Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Curly questions 1: Heaven and Morality

A particular type of religious person will always wish to believe that they have a monopoly on morality. I referred to a couple of these types last month in Jim and the Indians - you know, the type who use religion as an excuse to stop thinking. You've seen these people - they're often the ones wearing a beatific smile and vacant gaze, usually in conjunction with either a WWJD? bracelet, or a t-shirt emblazoned; "Ask me how to be saved!" They have all the answers to everything. Just ask them.

One thing that they will tell you without hesitation is that they cannot conceive of any reason that non-believers (such as myself) should feel the need to act morally. An old friend of mine, "Rebecca" was a prime example. "Why," she said, "would you worry about being a good person if it's all chaos out there? If you're not trying to get into Heaven, or to avoid Hell, then what reason have you got to be a good person? You can do anything you want, and nothing will happen after you're dead." Rebecca's chubby jowls wobbled as she shook her head obstinately. "If it wasn't for God, why would people bother to lead good lives?"

I didn't break it to Rebecca that she had just identified herself as both a moral and an intellectual weakling. What Rebecca still doesn't know, is that morality comes about in stages, and that she's stuck on the very bottom rungs.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was an American psychologist who theorised that there are six stages (which can be divided into 3 levels) of moral development. In level 1 (pre-conventional), people orient their behaviour in such as way as to avoid punishment (stage 1) and then to reap rewards (stage 2). These two stages are known as Pre-conventional morality. In level 2, people come to an understanding of rules as social norms which allow them to fit in (3) and then as important in terms of preserving authory, law and order (4). Stages 4 and 5 can be termed as Conventional morality. Finally, an individual surmounts these orientations by first recognising the importance of social contracts of behaviour (5) and finally, universal ethical principles which can be applied for the greatest good (6). These are known as Post-conventional morality.

Worryingly, although all children start at Pre-conventional levels, only a minority of individuals reach Post-conventional morality. My friend Rebecca certainly didn't. Her argument (which, to give her the benefit of the doubt, she probably learned at Sunday School rather than formulating for herself) only served to show that she had no fundamental understanding of what morality is. Allowing fear of punishment and hope of reward to shape behaviour has nothing to do with morality at all - it's pure self interest along the lines of the carrot and stick approach. And, frankly, you can teach a rat to behave that way.

Poor Rebecca. She was not only stuck in pre-conventional moral development, she assumed everyone else is, too. She found it impossible to believe that I, as an unbeliever, would wish to behave morally, as there was no overt incentive to do so, or disincentive for running psychopathically amok. Far from religion being conducive to morality in this case, it actually stunted Rebecca's moral development by leading her to believe that the reason for being good is going to Heaven. Amen. Have a carrot.

I like to think that most religious people out there are smarter than Rebecca, and do good for its own sake rather than merely to moderate the consequences. Putting God into the equation doesn't have to cancel out morality in its true sense, but it can frighteningly distort the picture if the motives become mixed. In the end, how can you claim to be acting morally if the driving force behind your behaviour is self-interest?

Do you think religion is conducive to morality?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Good-Enough Samaritan

"Have you got a jacket you don't need?", gasped Christine as she tried to catch her breath at my front door; "Or maybe a blanket? There's a girl out here with a ripped shirt... it looks complicated."

About the age of twenty, the girl on the street was very beautiful, and very drugged. She was struggling to pull the shreds of her top far enough together to cover her breasts, muttering to herself and crying inconsolably.

"What happened here?" I asked my friend, seizing a jacket.

"I'm not sure," said Christine. "I was just heading to the station when a guy pulled up and pushed this girl out of his car." Christine's voice lowered. "One of the guys up at the station said he reckoned she had just turned a trick - her first trick. It's awful."

"Christ, I just fucking love my neighborhood, don't you?" I growled, as we emerged onto the street and towards the girl, who was now slumped on the ground with her head in her hands. As she raised her face, I could see blood coagulating around her nose and mouth. Her pupils were pin-pricks, her eyes running into little rivers of black mascara. She sat mutely as we draped the jacket around her shoulders. When we asked what we could do, she murmured "ciggie" without meeting our eyes.

Christine and I helped the girl, "Mia" into my flat, feeling that we couldn't leave her out in the literal cold and rain. Our enquiries were fairly pointless - Mia didn't want to talk, let alone about what awful experience she had just been through. After Christine went on her way, I did what I could for Mia- but beyond a steady supply of cigarettes, that didn't turn out to be much. She ate only a little of the food I heated up, and refused the offer of a shower or clean clothes. I offered to take her to the hospital, or the police station, and nearly sent her flying out the door in terror. I soon ascertained that she had nobody she could call, and nowhere she could safely go.

I started calling women's shelters. Youth shelters. Family assistance centres. I called every number listed in the phone book under Crisis Accomodation, but there was no room at the inn. And, with each phone call that I made, and each time I was told that there were no beds for Mia, the little voice in my head grew louder; Why don't you let her stay here?

I have a spare bed. My fridge is full of food and my cupboard full of spare linen. I have more clothes than I really need. There's more than enough room here to support Mia - but I didn't offer. I was afraid that she would rob me. I was afraid she might trash my house. I was afraid that when she came off whatever she was on, she might punch my lights out. I was afraid for all the reasons that prejudice against her situation dictated. She came from the street.

In the end, that's where she returned. That is, for all I know. After about two hours, she announced her intention of going to the Cross. All I could do was to give her a bag of food and beg her to be careful. I never saw or heard from her again.

Christine tried to cheer me up the following day. "You did enough" she said. "You can't save the world, you know. You did what you could." But I doubted it. I hadn't offered Christine a bed. I'd never turned my back on her for a moment while she was in my house. Even the jacket I gave her was a tatty old thing that I didn't want.

Every day, I walk down my street and see more people like Mia, who need the sort of basic, practical help I could provide, like a hot meal or a bed for the night. But instead, I toss some change, or a piece of fruit from my grocery shopping. Like so many of us, too selfish to risk what is mine in order to give another their rightful due. And, like so many of us, pretending that what I do is good enough.

How far should we go to help someone in need?