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More Moral than You

Written by Tim Gier

One person, I’ll call her Rita, claims to be more moral than you because she believes that trees and flowers are the sort of thing to which we are morally obligated. Rita believes that trees and flowers have a right not to be killed. That is, she thinks it would always be wrong to unnecessarily kill a tree or a flower; if one were to kill a tree or a flower, one would be obliged to prove that one had no other choice. Rita believes that the lives of trees and flowers are just as important as the lives of all other living things.

But just in case Rita includes more things in the set of things to which she believes we have a moral obligation, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Rita is “more moral” than you. She may be mistaken in thinking that she (or anyone) has any such moral obligation to anyone – perhaps no one has a “right” not to be killed. Or, if it turns out that Rita does have moral obligations to some – if there are such things as rights – then Rita may mistakenly think that she has such obligations to those she actually doesn’t. If trees and flowers are not the sort of things that could have rights, then one who acts as if trees and flowers do have rights isn’t necessarily “more moral”; she may simply be mistaken.

Now, it could be that trees and flowers are due some sort of consideration, and that such consideration is a moral matter. For example, one might believe that to flourish and fare well would be good for trees and flowers, and that for one to live a moral life, one ought not to interfere with the flourishing and faring well of other living things, insofar as it is possible for one not to interfere. One might go further and say that for one to live a moral life, one ought to help others flourish and fare well when one can. On this view, what matters is what is good for living things, as far as life can be good for them. But still, others may not accept such beliefs.

Others may believe, because of the sorts of things that trees and flowers are, that no one ought to be concerned for them. That is, some may believe that trees and flowers aren’t the sort of thing about which anyone should have any direct moral concern at all. On this view, Rita would be mistaken to think that the lives and well-being of trees and flowers matters directly. The lives and well-being of trees and flowers only matter because they matter to and for some others. It would be to those others that Rita owes moral consideration, not to the trees and flowers themselves, according to this view. But this is not Rita’s view.

Rita’s view is that we have direct moral obligations to trees and flowers. Rita believe that trees and flowers have rights.

Just in case Rita claims to be more moral than you, as a result of her direct concern for trees and flowers, that doesn’t mean she actually is more moral than you. In fact, if Rita claims that some, such as trees and flowers, are due direct moral consideration when actually they are not due such consideration, then it would not be unlikely for Rita to act less morally than you. How would that be?

Rita would be acting less morally than you when she acts as if those that haven’t any rights do have rights. When we act as though something has a right, we make it the case that the interests of such a thing must be weighed equally against those of any other who also has such a right. But more than that, rights obligate some with respect to the interests of others in such a way that it doesn’t matter what else is the case, rights must not be violated. The rights of one act as a sort of line in the sand that others must not cross. If one has a right not to be killed, then everyone has an obligation not to kill it, no matter what.

So, if Rita thinks and acts as if trees and flowers have a right to life, then she will believe it wrong to kill a tree or a flower. Moreover, Rita will believe that it would be just as wrong to kill a tree or a flower as it would be to kill any other thing that has such a right. In a case where two rights-holders come into conflict, and the outcome cannot respect the rights of both, Rita could flip a coin to decide the case. When the rights of two are equal, then respecting the right of one is as good, morally, as respecting the right of the other. What this means is that, in a case in which either a flower or a human child was about to be killed, and in which case only Rita could save either and she could save only one, Rita would be acting morally should she choose to save a flower rather than save a human child. That’s because to Rita’s mind, flowers and humans each have an equal right not to be killed. Obviously, if Rita is mistaken about the rights of trees and flowers, then in any case of true conflict involving humans and trees or flowers, then Rita would be acting immorally when she chooses the lives of those that haven’t any rights over the lives of those that do. If trees and flowers haven’t any rights, then one is subject to acting immorally when one believes that they do.

Rather than it being the case that one is necessarily more moral than others when one claims that more rather than fewer things deserve moral consideration, the opposite may be true. To mistakenly claim that more rather than fewer things deserve moral consideration – that some have rights when they do not – may lead one to commit immoral acts. Making the set of things on which we bestow rights more inclusive may not be right at all; for someone to do so would not necessarily make them more moral than you.

tim gier

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The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines morality as;

The term “morality” can be used either

1. descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
    a. some other group, such as a religion, or
    b. accepted by an individual for her own behavior or

2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

If 'Rita' was acting in accordance with her own particular sense of morality, she would not necessarily be behaving immorally, although she may not be aligned with the particular generally held social ideas of morality.  Each person has differences in what they think and feel is moral, which is why people have different dietary habits. Different religions also have different views of what is moral which is changing and evolving constantly as societal values and sense of what is morally correct change.

I would suggest that the notion of who is more moral is dependent on whether or not somebody is acting in accordance with their sense of moral rightness.I would be more moral than you if, despite differences in our personal sense of morality, I adhered to mine and you did not.

Of course there are some universal notions of right and wrong, although they aren't necessarily all agreed globally at the same time. Witness for example attitudes towards women in India where the young student was brutally raped and thrown from a speeding bus and subsequently died. The ensuing public protests have demonstrated that social mores are in a process of change (thankfully) and one imagines that the frequency of violence towards women will fall as the law catches up. 20 years ago that would not have been the case. Social and individual morality is forever changing as we live and experience.

Most people know what the big moral questions are, they know it is immoral for example to be cruel towards children. Rather than ask the question about relative morality, I think the questions I'd be asking pertain to an abdication of responsibility by society in what they know to be wrong, because to do so would be too confronting to accepted lifestyle. As long as individuals consciously choose to stay ignorant about what really goes on in getting to their dinner plate then that in my opinion is the main moral issue. because it is something I hear regularly, 'don't tell me I don't want to know.'  And that is immoral.


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