common good

Many people, I would guess, believe that morality is largely a function of religion. I have often wondered if a scheme of morality could be developed that was independent of any particular religious tradition. In the fall of 2003 I published a paper in the Journal of Psychology and Theology in which I defined morality in terms of a mathematical decision making over two dimensions of time and persons. When decisions were made that took longer time periods into account and considered the consequences for a wider array of persons, my hypothesis was that the decision was more likely to be better. Since then, I would add two more dimensions – self vs. society, and pleasure vs. joy.

My model suggests that the best moral decisions would be those that promote the benefit of society more than the benefit of self, promote joy for self and others more than mere pleasure, benefit others in positive ways as much as one’s self, and provide more positive benefits and fewer negative outcomes in the long term even if near-term outcomes were less favorable.

Let’s consider the act of robbing someone of their money. This clearly benefits the thief more than the victim in the short run, even if it provides negative outcomes for both in the long run. It might provide the thief with a “rush” of pleasure and excitement in the short term while negating most positive affect for the victim in the short and long term. It benefits the thief more than society in the short run and can create mistrust and a demand for more taxes in the long run to counteract criminal activity (long term adverse outcomes for society).

As a positive example, consider farming. A farmer takes good seed that he could have eaten for short-term pleasure and he plants it, hoping for a far larger crop. If the crop is successful, he gains much more for himself and his family in the long run. The farm may provide enough food for many other people — a benefit for them and perhaps a joy for the farmer to be able to do good for so many. By helping society provide food for more citizens, the farmer is benefitting society as much as the farm.

I won’t say there is a 100 per cent association here, but if a person thinks about the consequences of their decisions in terms of others as much as self, in terms of the long-run as much or more than the short-run, of societal outcomes as well as those for the self, and in terms of gaining joy rather than pleasure, I suppose that the decision would be more moral than when a person thinks only of himself, in the short run, in terms of pleasure only, and with no regard for the consequences to society.  

Social incentives

Society has at least four incentives to motivate good behavior and discourage bad behavior – freedom, money, status and sex. What incentives or disincentives does society have to discourage robbery? While we may make exceptions for thieves who steal to get food to survive, generally we punish – inflict long term costs such as deprivation of freedom (i.e. jail) – on convicted robbers and stigmatize them (decrease their social status, e.g. take away voting rights in some cases). In jail, they may be deprived of sex or may be divorced by their spouse as well. They may be fined (direct loss of money) or indirectly fined through a decreased ability to obtain a high paying job after getting out of prison. In contrast, the successful farmer is more likely to be in a position to get married (and have sex), to be free to move about, to get higher social status, and, presumably, enough money to keep on farming and sustain the family.

My argument is that society, if it is to make sense and be sustainable, must incentivize moral decisions along the four dimensions, rewarding some and punishing others by differentially allocating sex, money, respect, and freedom. When people demand respect, sex, money, or freedom independently of their approaches to decision-making, I think any society will be in trouble if it acquiesces to such demands. The traditional approach, however mocked it may be, has been that “freedom isn’t free”, “there is no free lunch”, sexual activity is a privilege only for highly committed persons (i.e., in marriage), and “respect must be earned”.

The extreme form of liberalism would disagree, believing that everyone should have a guaranteed income even if they do not want to be employed, consensual sex should be nobody’s business regardless of commitment levels, equal respect should be given to all regardless of their contributions to society, and that everyone should be equally free (felons should not lose voting rights and people who cross national borders without legal passports should be treated no differently than those who pay for and obtain legitimate passports) regardless of their history of moral decision-making.

The empirical question, for which I do not presume to have an answer yet, would be whether adopting the extreme liberal view would eventually undermine moral decision-making and change the percentage of persons making decisions on the far ends of the four dimensions versus the percentage of those making decisions on the near ends of the same four dimensions. In other words, if I think I can have lots of sex without having to get married, why bother with commitment? If I can get income and food guarantees even without being employed, why worry with getting a job? If I can demand respect for no reason at all, why try to work at hard things in order to get more respect? If I can get what I want by sneaking into another country without paying for a passport, why go to the bother and cost in terms of time and money of obtaining a passport?

Perhaps I am wrong and none of these things matter at all. Since I am posing these ideas as hypotheticals rather than something I have proven scientifically, let’s everyone have at them, whether they make sense or do not make any sense to you from your own perspectives – and thanks in advance for your views.

Dr Walter Schumm is a Professor of Family Studies in the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University.