Conscious of Conscience

My interest was piqued by Nick’s comment the other day which suggested rather intriguingly that people were creating a new conscience for themselves. Which to an extent implies that the old one wasn’t created by ourselves. But I digress.

The main thing about a social conscience is that it doesn’t exist. Or rather it is as slippery as a well oiled eel. Think of this, one of my favorite thought experiments.

Which is more important to you, a human life or a DVD?

The honest answer is almost certainly not the old testament version of morals that suggests that a human life is more valuable than all else. In reality we know that we might all happily buy a DVD for about fifteen pounds. And fifteen pounds can save a life in Africa. The simple logic of this shows us that while we might try and deny it, our moral compass doesn’t run as smoothly as we think.

The biggest mistake that economics ever made was trying to apply a model of rationality to the world. Humans simply aren’t rational they are actually rationalising. We as a group are very good at lying before the act, we will all suggest right up until we buy that DVD that we obviously care more about human life than DVDs and then we buy the DVD and rationalise the decision.

The question then is how is this different to murder? I’m not going to argue that you are murdering someone each time you buy a DVD that wouldn’t be right, it’s clearly manslaughter. But rather in the case of murder everyone agrees usually that killing somebody is wrong. Except actually we don’t feel that all of the time. In America you are allowed to kill people if they killed somebody first. But we also allow it in the UK because our army is allowed to go and kill people too. Obviously this uses a similar argument of self defence. And although I won’t disagree with you if you tell me that some wars are morally justified then hopefully you will see as I do the rationalisation that’s going on.

When we were looking at free will before, I threw in the example of us letting criminals off from murdering people because they plead insanity. The moral compass is especially confused here. We are saying that murder is bad, we have decided it is immoral. But we decided what is and isn’t moral ourselves. The murderers clearly thought it was justified morally. That the person deserved it. The only real thing that makes murder immoral is that there are more people who are not murderers than people who are. Sure there are lots of potential murderers, but murderers are against murder in general too, just not the one that they did – that one was justified – in their mind. But if we are able to make murder immoral because murderers are in the minority, surely that is also how we decide who is insane? They are people who do not act like the norm. The point being surely, if you decide to murder somebody surely you were insane anyway? So how can you plead insanity? Perhaps it is just our moral swirl sorting things out for us? I mean it works quite well really. It’s the ones who don’t think it was odd that they murdered somebody who we want to lock up – but can we say that that is moral?

Nick’s original point was about the environment. So I guess my point is this, while everyone thinks they like the environment, and says that they care about it (well not everyone but everyone who does) and they may even recycle, the biggest problem is that they just can’t stop themselves from consuming in the first place. We think we have a conscience, we think we have morals, but the actual morals we have are often very different than the morals we think we have.

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