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In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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The Mystery of Moral Decision-Making 1
Copyright © 1991, by Bill Becker

The mystery of moral decision-making. What are we talking about here? We all pretty much understand what it means to make a decision, even without knowing anything about the particular decision in question. If someone says, "So, I decided to do it," we know that "it" was one of several possible things that were open to the speaker "to do."

"Moral" is a lot tougher, though. It's not clear what the term refers to, even though it is in constant use. If our speaker then says "Moreover, I really feel good about doing the right thing," only the naive will applaud as if there is universal agreement about "right things." Most of us will want to know what the "thing" was before passing judgement on its "rightness" or "wrongness."

Then we have "moral decision-making," which surely is a different animal than the "right thing" that was "done." Moral decision-making is a process, or an activity, that by definition results in doing "right" or "wrong" things It involves assessing the consequences of an action; of weighing the relative values of pleasure and pain that will result from it; of taking others' desires and goals into consideration as well as one's own desires and goals.

This is not to say that moral decision-making implies that any particular value should be placed on the desires and goals of others. Indeed, the current destruction of the world's rainforests follows just such a consideration of the goals and desires of the indigenous people who live in them. Here the decision is that their goals and desires are insignificant compared to those of the managers of the cattle and agricultural interests who profit by cutting down the trees. On the other hand, moral decision-making does often lead to major changes in our assumptions about the world and about others—thus it can be painful in ways that "engineering decision-making," let's say, usually is not.

"Mystery." The unknown; perhaps the unknowable. Challenging. Titillating if not too scary. A source of spiritual growth? Some think so.

A few months ago, I read the book Our Chosen Faith, co-authored by UU ministers John Buehrens and F. Forrester Church. They quote the first source of our Unitarian Universalist religious inspiration:

"direct experience with that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life."

So, here we have mystery not only as Angela Lansbury cracking a murder case that has the professionals scratching their heads, but also as a source of our deepest hunger for spiritual wholeness. "Mystery" is indeed a wonderful term to have such wide and varied referents.

My own taste in mysteries boils down to three, one of which is the subject of my talk this morning. Specifically, it is the mystery of how we come to change our own moral attitudes and behavior. And, I am confident that most of us have had direct personal experience with this mystery. I would be very surprised if almost everyone does not hold definite views about one moral issue or another, and has not discussed it vigorously with someone of an opposite persuasion. I would be incredulous if any of us has not, more than once, walked away from such a discussion deeply puzzled at "what it would take" to get the other person to realize that he or she was mistaken. The current national debate on a woman's right to choose an abortion is the perfect environment for testing my hypothesis.

The behavior that falls under the moral aegis is truly vast, meaning that our daily experience is rich in opportunities for fruitful discussion of our moral foundations. And, as it happens, that is precisely where my interest as a lay philosopher of ethics lies. In my approach to human reality I am much more akin to the particle physicist than to such psychological "cosmologists" as Freud, Jung, and the late Joseph Campbell. By this, I mean that I consider society's condition at any given moment to be the vector sum of all our preceding values, goals, decisions, and actions rather than that society's condition, or repressed racial memories force each of us into a particular mold.

And I am in good company. Years ago, I found the perfect metaphor:

... the largest cosmic phenomena we observe are direct functions of the happenings and internal workings of the atom. Thus the basic structures of the universe are governed not so much by the blazing heat of suns, but by the invisible, unnoticed radiations which emanate from the individual atoms deep within each sun.
(Science News, circa 1978-79)

A similar point-of-view, but specifically referring to us humans, comes from the great American philosopher William James:

I am done with great things and big things; with great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny invisible moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or the capillary oozing of water, yet if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man's pride.

Thus, I focus on the individual—on his or her attitude toward the world and toward others; on his or her basic values and goals; on what he or she does to achieve those goals; and most interesting of all, on how he or she talks about and justifies those goals and actions. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

Early this year, at the PSWD conference in Phoenix, I and another delegate, whom I will call Jane, were discussing the sorry state of the world. 2 I suggested that the world is as it is because no one ever does anything they believe to be wrong. Jane instantly and emphatically disagreed with me, leading to the following conversation:

"Well," I replied, "you don't do anything you believe to be wrong, do you, Jane?"

"Of course I do," she said.

"But, if I were to ask you why you do such things, you would give me reasons, wouldn't you?"

"Yes," she said, "but they wouldn't be good reasons—they would be rationalizations."

"Ok," I said, "let's assume that we have identified an action of yours that you say was wrong, and that I then ask you 'Jane, why did you do it?' You then search for reasons why you did it, but because you are being ruthlessly honest with yourself here, you do not present any of these reasons to me, since each is a "rationalization." Finally, after considering them all, you are left with the only one that seems to be acceptable: 'I couldn't help myself,' you might say. Or, if you really want to be hard on yourself: 'I did it because I am weak.'"

"But Jane," I said, "I am being ruthlessly honest here, too, so I say simply: 'Rubbish. You know perfectly well that you could have done otherwise.'"

As a Unitarian Universalist (UU), believing in free will and personal responsibility, Jane had to admit that I was right.

"Furthermore," I said, "your earlier statement that what you did was wrong itself obscures a universally recognized, but less palatable truth—namely that you don't really care as much about the consequences of your action as you say you do."

What could Jane say here? Nothing, of course. I then closed the circle.

"Now, Jane," I said, "what would you say if I told you that you should care more than you do?"

"I'd tell you to stuff it," she shot back without an instant's hesitation.

So there you have it. 3 Besides verifying the fact that none of us want others to instruct us as to our moral obligations, this exchange with Jane confirmed another conclusion that I reached years ago: namely that we can't rely on what others say in our expectations of what they are likely to do in the moral arena. Jane's example was a structural one—any "wrong thing" would have fit the equation. The situation is not necessarily clearer even when we speak about a specific moral issue:

Years ago, during a lunch-time discussion typical of the survey party I worked with, Ralph Nader's name came up. The party chief, whom I will call Tom, perked up. "Yeah," he said, "take Ralph Nader. Now there's a guy. If everybody in the country gave Ralph Nader a dollar a year, that guy could really do some good." We then continued to reinforce our common perception that corporate America did not really have our best interests at heart.

A week later, I received in the mail an invitation to join Ralph Nader's brand-new advocacy organization, Public Citizen. "Wow!" I thought, "Tom is really going to be interested in this." So, the next day I brought the application to work. "Hey, Tom," I said, "remember our conversation about Ralph Nader, and how you said that if everyone gave him a dollar a year, he could really do some good. Well, here's your chance. Now, I know that the membership fee of $15 a year is more than a dollar, but you're making good money, your house payments are low, and your daughter just recently moved out, so you can handle it. How about it, Tom," I said, "let's both join together."

Well, Tom did not greet this announcement with the enthusiasm one might expect from his earlier comment about Ralph Nader's importance to the country's well-being. Indeed, as I talked, he grew more and more fidgety. He was clearly looking for a way out, and after a moment or two, I stopped tormenting him and he kind of sidled away. I confess that I knew that this would be Tom's response, so I was more amused than disappointed.

So here we have two examples that reveal something important about our attitudes toward moral discourse and moral obligation, and about what others can expect from us on the basis of what we say. And, while they were on the fun side for a serious moral philosopher like me, I have less humorous examples, also.

Recently, I was present at a conversation in which two of my fellow church members were discussing democracy around the world, and "Sam" said that if democracy took hold in the Third World, our standard of living would suffer. Sam didn't want that, and was honest enough to accept the only logical conclusion: from his viewpoint, democracy for everyone in the world was not necessarily desirable. When the other UU pointed out to him that this was directly contrary to our Sunday morning affirmation of respect for the dignity and rights of all people, he said simply: "Well, I don't necessarily believe everything I say on Sunday morning." 4

Also not much fun was an experience I had with two conservative friends just after returning from my second trip to Nicaragua as an election observer in November 1984. I had been haranguing Jack and Jill since 1980 about the evils of U.S. foreign policy in Central America, with an emphasis on Nicaragua. My discourses were a combination of letting off steam and presenting of information. Their understanding of the situation in Nicaragua was derived from a reliance on the mainstream media and hearsay. They had never expressed rock-solid support for Reagan's policy, and I had no reason to believe that such was their position.

Throughout my polemics, Jill was a saint—she listened patiently, and even though she could not bring herself to condemn the so-called low-intensity war outright, I could see that she was touched by my stories of atrocities committed against Nicaraguan peasants by President Reagan's "freedom fighters." I also discussed the positive achievements of the Sandinistas—their offers to negotiate non-aggression pacts with their neighbors, and other well-documented evidence that they were not such a threat to Harlingen, Texas as Reagan made them out to be. I made sure to mention my sources regularly: the National Catholic Reporter, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, L.A. Weekly, as well as Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and the National Congress on Latin America. Over time, I could see that Jill had serious doubts as to whether the benefits of this war outweighed the pain suffered by the Nicaraguans.

During these sessions, though, Jack remained in the background puttering with one thing or another. He never said a word, except occasionally to joke about my "pinko" proclivities. On this occasion, I commented that Reagan's invasion of Grenada was a test—would a majority of the American people also support an invasion of Nicaragua? For the first time, Jack spoke on the subject: "Well, I certainly hope so," he said.

The room went ice cold, and after a few uncomfortable moments the conversation picked up on another subject. Later, I asked Jack if he understood what an invasion of Nicaragua would mean—did he realize how much killing and destruction would result? I said that he had heard my stories, and that he knew that I was not trying to con him—that while I might be mistaken about a particular here and there, the overwhelming body of evidence supported my contention that we were engaged in a profoundly immoral and totally unnecessary war against Nicaragua. Jack didn't even try to deny the basic accuracy of my information, or to impugn my motives or the integrity of my sources. "I know you've studied the issue much more than I have," he said, "but I know how I feel."

What is important here, of course, is not that Jack disagreed with me. What I found chilling was his willingness to see a bloodbath in Nicaragua without ever seriously questioning the reasons for it.

Let me move now from personal anecdotes, which I hope have reminded you of similar instances in your own lives, to the debunking of a mystery or two.

I have often heard people remark about how difficult it is to make a decision about an important moral issue, usually because of an abundance of clearly partisan sources of information. I call this particular syndrome "the inclination to helpless confusion." It is recognizable through two major symptoms: one is a kind of hand-wringing lament—how can one decide if one doesn't know who is telling the truth? If only we could be sure of knowing all the facts, then we could make the right decision. The other is a fallback to cynicism: since no one is clearly lying, all are assumed to be dishonest. Besides, haven't philosophers shown that the notion of "truth" is itself an illusion.

Years ago, I encountered a perfect example of how the inclination to helpless confusion is used by sophisticated players with an interest in creating mystery where there is none. Around the time the CIA distributed a manual advocating the selective assassination of Nicaraguans sympathetic to the Sandinista government, former Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater spoke to the Arizona Chamber of Commerce Business Roundtable. He was discussing the possible role of U.S. combat troops in Central America, at the height of the protest movement against U.S. intervention there. After saying that he would not send troops to any other region of the world except Central America "which is just 800 miles south of us," Goldwater comments "It's a very mixed up, muddled picture there, and we don't know who wears the white hats or the black hats."

In fact, there could be no mystery at all here as to who Goldwater thought wore the white hats and who wore the black hats. He was then Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which among other responsibilities is charged with oversight of the CIA. He was one of the nation's preeminent hawks, and had historically approved all U.S. efforts to prevent the smallest germ of socialism from taking hold in this hemisphere. Thus, to imply that he had no opinion as to whether the contras, for example, or the leftist Sandinistas deserved U.S. military aid was a transparent attempt to deceive his audience. (Sadly, I have lost or misplaced the reference for this incident.)

There is no mention of whether any Roundtable member questioned Goldwater's competence as chair of the intelligence committee, but it is a safe bet that no one did. I can easily imagine them looking at each other helplessly, as if to say, "If good ol' Barry can't figure out what's happening down there, how can we?" Thus might they prepare themselves for their own attempts to mystify the issue for others.

This helpless confusion also arises in discussions of how we might create a fairer society, with more opportunity for everyone. And, it really does seem to be a mystery. In fact, the task is so large that it is often easier to deny that there is a problem than to even think about a solution.

But is there really any mystery about how the world can be made a better place for all? None whatever. In fact, the basis of personal action toward a better world is beautifully elegant: The way to create a just society, or a just world, for that matter, is for none of us to strive for more than we need to be reasonably comfortable until everyone has access to the fundamental necessities for a dignified life. 5

Some might say that I am oversimplifying here. That's what they said to Einstein and Copernicus, too. Moreover, I suggest that most of us understand this perfectly well; some, like Mother Theresa, and Albert Schweitzer carry the idea to its logical conclusion, and dedicate their lives to living and working with the poor. Certainly this notion is consistent with Buddha's refusal to enter paradise until everyone had achieved his level of enlightenment.

That we understand this simple truth is shown by a typical response to such examples of high moral purpose and action as Mother Theresa and Schweitzer. First there is a statement of admiration for their love and concern for others, followed quickly by another statement to the effect that we can't all be like them. The important thing here is that this second statement is something of a fib. Anyone who would understand the moral import of Mother Theresa's and Schweitzer's lives undoubtedly insists upon their own freedom to choose how to live. Thus they know that they could choose as these two chose. They also know that even if one chooses not to live at such an austere level, one could still choose to live more simply, thus freeing resources and dollars for a "more equitable distribution of wealth" as our liberal but decidedly amateur economists put it.

And, in fact, we have here another aspect of the mystery to ponder. Among the population that might express admiration for such humanitarians as Mother Theresa, we can expect to find a smaller number who routinely promote, or tacitly accept, violence as the means to the lofty goals they say they admire. Here I have in mind the average CIA covert action specialist, as well as some highly respected—even venerated—"sages" in the field of U.S. foreign policy.

So far, then, we have seen that knowledge of the facts is not necessarily effective in promoting a change in one's moral foundations.

There are other means whereby a change of heart might come about. Sometimes—usually not by choice—we actually live the old saw about walking in the other person's moccasins. We then might come to understand the world as the other does, which probably does increase the chance that we will take the other more into consideration if and when we return to our own lives. This was exactly the experience of Reverend Benjamin Weir, who was kidnaped by pro-Iranian militants in Lebanon. After his release in September, 1985, he said: "My captivity has led me to a deepened sympathy for people who are incarcerated, especially for causes over which they have no control, and for those who by illness or circumstances of life are in some way imprisoned or confined, lonely, and in distress." (Reference lost)

We can assume that as a minister, Weir was already a leg up in the concern-for-the-prisoner department. Thus, his sentiment is an important endorsement of putting oneself in the other's place.

It is also likely that we sometimes change our attitudes and behavior only when it becomes fashionable to do so. In the early days of the environmental movement, there was much ridicule of those who were so concerned about Bambi that they would deprive me of the rich wood paneling that I had chosen for my den. Now enough people have gotten onto the environmental bandwagon that even the corporate types are expressing a commitment to the planet's preservation. A while back the headline in the newsletter of the Arrowhead Drinking Water company read "Recycling: the new morality." As pleased as I was to read it, I nonetheless wondered whether Arrowhead's management had long promoted recycling as a moral good, or whether the headline was just an example of getting on a popular bandwagon.

It is also the case that we are more likely to pay attention to a moral message when the messenger, or, let's say, the victim, looks and talks like us. Michael Zinzun is a large black man who wears a snood over his plentiful "afro" styled hair. He lost an eye at the hands of the Pasadena police department several years ago, and has worked hard trying to get an elected civilian police review board established for the City of Los Angeles. He is the last person that the average middle class white would want to see on such a board, even though he seems as qualified as the political types who were appointed to the board that was established in response to the beating of black motorist Rodney King by the Los Angeles police officers.

In this same line, last winter Congress passed a law restricting military aid to the government of Guatemala to protest its excessive reliance on force to remain in power. But the Guatemalan military has been killing peasants for years, and Congress went along with Bush's reinstatement of military aid soon after he took office. Why so late with the punitive cut-off? Very simple: the military killed an American (allegedly by accident).

It also happens quite often that we change our ideas about what is right or wrong when we change our goals, and these new goals are founded on a different set of moral principles than we had earlier subscribed to. After a period of youthful and idealistic protest against U.S. foreign policy and the Vietnam War, more than a few student protesters decided to make a living. Some of them decided that their best shot at the good life was to take a job in the defense industry. Now they believe that the arms race was a necessary evil.


As I said at the beginning of this talk, I didn't expect us to solve the mystery of moral decision-making this morning, and I don't think we have even come close. I have not heard from anyone, anywhere, anything even resembling the solution. Often, we are offered answers that are not answers at all. Here, "human nature" might well be used to "explain" my friend Tom's reluctance to support Ralph Nader, or my friend Jack's hope for a war against Nicaragua. Perhaps Freud can be brought in, and the UU who didn't believe everything he said on Sunday morning can be understood in terms of the Id, the Ego, and the Super-ego.

None of these abstractions are answers, and I consider most of them to be useless as conceptual frameworks for dealing with the riddle of human behavior. Do rich people give a lower percentage of their disposable income to charity than do the poor because they were improperly potty-trained? Did Ivan Boesky and Charles Keating steal millions because they missed a rung on Maslow's heirarchy of needs? To all such suggestions, I say "Rubbish!"

I do not see any real mystery in the world I have spoken of this morning. The problems we face are obvious. The solutions are obvious. The mystery of what triggers that particular moral transformation that will inspire us to implement the solutions lies within each of us. But even here there is no mystery as to the strictly honest approach to our being-in-the-world: it is to admit straight out that we are not helpless, and then do something. If we are confused, the answer is to get as much information as we can. After a while, a conclusion will settle in. Then we can devise a plan of action—even if it is a modest one. That is enough for now.


The day before delivering this talk, I drove to San Diego County, far enough south to pass the Immigration and Naturalization Service inspection station. For several miles on either side of the station, spaced regularly on the side of the roadway, the motorist sees yellow diamond-shaped warning signs. The signs are large, accommodating text and a sizeable graphic image. The text reads "Warning: people crossing the road." The graphic is a silhouette of three people: a man leads a woman by the hand, who in turn is leading a small girl by the hand in a run across the freeway's five lanes of traffic. The flying dresses of the woman and the girl almost convince the motorist that the three silhouettes are about to leap off the sign and onto the freeway in a real run for their lives. And, as if these signs aren't enough, huge banners span the entire roadway width close on either side of the station. No graphic, but virtually the same message; "Watch for people crossing the road."

After imagining the fear the illegal aliens must feel as they make a dash in the hope of avoiding the INS, I thought of the increasing levels of poverty we are seeing here in the United States. This in turn reminded me of the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and my fear that sooner or later the rich will decide that they need official protection from the rest of us. Such a thought might already have occurred to some of our wealthier and more politically imaginative citizens, and I see no difficulty for them in using their influence with politicians and the press to turn a militant demonstration by poor people, let's say, into an amorphous but vividly imagined threat to the safety of an increasingly skittish middle class. Thus might the nation's police forces become the protectors of the nation against the now "more numerous but less easily defined terrorist threats" evoked by former CIA director William Webster in his response to the demise of the "Soviet threat." Thus might America become an overtly fascist nation.

But that doesn't mean things would necessarily be all bad. Along the same stretch of freeway I noticed the modest signs that are becoming common now as corporations and even individuals respond to President Bush's call for a "thousand points of light." The signs herald the generosity of those who "adopt a highway," and (presumably) pay for the cleanup of litter along a particular stretch of the road. Whether Lion's Club or Kiwanis members, for example, or singer and film star Bette Middler are acting from offended aesthetic sensibilities, or have decided to humor motorists who want clean freeways but don't want to pay for them is not clear, but there the signs are, testifying to their civic virtue.

And it is easy to imagine such a generous spirit catching hold in the realm of the obscenely rich as well. Paying a few poor people out of a vast pool of funds to do the work that can no longer be done through the public sector would provide them with a few dollars, and undoubtedly a tax write-off for the benefactor as well. There might even be an advantage in organizing "thousand points of light" task forces to be used for whatever public benefit the philanthropists decided to provide. These wealthy could be imbued with an aura of almost god-like beneficence by skilled public relations specialists, thus making it an honor to work for the labor contractor who gathers the strong arms and backs for the project of the hour.

It may be that the well-off give less to charity than their poor compatriots, relatively speaking, just because they are "merely" well off. Thus, in the coming period, as more of the nation's money supply flows to fewer individuals, their sense of security and surfeit might become so strong that the satisfaction of providing all the services historically reserved to government could relegate the impulse to wealth per se to a level or two below a congenial self-image of compassionate and caring Americans. Thus might the historic image of the robber baron, and the modern image of the Enron manager, also be erased from the public memory.

But, there would always be some churlish enough not to enjoy such a pleasant feudalism, and who might then try to convince those who seem outwardly happy with their station in life that they should not be so happy after all. This danger could always be nipped in whatever bud it appears by a comprehensive network of domestic spies and tried-and-true methods of intimidation. Ideally, society would finally settle down to a steady state in which there would be no serious threat to those who control money, land and resources. Who could challenge them? Why would anyone want to? Wouldn't the rich finally be doing everything dear to the liberal and to the bleeding heart? What more could anyone ask?

Bill Becker, West Hills, CA


  1. Adaptation of a talk presented at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach, December 15, 1991. Slightly revised, February, 1994; May 2004.

  2. "Jane" is a pseudonym for the other participant here (who is a woman, however). She graciously gave me permission to use her real name in the original talk I gave at various Unitarian Universalist churches, because it was all "in the family," so to speak. Since this revision is intended to travel farther afield, however, I have decided on anonymity for her.

  3. Jane and I parted friends, of course, and she felt challenged enough to invite me to speak at her church. The talk I gave there was titled "Why we live in the best of all possible worlds."

  4. The conversation with did have an effect, though. After re-thinking his statements, Sam softened, and is now more sensitive to the aspirations of third world people, and less inclined to dismiss them as incapable of understanding democracy.

  5. I was very pleased to find an affirmation of my thought here from an unexpected quarter. "The Environment's New Clothes," reports the new "green" approach now gaining momentum in the garment industry. As well as mentioning the "environmental audits" of fabric suppliers now being conducted regularly by their clothing maker clients, the article details the major fabric types and lists the environmental pluses and minuses of each. Finally, though, after noting that no fabric product is totally environmentally compatible, the report ends with a comment from a textile expert: "Buy fewer clothes, that's the ultimate." Christian Science Monitor, August 19, 1993

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Posted May 19, 2004