Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The "Cost" of Morality in Society

One of the interesting aspects of how society has developed involves the apparent evolution of morality and its role in society. It would be reasonable to conclude that the formation of an individual’s moral beliefs is mostly derived from two sources. First, as a child, individual morality is heavily influenced by parents along with the culture/traditions of their environment. Second, as the child grows the influence of these initial defining factors can increase or decrease as life experience supports or challenges those original beliefs. Therefore, an individual’s morality is largely defined by the morals of parents/community and how life experiences interact with those initial drivers.

While some may argue the finer points, humans like to believe that they reside in a society built upon the idea of a meritocracy in that an individual can become successful regardless of upbringing or circumstance by simply working hard and/or smart. However, for such a belief to represent reality instead of one’s mere false perception of reality, society must adhere to a specific set of rules to ensure that this ideal is met. Thus, the development and administration of morals for a particular society is different than that of those who comprise society because there cannot be variance in their application. Basically society must have one set of rules that is enforced universally for the idea of a meritocracy-based society to have any level of validity. Note that this condition is not the only element that is required to establish a legitimate meritocracy, but is only one of the numerous conditions that are required.

Unfortunately the law itself does not singularly define morality in a society because those who comprise society directly influence the law, both in its development and enforcement. With this in mind it is important to understand how individuals react to violations of the law, i.e. the moral code of society. This understanding can be difficult because of mischaracterizations of interpretation. For example one of the most famous “moral” structures is The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. However, nowhere within The Golden Rule does it actually say that one must or even should be altruistic or fair to others. If an individual does not care about the prospect of being screwed over in his/her relationships and interactions, then that person can screw people over as many times as he/she wants and still be in accordance with The Golden Rule. The quid pro quo nature of The Golden Rule demonstrates a murky issue regarding morality in society.

Another critical component of The Golden Rule is the idea of reciprocation. Negative actions are only relevant to The Golden Rule if another party can act in response to the pronounced negative action. Basically Person A is free to screw over anyone he/she wants if no one is able to retaliate. This realization is critical to the very notion of justice. For there to be justice an entity must exist that produces a certain morality and has the power to enforce that morality. In a society that entity is society itself, so when society has a fractured morality the ability to execute justice becomes more difficult and less certain. Therefore, it is important to ask how society responds to immorality in society.

When the public concludes that an individual has committed an immoral act(s), a vast majority of the time that individual responds in one of three ways. First, the individual acknowledges the immoral nature of the action, apologizes for it and commonly professes to be more vigilant in the future regarding these types of issues. Interestingly enough the public seems amazingly forgiving, especially to those in power be it benign power like celebrities or real power like politicians. Such forgiveness might be misplaced based on how aware the offender was to the original immorality of the action for rarely are immoral actions that demand a public apology to society “mistakes”. Sometimes the individual in question really is genuinely sorry and does live up to their vigilance pledge while other times they are not genuine and are simply attempting to minimize the detriment associated with their malfeasance.

Second, the individual holds steadfast to the idea that the action is not immoral and either ignores the characterization or tries to explain the action based on his/her analysis of the action and the motivations behind it. This action typically generates polarization between those who agree with the explanation or support the individual in general versus those who do not because they believe that the action is immoral and due to the lack of acknowledgment of its immorality the action will more than likely be repeated. Sadly this decision appears to be the most commonly selected among the three because the individual recognizes this split, which limits the power available to impose consequences on the individual for the action. Basically instead of admitting to doing something wrong the individual claims to have done nothing wrong.

Third, the individual defends the action by citing similar or worse actions that have been taken by other individuals in the past, making an effort to limit the “severity” of their violation. This strategy is commonly used by politicians and their defenders and sometimes falls under the understanding of “it’s not a big deal because everybody does it”; yet this strategy is inherently counterproductive and foolish. The main problem with this strategy is that the initial action is never actually justified or explained in a moral context; also the action is indirectly confirmed using “hypothetical” preambles like, “even if I did it…” Why would one attempt to lessen the presumed severity of an action if one did not take that action and did not believe its perceived morality to be controversial?

Furthermore not only does the individual indirectly admit to committing the questionable action, but a rational bystander observing the situation can only come to one conclusion. That conclusion is not “Oh that is why that action was taken, I understand now (agreement or disagreement follows)”, but instead “Oh, so you are an immoral scumbag, but according to you individual C is also an immoral scumbag”. Thus, society is given not a rational explanation for individual A’s actions followed by appropriate consequences, but a battle in the scales of immorality. Using rational analysis this strategy is clearly flawed, so how is it that politicians are still able to get away with criticizing the morality of their opponent’s to explain their own moral shortcomings?

Avoiding the easy answer of society does not function rationality, one important possible explanation for the lack of consequences to numerous violations of morality is that, whether or not society cares about an individual’s morality is subjective. There are telling signs that modern society has reached an impasse between morality and success. For example is there any real advantage to being moral if society views you as a successful individual?

There appear to be two major advantages that stem from moral behavior and the resultant “moral” characterization given to such an individual: 1) moral individuals tend not to violate social norms and the law, which significantly reduces the probability of criminal and civil action against them; a secondary element to this point is that moral individuals are rarely swindled, speaking to the old adage “you cannot con an honest man”; 2) moral individuals seem to have inherent advantages when cultivating allies for social and economic proposals largely based on perceived trustworthiness;

Unfortunately it could be argued that for rich individuals neither one of these advantages are meaningful. Simply looking at numerous examples in the criminal justice system demonstrates that the ability to be successfully prosecuted for a crime is inversely proportional to an individual’s net worth; successful individuals typically have larger amounts of wealth than average individual and are more difficult to prosecute for their transgressions, thus heavily limiting the first advantage to being moral. Also with large amounts of money and resources even if another swindles a successful individual, the losses are typically insignificant.

Also due to the fascination and allure most members of the general public have towards success and wealth, rich and successful individuals have far less trouble recruiting allies to their personal crusades both through their utilization of resources or perceived charisma. Thus having money and success can achieve the advantages associated with moral behavior via different pathways. However, having money and success also produce other meaningful advantages for individuals that are not associated with moral behavior. Further troubling is that behaving in a moral manner provides obstacles to becoming successful for they restrict passage along the shorter less scrupulous paths to acquiring success. It is much easier to swindle someone out of 5,000 dollars either directly through fraud or indirectly through influencing public policy over working 250 hours at 20 dollars an hour for a gross 5,000 dollars.

Therefore, with the simple understanding that morality and success overlap the same advantages, with additional advantages associated with success alone and with potential conflict between morality and success, for a number of individuals immoral behavior is justified in the attempt to achieve success. Achieving success is the critical element for the viability of immoral behavior, for while society tends to look the other way regarding the moral transgressions committed by successful individuals either in the pursuit of success or after achieving success, if an individual fails to become successful then society looks to punish the individual for those transgressions. In some respects modern society views moral behavior under a lens of “the ends justify the means.”

So what drives an individual to commit an action that could be regarded as immoral? For the individual in question an immoral action can be justified one of two ways: 1) psychological defense mechanisms are applied that allow that individual to perceive their action as moral and/or justified; 2) the individual does not care about the morality of the action and simply takes it to produce some form of advantage to get closer to becoming successful. Interestingly enough a number of individuals apply both methods first using psychological defenses then qualifying the defense with an “ends justify the means” attitude to support achieving the advantage through the immoral behavior.

The second “justification” has multiple iterations with some experiencing a slippery slope evolution starting with small violations that are more justifiable and slowly increase their tolerance for justification whereas others simply invoke the “ends justify the means” attitude from the beginning. To investigate this slippery slope element more, largely because it is actually worth investigating for those with a large-scale “ends justify the means” attitude are simply insecure fools, why does an individual speed when driving?

Clearly moral behavior involves not violating the law, but many people each day elect not to be moral, so how do they justify such a decision? Looking at morals in general, the problem with morality seems to be that people tend not to associate many tangible or even intangible rewards or gains with being a moral person. In addition to the perceived lack of advantage to being moral, individuals will frequently reason that they also give up something to be moral, the gains that would come from not being moral, i.e. the perceived shorter pathway to success.

Using the speeding example, suppose there are two individuals John and Smith who both travel to work approximately 63 miles away, with 60 of those miles on an expressway with a 55 mph speed limit. John elects to following the speed limit of 55 mph where as Smith decides to travel at 65 mph. In this example by being moral and following the law John loses about 10 minutes in relation to Smith in extra travel time. Of course there are consequences to being immoral for if Smith is caught in violation of the law by an appropriate agent Smith not only loses the time he would have gained by breaking the law, he will also lose additional time and be penalized financially. Also Smith increases the probability of getting into an accident of some sort. So with these potential consequences, why does Smith elect to be immoral? Smith would more than likely use a cost-benefit analysis with an associated severity and certainty of consequence analysis. Does such a methodology cheapen morality?

In a cost-benefit analysis morality could either be considered a benefit or a cost depending on the overall characterization of the action. If the considered action is in-line with the general character of the actor then morality will be viewed as an intangible benefit because it will help solidify that particular trait. If the considered action is opposed to the general character of the actor then morality can be viewed as an intangible cost because it could challenge any developed morality of the individual. The cost classification of morality can change if the individual changes his/her values, something that may happen with certain immoral actions to compensate for taking those actions. Not surprisingly the comparison between morality as a benefit versus a cost tends not to be equal because typically in human psychology positive elements are overestimated in their importance and negative elements are underestimated in their importance, which applies significant bias to this analysis.

What rationalization does an individual use to reduce the significance of morality in the decision-making process? One common strategy is the 'white-lie' rationalization. The decision-maker simply isolates everyone else from the consequences of the decision typically with the reasoning that taking the action will not hurt anyone. For example Smith may elect to speed when traveling alone because he will be the sole receiver of any potential benefits or consequences. With highway statistics and common physics reporting that the faster a vehicle is traveling when colliding with another vehicle the greater the probability for fatalities this “I am the only one bearing responsibility for speeding” reasoning is clearly flawed.

However, Smith may hold on to this flawed reasoning because of what he determines to be a small probability of an accident occurring, thus the more probable benefits and consequences still remain reserved for him and him alone. Of course a simple severity argument removes any remaining reason for Smith to speed in a typical situation because although the probability of an accident is low, the severity of the result more than eclipses any time benefit acquired by speeding in the first place, especially since the utilization of the saved time will be generally irrelevant. For example the additional 10 minutes of time that Smith saves each day in transit will commonly be squandered doing some unnecessary and superficial task; the acquisition of the additional time serves no real benefit, thus legitimizing the severity over the certainty of the consequence because the benefit is meaningless; i.e. there is additional risk for only superficial reward.

So what can be done to address the waning value of morals in modern society beyond writing analysis about the flaws in the logical processing of advantage over disadvantage similar to that seen above? One option is to increase the rate of punishment for rich individuals based on the presumptive moral structure that because the value of immoral action is largely applied to increasing the probability that one becomes successful, the more successful an individual the less reason that individual has to behave immorally. Therefore, immoral behavior by wealthy individuals can be viewed as more severe than immoral behavior by poor individuals. Interestingly enough such a mindset would almost be opposite the popular current mindset, for the transgressions of poor people seem to be more amplified in society than the transgressions of rich people.

The immediate problem with such a strategy is that executing a more severe punishment against individual A than individual B for the same infraction solely on the basis of income differential is not indicative of a fair and practical criminal justice system. Fortunately increasing punishment to the rich and successful can be a viable strategy by simply ensuring that lawbreakers are punished justly. Basically if the criminal justice system actually lived up to the ideal of being fair and practical, successful individuals will have a higher probability of being punished for their transgressions opposed to the current system, which produces unfair advantages for the rich and successful.

In addition crimes associated with avoiding the investigation of the truth behind an action, most notably perjury and obstruction of justice, should have increased penalties versus those that currently enforced in society. One of the principal ways individuals avoid prosecution for their crimes is committing these two above offenses in effort to limit the ability of the criminal justice system to produce sufficient evidence to convict and rich/successful individuals have a higher probability of executing these strategies due to their additional resources and contacts. Increasing the penalties associated with perjury and obstruction of justice will at least reduce the probability that individuals engage in these tactics and make punishment for such action meaningful against those who still choose to take them.

Also society must reduce the allure and admiration for the rich and “celebrity” in general for such a change will reduce the behavior of blindly following ideas by rich individuals solely because they are rich. Furthermore society must acknowledge the value of morality by applying associated pressure to wrongdoers. While the adage of “everyone deserves a second chance” is fine and appropriate, the number of chances one seems to get from society is directly proportional to level of success; in that the richer someone is the more immoral behavior is accepted both in magnitude and frequency. Society must change this perception, no more “fourth, fifth, sixth, etc.” chances.

Finally the societal attitude regarding success and the allowed lack of morality in its pursuit is interesting in association with the frequent complaints that are heard regarding the number of individuals that are incarcerated in this country. It should be of little surprise that there are so many people in jail because society has created a flippant mindset regarding the law regardless of the magnitude of the crime. When looking at the number of individuals in jail very few have been convicted of crimes they did not commit, thus they are criminals. This creates an element of hypocrisy because one cannot complain about the number of individuals in jail and yet not argue against the “succeed at any cost” attitude that society has developed.

Overall society has two paths to choose from: 1) accept society as it is now and the simple fact that such a society reduces the value of morals as well as increases the probability of significant divisions between classes and races, which will also inherently result in more criminal activity (whether or not this criminal activity is prosecuted remains to be seen); 2) reject this aspect of society and seek to eliminate the advantage cross-over between morality and success, thus at least restoring the character intangible values of morality to society, which should have a negative effect on criminality. Unfortunately as it currently stands the idea of hoping that morality somehow wins out in the end over the pursuit of success is a pipe dream; society must decide what it values more and if it wants to view itself as a meritocracy where success is determined by the power of an individual outperforming others under a consistent set of rules, thus making that success matter in any real psychological sense, then morality must win out.

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