Models of Conceptualizing Morality

Whenever moral evaluations take place, the two models I’ve frequently seen employed in discussion are these:

  • a status-oriented, “being”-centered morality of personal characteristics and fixed natures (that which takes for granted the existence of “bad people”, as a division from the rest of the population, which commentators then use to sort people on the basis of whether or not they go in that category)
  • and, less frequently, an adaption of the former that emphasizes “shades of gray” and that “everyone has some good and bad in them” (which always devolves into a rather frustrating and defeatist brand of moral relativism that, in attempting to acknowledge complexity, prevents acknowledgement of anything by undermining any productive discourse, deeming the whole discussion a pointless exercise and thinking itself enlightened for it).

Neither of these models jive with my understanding of reality and human nature, and out of frustration with their ubiquity, I want to share with y’all an alternate model that I find far more useful in practice.

This post was brought to you in part by the encouraging comments on this post and in part by sheer bitterness.  Enjoy.

The observations mobilized in this post about how moral philosophies have been employed originated with patterns I noticed within fandoms (the evaluations of fictional characters that started from a status-oriented premise, i.e., “is [character x] good or bad?”) and I believe could also be of use in multiple other arenas where I’ve seen the same basic construction arise — because too often, I see people struggling to reconcile a firm set of ethics (ex. [x thing] is bad, no two ways about it) with an understanding that everyone has their flaws (human beings are and will always be imperfect).  These two understandings do not have to be in conflict, obviously, and I get frustrated when people don’t realize how easy this is to solve, so this post will be my attempt to explain.

The Status-Oriented Model of Morality

Just so we’re clear, what this model holds is as follows:

Judging the Morality of People
  • There are good/decent people.
  • There are bad people.

What specific attributes get people classed as “bad people”, and what treatment bad people deserve, will be outside the scope of this discussion, because for now I’m just going to focus on what this, by itself, means for us.  In order to characterize people according to its logic, the model presumes evil as a state of beingTo clarify my precise meaning here, consider this in terms of two different understandings of the word “being”.  In Spanish, there are two words for “to be”: ser and estarEstar is more temporary, a description of a transient condition, something that could change or come and go; ex. to be sick (or feel unwell), estar mal. Ser describes essential characteristics, what you inherently and irrevocably are; ex. to be intrinsically awful, ser mal.

In the status-oriented model, mala gente es mala — bad people are bad, in the same way that people are short or tall or redheaded.

Put that way, it sounds a little determinist, doesn’t it?  As if, once you’re a bad person, there’s nothing you can do about it.  For the sake of argument, let’s presume that being a “bad person” isn’t that fixed, but is still a status one can enter into.

Given the assumption of such a category, how bad does someone have to “be” in order to be a “bad person”?  Setting aside the question of what counts as immoral in the first place, how do we sort individual, complex, multifaceted persons within this is-or-isn’t dichotomy that classes their whole being as bad or not?  How do we assess badness in quantitative terms?  Is there one singular, particular action where the line is drawn — which, once crossed, you can never come back from?  Or are there multiple paths to it?  Is it accumulative?  Do we keep a tally?  Is each bad decision a single demerit, or do some count more than others?  Where do we set the threshold?

I’ve come to the conclusion that such a scoring system doesn’t work, at least not for my own purposes.  Some knowable formula could be possible, sure, but I’ve long given up on it in favor of a more pragmatic approach.

Plus, even aside from how unworkable it is, the model also in effect 1) creates safe zone where some people can say, “well, I make mistakes but at least I’m not a bad person” and cultivates the otherization of “bad people” which distances them and their badness from the self (impeding critical self-reflection), 2) inspires a nebulous and unproductive anxiety for people with low self-esteem that they, themselves, might be “bad people” beyond repair 3) enables a rather useless and obstructive mode of defending people (“okay, that’s true, but he’s not a bad person“), and, in terms of calculating someone’s badness rating in relation to the arbitrary threshold, can even create the impression of “redeeming qualities” that “make up for” badness and save someone from classification as a bad person (therefore excusing their behavior).

Combined, these are the reasons why I’ve abandoned the whole endeavor for a better framework.

The Deed-Oriented Model of Morality

This model is intrinsic to my understanding of Christianity, but it’d be fairly easy for anyone to apply a secular version in a way that would make it a “worthwhile” contribution from my religion, thank you very much.

Note: for judging works of media and non-person entities, swap out the word “people” for whatever you have in mind.

Judging Morality Judging People
  • some actions are neutral or even virtuous
  • some actions are evil/bad
  • there are people I want in my life
  • there are people I don’t want in my life

There are further subcategories within these, of course, and it gets messier from here on out, but regardless of what particular actions or criteria you put in each slot, the model is widely applicable.  It is entirely possible to judge people’s actions — sorting some as bad and some as not — and use this as a basis of an aggregate opinion of that person without creating a fixed division between “bad people” and the rest of us.

There are no “bad people”.  Or, more precisely — we are all bad people, and so any effort at division becomes a moot point.  If you want nothing to do with a person, you don’t have to worry about whether they really are a bad person or not.  You don’t have to agonize over whether you’re judging their soul fairly or not if you don’t make the judgement of their whole person a prerequisite in the first place.  When a cost-benefit analysis says that being around them is worse for you than not, cut them out of your life.  It’s simple as that.

The model allows for staunch condemnation of evil while removing the burden of all-encompassing judgement of an entire human being present in the former, and in that way, I find it not just efficient but liberating.

Are they a bad person?  Maybe, maybe not, but it doesn’t matter — I don’t need to figure that out in order to decide not to put my trust in them.  I don’t make it my responsibility to judge people; I just judge what people do, and occasionally make inferences about them relevant to precise practical matters such as whether and how to continue interacting with them.  The difference can be thought of as the difference between saying someone is a noun and saying someone verbs or is being adjective.

Admittedly, I understand the gravitational pull and appeal of the status-oriented model, and I still incorporate it in some ways.  The act of judging entire people, judging their entire souls, as bad (people) or not, is functionally equivalent to deciding whether or not they deserve to go to Hell.  And I can accept/agree that this is true of some people.  But I make that acknowledgement without appointing myself the one to make that call.

And, for the reasons I’ve laid out here, I think that allows for our moral judgements be that much more precise, pragmatic, and expedient — in terms of accuracy and usefulness both.

18 responses to “Models of Conceptualizing Morality

  • Marvin Edwards

    One of the key aspects of Christianity is redemption. The prodigal son returns and is welcomed by his father, the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the lost sheep, and so on. In fact, Jesus invites us to “love your enemies” and return good for evil.

    In a system of justice, and child rearing, it is not the person who is judged as good or evil, but the behavior. Certain behavior is judged wrong because it either harms someone or infringes upon their rights. The point of penalty is to protect us from further harm by the offender. (a) Restitution or repair of the damage may be required when possible. (b) Reasonable corrective measures may be applied to the offender, hopefully to redeem and restore him to the community. (c) Until corrected, the offender may be imprisoned to prevent him from harming someone else.

    The nature of the person may affect how easily he is corrected. A person who accidentally kills someone is quite different from a serial killer. Correcting one may be easy and the penalty less. Correcting the serial killer may be impossible, and he is likely to spend the rest of his life in jail.

    A person who seeks good for others as well as for himself is of “moral intent”. A person who seeks good for himself at the expense of others may be called “immoral”.

  • Madcap

    I started this entry with a bit of trepidation, not really knowing where it was going. Then, there was a light, and it was good.

    My father is currently in jail for murder. He has been there for seven years. He will likely die there. Is he a “bad person”? To some of the world, yes. To me, never. I have seen his good nature, his love, and his devotion to God (which he had when I was younger, and lost, but has since reclaimed in prison). He is a good man who made some bad choices.

    This is a wonderfully written piece on how we should look at people. And as a Christian, I would say that yes, this is a wonderful contribution. I wish pastors could see this and share it.

    • acetheist

      Thank you for sharing. That’s got to be really rough on all of you.

      And it’s very kind of you to say that.

      I just wish more people would think to look at it this way.

  • salmelo

    “2) inspires a nebulous and unproductive anxiety for people with low self-esteem that they, themselves, might be “bad people” beyond repair”
    I just wanted to thank you for this point, because I’ve struggled with exactly this issue a lot personally and it’s really affirming to have it pointed out so explicitly like this.

    • acetheist

      Thank you so much for telling me. I was hoping that would help someone. Everyone has worth; that’s something I firmly believe. No exceptions.

      When you start to worry about it again, please remember that.

  • Calum P Cameron

    I’ll admit to being guilty of using (or, more accurately, APPEARING to use) the status-oriented model in discussions of fictional characters before.

    Personally, I tend to think of MOTIVES as being good (like wanting to help people), evil (like wanting to hurt people or help yourself at someone else’s expense) or neutral (like wanting a sandwich), with actions being arguably good, evil or neutral depending on context and motive (with a few exceptions which seem to me to be inherently bad things to do regardless of motive or context, but yeah). When it comes to people, I have always assumed that all people (all humans, anyway… Uh, except Jesus… ah, you get what I mean) are neither inherently good nor inherently evil, but kind of inherently neither and both and a mix of the two. It may or may not be the case that some could somehow contain more evil than good or more good than evil at any one given time, and I guess potentially if that were true and you could work out how to tell then you could arrange them on a scale from best to worst, but… yeah, I don’t think following that line of thought is likely to be productive, and I certainly think it’s too potentially damaging to be a good idea. And even if it IS true that some people contain a higher “percentage” of goodness than others at any one given time, it’s probably at least potentially a transient state anyway. Most “inherent” states are frequently at least a little fluid, in my experience.

    However, this is a very long-winded way of speaking and it’s very difficult to be precise about it without confusing myself, so when I have cause to discuss the issue as it occurs in fiction I tend to use “good character” as shorthand for “character who more often than not is shown to have good motives and at least try to do more good actions than bad ones”, and “evil character” as shorthand for “character who more often than not is shown to have evil motives and does not try to do more good actions than bad ones”.

    So I speak of the Red Skull as being “probably the most evil human being in the entire Marvel universe” because it’s easier to say than “probably the human being from the Marvel universe who most frequently is shown to have evil motives and perform evil actions”.

    I hadn’t really considered before that my terminology might be accidentally reinforcing a model of morality that I generally do not agree with or approve of…

    • acetheist

      Some good points about the complexity there. When it comes to fictional characters, I find it easiest to think of them in terms of alignment (ex. Are they with the Fire Nation?) and whether or not I’m rooting for them. Another way I’ve seen people use the word “evil”, in terms of fictional characters, seems to be confusing it with “powerful”/”effectual” (as in, they will rank a character more evil simply because they’re better at accomplishing their goals), and that sometimes throws another wrench into the works.

    • Marvin Edwards

      I’m thinking maybe “evil” should describe the intent rather than the action. To me, “morality” implies an intent to achieve good for others as well as for yourself, “bad” implies willingness to allow others to suffer to obtain a benefit for oneself, and “evil” would intentionally harm or take pleasure in harming others.

      When we say an action is “evil”, we mean that the intent behind the act was “evil”.

      I think ACE also has a good point about “power” being associated with evil. I don’t think the nature of man is innately moral or evil. Given a situation of plenty, we’re likely to share. Given a situation of privation, we’re likely to hoard and steal. Those who seek power probably fear loss of control over their situation. Those who obsessively seek wealth probably hold onto a fear of poverty. And behavior practiced long enough, whether good or bad, becomes habitual.

      • acetheist

        Nah, I’m onboard with calling actions themselves evil.

        And the rest… dunno where you’re getting that from, ’cause I doubt CEOs who keep granting themselves bonuses are holding onto a fear of poverty.

        • Marvin Edwards

          A volcano erupts, strangling and killing the citizens of Pompeii. Would this be called an “evil action”?

          Okay, you’re probably right that not all cases of greed are caused by an unconscious fear of poverty. A boy just wants his yacht. Sailing is an adventure. Until you exhaust your wants you’ll probably want the bonuses.

        • acetheist

          Nope, because volcanos don’t have souls.

        • Calum P Cameron

          Personally, I’d say intent is the main thing that MAKES an action evil. Did you kill someone? Ok, but did you WANT to or was it an accident? If it was an accident, was it one that occurred because you were lazy or were you genuinely trying to be responsible and it just all went horribly wrong? If you wanted to, was that because it was the only way you could defend yourself or some other person in immediate danger, or was it for some less necessary reason?

          As you say, if the killer is a volcano then the action is not evil because there IS no intent. If the killer is a hyena, then it probably had no motive beyond hunger and an inability to understand morality with its doggy brain, so I’d call “no evil” on that one too. If the killing is done by the Red Skull in order to cement HYDRA’s control over the globe, I’m gonna go ahead and call that evil. If it’s Captain America killing the Red Skull because it’s the only way to stop him cementing HYDRA’s control over the globe, then I’m inclined to let him off with that one.

          There are probably other factors, too – the precise methodology of the killing, for example, and whether or not a less brutal methodology would have sufficed, but I personally always view the motive as the most important indicator of morality. This, however, leads into the muddy, muddy waters of situational ethics, and I’m not sure I feel qualified to delve any deeper there.

        • acetheist

          That factors in, to be sure. I’m wary of that using that as the sole determining factor, though, because that lets people off the hook when they say incorrect/bigoted/damaging things and then respond to being called out with, “But I didn’t intend it that way,” instead of apologizing.

          Remember that whole conversation?

        • Marvin Edwards

          About that “situational ethics” thing. All moral choices are actually situational. It’s just that a great many situations are similar enough that we can create a general rule to cover them. And if experience proves the rule is working, society establishes an “ethical norm” or “community law”, which it then teaches its children. The original reason behind the rule may be lost in history. But after a few generations, the norm is firmed up by being called “innate”, or “natural”, or “God given”. All of which are rhetorical devices that usually mean “its been that way as long as we can remember”.

          And all that’s fine except when someone realizes that there is a better rule or a better way. That’s how it was with slavery, and racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and now sexual orientation.

          So we have to go back and try to figure out the reasons behind the rules, and perhaps question our earlier assumptions. And if we come up with a better rule, one that makes things generally better for everyone, we replace the old rule with the new one. And eventually it becomes the norm, and is called “innate”, “natural”, and “God given”.

        • acetheist

          You make it sound as if “someone realizing” wasn’t there in the first place.

          This is a generally fair account except for how linear it is.

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