Leiden International Studies Blog

Morality matters!

Morality matters!

I remember a class I once had with a substitute teacher. It was one of those classes in which you expected that the new teacher would know nothing on the matter, and would therefore probably let you “work on the homework for the class”, which obviously meant that you would spend the next hour drawing in your notebook, or whatever it was that children did before the time of Whatsapp.

This teacher was definitely not like this. I remember vividly that we entered a debate on his statement: ́altruïsm does not exist, all actions are ultimately selfish ́. I was not willing to accept this. To me, this was simply one of those proclamations that old and cynical men make after they have undertaken two half-hearted attempts in their life to pursue any remotely idealistic goal, failed, and then blamed it on mankind, since this would be easier than accepting their own responsibility.

However, the more I attempted to enumerate the instances in which altruïsm seemed to have the upper-hand, the more I seemed to reinforce his argument. I left the class with a small crisis, and a bunch of questions that would keep me occupied for some years more.

I came to the conclusion that it might be true, that in fact all of our behaviour has a positive effect (either directly or indirectly) on ourselves and that is why we pursue it. But by accepting this, I immediately also accepted my secondary conclusion: morality matters!

Although I was willing to accept that all behaviour was ultimately self-centered, I was not willing to therefore accept that it does not matter how we choose to behave. Yet, if there is a ranking of preferred behaviour, there must be some rules that guide these conducts: I was in need of a moral framework.

I entered a quest to look for these, and found many of them in books that resonated with those elements that I thought were just, but that I never knew how to articulate and justify before. Just as Dário explores in his song, to a large extent, these morals were already within me, and shared by most others! Other morals that I chose were more subtle, and more individual.

Listen to and watch his videoclip for an original exploration of morality in music, video and Mondrian’s primary colors!

But I soon realised that after having selected a few key values as my driving morality, I still had to decide on how you choose to respect these. Most people would probably argue that love is an important moral principle (as we can see in the song as well). But what does this mean? What are the actions that follow out of loving? Often it is difficult to decide what is the most loving thing to do!

That for me is maybe the most difficult step of this process: recognising what I rationally aim to pursue, and then realising the discrepancy there is between my intentions and the outcome of my actions. Long story short, I have established three points so far.

  1. I absolutely fail at following the morals I have set out. I only realised how selfish I am after starting this process, there are many times when my ego is in the way, or when I simply do not fully understand other people, and my well-intended actions have a complete opposite effect of what I wanted.
  2. Therefore, I realised that morality should be practised, you might enter a life-long process of failing in pursuing your morals, but do keep on learning!
  3. Finally, morality should be questioned. The moral framework you once build is likely to change. Do not be dogmatic, otherwise it will lose it ́s positive approach.
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