Thursday, July 22, 2010

The balance of morality

This may be a little off topic here for a feminist blog but I wanted to express it anyway.

It was recently suggested to me that I should view the catholic church as good even though it promotes bigotry and unhappiness. This is because they do charity work. Therefore, I was told, there is a balance, the good they do outweighs the bad. This to me is horrific. How can this possibly be that doing bad things is ok as long as you do good things as well. I drew a diagram of this but I don't know how to put it in here. Basically it is a set of scales on one side there is good on the other there is bad, as long as it is balanced, it is acceptable. Therefore under this (an extreme example I know) I could murder someone as long as I turned around and saved someones life. This makes no sense to me. Doing good never makes up for the bad you have done.

In terms of feminism, I am unsure of how to relate it back to topic. I think it works on the level that people use it to try to make up for past injustices, it is ok what happened "back in the day" because I am a feminist and trying to set things right. I am still trying to arrange this in my head, so any input would be appreciated.


  1. I think it is a human desire/need to attempt to find the balance in life, to try to understand meaning in life by ascribing value to events/actions.
    When we see something as bad, there is a pull to "do" something about it, address it in some way. This requires something of us. A response.
    A counter to this is to then attempt to see the good in said situation, so as to minimize the need for my "response" to the bad.
    (This is only pseudo-academic psychology as I'm not pulling from a particular theory here.)
    If I don't take action against the bad I see, then I am culpable. So, I defend against that by seeing the good.
    We are all guilty of this. I don't even know that guilt is the right word, but we all live in this on moment-to-moment basis.

    Does committing good or bad (as seen by whoever) cancel out past actions? No. But they are often understood/viewed in context.
    If I commit murder, but come to realize the wrongness of what I did, then spend the rest of my life doing good to attempt to make up for the one big wrong, many/most would likely view me as ultimately a good person who did a bad thing. Same the other way 'round.
    The reality is this happens on much less obvious continuum. Small bads, small goods, etc.

    This is completely different, though, from committing CONTINUOUS wrong while also doing good and expecting others to separate the two.
    This is more what you seem to be talking about with the church. This also happens with corporations.
    I also don't see the "good" when it is to serve your own ends (converting new members, increasing funding for the "good" works, etc.). All the major corporations contribute millions of dollars to causes I support and believe in, but it doesn't mitigate the ONGOING wrong I believe they commit.

    It's also the case for me that I see religious institutions as doing almost no good, as their fundamental philosophy is to force people to a particular viewpoint that is often damaging to the individual/group. So exactly what most will see as the "good," I see as couched in such a larger wrong, that it isn't good at all.

    In regards to feminism, I think there is a lot of application here. Where we make concessions, allowances or even contribute to not advancing female empowerment is an area I struggle with. I take solace in what I've done, where I've put my money, causes I've fought for. But I also recognize the dozen little things each day in my job, relationships, life where I could do more and don't, because I'm tired/done enough/not my problem/annoyed that same thing keeps happening/fill in the blank. I think I do a fair job keeping my scale balanced (hopefully FAR weighed towards good) and part of that scale is recognizing where I put my energy.

    The Catholic Church is just bad though, so don't worry about that. ;)

  2. I may be a dissenting voice here though I'm not sure (not on the catholic church, on the scale of morality idea). Maybe if I can just be clear on how I'm reading what has been said and my own view on it that would be helpful? (I'll try to avoid making this an essay on conceptual analysis of moral terms though)

    The way I'm looking at this we need to distinguish three different sorts of moral evaluation: first there is are evaluations we make about the state of the world or parts of the world, as I use the words this amounts to placing things on a good/bad spectrum. Second there is evaluation of actions based on whether they ought or ought not to be done, this amounts to placing things on a right/wrong spectrum. Third there is evaluation of agents, placing them somewhere on a spectrum of virtuous/non-virtuous (I would like to use evil here, but I fear I would be misunderstood).

    These evaluations can come apart. For example a virtuous person might live a life of immense suffering while being unable to exemplify their virtue. If the suffering is bad enough then the world would be a better place had the person never been born, and so in terms of evaluating worlds this person makes a negative contribution and so is bad. (This may sound outrageous but sometimes a little violence to ordinary language is required for clarity).

    There is plenty more to be said about the three sorts of moral evaluation I have distinguished but I promised to avoid doing too much conceptual analysis. I have plenty more to say if anyone wants me to say it :P

    Anyway applying this to the OP the questions become: what sort of evaluation are the people suggesting Cass see the Catholic church as good using? What sort of evaluations does Cass want to perform herself? What sort of evaluation of the catholic church is social worker making? etc.

    Now when it comes to the catholic church evaluative judgements of each of the three kinds might be made. Firslt on whether the catholic church is good or bad. There are still disambiguations to be made, but on one interpretation this is an interesting historical question. Would the world be better without the catholic church? Now it seems to me that social worker would answer no to this and this answer seems plausible to me but I am not a historian and it is certainly true that there are influential parts of the catholic church which emphasises service to the poor (I believe that this strand of catholic thought has significantly affected my political views (I was brought up a catholic) and I further believe that this is good. Of course there are all the bad effects of the church, effects of the phobia of sex, free thought, infidels, contraception, bad publicity etc., etc. But if the question is whether the world world have been better off if the church had never existed then the answer suggested to Cass cannot be dismissed out of hand. I don't think this is the sort of evaluation that Cass is interested in performing on the catholic church however (I shall not speculate on the sort of evaluation being suggested to her since i don't have enough context for that).

  3. It seems to me that Cass is more interested in evaluating the actions of the catholic church as right or wrong (she can correct me if I am wrong on this). On this point it really does seem strange to start summing them up. Some of the things that the catholic church does are wrong and some are right The wrong ones deserve condemnation (at least) the right ones deserve praise (at least). To what end might we try to weigh up the different e church a plus or minus score? The only reasonable ones I can think of seem to be covered by the evaluation above as to whether it has historically been a good thing for the church to be there whether it is a good thing now and whether it would be good for the church to continue to exist into the future. Any other sort of summing up of its actions recalls an image of the catholic church itself that of a final judgement where ones sins and transgressions are weighed against ones faith and good works (of course many catholics will not accept this image but whatever), but those of us who do not believe in such things probably don't need to do the sort of summing up that would be preformed on judgement day.

    As to whether the church is a virtuous organisation, well that's a topic on which I don't think I have anything useful to say. There are many nasty aspects of the church but in my naive view they are there due to the false beliefs of its members, thus competing conceptions of virtue may well evaluate the church differently but to a utilitarian like me the dispute would seem to me to be terminological and uninteresting.

  4. "But if the question is whether the world world have been better off if the church had never existed then the answer suggested to Cass cannot be dismissed out of hand. I don't think this is the sort of evaluation that Cass is interested in performing on the catholic church however (I shall not speculate on the sort of evaluation being suggested to her since i don't have enough context for that). "

    Correct. I would be more interested in if I needed to blow my nose then if the catholic church should ever have existed. It is irrelevant.