On Philosophy

April 15, 2007

The Macro And Micro Morality

Filed under: Ethics,Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Let us define micro morality as the ethical rules that apply to individuals. It is micro morality then that we usually talk about when we think of ethics. Macro morality then is to be understood as the rules that limit the actions that society as a whole can take, which usually means what is and isn’t legal for the government as a whole to do. Obviously these rules aren’t really “ethical”, since ethical rules apply only to thinking agents. However the parallel between the two is obvious.

In general macro and micro morality will differ. Let me sidestep a discussion of what micro morality entails and instead focus on how macro morality is likely to be different from it. One such difference comes from the existence of institutional punishment; society as a whole is allowed to punish wrongdoers, but individuals are not, given that the society forbids revenge. Likewise society as a whole may be able to limit the rights of its members in certain cases, but individuals are probably not allowed to do the same. And of course society, or the government, has the right to speak for all of its members in certain situations (treaties, ect), which no individual member of society can do, except as an instrument of society as a whole (i.e. the government).

The fact that micro morality and macro morality differ is simply one consequence of any reasonable understanding of micro morality. Not all things are best handled by individuals. And so it makes sense that ethics would require individuals to abdicate these things to society, when society is equipped to handle them. For example, if medicine was an institution that society provided free of charge then it would always be immoral to try to treat your sick friend yourself, because you would actually be doing him a disservice. Similarly punishment is also a duty that individuals relinquish to society, because revenge tends to be excessive, and to encourage a cycle of violence.

But these differences, no matter how well justified, can be problematic. People don’t instinctually realize that there is a difference between the rules that society should follow and the rules that they should follow. Perhaps this confusion is justifiable, it is not obvious why something that is ok to do as a group is not acceptable when done as an individual. And because of this confusion people have a hard time keeping the rules for society and the rules for individual conduct separate, and often reason, falsely, that if it is ok for society to do it then it is ok for individuals to do it. To see this kind of reasoning in action simply see how people idolize superheroes. Individual people should not behave as superheroes do, which is to say that they shouldn’t take justice into their own hands no matter how competent they are at enforcing it. Instead we should expect our superheroes to join the police force, where their actions could be given proper oversight (and I am sure some special provisions could be made to protect their secret identities). The fact that we don’t fault superheroes for not joining the police is evidence that unless we keep it in mind we tend to forget that while it is ok for society to go after criminals it is not ok for individuals to do so.

And because of this confusion we must limit, to some extent, the ways in which the rules that society as a whole follows differ from the rules that individuals must follow, in order to prevent individuals from developing a faulty sense of what is right and wrong on the basis of those differences. Or, in other words, the principles that guide society often become guiding principles for individual behavior, and thus cannot differ too much from ideal individual behavior. This is in fact one of the strongest arguments against the death penalty. The mere existence of the death penalty tells people that it is ok to kill others in situations where other lives don’t hang in the balance. And I don’t think that is a lesson you want to teach people, inadvertently or not. I might even go so far as to say that the existence of the death penalty is one of the reasons that Americans seem to be so willing to solve certain kinds of problems with violence, and so desperate to keep their guns in order to keep that option open. Of course there are probably a number of reasons the American public tends to have these attitudes, it doesn’t make sense to pin everything on one cause.

Another consequence of this idea, that individuals tend to adopt the principles that govern society, is that we should always reject guiding a nation by religious principles. Even if we had a completely flawless religion to do the guiding it would best to keep that guidance secret. This is because religions discourage questioning authority, at least religious authority. But questioning authority is absolutely vital to have a healthy society. In science authority must constantly be questioned in order to make progress. And in the public sphere authority must constantly be questioned in order to keep those authority figures on their best behavior. So a Christian nation, even if it adopted only the ethically sound doctrines of that religion, would be less desirable place to live in than a secular nation, because science in that Christian nation would stagnate and its leaders would be more likely to become corrupt.

Micro and macro morality have a different structure because, obviously, people and societies are very different kinds of things. And ethically it makes sense to delegate some things to society which are handled better by it than by individuals. And in an ideal world we would just accept that they are different and give the matter no more thought. But people are far from ideal, and intuitively most don’t understand why the standard for the group should be different from the standard for the individuals that make it up. And thus standards for what is acceptable for society become adopted as standards for individual behavior, to some extent. Thus when we consider how society is best structured we must also give some consideration to how the principles behind this society will be reflected in the behavior of the individuals who make it up.


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