I take issue with casual life raft ethics. Of course, if you follow my blog, then you already know that I generally dislike reductionist thinking, whether in general, in society, or in advice given to authors. In fact, this was a major theme in my debut novel, Things Grak Hates.
For those of you who don’t know what I mean by “casual life raft ethics,” check out this list of moral dilemmas. While that’s just one such list filled with only a small sampling of this type of question, I think it provides a good set of examples.
While I understand that such dilemmas are simply meant to look at a portion of a larger issue from an intellectual (and generally academic) point of view, they all have the same, very real, side effect. Namely, they all teach reductionist thinking through implausible scenarios.
Of course, we can assume that this is not the intention of those who conceive such thought exercises. In fact, we can assume that their motives are purely altruistic. And yet, I would posit that those who conjure these ideas are falling prey to the same faulty thinking. In other words, the creators and purveyors of these dilemmas think in reductionist terms, and so produce reductionist ideas. And the cycle continues.
So why is this bad? Well, it isn’t always. In fact, reductionist thinking actually helps us in many situations. For example, if I’m faced with the dilemma of going to sleep at midnight or an hour later, I can reduce the question with relative ease and safety. I know that my body generally requires eight hours of sleep in order to function at its best. Of greater importance, my eyes and mind actually have problems if I sacrifice any part of that eight hours with regularity. Thus, I can remove emotion, whimsy, and immediate desires by reducing the situation to a bare state and analyzing the data from there.
But trouble arises as the dilemma grows in complexity. What if I need to stay up later in order to pick up a friend from the airport? But then again, what if I’ve been under the weather lately and could really use the extra sleep? But what if I also have a deadline that absolutely has to be done by tomorrow morning? And yet, what if I could ask for an extension on my deadline, enabling me to do better work tomorrow with a fresh mind?
Clearly, each additional detail increases the complexity of my decision. And yet, this is a fairly simple example where the stakes never rise very high. In real life, on the other hand, we’re often faced with even greater nuance, far more uncertainty, and much higher risk. In reality, we rarely find ourselves in a position where only two possible decisions can be made. We have much more freedom than that.
Which brings me to my point. Ethical dilemmas take a casual approach to real issues by asking us to make decisions based on a limited number of details. Of course, that poses no threat when employed solely for the purpose of studying about, or teaching on, aspects of human behavior. It’s when these casual ethics leak out into the real world and influence public decisions that we have problems. That’s when I take issue.
We can not hope to reduce complex societal matters down to simple reasoning and references. That approach pushes us into a limited view of life and deadens us to the unique attributes of each situation. When we train ourselves to think along those lines, we train a society that doesn’t truly care about morality. And since most ethical dilemmas place us in life and death situations, this ultimately trains us to care little for life itself.