Morality, examined

On a run yesterday, I passed a gangly 7-year-old girl clutching a handmade sign that read “A person is a person, no matter how small.” There was something chilling about it—beyond the cold, pre-snowpocalypse wind that whipped between us. A sense that both this girl and the Dr. Seuss quote had been co-opted into the pro-life mission unknowingly.

I rarely get to see the national mall it in its role as a canvas for protest. But yesterday, usually-clear pavements were clogged with clusters of neon-hat-clad anti-abortion protestors, wearing matching t-shirts and wielding signs like “Hillary Clinton is a Monster for Supporting Planned Parenthood.”

There is a raw, visceral power in seeing hundreds of bodies gathered around a moral belief. What struck me most is the fact that these communities of vocal protestors aren’t just educated adults, who might clear reasoning behind their position, but entire families. Children and young teenagers have also inherited profound moral convictions, have ridden buses, from wherever they live, to attend a protest with others who bolster their worldview.

Passing the girl with the Seuss sign left me with the unease of many unanswered questions. Does she grasp the full philosophical, and legal weight of the concept of “personhood”? Is she aware, really and truly aware, of how holding these beliefs might profoundly shape the course of her life, should she become pregnant at 16? Will her family ever give her the chance, when her mind is more developed, to analyze that pro-life belief critically, and then decide for herself what her guiding values are?

Humans enter the world as blank canvases (to some degree), with no conscious power to decide what images get painted on them. By the time we begin to emerge as cognitively sophisticated beings, so many subconscious wheels have already been set into motion. Intuitions have been molded. Neural pathways established.

Of course, I too inherited a host of moral beliefs from my family, my schools, my environment. But I’m lucky to have had, especially through my philosophy degree, the opportunity to spend many hours thinking, writing, and internally cross-examining moral issues before embracing them. Even to think about nature of morality itself—as something slippery; perhaps even purely biological. I feel I’ve earned a sense of security, of autonomy, of independence of mind, having gone through a rigorous process of doubting and questioning. The fact that there’s some kind of traceable logical reasoning behind my views, that I myself have constructed, means I am at least in part not just unwittingly imbibing the belief systems in my culture. Of course, I could continue this questioning ad infinitum, if I wanted. I can see why people dedicate their lives to philosophy.

I’ve been thinking recently about the powerful role that emotion plays in motivating our decision making, including moral decision making (I recently finished an intriguing book exploring this, and interviewed the author, a moral psychologist, last week). Sometimes I wonder whether I’ve simply become more adept at rationalizing my own intuitions, like a gut-level conviction about a woman’s right to choose, that can likely be traced back to a fiercely independent mother, and a liberal culture that emphasizes personal autonomy?

Perhaps—but at the very least, I’ve put up a good fight against that intuition. I feel grateful for having had a family and an education that encouraged me to question; to make up my mind for myself. I hope that girl will also get the same opportunity—but I fear otherwise.

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