Universal morality

The Economic Times has the Cosmic Uplink column nearly every day, and the Times of India has its Speaking Tree. Both columns deal with theology, philosophy and science as it relates to the mind. Most of the time, they contain absolute nonsense masquerading as profundity. But some of the columns do make you think. There were two interesting columns this week which I made a mental note of because I wanted to think and later write about them.

The first one, by Jug Suraiya, talks about the Aamir Khan-starrer Ghajini and the English film it is “inspired” from – Memento. Suraiya writes-

Cinematic and narrational gimmicks apart, `Memento’ contained a philosophical and ethical message at its core. If our memory is taken away from us so also is our moral responsibility for our actions. The protagonist in the film was being manipulated by conspirators who wanted to use him as the perfect instrument of murder, in that – having no memory of the crime – he could not later feel any remorse which might prompt him to confess to the deed.

To add a further twist – both to the plot and to the moral question mark that it poses – there is ambiguity as to whether the exploited amnesiac is in fact exploiting the situation so as to make the most of his memory-free state and achieve a godlike – or devil-like – transcendence above and beyond the duality of good and evil.

Is our sense of morality rooted in memory, and if we erase memory do we erase morality along with it? This is the disturbing question raised by `Memento’ – though not, apparently, by `Ghajini’. `Memento’ questions not just the concept of a moral self but also the concept of a continuous moral identity – an ‘I’ – which is responsible for its past actions.

It is memory which gives us a sense of our ‘selves’ and of our obligation to own responsibility for the actions performed by those selves. But, in the Indic tradition, isn’t the ‘self’, along with its ‘memories’ nothing but illusion? Indeed it is. But it is an illusion subject to the law of karma, that spiritual DNA which inextricably binds us to our past deeds. Memento is karma by any other name.

I very nearly put this piece in the “what nonsense” bin till what Suraiya was pointing out hit me.

I don’t think many people will dispute the theory that “a man is what his mind is.” If you lose your mind, you no longer exist – the body is just an empty shell kept alive by that part of the brain which deals with involuntary functions. What is the mind? It is the term we use to describe the center where the faculty of reason – the one which judges and analyzes – is located. Now reasoning is impossible without memory. To reason, you need to have access to prior knowledge which you use to come to conclusions. And this knowledge is a result of a continuous process of concept formation. No matter what some philosophers (like Kant) say, humans are not born with “some” concepts built in. We have to develop all of them, including the ones related to morality. Even context-less “moral codes” like that of God, or in Kant’s case, the “Categorical Imperative”, require reasoning for their application.

A simple example. A man stands in front of you. He has not harmed you in any way and poses no threat to you. Is killing him right or wrong? The answer is very simple – wrong. But what if you ask the same question to a six month old baby? What will it “say”? Nothing coherent – its reasoning abilities are yet to develop and so it won’t understand a single word of what you say. What about a man who has suffered extensive brain damage as a result of a stroke, or someone who is mentally retarded? Again, they have either lost their reasoning abilities or never developed them in the first place. Reason and memory go together, and if that part of the brain which is responsible for memory – both long term and short term – is damaged, reasoning will never develop, or will be damaged.

In the case Suraiya refers to, Memento’s protagonist suffers from a condition where he cannot remember anything beyond fifteen or so minutes – his ability to create concepts, or rely on existing knowledge, is not damaged, but his ability to store knowledge or information for later retrieval is. In that sense, if his memory goes, so does his moral responsibility related to such memory; morality does disappear with memory. But the fact remains that Shelby has access to concepts created before he suffered a head injury, and that includes knowledge of right and wrong regarding acts like killing someone. So if he kills someone he is perfectly aware that “killing an innocent person is wrong” but sometime later, even though awareness of the “concept” remains, he has no knowledge of the “fact” that he killed someone; you cannot be held [morally] responsible for something you don’t know you did.

The last para of his piece however, the reference to Maya, is pure nonsense; the self is no “illusion.”

The second piece is by Mukul Sharma, and it deals with the problem of a universal morality. He writes-

The problem with trying to describe a universal morality is that differences in cultural traditions and customs filter down through social groups to ultimately operate in individuals. Thus, while in one part of the world honour killings may be sanctioned as morally advisable, in other places it’s still murder. The same sort of questions even influence scientific research when the government of one country bans foetal stem cell research and another pushes for it. This notion of everyone having a different idea of good and bad, called moral relativism, is now being questioned by some scientists who feel they may be close to discovering a common basis for it.

Six months back, I wrote a post on it wherein I essentially said that a universal (or objective) moral law does not exist, and I had a lengthy debate on it as well. You can read all of it here.

When I say that there is no universal moral law, I don’t advocate moral relativism – the theory that one can never have an opinion on the goodness or badness of a particular action, but a “form” of moral subjectivism – what is moral or immoral depends on the subject (my definitions and Sharma’s definitions seem to differ; that’s why I put the definition here instead of relying on the phrase). What I mean is that morality is something that depends on your choice of metaphysics (nature of reality) and epistemology (theory of knowledge and its acquisition). If you believe in an objective reality – that reality, and the universe, are something that exist independent of your consciousness; and in the theory that effects always follow causes – there are no causeless effects; and that reason is the only way you can make sense of anything; then your moral standards will be influenced by them. If you believe everything is an illusion and anything can happen anywhere and at anytime based on the whims and fancies of some supernatural entity or that everything is predetermined or that what is moral is what God says it is and so on – then again, your moral standards will show the influence of such beliefs. The first choice will probably lead to ethical egoism; the second will necessarily lead to a moral code that is external to yourself – a God given one probably, or at the very extreme, to a rejection of all codes (if everything is an illusion, why have a code?)

An objective morality can exist within the context of your choice of moral code, but not without – there can be no code that is applicable to all humans at all times irrespective of whether they accept it or not. K.M. wrote a post last month saying that an absolute (universal and objective) moral standard does exist and he said the same thing in the debate I refer to. It would seem that both positions are diametrically opposite to each other, but it is not the case if you consider the context for his position to be man’s life. Someone can devise a moral code that pays no attention to man’s nature or the problems surrounding the sustenance of life. It may or may not work. People may or may not accept it. But it would still be a moral code. As I said, a complete discussion can be found here.

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  • K. M.  On January 13, 2009 at 12:39 am

    The difference between your position and mine is quite subtle. So I thought it would be good to clarify my position.

    First my definition of morality:
    Morality is a guide for making choices to achieve some purpose(s)

    A purpose implies certain values.
    No values are possible without life (without a valuer)
    Therefore life is an ultimate purpose – an end in itself

    These are facts whether one accepts them or not. A person who does not accept these may have a morality that does not hold life as the ultimate purpose. But his beliefs do not change the facts. Yes, his beliefs do form a moral code, but a flawed one.

    Consider an analogy. There was a theory that the sun moved around the earth and the theory now is that the earth moves around the sun. Both are theories, but only one of them is true. I hold the same position on morality. There are true moral principles based on the nature of man (including free will) and the nature of reality and they can be discovered. The fact that someone may formulate false moral principles does not change the fact that morality is absolute.

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