The Moral Obligation to Think

The Moral Obligation to Think

The news is an adventure these days: cyber insecurity, racially-motivated violence, sexual imposition, the redirection of public funds for personal gains – the list goes on and on. Confronted with these varied and frequent stories, can we help but wonder if we aren’t experiencing a serious collapse in our collective moral judgment?

Philosopher and entrepreneur Damon Horowitz argues that our technologically-driven society has provided us with so much power that we have neglected the processes we need to deal with that power – to weigh its strengths and its weaknesses, differentiate between right and wrong and ultimately make effective decisions. In his compelling TED talk, “We Need a Moral Operating System”, he demonstrates that “we have stronger opinions about our handheld devices than about the moral framework we should use to guide our decisions.”

Every day, we are faced with questions of how and whether we should use the vast stores of data at our fingertips – and whether the common “good” might justify our use of that data in ways that compromise individual rights. To gauge these questions (and others), Horowitz shares the value of different philosophical traditions, whether the objectivism of Plato, the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill or the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, and the power of each to influence the way we think. But most of all, he exhorts us to remember the human obligation to do the very thing that only humans can do: to think. He recalls philosopher Hannah Arendt’s powerful description of the banality of evil: “The sad truth is that most evil done in this world is not done by people who choose to be evil. It arises from not thinking.” Thinking, he asserts, is a uniquely human trait. “You can’t take human thinking and put it into a machine. Not only can we do it, we must.”

How many of us are blessed with a philosophical education that allows us to distinguish Mill from Kant – or what’s more, how to use their philosophies to guide our lives? Horowitz is mindful that he possesses a skill the majority of us do not. But it’s clear, even to those not graced with these skills, that no single answer suffices. So what do we have?

We have access to each other, to a set of people who see the world through very different eyes with a wide variety of life experiences. When we engage with people who are not like us and explore life’s dilemmas through fresh cultural and educational perspectives, we open ourselves to seeing problems in a new way. It doesn’t require Philosophy 101 to know that potential solutions await us when we reshape our questions through different frameworks.

Literature allows us to do this with phenomenal success. Throughout history, literature has offered us a set of human stories and inter-character experiences that require us to try on a new perspective, to step into another’s shoes. Sharing this experience with others enhances our ability to see alternative ways of looking at the things we struggle to understand.  

Damon Horowitz agrees. “You’re thinking about the relevance of 17th century French theater — how does that bear upon venture capital? [It’s] a different way of thinking. And when you think in that way, you become more sensitive to the human considerations, which are crucial to making ethical decisions.”

The most resounding takeaway from all our evidence at Books@Work reminds us that there’s never an end to the different approaches that people can take to contextualize a story, and this very breadth surprises participants more powerfully than the story itself. So even if our name isn’t Kant, we each have the power to add to the development of an ethical framework, a moral way of thinking, simply by bringing the best of our own judgement to a collective crucible of ideas. And who knows? We just might solve some of the world’s most challenging moral dilemmas – with the operating systems we do have.

Image: Pietro della Vecchia, Three Philosophers, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.