Moral Complicity, Desert and Sympathy
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
Henry David Thoreau
There is no history. Everything that we are is eternally with us.
Despite being the sole species we know of that has record of questioning, “How ought I live my life?” and, “what is right and what is not right?” the human race has undoubtedly caused more suffering and death to itself and to other living things than any other species in known record of Earth’s existence. This is through a myriad of factors, but I would argue the main reasons are as follows: Firstly, that Man has the intelligence to create tools but not the nature necessary to thoroughly consider the ethics of his or her actions and then act according to his or her conscience. And secondly, throughout human history civilization has developed to benefit the ruling group specifically and humanity generally, rather than to exist on moral grounds – in other words, such suffering and death is a dual result of our inner nature and our habituation in society. Since the means became available civilization has always used countless non-human animals and human beings as raw labor sources; in the human example, either through slavery or something not far from it like chain-gangs, to either benefit itself (e.g. railroads, sanitation systems, etc.) or to aggrandize their rulers or culture in the cases of shrines to Gods (e.g. the pyramids, Aztec temples and other religious buildings and monuments).
This discrepancy between our cognitive nature of creating ought-claims unique in the animal kingdom, and the egotistical nature of our conditioning that is largely the same as the psychological concepts that are used to condition a dog, pigeon or laboratory rat is the defining bifurcation of the human condition and the essence of our guilt. We are the only creatures who realize we fail to live up to Kant’s Moral Law or any ethical code that requires us to act outside of our self-gratification. This is not to make a claim of psychological egoism, the notion that all people are selfish and only so, but rather the more nuanced and accurate claim of Arthur Schopenhauer – that most people most of the time act selfishly and have little concern for the consequences their pursuits of pleasures have on others.
This is clearly a problem on consequentialist grounds but also regarding other moral frameworks. One of the other main systems made by Man being Kantianism. Under Kantianism, the main goal of life is not to be happy but to be moral and through moral intentions in life become worthy of happiness. With the given description provided of humanity, it seems most of us fall short of this goal. However, I will conclude this paper by saying that the notion of Moral Desert, one of the few things Kant retains in Ancient Western Virtue Ethics, is both not workable logically and creates undesirable consequences in our world. However, before I can argue why Moral Desert, the notion that morally good people deserve happiness and bad people suffering, is unworkable, I will argue why it is significant. Namely through arguing the moral complicity of the entire human race to some degree of injustice and suffering.
Hannah Arendt, a famous American Political Theorist known for her works on Totalitarianism, wrote a paper exploring whether Eichmann, a man who organized the trains that led thousands of Jews to a grim fate should be found guilty and put to death. She found that such was the case because of the ghastliness of the crime. But this is a distinction grounded in personal preference and emotion, not logic. I contend that if Eichmann is guilty of something he did under strong coercion (with a metaphorical gun to his head) than certainly every grown man and woman is guilty of some crime of similar heinousness.
Every single man and woman has bought something that contributes to massive suffering, every single man and woman has bought something thoughtlessly which enriched a corporation which has unethical practices and every man and woman’s taxes go towards drone strikes and other evils performed by their governments. A consequentialist would say we are guilty not through our intentions but through the consequences of our actions. And yet there can be no effect without a cause, no consequence without an action and we act in such-and-such a way only because of our non-moral intentions. Every action done with intentionally by definition has an intent. It is the intention of self-gratification or self-benefit in some way that allows us to passively comply with what most know to be morally wrong. We think of ourselves and care nothing for the effects buying a diamond ring will have on the children in Africa either forced or paid very little for said diamonds.
This is the origin of Original Sin; which Schopenhauer contends is the only worthwhile concept portrayed in the Old Testament. We commit no crime upon birth and yet our very being is sinful; or is an affront to the Moral Law through not being motivated to uphold it. “We’re not evil because of the evil we do, but we do evil because we are evil.” Evil in Kantian terms only requiring a lack of obedience to the Moral Law – it does not require outright villainy or malice as most people think of it. Someone could argue we are only guilty of what we intend to do, but if guilt has anything to do with the consequences of our intentional actions, if it is a pragmatic concept that amounts to more than mere phenomenology, we must be guilty of not only what we do with deliberation but what is done thoughtlessly without malicious intent. For this has just as much of an impact on the world as what we consciously do with clear awareness of its myriad of effects on others. Far more so, because for every action that is down conscientiously and with careful deliberation, a thousand deeds are done absent-mindedly, quickly and simply for fleeting pleasure.
We have concluded that all are guilty, but is all guilt equivocal? If we are looking at the consequences of our deeds it would seem not. Not only who is to blame in terms of the effects of our actions but who is responsible in a legal sense. Who has been tasked to make the world better, and who fails at this task? If justice is left undone, is it the fault of God or Satan? Assuming they have equal powers, it seems a fool’s errand to blame Satan, the same way it is foolish to blame a rabid dog for biting someone. If rabid dogs exist, it is not of their own error, but of those tasked with eliminating the disease which ails them. The same way that if the disease of poverty or criminality exists, the fault is not in those suffering from these social diseases but instead with those tasked with destroying these ills – namely our representatives. We all take some share in the blame, for we are all capable of refusing to provide the finances to continue harm and instead demand better conditions for life and yet we fail to refuse out of fear of a jail cell. We fail to do what is right out of self-interest, and this is the most fundamental fact of nearly every human life that has ever lived.
In many cases, a man is eventually conditioned to destroy not only his integrity but his very life over this passive “self-interest.” What is the history of warfare if not nations of idiots and cowards killing themselves for causes of God and Patriotism that they were either stupid enough to believe or cowardly enough to submit to? This distinction leads towards an important one in terms of guilt of intentions but not of consequences.
Let us assume that the Death Penalty is unethical. Obviously, there is a myriad of opinions, but more Democrats are against it and more Republicans are in favor of it, so I’ll reflect these statistics inaccurately as absolutes for the sake of analogy. The Republican does nothing to end the Death Penalty. The Democrat also does nothing to end what he believes to be wrong. Who is morally guilty of perpetuating evil? Both in terms of failing to act but it seems in modern culture we suffer the illusion that a man should be judged for what he believes rather than whether he is true to what he believes. It is my contention as an Ethical Skeptic that all we can do and all is debate whether a person’s ought claims are in alignment with their actions. We cannot prove they are wrong, only that they are not proven. The Republican, assuming the Death Penalty is just, suffers from ignorance and so cannot be judged for not ending what he does see as an abomination. Just as you cannot be judged for saving the life of a man on a railroad tracks if it is what your conscience tells you to do despite the fact it may turn out that you should have let him die. The Democrat however, believes that it is unjust and yet does nothing in his or her life to stop it. This harkens to Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience which he wrote after spending a night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes. Many in theory do not condone slavery, he pointed out, but how many people are effectively against it in their actions? Quite a number fewer.
Indeed, there are three kinds of people in life and we are all of them. There are those whose deeds perform ill but they either do not know it or do not accept the known consequences as ill, there are those who are aware of illness and yet act not to prevent it but to further it for their own self-interest or self-gratification and there are those who act to end an ill despite what may come to them in return. As an Ethical Skeptic I will hold we cannot claim that we know what we ought to do, but I do believe we know what is of benefit and what is an ill to human and to non-human life. It would be a leap to say we ought to prevent ill, but not to say that human morality is constructed largely to prevent ill, and that our actions fail at the purpose of human-constructed morality largely because of the self-interested nature of the species I previously alluded to.
So then, according to the notion of Moral Desert, either no man or woman deserves happiness, or we must lower the bar of desert so low that we betray the concept of goodness to appease our substantive lack of it. This is a clear indicator that Moral Desert is unworkable in daily life, and to have a creed that is functional we must not ask ourselves, “what is a man owed?” but instead, “what does a man need?” Both morally and materially, which is reflected in Christianity, a religion that despite its numerous errors and inconsistencies purports that Man should be forgiven for the sins of its nature, and that all should be given what they need to live a good life, rather than receive what they have earned.
Some might contend that I am giving an alternative view of justice, but, I am arguing we must ignore justice and instead act on compassion. The prevailing understanding of justice being Rawls’ notion of ‘justice as fairness.’ A just world is a fair world. But then we are led to ask: what is fairness? It clearly would necessitate more than all transactions being voluntary, for this is one of the main point of contentions between him and Nozick. Instead, it seems what is fair is what is agreeable. That is, what I would desire for myself if I were put in the same situation, or at least this is what we gather from Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance thought experiment. But not only does this suffer from being attached to the whims of those performing the thought experiment, and therefore suffers from the same flaw as Kantianism, but it also is inevitably confined by the culture and values of those performing the thought experiment.
If I were a man living hundreds of years ago in a society starving whilst performing this thought experiment I would say, “if I were handicapped I would want to be able to survive although someone would need to take care of me. I would maybe get the smallest portion of food so would be often hungry but because so many are hungry who are able-bodied it is wrong of me to ask to be fed regularly.” Now a man who performs this thought experiment can easily reason, “if I were handicapped I would want to be able to afford a comfortable living despite being handicapped.” Largely because of modern agricultural technology it is presumed that one can be fed cheaply in a modern industrial nation. The culture and expectations have shifted because of the change in technology. So how are we to perform this thought experiment without the culture and expectations of the time and place we live in? Which is right if any?
I would argue that justice is a human passion and nothing more. It is the desire that the world be as it should be whatever that entails for the person feeling it. The fact that there are so many perceptions of justice shows either an incredibly large gap in reasoning, or that justice is not something that is grounded in reasoning but in feeling – the discrepancy instead coming from the differences in cultures, beliefs and perspectives seen the world over. If justice equates to what is fair and fairness equates to what a man is owed than as a sub-factor of Moral Desert, it has no logical grounding and produces more harm in society than benefit. And while justice and Moral Desert produce a litany of perspectives and problems not only intellectually but practically, compassion is incredibly simple and is the solution to having people act as they should if we want them to act in order to fulfill their moral sentiments rather than their egotistical ones and in doing so make the world a place with less suffering.
But how can we begin to create a society that sees every living thing as a mechanism that should be given what is necessary for it to function well and not as an autonomous soul that should be given what is owed to it? How can we not only change the nature of people, so they act according to the Moral Law of their consciences but also social institutions, so people can just as easily help a homeless person as they could purchase a cheeseburger? Social institutions will never change unless people demand it through non-compliance, and yet people seem likely to always comply with civilization through both their nature and how their nature has been conditioned. How can one person do what requires many and yet many will not do for it requires multitudes of individuals?
It begins by one person acting in a way that seems futile. One person alone cannot bring the change necessary to have a just world for all. It can only bring about through collective disobedience and non-corporation with evil. However, this is irrelevant for non-consequentialist schools of ethics. To do the right thing for a Kantian is to do what is right regardless of whether one’s self or the world profits from it. And for a consequentialist, although one person alone cannot change things, he can influence others to be a group to change things. And though we do not know if individual efforts will lead to collective efforts, or that the collective efforts will be effective, trying to achieve something is generally more successful in its desired aim than not trying to do something.
Thoreau writes that a minority that acts according to the will of the majority will never be free of their control over them. The same can be said of the majority obeying the dictates of the corporate elite – the smallest minority containing the greatest influence over government and economic institutions in human history. As long as humanity passively complies with the reality of injustice and preventable suffering, the majority will be autonomous as automatons. Automatons that believe they are in control of their lives as Spinoza’s rock believes he has free will. The poor are forced to sell their labor, their time, their lives, to stay alive and this suffering and servitude exists so numbers (earnings of the Mega-rich) with no real consequence with reality will stay high. I say no real consequence, because the people who are enriched by capitalism are already so wealthy that they possibly could not buy things according to their finances which are astronomical. But since the emotional states of the Mega-rich are most-likely attached to their finances, more so than to the lives of the people they ruin, it appears such numbers have some effect on the world.
I would like to summarize this essay by simply concluding the need for compassion the more wretched a thing is, rather than the less. Or, to steal from The Rolling Stones, what I advocate for above all else is sympathy for the Devil. A mistake of modern ethical discourse seems to be that if one has sympathy for someone than they agree with or are fond of them. Another mistake is holding that to have sympathy for a violent man is to ignore those he is violent against. This is not at all the case. One can have the deepest sympathy for a man who because of things inseparable from his being has violent outbursts and still has sympathy for those who he laid his hands upon. But if what I argued is true, and it is the case that the worst of all fates is fates of inner being that which we cannot escape from, then the man who is his whole life long a wretch and a scoundrel deserves more sympathy than the victim of the man but is not to the same extent as he a victim of life. We are all victims of life because we all suffer through living, but we do not all suffer to equal extents. Since sympathy is in relation to pain, whether psychological or physical, it is only logical that it should be felt in relation to the duration and extent the pain is felt.
To qualify whether a man is good as whether he deserves sympathy not only misunderstands the concept, it either creates a bar that either betrays the concept of goodness or that we all fall short of in some way – for in many ways every person alive and anyone who has ever lived has lacked consistent moral goodness. Every man, woman and child is a wretch, to various degrees to be sure. Every living person is selfish and apathetic to the concerns of someone and has had the opportunity to help others and has forsaken it and in doing so forsaken his or her fellow sufferers. Everyone is immoral but requires compassion not only despite their evil but because of it. I say require and not deserve because I have already argued that we should abandon the notion of desert. No one in this life “deserves” anything – good or ill. We are all thrust into life, some are handsome, some lack handsomeness, some are intelligent, others not. Who deserved any of this?
The sins of humanity can never be expunged from its collective existence, but it is not the proper aim of sympathy to undo this evil but to act despite it for the sake of the wretched – the suffering immoral masses of this world. Punishment does nothing but create either resentment in those punished or passive obedience to authority; it does not create genuine remorse that the person has done something wrong only that they are sorry they have the misfortune of being caught. A mistake they can easily rectify by killing witnesses to save themselves.
If we wish to be moral then we must act out of sympathy, despite the fact that regardless of any benefits we can provide to individuals humanity will not be saved materially nor morally because of humanities innate moral deficiencies. The material and even psychological (including intellectual) deficiencies of humanity could in theory all be corrected. Every man, woman and child be provided for and in turn be able to provide for society doing something of artistic, or practical or intellectual benefit. And while these incredibly unlikely things are imaginable, it is inconceivable that the moral deficiencies of the human race will ever be made to be as we wish them. From this we see why millions suffer though we have the knowledge and means for them to not suffer. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Perhaps no truer words ever were. And yet it is this crooked timber we are given. It is these lives, lives with not only countless physical and mental maladies, but moral sickness, we are given. Genuine moral goodness exists, but it will never be the modus operandi of humanity – and it is this and this fact alone which has made history what it is and will make it what it forever will be.
 25 Most Brutal Torture Techniques Ever Devised in History, https://list25.com/25-most-brutal-torture-techniques-ever-devised/; Earth Has Lost Half of its Wildlife in the Past Forty Years says WWF, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/29/earth-lost-50-wildlife-in-40-years-wwf
 Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis of Morality, 75-76.
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason.
 Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, 374-75.
 Arthur Schopenhauer, Collected Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer (On the Sufferings of the World), 214.
The Addiction (1995).
 Henry David Thoreau
 In other words, though Utilitarians make a leap in logic in saying that because everything valuable to us is someone or something’s happiness or freedom from pain that we ought to be happy or free from pain, they are correct in summarizing our moral preferences as thus. These preferences when directed towards others with no thought of benefit for ourselves (compassion) is correctly called morality, even while admitting to ethical skepticism, because despite not knowing what is right we know that compassion is grounded in intentions that are selfless while egoism is grounded in self-satisfaction. In other words, it is the nature of a compassionate, moral, or good will that has us call it morality without further explanation being needed. Just as no further explanation outside itself is necessary for a triangle’s angles always adding to 180 degrees. It is not the definition of the word just as compassion isn’t in all cases the definition of morality and yet when we think of the nature of the concept I argue this is what we discover.
 (Luke 6.37) Forgive others, and God will forgive you; (Proverbs 14:31) Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.
 John Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 1.
 Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis for Morality, 85.
 Immanuel Kant, Idea for a General History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose.