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Jan 22 2013

Ethical dimensions of the dueling myth postulate

It is profoundly mundane to merely point out “hey, some people don’t agree about some things“, but it’s when we consider the moral consequences of these disagreements that the ‘rubber hits the road’, so to speak. Because we have general agreement between parties that fairness is both morally good and important, but disagreement over whether or not a system is in a state of fairness, conflict arises immediately.

Morality within the Fair Myth framework

If one starts from a position that the world is fair, then any attempt to change the world would bring it into a state of unfairness. It is morally reprehensible, for example, to arbitrarily deprive someone of something that ze deserves. Indeed, it is highly morally reprehensible to take goods or status from one who has earned them and give those goods to someone who has not.

We saw an example of this when people believed that tax money was being used to bail out large banks and give bonuses to wealthy executives whose risky practices had caused a financial collapse. The taxpaying public (largely blameless for the economic troubles) were having their goods and services curtailed in order to reward a class of people who a) didn’t need the bonuses to live, and b) did not face any criminal charges for their malfeasance. It was monstrously unfair to redistribute wealth in a way that rewards irresponsibility and excess.

Indeed, in many cases it is morally laudable to fight to protect a fair system. In the last American election, when new laws were brought in that would disenfranchise voters, a public outcry went up to preserve the existing system (whatever its flaws might have been). The belief that the current system was fair, insofar as it allowed people to vote regardless of their skin colour or age (with the caveat that there is a legal voting age), motivated a strong resistance to change, fueled by a general agreement among proponents that people deserved to vote, and were threatened with having that status taken away from them for reasons that were seen as arbitrary.

Morality within the Unfair Myth framework

Conversely, there is a similar moral dimension to the u-myth. If one has the ability to intervene, it is morally reprehensible to allow an unfair system to persist. The u-myth invokes the image of the ‘Good Samaritan’ parable, where it is morally laudable to take action to either prevent an unfair thing from occurring, or to stop an unfair thing while it is happening.

For example, there are a number of people who believe that the state has a moral obligation to provide health care to its citizens. A state, with its wealth and power, is in a ready position to construct, administrate, and fund a system wherein all citizens receive at least some rudimentary level of care. Most industrialized nations, and many with different economic circumstances, recognize the duty of the state to ensure a level of basic health, and consider it a moral failing when a state does not. The fact that it also makes financial sense for the state is worthwhile including in a discussion of policy, but I wish to focus solely on the moral dimension.

As above, it is morally reprehensible to defend an unfair system. We have precious few people today who would jump to the defence of South Africa’s apartheid system (though there are many alive today who have defended it). We recognize the unfairness of a system that stratifies human beings by an arbitrary characteristic such as skin colour, and would roundly condemn anyone who argues that such a system was fair and/or necessary.

We see from the above examples that beyond the simple fact of disagreement, there is a moral dimension to each myth. When moved from the privacy of one’s own head into the real world, our allegiance to either of these myths can play out in real ways. The extent to which we adhere to the myth affects our support for either making a change to the world, or insisting that it remain constant. ‘F-mythers’ will fight to ensure that fair systems are not disrupted, and ‘U-mythers’ will fight to ensure that unfair systems are changed immediately.

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4 comments

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  1. 1
    Enkidum

    Hmmm…

    I guess when you first were talking about the f-myth and u-myth people, I was assuming that you meant “the world as a whole is fair/unfair”, but in this article it would seem more along the lines of “this aspect of the world is fair/unfair”. I.e. the f-mythers who oppose the bank bailouts on the grounds that the public deserved to keep their own money certainly didn’t believe that the world as a whole was fair – at the very least, they presumably thought that the recession was deeply, deeply unfair.

    And it seems to me that all the examples of moral claims you’ve brought up so far are ones that would be supported by you, and most of the readers of this blog, so I’m wondering where the conflict between the myths is. But presumably that comes out in a later post.

    Anyways, quite liking this approach as a change of pace.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    And it seems to me that all the examples of moral claims you’ve brought up so far are ones that would be supported by you, and most of the readers of this blog, so I’m wondering where the conflict between the myths is.

    I am intentionally using the ‘boiling a frog in a pot’ approach, to focus on whether or not the idea has merit in concept rather than getting ahead of myself and igniting a fight over a specific issue.

  3. 3
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I don’t think either “myth” is an accurate way of describing the underlying viewpoints… but since you’re leading up to something, I’ll wait to see how it plays out. I’m not expecting to go anywhere useful, but I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

  4. 4
    Brian Lynchehaun

    I like that you framed both positions in the context of ‘liberal’ arguments. I think this illustrates that this is a good framing device, not merely a framework that declares that it’s ‘us who are doing it right’ vs ‘them who are doing it wrong’.

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