Moral separation

Discourse, futuretalk.co9 Comments

I want to take a moment to clarify a concept that informs a lot of what I have written here so far, and that is the notion that degrees of separation between action and consequence affect our decision making.

Let’s call this phenomenon moral separation.

I believe human beings are endowed with a limited capacity for conceiving the consequences of their actions. Certainly this foresight is what gives us moral agency. For instance, because I can anticipate that, say, gossiping about a friend can cause them distress in the future, whether or not I choose to gossip reveals something about my character.

This foresight diminishes as moral separation increases, as does a general sense of accountability. If I hit somebody and then claim I did not know this would cause them pain, nobody will believe me and I will be judged uncivilized. If I leave all the lights on in the house, people might think I’m wasteful but it’s not the same level of judgment. And nobody thinks twice when I order off instead of going to the mom and pop around the corner.

All of these things have a very real impact on someone somewhere, but as moral separation increases the consequences of my actions turn into mere abstractions. Human beings, by default, are not programmed to respond as acutely to abstraction as we are to tangible realities.

If we can figure out how to decrease moral separation, we can nourish humanity’s better nature by allowing our inherent goodness to be expressed more easily. Being “good” is more or less intuitive when consequences are concrete.

SorenMoral separation

9 Comments on “Moral separation”

  1. Some guy

    This premis is contingent upon people being morally cognizant. Is it the same to say, because I purchase items on and not the mom and pop shop, I’m immoral? Is the understanding of the impacts my actions have on others related? I think so. So then taken to extremes, what about those who are unaware of the impacts they have on others, either through lack of education, or incapabilities through mental deficiencies? Can we label them as immoral as well? Historically, we’ve given exceptions to those who we believe are incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions, and thus are not acting in immorally. Which leads to the question, is morality conditional?

    1. futuretalk

      I am not trying to say anything is immoral, or anyone is bad.

      I am trying to say that this phenomenon of moral separation distorts people’s intentions. They do things that, were they to sit and analyze in their fullness, they would agree have a harmful impact. However, in the moment, they do not or cannot conceive those consequences in their fullness.

      In other words, the human moral compass was not designed for global consumer society. And I do not fault anybody for responding to immediate consequences (price, convenience, etc) while overlooking far-reaching consequences (child labor, bleeding money from the community, etc). In fact, I think that is a completely normal thing to do.

      So instead of figuring out how to force other people to reconfigure the way they make decisions, we need to figure out how to restructure society so that immediate consequences and rewards encourage choices that are beneficial to local communities.

  2. Kalonia

    What you have just described, very succinctly I might add, I call natural consequences. I believe during the developmental stages it was imperative that we learn our actions have natural consequences. Our ability to connect our actions and the immediate consequences is something difficult to teach, especially those actions that cause internal damage, such as lying. The key word here is immediate. In some cultures, it was and are laws that requires immediate action. However, I believe most of them are punitive. Do you have any ideas on types rewards and for what types of behaviors.

    I believe you on to something with this…

    1. futuretalk

      I think that since our ability to perceive consequences generally works well at the lower degrees of moral separation, the key isn’t necessarily to create new rewards and consequences, but to focus our activities within the locus of low moral separation.

      I realize what I’ve just said is totally abstract and doesn’t yet bring us any closer to that bridge between discontent and action that I’ve stated is this blog’s goal… but we’re getting there slowly.

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  4. Alicia

    Some countries have mandatory military, how about a mandatory year of charity in critical needs areas (domestic and abroad)? Perhaps it would help turn abstract into tangible. Tax benefits, tax breaks to those who donate and help fund projects.

  5. Moe

    This was one of the first posts I have read on your blog…and I definitely will continue to read. While, I have never referred to it as ‘Moral Separation’ I have tried to explain this concept to friends in one of many conversations and I couldn’t explain it HALF as great as you did.

    1. futuretalk

      I am glad some of the writing is ringing true with your experiences. I’d be delighted, if you have thoughts of your own you want to share, if you went over to the Forums and expanded on this topic!

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