally arbitrary. Is it a matter of distance? Age? Degree of need (who would determine that)? Is it something more archaic and distasteful like race or religion? Where is the line to be drawn? And why?
The problem is, morality can’t rightfully be arbitrary. It needs an objective standard of value. It is the measure by which we measure right and wrong. In an ethical sense, morality determines what can rightfully be defended or punished by others in society. You can ethically be punished for stealing or murdering because those two activities violate the objective moral principle of the human right of self-ownership.
Morality must be uniform and objective for the very reason that you can be punished for acting immorally. If it is not clearly defined with evidence, and in light of the objective reality of the human condition, then you are placed at the whims of arbitrary opinion. This has indeed been the case for most of human history. Humanity has had to endure anti-homosexuality laws, prohibition laws, racial discrimination laws, marriage laws, welfare states, etc. all because of a misunderstanding of morality. Of an arbitrary moral compass based on opinion rather than objective fact and reality.
When taken as a moral principle, altruism places the needs of others above the needs of yourself. If you are being true to altruism then you must give away everything you have, donate all your organs, and consequently kill yourself if you are to act morally. How can it be any other way? Under altruism the needs of others always trump your own.
Morality has to be black and white. Right and wrong. This is a necessity because acting immorally or unethically justifies the use of force against the actor. It is very dangerous to leave force up to arbitrary opinion. You need only look back on the 20th century to know that that is true.
If need is a moral claim, then all need everywhere and at all times is your moral responsibility to take care of by any means that you can. The obvious problem is that who judges what is a true “need” or which needs are greater than others? But forgetting that for a moment, I’ll concede that you can uniformly draw the “giving limit” line at your own death. Some altruists may try to take it further and draw the line at satisfying your own personal needs and that of your family before being morally obligated to help others’ needs.
But again, that leads us into the arbitrary trap. Who is to say what my family and I need to survive? The speaker brings up the example of drinking safe tap water instead of buying water bottles. But what if I don’t like the taste of my tap water? Should I endure discomfort (I’ll admit, relatively little discomfort compared to starvation) so I can fulfill the needs of others? Again we can’t get out of the web of arbitrary scales of value, wants, and needs.
The altruists now may say, “every person should give what they feel they can while still maintaining a comfortable lifestyle.” But the utter amount of subjectivity in that sentence throws any pretense of being a moral standard out the window. To reiterate, moral and ethical standards must be objective because to be immoral or unethical warrants justified punishment.
For the purposes of clarity, I have to say that I don’t see a difference between morality, ethics, and law. I am very far from a philosophy expert, but from what I have learned over the years it seems to me that laws are based on ethics, ethics are based on morality, and morality is based on the objective right and wrong that must govern man’s actions due to the objective realities of living among others on Earth. So if it is just that you can be punished for breaking the law then it must be just that you can be punished for acting immorally.
If you can’t justify a law for it, then you can’t justify it being immoral.
Need can’t be a moral claim because the comparison of one’s needs to another’s needs is subjective. What if the reason I didn’t stop to help the little girl was because my daughter was dying and I was rushing to tell her I love her one last time before she was gone forever? What if my daughter got hit by a car 100 feet from the little girl in the video and I ran by the first girl because I could only save one and I preferred to save my little girl? Who is to say which one is more important to me if not me? Should I really be punished for following my own conscious and doing what I think is right?
The answer is no. Other people’s needs have no moral claim on me. I own myself and true morality only dictates that I refrain from certain actions. To dictate positive action on the part of an individual is to make that individual a slave of others. That, in fact, is immoral.
So what governs our behavior in the little things in our everyday lives? Why shouldn’t we walk around public naked? Why would any normal person stop and help that little girl? Put simply, because of manners and selfishness. Because over the course of millennia standards of individual decency have evolved to make society function more smoothly, and make individuals better able to achieve happiness. And because we feel good when we help people, and bad when we don’t if the standard practices our parents taught us tell us we should.
I would help that little girl because I know she probably has a family and a future and I would feel awful if I didn’t. Not because I am obligated to, but because I feel compassion. If I didn’t choose to help her, however, no force can ethically be brought against me as punishment.
Morality is serious business. It’s what allows man to survive, live in societies, and find happiness. It has nothing to do with compassion. That importance is why we have to think deeply about it, and avoid initial, surface-level reactions. Our tool is our reason, and we must use that tool to interpret the world around us and determine what we need to do to lead a happy life in a society. In other words, we must use our reason to determine what is punishable and what is not–what is immoral and what is moral–based on the realities of our nature, our world, and our place within it.