Saturday, August 7, 2010

And yet more moral perspective

If we reconsider moral perspective we should notice a problem. Here it is. With visual perspective, everyone sees the same thing from the same perspective. Consider the fox and rabbit illusion from my earlier post. Stand in the first place and you see a fox chasing a rabbit. Stand in the second and you see a fox and rabbit running together. If you don’t see the same thing as everyone else, there is something wrong with your eyes.

When we unthinkingly bring that same concept with us to moral situations we bring an error with us. Just as human beings don’t snap the way popsicle sticks do, we don’t see things the same way as others by “putting ourselves in their place”.

And that is the odd presumption here that we ought to put ourselves on guard against. Anytime someone says, “Try and see things from their perspective,” or “Walk a mile in their shoes,” the unspoken assumption is that you will have more sympathy for the person in question. The assumption is that moral perspective works more or less like visual perspective. Put yourself thin “their” position and you will see things more or less the way they do.

It is certainly true that Jane might have more sympathy for me if she tried to imagine things from my perspective. But it is equally possible that she will have the reverse reaction. She might end up concluding as follows: 
I always knew Jules was a weakling but I had no idea how easy he really has it. The man is deluded fool living an illusion where he feels sorry for himself because he imagines his life is so hard but he really has it much easier than most people. He is just a spoiled brat.
Not only might she make this judgment, she might very well be right in making it.

And we know this even if we forget it under the spell of language. No one seriously imagines that we might see things differently if we saw them from the rapist’s viewpoint. We know that the rapist judges wrongly and putting ourselves in his shoes will not change that.

No matter what we do, we have to do it from a moral perspective we believe to be authoritative. I can try and imagine what it would be like to be in someone else’s situation but the moral perspective I will see it from will still be my own. It would quite literally be a betrayal of everything I believe in to do otherwise.

1 comment:

  1. "Anytime someone says, “Try and see things from their perspective,” or “Walk a mile in their shoes,” the unspoken assumption is that you will have more sympathy for the person in question."

    Maybe just a better understanding of the person in question? Its not to excuse what they've done (if they've done something wrong), but perhaps be less angry with them, which benefits us more than them in the long run, or even to--dare I say it--help them? Its interesting that you mention the rapist. The criminal justice system in the US has been predicated on the notion of retribution for a long time now. I don't know when it began, but obviously after the Quakers started the first penitentaries (places to do penance) for criminals. By contrast, Canada has had a system of rehabilitative justice. Guess which country has lower reoffense rates?

    I watched "Murder on the Orient Express" a few weeks ago on Masterpiece Mystery. This was a remake of the movie that came out in the '70s, and much better I might add and more faithful to the Agatha Christie novel, and it delineates the ethical conundrum much better than the movie. At the end Hercule Poirot walks away in tears clutching his rosary beads. He's crying because all of the moral certainty he thought he had was shot to shit by 12 people on the Calais Coach.