Moral and Practical – Thinking in Essentials 2

What would you think if someone told you, “don’t worry if it is right or wrong, just do what you feel like?”

That was, in essence, an idea presented by Hedrick Smith during a debate last week with Yaron Brook as part of the Ford Hall Forum at Suffolk University.  This is hardly unique to Hedrick Smith, or to the liberals whose positions he represented in the debate, but is becoming common in society today, especially in politics.

In answering questions about government action to produce desired results, “equality” in this case, part of his answer was “it is not a moral issue, but a practical one.”  Or words to that effect.  What does it mean to separate the “moral” from the “practical” in this way?

To be practical means that which can be put into practice or that can actually be used, as opposed to theoretical.  In general usage, practical is also used to indicate that something will also achieve a stated goal.  So if something is practical it is something we can actually do to achieve or move towards a goal.

The study of morals is call ethics which, in a broad sense, is the study of human conduct and of the principles that ought to govern it.  These principles are meant to aid human beings in distinguishing good from evil, the life affirming from the life destroying, as well as guiding them in achieving  (or avoiding) those things.

For example, the principle of non-initiation of force tells us that in order to lead a flourishing life, we should not use force, including fraud which is indirect force, against others, except in self-defense.  With this as a guide we know that simply because we need money, we do not rob a bank, but if attacked it is perfectly moral to defend yourself.  On a national level, we don’t violate the rights of other countries in order to enrich ourselves but we are justified in responding when attacked by removing the source of the attack in order to ensure that we are not attacked in the future.

By stating that moral issues are separate from practical ones (after all, the quote states that you can be practical without being moral and be moral without being practical), we have separated principles not only from the actions meant to achieve goals, but also from setting those goals in the first place.  Without principles, we have no guide as to whether a given goal is actually good for us, or in the case of politics, good for the country.  We also lose touch with any means of judging whether a given action works.  What we are left with is acting out of “feelings.”  What do we want to achieve?  What is our goal?  Whatever seems good in the moment.  How are we going to achieve this goal?  By whatever means takes our fancy.  How will we know that our means has made progress towards our goal?  We don’t know, but we’ll know it when we see it.  How long do we wait for the progress to be made?  Until we feel like trying something else.

By uttering “it is not a moral issue, but a practical one,” the speaker is really saying: “it is not a matter of principles of right and wrong, but of my current feelings about the situation.”

The best example of this I have seen personally is in the debate over whether the United States should take military action in Syria.  The answer of my state’s Senators was, “No, but if the UN or enough other countries are involved, we might join in and sacrifice the lives of our soldiers too.”  A principled reaction would be to answer the question, “Are our national interests involved in Syria?”  If so, then we should take action no matter how many or few other nations are involved.  Conversely, if our interests are not at stake, as they are not in Syria, then we should remain uninvolved not matter how many other nations insert themselves.

It is likely very rare that someone acts completely without principle, but whenever you hear someone say, “don’t be such a dreamer, we have to be practical about this,” or “it sounds good in theory, but this is the real world and you have be practical” that is exactly what they are actually advocating.