Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Ivory Cubicle | The Morality of Neckties

Every morning, I have a bit of a routine. The joyful sound of Jesse McCartney singing Beautiful Soul emanates from my phone alarm at about 7:20 AM, I roll out of bed about the time he gets to the second round of “I don’t want another pretty face,” hit the off button, go through my morning hygiene routine (I won’t bore you with the details there), select a pair of slacks, a dress shirt, sometimes a tie (usually either my gold/gray/blue or my purple plaid skinny tie) and then rush off to breakfast and/or work.

It’s a simple routine, really, but it’s laden with dozens of infinitesimally small decisions. Most of the time, I don’t even think about them. After all, is it really that important whether I hit the snooze button once or twice, or whether I pick the earthy, indie tie over the sleek, modern one?

Morality and Small Decisions

I had a conversation once with a friend on the subject of small decisions, and he articulated a theory of morality that has considerable sway in the academic community and the church. According to my friend, every decision is a moral decision. Since every action, no matter how small, either promotes or discourages a certain state of affairs, there is always a right and a wrong thing to do. So when it came time for me to select the tie I was going to wear, there was a right and a wrong decision. One of those ties would increase the happiness of a person I ran into by a small amount, and would thus be the preferred moral option.

“Of course,” he said, “wasting too much time worrying about it would probably be the wrong thing to do.”

Great, so I’m sitting here with two ties hanging on my makeshift tie-organizer, and it would be positively immoral for me to wear one of them. Well, at least that rules out the atrocious 1970s eggplant, grey and teal tie.

The Optimific and Moral Freedom

In modern ethical theory, there’s a lot of discussion concerning the optimific, or the action that “maximizes the good.” The concept is largely based on consequentialism, or the theory that an action is morally good because of its effects, not because of anything intrinsic to the action itself. Under consequentialism, you are morally bound to calculate and execute the optimific action.

Consequentialism has become the dominant ethical theory of the modern age, most prominently in the form of utilitarianism (which I discussed last week). And while thinking in terms of the effects of our actions is definitely an important part of practical wisdom, it by no means the final word on Biblical morality.

Here the concept of moral freedom comes into play. Though only one action might be optimific, it may be that more than one action is morally permissible. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “so many people cannot be brought to realise that when B is better than C, A may be even better than B. They like thinking in terms of good and bad, not of good, better, and best, or bad, worse and worst.”

Translation: Though it’s probably “better” to wear my purple plaid tie, it might be “good” for me to wear my indie tie, and “worst” to wear that atrocious relic of the 1970s. But all of them (or at least the first two) are morally acceptable decisions.

The Apostle Paul has a similar idea in the book of Romans. “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Romans 14:2-3). In short, two very different actions can both be acceptable to God.

Morality and Big Decisions

Okay, so it’s easy to take a look at the small decisions made, and say something like “that’s ridiculous, of course it’s not immoral to pick one tie over another.” The idea of moral freedom is easy to apply to the little things in life. But here’s a surprise for you. That quote by C.S. Lewis popped up in a chapter entitled “Christian Marriage,” and it was talking about some pretty heavy hitting stuff. I’ll let you check it out for yourself (again, the book is Mere Christianity, and I recommend it for everyone). So here’s my question for you. What role does moral freedom play in the massive, life-shaping decisions (for example, deciding who you should marry)?

Posted by Nick Barden.
Photo by Jill Roy.

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