Dear fellow Americans,
Stop it, just stop. I implore you to take a moment from this world of instant gratification we live in to stop and really think about a few things. Since the presidential election, not to mention the campaigns, the scandals, and all of the organized chaos we Americans have dealt with in the past few years, it’s become glaringly obvious we need to sit down, shut up, and get back to basics. Our founding fathers are likely rolling in their graves. Currently, there are more people tuning in for Mama June’s new TV show than there are those actually taking a stand for humanity. Americans are far more interested in the Kardashians’ drama and gossip than pitching in and helping out our own veterans or the hungry children in our country. Everyone’s heads are so far up their own asses that they can’t see the type of culture, and reality, they’re creating for future generations. These behaviors and decisions affects those beyond our borders as well, the innocent children in Syria, the state of health for those people and animals near Fukushima, the people suffering as a result of the melting polar ice caps or the unrest in the war-torn Middle East, the dwindling bee population… I digress, while all of these issues are important and worthy of serious discussion to find workable solutions, my focus is on Americans. Let’s get back to the basics.
Years ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a Harvard University class taught via the edX platform: Justice with Michael Sandel. This course covered moral and ethical philosophy; we studied philosophers across the board and asked deep questions, spawning an even deeper debate. Throughout the class, we studied the “Golden Rule” of philosophy; that is, ‘treat others how you wish to be treated’. It is categorically imperative that we treat other humans with… get this… humanity. Immanuel Kant said, “Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature“.1 We were hopefully all taught the “Golden Rule” as children. This rule is mentioned by multiple philosophers and in many religions. While Kant dances along with deontological theory due to his concern with duty, this rule applies to most types of moral philosophy… even pagans and atheists. Let’s dive down this rabbit hole further, shall we?
Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is typically defined as regard for the wellbeing of living things: animals, humans, etc. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham founded utilitarianism with ideas and thoughts stemming from consequentialism (where the consequences of actions are the defining standard of right and wrong). While consequentialism doesn’t hold enough weight, in my opinion, to stand on it’s own in modern times, it’s easy to see and recognize the truths involved. This is exactly what Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and several other philosophers have done. Utilitarianism however, unlike consequentialism and egoism, considers all interests equally. Kant said, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end”.2 Now, there’s plenty of room for debate on this – do we obey and enforce the rules with which we maximize utility? Should our actions be based on results or consequences? America, these days, has some of this working thought process, but it also exhibits a whole lot of hedonistic patterns, a bastardized version of utilitarianism. Just as Aristotle and Aristippus thought before, Americans today view happiness as the only good. Uhm, hypocritical much, America? This type of behavior is only getting in the way of your happiness. Lets consider an example: bullying. Does bullying really increase the bullies’ happiness? In reality, selfishness and self-serving behavior eventually just get in the way of one’s ability to achieve personal happiness. We live in a world that prizes instant gratification and selfishness. Naturally, it appears that maximizing our own happiness is the only good, but we don’t even realize we’re also self-sabotaging. All of the negativity and bemoaning every little thing is hampering our ability to see the big picture and recognize what is really important. The law of attraction is real, and it just really sucks to see fellow citizens of the world continue to manifest negative events, poking and prodding the proverbial bear, just for some instant gratification or attention. For example, Tomi Lahren is constantly pinpointing and calling people out for being ‘snowflakes’, acknowledging and berating them for complaining… but wait… all she does is complain. America – this hypocritical stuff has got to stop, it just makes us look like a spoiled, rotten, little brat without manners or any sort of proper upbringing. It’s time we took a step back because our current course is clearly not working. Utilitarianism has been applied to all sorts of social humanity, from the crisis of global poverty, to social welfare economics, to the ethical treatment and raising of animals for food. We’ve gone off track though, in an effort to minimize the risks to humanity via utilitarianism; it’s gone askew and morphed into such a selfish culture. Stop shooting yourselves in the foot.
Veil of Ignorance. Philosopher John Rawls founded this method to determine morality, especially in regard to justice and political issues. Listen up, America. Rawls stated, “No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like”.3 This train of thought is specifically meant to strip away the preconceived notion or idea that personal thoughts and outlooks are ultimately irrelevant when it comes to justice, or conversely injustice, of principles. If we could all place ourselves behind the veil of ignorance, our objective outcomes would be to make choices based upon moral considerations, rather than our own self or class-interests. Politicians and lobbyists… are you listening? Spencer J Maxcy outlined this concept in his book, Ethical School Leadership. He writes, “Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today’s society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings”.4 Now, doesn’t that seem like it could revolutionize modern day society all over again? If only people could take a step back and look at the big picture. Yes, I thought so too.
The trolley problem. Settle in for the next little bit, we’re about to dive deeper down this rabbit hole. Dipping into neuroethics and cognitive science, let’s take a moment to delve into the trolley problem. Imagine there’s a runaway trolley… it’s barreling down the tracks and has no breaks to stop, and you’re the conductor. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and completely unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. Inside the cab you have a lever, if you pull it the trolley will switch tracks. However, on the set of tracks the trolley will switch to if the lever is pulled, there is one person on the track. In this scenario you have two options. 1. Do nothing, the trolley continues on the main track, killing all five people. 2. Pull the lever and divert the trolley to the side track, killing the one person. What’s the most ethical choice? Touching briefly again on utilitarianism – that philosophy would dictate that killing the one over the five would be the most ethical choice. However, the converse thinking dictates that since a moral wrong is already going to take place, taking action to divert the trolley to kill the one rather than the five then places you an active participant in the moral-wrong scenario; thus making you partially responsible for the death when otherwise you would bear none the responsibility. Some concepts of moral obligation note that just being present in this situation with the option to make a decision that would affect the outcome, obligating you to act. Choosing to take no action would be an immoral act, if you value five lives more than one. There are multiple variations of this problem, with a variety of scenarios… organ transplant, the villain loop, and large man on a bridge. Each of these creates a new and deeper level of thought. What would you do? How much of your day-to-day life would be different if you considered all the angles, even the unpleasant ones, before you made decisions? Do you think our politicians could benefit from such conversations or considerations?
Modern day observations. Oh, America. How did we get so off track? In my opinion, the two major political parties. To me, they represent thought patterns and differing philosophical categories. They both dance among the blurred lines of modern philosophy and the way culture has evolved. The Democratic Party, mostly taking a utilitarian view, believe they should achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, the good of the public should come before the good of the private, and that possible harm to a few is justified for the greater good of the majority. Thus, the ends justify the means. The Republican Party, mostly taking a deontological view, idealizes it’s moral obligation, arguing that one’s own actions should take precedence over outcomes (or ends), rejecting acts that would harm a few for the greater good of the majority (though both parties flit in and out of this idea), opposing utilitarianism, and generally adopting a “do what is right, though the world should perish” mentality. Somewhere along the way, the concept of perfect duty and basic humanity has been lost. America, we’re known for our freedom, the freedom that many brave men and women sacrificed their lives for, the freedom that many brave souls still defend. Freedom – it must have an objective end. Most ends, especially today, are subjective. They’re subjective because we generally only pursue them if there’s some sort of hypothetical imperative we choose to adopt. Here’s where it gets deep… for the end to be objective, thus free, we must categorically pursue it. Rational actions must set before themselves as principles and also as an ends. To turn around and treat an end subjectively, is to deny it the possibilities of freedom, generally speaking. Immanuel Kant said, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end”.5 Rational actions stem from free will, autonomous will is the only source of moral action and thereby contradicts the basis claim that a person is merely a means to some other end, rather than a means in and of themselves. Still with me? By combining these formulations, we can recognize that we have a perfect duty not to use humanity or themselves as a means to some other end. I could continue down this route, delving further into autonomy and heteronomy, but it’d just be an even longer winded way of saying that the categorical imperative requires autonomy. There’s not really any wiggle room. Not just that you hold others to a certain standard or require something of them, but also that you hold yourself to the same requirements and standards.
Inalienable rights. These are fundamental rights we hold that cannot be taken away, denied, transferred, or stripped from us. John Locke stated in his book, The Two Treatises on Government, that “reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who would but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions”.6 Locke brought to light and encapsulated a rule of law: “have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man”.7 While portions of this notion seem archaic in modern times, the fundamental foundation still holds solid. He defended the ancient tradition that rulers or government cannot, in fact, do anything they please because there are still moral laws that apply to everyone. Now, before the Marxists get all up in arms, allow me to clarify. Locke, in his statement, “All mankind… being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions / property”.8 This was not a statement inferring value of property, but rather basis of ownership. That we, as humans, are our own property, our own basis of ownership in ourselves. It is essential for liberty that, “every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his”.9 Locke continues, “the great and chief end therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the Preservation of their Property”.10 Voltaire also touched on inalienable rights saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”.11 There are natural and legal rights/laws. The natural laws are inalienable, to which every human being holds a right. Legal rights are those bestowed by a given legal system. Voltaire stated the first natural law, “What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature”.12 Why is this such a hard concept to follow today? Everyone is so quick to assume that everything is offensive, that everything is a personal attack on one another. This mentality that’s sadly becoming standard is flat out wrong. This false sense of entitlement society has adopted is only complicating things further, fueling the hate-fire, and it is absurdly self-deprecating.
In closing, America, the rest of the world… let’s really look at things. Let’s step behind the veil of ignorance and see what we can do to create solutions, rather than continuing on self-sabotaging path we’re headed down. I can assure you that when John Locke talked about an explicit right to revolution – he didn’t mean to run around willy-nilly killing and tearing one another down, thus infringing on each individual’s own natural rights. Locke said, “whenever the legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge”, Locke continues to explain, “Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; By this breach of trust they forfeit the power, the people had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty”.13 Again, this does not give you or anybody else carte blanche power to destroy one another or to carry out hate-filled acts of violence, or infringe upon the natural rights that each one of us have. America, stop with the stupid clown crap, knock it off with the violent protests that get people, be it civilians or law enforcement, killed. Stop the needless violence; stop the hate. It’s time we rise up and go about things the moral and ethical way. It’s time for actual solutions, not empty and unfounded selfish desire or pursuit of a personal agenda. Sit down, shut up, and act like an adult. Your narcissism is showing, just stop.
About the author:
MorganBallou, an Oklahoma native currently residing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Currently employed at NALS… the association for legal professionals, as the Corporate Sponsorship & Member Services Manager. I am a student of life, multiple certificate holder, and most recently a HBX CORe graduate. Next steps in life involve LSAT preparation and plans to apply to HBX Negotiation Mastery.