Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Hefer '12: Morality and occupation

The world is a big, chaotic place. It is populated by people with conflicting interests, and this often leads to turmoil. In certain cases, we can use morality to resolve those conflicts.

This is the situation we find ourselves in with regards to the Occupy movement. The 99 percent has a list of desires that basically fall under the banner of "End corporate greed." The wealthiest 1 percent, on the other hand, wants to keep the money it now has and keep earning more and more money — not quite an end to corporate greed.

I agree with Reuben Henriques '12 ("99 percent is not enough," Oct. 28) that "the Occupiers must make … (a) compelling claim about the moral and material stake we all have in narrowing economic inequality." The Occupiers claim that they are fighting for justice. Just acts are moral, and unjust acts are not. While there is a second argument that it is in the best interest of the 1 percent to acquiesce — this is the material stake Henriques mentions — I wish to focus solely on the moral aspect.

By no means will I try to undermine the justice argument — ignoring the plight of a huge majority of the population is unjust. Instead, I will examine what someone commits himself or herself to when he or she appeals to the moral status of an action to reconcile conflicting interests.

To this end, let's look at what kind of thing goodness is. There are two salient options here. The first holds that goodness is an objective property of the world, akin to astronomical properties. Even if people had no opinions about what stars are made of, they would still be made of very hot plasma. Similarly, an immoral act, like stealing, would still be immoral even if we had very different ideas about morality. Moral truth exists independently of us.

 The alternative is to say that morality is constituted by us. It is a by-product of our emotions or our culture or something like that. This makes morality a lot like etiquette. If we were not offended by somebody's slurping their soup, it would not be rude. Similarly, if our culture determines that dishonesty is wrong, it is. If we were all okay with it, it would not be immoral. This makes moral judgments either subjective or relative to our culture.

Why might someone buy into this second idea? The biggest motivation is tolerance. It is a matter of fact that our moral system is different from the ancient Greeks', which is different from the Babylonians', which is different from the modern Japanese's, etc. Unlike in disputes about astronomy, we cannot tell who is morally correct by any kind of observation.

Since there is unresolvable disagreement, it would be foolish to criticize other cultures for reaching conclusions different from ours. We should be tolerant of their standards and not impose ours on them. So even if morality were objective, we should not treat it in that way.

How does this relate to the Occupy movement? If morality is subjective, calling corporate greed unjust is as effective as telling someone they prefer the wrong flavor of ice cream. Saying "Corporate greed is bad" is just a fancy way of saying "We really dislike corporate greed" or "Our social norms are incompatible with corporate greed."

But Wall Street already knows the Occupiers dislike corporate greed. Why should using fancy words move the 1 percent any more than just stating your displeasure?

And the 1 percent might not care what social norms dictate. And why should they? Many at Brown support the SlutWalkers, and their purpose is to flout certain norms. If we decide which norms are good to ignore based on which ones we like, we are back to saying "We dislike corporate greed."

But committing yourself to objective morality also commits you to criticizing other cultures. No longer can we say "Though we find forcing women to veil themselves immoral, it is part of Muslim culture, and so we cannot criticize it." Just as everyone was required to end slavery, even if they were not a slave, we are required to end this practice, even though it does not affect us. The same goes for all immoral practices abroad.

Is this kind of intolerance bad? I suspect many Brown students will find it at least uncomfortable. This poses a dilemma. Either give up on the call for justice, or impose your will on other cultures.

David Hefer '12 knows morality is objective. Up with imperialism! Rationally resolve your

disagreement by emailing him at


Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.