Perhaps morality sometimes leads us astray…


…astray from compassion, from being as concerned for others as for ourselves, astray to do very harmful things to people in the name of doing right.  By morality, I mean the assumption that you have the wisdom and right to evaluate whether someone else has done bad things to themselves.  Morality says they are less worthy than those who do (only?  more?) good things. 

Example: the opioid crisis

Lately I have been reading about the need to medicalize procedures for dealing with the opioid crisis  In this approach, which is much more thought-out than others I have read, there is a nice set of distinctions about where morality applies and where it should not:

Under a new PPSC {Public Prosecution Service of Canada} directive, anyone caught with illegal drugs in places frequented by children or teens, or who works with youths, will still be prosecuted. So will those carrying a weapon along with their stash, as will people caught with drugs in isolated communities that are trying to curb misuse. Traffickers will also still face the full weight of the law.

But a person arrested for the possession of a small amount of illegal narcotics intended for personal use will no longer automatically be prosecuted – especially if the person has a substance-use disorder.

Even a person out on bail who violates conditions that prohibit drug use or possession will not be prosecuted, according to the new guidelines.

In Toronto (sorry, I am not keeping track of all Ontario or Canada), drug injection sites are now common, even though they may sometimes bring problems such as dereliction, homeless  begging, and even some crime.  This solution came about only after much civic action and civil disobedience involving establishment of sites,

The federal government not only has funded some early sites when the province would not, but also is now paying for even more of the service.

The situation has become more dire during COVID, another example of COVID’s spotlighting our habits of making life difficult for people (see previous post

A proper place for morality, and an improper one:

In challenging “morality,” I do not criticize appropriate concern for the safety and weal of local residents and businesses, rather the presumption that addicts near them have “made their beds and must now lie in them,” to quote an old aphorism – meaning all personal conduct has its consequences, and the consequences must be borne.  I myself used to have this attitude, although I was in a position to help people get out from under the immediate consequences.  I was not sufficiently aware of how powerful addiction can be, especially now (see also Pharma:  Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America, by Gerald Posner).

Better approach:  public health and compassion.

Now that we know that for many people this is the result of both more addictive and dangerous drugs, such as fentanyl, on the streets, but also the medical profession’s fear of continuing to provide either inadequate treatment for chronic pain, or of prescribing drugs considered too powerful and addictive.  Morality does not help with these dependencies, but compassion does, along with  a public health approach – this is a disease sometimes caused by the medical profession and pharmaceuticals, and sometimes by other circumstances, but a disease, not a moral failing.  The moral failing now is resisting the public health approach — otherwise we punish people who do not deserve it for their perhaps deliberate self-harmful choices.

Other possible problems with morality:

I wonder where else morality has caused pain rather than recovery.  There used to be shame attached to cancer – not sure the shame came from morality, as such, but unless it was somehow a moral issue for some, it is difficult to understand how else shame attached to it.  (Is there a context where shame exists without morality?)  Perhaps fear had much to do with it – that you have cancer means that you did something wrong, and if I don’t do that, I won’t get cancer. 

Perhaps people simply extended their moral view of STD to other diseases – certainly you wouldn’t get a sexual disease unless you or your partner had done something outside a faithful relationship. Certainly to knowingly risk giving your partner an STD is immoral. Perhaps we extend this way of viewing matters to other communicable diseases? 

But now with COVID, as earlier with SARS, we are in that moral context where, even not knowing you have the disease, acting in a way that brings risk to another would be immoral, however… we know that there are families who do not have the living space to distance in normal circumstances.  They may know they run the risk of contamination, but be unable to mitigate the risk save by washing, sanitizing, and masking.  These may be inadequate.  Families with children going to school are in this uncomfortable situation.  They don’t want their children exposed to COVID; they don’t want to get it from them; but they believe the children need the social experience and the education, and the parents themselves need greater freedom to work on-site or remotely at a small home.  There may be more at-risk others in the small home.  Morality, and the ethic of being concerned as much for others as for yourself, expand the complexity and variety of conflicting actions.  All actions may be taken with due regard to morality and ethics, but none with a clearly correct decision. 

Informed group decisions:

This is the point at which gathering the best information available and discussing it with everyone concerned, is necessary.  Decisions made to the extent possible by everyone’s informed consent is the key, along with acting in love.  Morality doesn’t help much.  To feel pressured to select any of the possible decisions as the clearly moral one, is silly. 

To face so many possibilities tempts you to go with your gut.  Your gut probably does not communicate with everyone else’s, so it is far better to together consider and decide these matters with our conscious minds. And of course, be open to new information and changes in circumstances.

And what if the decision taken causes more harm than expected and someone outside the decision circle says, “You chose the wrong path.”  Wrong how?  Do they know what you considered at the time; how you all felt about it?   Morality may tempt someone to say, “had you chosen wisely, these bad consequences would not have occurred.”  But obvious bad result does not necessarily mean bad choosing among so many variables (see the “made your bed” argument earlier).

A place for morality:

It may be that, had we no sense of morality, we wouldn’t condemn the introduction of fentanyl, nor the acts which can still be prosecuted.  So morality has its place in protecting people, as does the law.

The need for genuine concern:

Applying only the practices of medicine and public heath rather than morality, is insufficient.  There must be genuine concern for the welfare of the sufferers, regardless of how their situation came about.  That form of morality is far superior to judging people.  Bringing these systemic practices to bear necessarily involves many people and systems, along with the need for financing.  Systemic practice is more expensive than morality, which might leave people to rot in the streets alone and “decrease the surplus population,” to quote Scrooge.  Perhaps that is why this wrankles – it requires that the surrounding society, not just an individual, help, with or without knowing.  Many do not like to feel they must help others, especially those with whom they would usually be unacquainted.

Many of us are accustomed to well-worn paths in our lives – our residential neighbourhood, the area around our work, our children’s schools, our regular shopping locations.  Perhaps we use morality to ward off any sense of obligation to allow others, at our expense, to assist people not on our paths.  Perhaps we use the familiar to keep from walking those different paths ourselves.  While my own beliefs and religion demand that I do walk those different paths sometimes, I recognize that I don’t always know enough about a situation, to help effectively and without needless danger to myself.   It is at that point that I am grateful for whoever has  gone before me – sized up the situation, brought knowledge to bear, and so forth.  They can help me help effectively.  That’s where we are with the drug situation.  We should be grateful, and endorse the effort for as long as it is effective. 

And if our sense of morality gets in the way, we should put it aside and say, “Wait and watch.”

One thought on “Perhaps morality sometimes leads us astray…

  1. Is the problem with “morality” or with being judgmental? I think you have in mind those who consider morality a “code of conduct that all humans would/should accept”. That view sets up the next thought: If the other guy doesn’t seem to accept that code, then he’s immoral–and maybe even not fully human. But if you think of morality as more of an ideal–for yourself–of right intention and compassion, then hopefully it’s not as automatic to judge and classify the other person. “They know not what they do,” someone once said.

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