Misrepresenting Morality

-By Warner Todd Huston

Apparently, Time Magazine has no idea what the definition of the word “morality” is. It is also certain that they don’t understand the concepts inherent in it as is evident in a recent feature titled “The Morality Quiz,” where Time shows that they imagine that all there is to morality is life or death decisions resulting in sacrificing one person to save multiple others. Using decades old false dilemma questions engineered to elicit the conclusion that there is no such thing as a black and white moral choice, Time attempts to prove that Americans are either soulless killers or weaklings. Worse, as far as Time is concerned they imagine that the “foundation” of morality is mere “empathy,” meaning that the most important aspect of morality is “feeling” for others as opposed to societal exigencies or religious precepts. Confusingly, it’s also all a matter of kill or be killed to Time Magazine, which certainly takes all the messy “right” and “wrong” stuff out of the equation, eh?

In their opening statement, Time’s quiz ignores the societal aspects of morality to focus on empathy. “The deepest foundation on which morality is built,” Time begins, “is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you.” It seems to me, however, that empathy isn’t the basis of morality, but that self-interest is. It isn’t what hurts others that keeps us mindful of morality, but how a violation of that morality would hurt ourselves. If we break with morality, it will come back to hurt us through societal opprobrium, so we are mindful to uphold our moral precepts.

Time also imagines that animals have just as much morality as man. “And human ego notwithstanding, it’s a quality other species share.” Well, one can understand why Time imagines that animals share man’s morality since they only define morality as a kill or be killed societal question. But, morality is far more complicated than that, isn’t it?

From there Time urges readers to take their quiz to “see how you compare to other TIME.com readers,” and they assure us all that their quiz reveals how “scientists” use these “dilemmas to study morality.”

The quiz is filled with stark dilemmas that really have little to do with concepts of morality and more to do with reactions to life or death situations. Certainly how we deal with death is guided by morality — or can be — but reactions to these extreme situations do not measure much of importance nor does it say much about what we as a society think of morality and what is moral.

The first question asks if you could kill a crying baby in order to save the lives of a group of people hiding from enemy soldiers hunting them. The second whether you could throw out a grievously injured person from a lifeboat to make room for able bodied victims of a sinking boat. The last few ask if you’d throw a switch for a speeding train when that switching would kill only one person for the benefit of saving three and variations of that same scenario.

These are extreme conditions, naturally, but not one of them deals with the many moral decisions that people must make on a daily basis. In fact, none of these questions can even be answered satisfactorily because they are wild situations and no one can really know how they’d respond in these cases. Better would be to ask for examples of decisions people really made in their lives as well as simply ask straight forwardly how they view things like sex, murder, theft, etc.

But even more to the point, the questions Time asked do not describe the societal mores that people live with. Time’s absurdist questions do not inform a researcher of the various ideals and precepts that their subjects hold dear giving researchers a skewed view of morality.

Additionally, these questions can only have one result in mind and that is to inform the person asked them that there is no true moral choice that can be made, that every decision made by a person is based solely on utility. But, how often will the average person be in a life boat or be hunted by enemy soldiers with a squalling baby to give their position away? Wouldn’t a person be far more likely to face a question of theft from their place of work or with a sexual situation of some sort?

What do stark life or death situations ultimately prove, anyway? After all, a peaceful citizen can be placed in a situation of war, be asked to violate their normal behavior and kill other human beings, yet go right back to being a normal, peaceful citizen once the war has passed. This fact alone pretty much shows that the most extreme situations do not necessarily form the rule for morality.

In the end, there is a conclusion that can be drawn from Time Magazine’s Morality piece and that is that the editors do not believe there is such a thing and wanted to make sure you don’t either.

Sadly, Time Magazine is pretty much like every other left leaning agency in the USA today trying to impress upon all who’ll listen that everything is relative and the situation advises the ethics and that there isn’t any real moral code.


Warner Todd Huston is a Chicago based freelance writer, has been writing opinion editorials and social criticism since early 2001 and is featured on many websites such as newsbusters.org, townhall.com, New Media Journal, Men’s News Daily and the New Media Alliance among many, many others. Additionally, he has been a frequent guest on talk-radio programs to discuss his opinion editorials and current events. He has also written for several history magazines and appears in the new book “Americans on Politics, Policy and Pop Culture” which can be purchased on amazon.com. He is also the owner and operator of publiusforum.com. Feel free to contact him with any comments or questions : EMAIL Warner Todd Huston

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