To my friends who feel guilty for not focusing more on our generation’s big issues: Don’t worry. Yes, Peter Singer and some others would argue that we are living immorally if we don’t devote all our energy toward solving the big problems of our generation. These “big problems” affect many people and cause significant harm — think famine, poverty, climate change.
Still, there are other things we consider valuable, both for moral and nonmoral reasons. It isn’t possible to pursue these other values while also doing the most we can do address big problems. Can we justify pursuing these other ends if doing so takes time away from working to fix the issues of our generation?
Some philosophers suggest alternate moral pursuits to be more morally valuable than dedication to a large moral issue. Nel Noddings argues for founding an ethical theory on caring relationships, which signifies the importance of these relationships in living moral lives. She suggests an approach to morality built upon caring for others rather than upon moral judgments and math-like principles. This approach makes situations concrete by having people imagine themselves as the one responsible in various situations, and it supports discussions of moral feelings and the process by which people arrive at moral decisions. If caring relationships are important enough to found a moral theory on, they certainly should be pursued, even at the expense of time for big problems.
Bernard Williams argues for the importance of moral integrity, which he splits into two parts. One is valuing your moral feelings and intuitions, which constitute a major part of your moral identity. This means listening to your moral intuitions, or honoring what you feel is right. The other part of moral integrity is acting in ways informed by your commitments, which are political or personal causes, life projects, etc. — for example, a career, lifelong hobby or family business. Pursuit of these commitments is suggested as best path to happiness, rather than direct pursuit of happiness.
Maintaining moral integrity can conflict with total devotion to big problems. For example, you might intuit that you should cook your neighbor a meal if she breaks her leg, and this might fit with your personal commitment to being kind to others; however, you would be unable to do so if you believed yourself totally obligated to a larger moral issue like serving orphans, because any time spent cooking for your one neighbor takes away from the time you could use to help many more orphans.
Here, following your moral intuition would preserve your moral integrity and likely leave you happier, but at the expense of total devotion to a larger problem. Williams believes that moral integrity is important enough to cause problems for well-established utilitarianism. By this view, you are justified in setting aside large world issues in order to preserve moral integrity.
Not only moral integrity is at risk. Full personhood — being a personal, identifiable self with distinct tastes and characteristics — is also threatened if you commit to act entirely guided by morals, a stake not worth sacrificing even for large moral issues.
Philosopher Susan Wolf introduces the idea of moral saints, people who are perfectly morally good, to argue the imprudence of informing all your actions and conceptions of a good life with morality. Wolf suggests two types of moral saints: the loving saint who enjoys acting morally, and the rational saint who sets aside personal pleasures out of a sense of duty.
Both these saints are undesirable models. The loving saint seems incapable of truly enjoying life, for her ability to sacrifice personal joys casts doubt upon her ability to enjoy them in the first place. The rational saint misses many parts of a good life out of self-hatred or a fear of damnation. These saints are unable to justify developing nonmoral virtues, such as humor, or having hobbies and personal pleasures, like playing sports or watching movies.
A life without any nonmoral activities or traits feels barren; moral saints show us just how important we consider these nonmoral attributes to be.
Replacing our moral theory cannot solve these issues, for the fundamental nature of morality makes it a poor overarching guide to life. Even if there were a theory of morality that urged us to develop a range of traits and hobbies, this would be undesirable.
For one, moral theories are supposed to apply to all, and it feels wrong to hold everyone to the same standards for engaging in hobbies and developing well-rounded personalities. Perhaps more importantly, developing hobbies and a sense of humor because having them is moral feels like a bad reason.
As the moral saints demonstrate, doing things only because they are moral feels hollow and not constitutive of full personhood. Having some nonmoral pursuits is necessary in order to live a full life; while it requires some setting aside of large moral issues, this partial neglect is justified.
We can set aside large moral issues to the extent necessary to pursue other moral and nonmoral ends. We should not feel bad about taking some time away from away from advocacy in order to invest in our friendships, play an intramural sport or develop a stand-up routine. But it remains to be seen how much setting aside is necessary. Entirely forgetting the big problems, as the “Stanford bubble” encourages students to do, seems wrong as well. Determining how to strike balance between devotion to big problems and to other valuable pursuits is an essential question, but it’s one for another article.
— Julia Axelrod ’20
Contact Julia Axelrod at axelrodj ‘at’ stanford.edu.