The Morality Meter: An Ethical Thought Experiment

What if you could buy a Morality Meter?  I imagine something that looks like a wrist watch.  It would come in different models with many different settings and would monitor your actions (or thoughts, if your morality worries about “lusting in your heart” or some such) and give you a reading for your choice of time interval.  The “10 commandments” or “7 Deadly Sins” models would tell you how many you violated and how many times.  The “Harm None” model would give a reading on the harm you’ve done, the “Kant” (The greatest good for the greatest number) on the good you’ve done, and the “Karma” on both.morality meter

Of course, you could set your preferences to answer the questions about “Harm none of what?” and “Greatest  number of what?”  People?  All people are only some?  Animals?  All animals or only some?  One good dose of antibiotics could really mess up your score.  Although there are all those living happily in your gut.  But neither your thoughts or actions have much effect on them, while taking antibiotics is a conscious effort to kill things.

I’d want a weighting system.  I feel I have a much greater moral imperative to see to the welfare of my cats than I do to any other cats.  I think parents have a greater responsibility to keep their children from harm than other children.  And grandchildren.  Cousins?  Neighbors?  Those would all be in your preferences settings.

Anyone who’s wrestled with questions of vegetarianism has given thought to how they feel about eating different animals.  Most people are horrified by whole idea of cannibalism, and most Westerners would be almost as horrified by the thought of eating dogs and cats.  Increasingly people are weighing questions about if it’s morally equivalent to eat mammals and fish, fruits and vegetables, organically grown or not.  I feel guiltier when I eat pork than beef, duck than chicken.  Why?  Because I’ve cuddled pigs and ducks, but not cows or chickens.  That makes a difference to me.

If you could buy a Morality Meter, would you?  Do you think you’d be surprised by the readings?  What model and settings would you choose?  Would you modify your behavior to get better readings?  Or just change the settings?  What if there were a badge model, so everyone could see your readings?  Would you use it?  Would it become fashionable?  Would it change our society?  Would governments find some way to get money from it, making the phrase “Sin tax” literal?  I suppose there would be an authorized “Government” model (as well as models authorized by various religions).

Is this a purely theoretical thought experiment?  Is there a behaviour with many harmful consequences that governments have put up signs all over the place telling you their standards, and we have meters telling us how closely we’re following them?

Well, we have speedometers in our cars and posted speed limits.  (And, yes, the government has a way to make money out of people who “sin.”)

I like to ask people what they think the “right” speed is.  I don’t think anyone has every answered “the speed limit” which seems to me the most obvious answer.  “The speed of traffic” or “5 miles over the speed limit” are the most common answers.  One guy was very insistent that it was perfectly legal to go 5 miles above the speed limit.  Not just that cops didn’t stop you as long as you didn’t go faster, but that it was legal.

Admittedly, this fascinates me because my father when teaching me to drive told me the “Speed Limit” was just that — the upper limit — and you should only go at that fast when road conditions were perfect and you were passing someone.  The “right” speed most of the time, he told me, was 5 mph below that.  Slower at night or in the rain.  Of course, everyone passed us.  One of the two times I was ever stopped by a cop was for going too slow when my father was giving me a driving lesson.

I generally drive at the speed limit.  I go over it when there’s someone tailgating me.  There have been other times, when I’ve gotten behind someone going a lot slower, and I passed them, but the car in front of them isn’t going much faster, so I keep passing, and speeding up to do so.  I was in the grip of the competitiveness that’s probably the source of most driving behaviors.

There’s that joke “How can my checking account be overdrawn?  I still have checks left.”  I imagined getting pulled over and saying to the cop “How can I be speeding?  There are still cars in front of me.”  (Better yet, like the joke about Heisenberg, the cop would ask “Do you know fast you were going?” and I could answer “No, but I know where I am.”  Sorry, that’s one my favorite jokes, but I don’t dare tell it because I don’t know anyone I could be sure would get it.  But since I doubt anyone will be reading this, it doesn’t matter here.

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