Once upon a time there was a little girl who walked into a cottage, ate a bowl of porridge, broke a chair and slept in a stranger’s bed. Were these acts ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? Can we call her a ‘good’ or ‘evil’ child? Is it possible to use a child’s fairy tale to discuss questions of morality and ethics? Those of you who are aware of my interest in Goldilocks won’t be surprised to find that’s exactly what this post will attempt to do.
First of all, morality and ethics are not the same thing. Morality describes how people behave, what they do. We tend to believe people are either moral or immoral or, to put it a better way, we label their actions as right or wrong. Ethics is a branch of philosophy that studies moral conduct. It examines and proposes theories about the nature of right or wrong. This mostly consists of claiming there are a set of universal moral standards that can and should operate across time and through different cultures (in other words, morals are not based on opinion, feelings or fashion). This means, when Goldilocks entered the cottage unbidden, stole food and damaged property her actions, given the long held belief that stealing is wrong, were immoral.
On the other hand, some people claim there are no enduring moral standards; ideas about right and wrong should be based on context, they are relative to a specific time, place and culture. This is known as relativism and it means what is wrong in one time, place and set of circumstances, is acceptable in different circumstances. In this case we could assert that if Goldilocks was, for instance, a refugee and she went into the Bears’ cottage seeking food, comfort and safety, her behaviour was both right and good. There is also the ‘middle road’ where certain moral standards are accepted as universal but are selected and applied according to individual situations. In this case Goldilocks’ behaviour may breach accepted moral standards if she can demonstrate breaking the chair, for example, was an accident.
Moral standards are usually conceived and sanctioned by religious authorities, the law and public opinion, although one’s conscience also plays a big part in making moral decisions. The main goal of developing a set of moral standards is to ensure every member of society is happy and secure. We choose to behave morally, or otherwise, according to our motives, why we want to do something; how we achieve that goal, the means; the possible consequences of our actions and how we believe others will judge our behaviour. If we apply this to Goldilocks we could assume she was motivated by curiosity or, perhaps, by hunger. She didn’t exactly break in to the cottage, the door was unlocked, so maybe the means can be justified, but she did deprive the little bear of his breakfast and break his chair. The Bears’ growls certainly indicated the consequences of her actions upset them (although one wonders what would have happened if they’d let her sleep and once she awoke, helped her find her way home).
But what if you were one of the Bears, Baby Bear for instance? I am far from perfect; I believe none of us are perfect. This does not stop me, however, from feeling unsettled when forced to deal with another person’s moral indiscretion, particularly when they impact on me. I try my best not to judge others and I’m aware of the contradiction of failing to accept another’s imperfections while blithely countenancing my own, but if I were Baby Bear and my chair were broken, what would I do?
When issues such as this arise, I turn towards those wiser than me: usually the great philosophers. Plato was definitely not a relativist; he believed there were a set of objective, universal values regardless of individual circumstances, personal experience or changing conditions. If I were Baby Bear I believe Plato would tell me Goldilocks put her perceptions of the situation ahead of these universal truths and therefore her actions were wrong. Goldilocks, in this case, should have, for the good of all, ignored the needs of her body and overlooked her personal goals.
Aristotle might advise Goldilocks to use logic; following her desires is less important than being virtuous. There is, he believes, a middle path between logical thought and personal yearnings. He would have counselled moderation and suggested Goldilocks wait until the Bears arrived home, as logic dictated they would. Yes, all this is a bit simplistic, but to summarise: Plato believes moral behaviour is dictated by a set of clear cut eternal principles we can follow (although he agreed there are other, more personal sets of values that confuse us when we’re making moral decisions). For Aristotle moral behaviour was the result of reason or sound, logical judgement.
Back to my moral dilemma. If I judge another’s behaviour as immoral am I being authoritarian and shoring up a redundant set of moral beliefs that have held sway over numerous generations and across different cultures? If I condone the behaviour am I a relativist? What are the consequences of either position? If integrity means sticking to your moral values, is it appropriate for me to impose my moral standards on another person? How do we decide what is ‘right’ and why is it right? How do we decide a wrong has been done and what is the best way to react to wrong doing?
My parents weren’t religious; church and Sunday school was not part of my weekly routine when I was a child. They were, nevertheless, morally upright, reliable, trustworthy and generous people and they based this behaviour on one rule: ‘Do to another person only what you would like done to you.’ My father told me it was ‘The Golden Rule’ and said if I followed it I’d be okay.
Karen Armstrong has written numerous books about religion and God. Her Charter for Compassion builds on the Golden Rule, which I interpret to mean, ‘If what I do risks hurting another, then I will do my best to avoid that action, and I expect the other person will pay me the same courtesy.’
Ever since I was a little girl I have tried to follow my father’s advice. I have a steadfast commitment to fairness and equality for all of Earth’s creatures. As an adult I studied feminism which led me to studying different religions and spiritual traditions. In my later years I was drawn to philosophy. None of these studies contradicted the lesson I learned at my father’s knee but neither do they allow me to claim I am perfect or help me solve personal moral dilemmas.
My father’s lesson, my studies and my sixty plus years on the planet cannot stop me from feeling wronged and I am not immune from hurting others. When I am hurt, I want to ask, ‘Why would you do that to me?’ The answer might be, ‘Why not me?’ Why do I think I am I so special and can avoid being hurt? Other’s might tell me if my feelings are hurt that’s my problem, why let the actions of another bother me? It is impractical to expect everyone will treat me the way I would treat them, isn’t it? It’s not feasible to spend time with people who think and behave like me (although that’s, in fact, what all of us tend to do). On the other hand, maybe I am too trusting? But if I am, isn’t this because I want to be trusted?
What would Socrates have to say about this? He was a sceptic when it came to his own wisdom. He also believed asking questions like the ones above taught his students to think for themselves, rather than blindly accept the social and moral precepts of the day.
I think Socrates would encourage me to keep pondering. He’d ask me to think hard about why I am writing this post and the assumptions I’ve made about morality, ethics, my moral judgements and the actions of others. He’d insist I provide evidence for my reasoning, and I find alternative ways of looking at the issue. He’s right; despite what I have learned, the sum of my knowledge is limited although I try to do my best. If I condemn another’s actions, if I react with anger when another person fails to live up to what I now accept as my rather high moral standards, then I need to think harder about how I arrived at those moral values. I also need to show compassion to those who hurt me. On the other hand, if another person’s moral turpitude makes me miserable, then do I owe it to myself to at least address the issue? I can’t undo the past or control the future, but I have it in my power to prevent another’s actions from reflecting on, or hurting, me. But is that a selfish act?
Socrates is right, I need to think harder.
What do you think? Is there a place for moral relativism or is Plato right? Is there a middle ground, one that lets Goldilocks off the hook? Can Socrates’ endless questions help resolve my conundrum or should I, like Goldilocks, find myself a comfy bed, close my eyes and dream?