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The Grey Area in Ethical Debates

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Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

At the time of writing, a certain debate rages more furiously than ever in my home country of Ireland. On May 25th, there is to be a referendum on whether or not Ireland should repeal its eighth constitutional amendment, which states ‘The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’ Since the founding of the state, it has been illegal for women (or those who can carry children) residing in Ireland to have an abortion with exceptions in the case of risk to the mother’s life. According to a Red Research poll for the Sunday Business Post carried out on the 25th of March this year (2018), the Repeal Campaign (representing those who support the right of a child-bearing parent to choose an abortion) were leading at 56% of those polled, about half. The poll demographics also show that about half of men and half of women reside on the “Yes” side. About half of the populations of Ireland’s four provinces – Leinster, Munster, Connaught, and Ulster – reside on the “Yes” side (the county of the capital, Dublin, showing a stronger leaning towards a “yes”, at 63%). The same pattern can be seen among 35-64 years olds, with the very youngest Irish significantly more in favour of repealing, and the more aged Irish tending towards opting to protect the eighth amendment. Overall, along with the representation of the debate in the media and most of what I hear from people back home, there is a pronounced split down the middle, and on either side of the split reside very passionate views and very few if any concessions or expression of uncertainty or confusion.

I want to talk about the views that aren’t well represented in the media; those people who aren’t speaking or, for the most part, are not being heard in bipartite debates. I want to speak about the “Grey Area”.

The fact is, we don’t tend to be as vocal if we are unsure or conflicted. It’s hard to fight fervently for one side when you find aspects of the other side’s arguments compelling, or neither side’s arguments completely convincing. I’m not going to be referring to those whose apathy causes them to opt out of thinking about the issue altogether, but rather, those who face a genuine predicament of ethical uncertainty. It’s my view that this is the group in which you can find most of the people who are listening with the least amount of discrimination and empathising the most universally.

Now, the black and white-ness of the issue is not just down to the tendency of human beings to form tribes and to see things in simplified binaries, but also because of the constraints imposed by the democratic system where a clear affirmative or negative result is required for action. But these two forces compliment and reinforce each other, and because the nature of humans and the political system sets up an antagonistic relationship between two opposing sides, unbiased approaches to facts and an ability to listen to the other side in a clear-headed, calm way get compromised. In an effort to protect the sacred views of one’s side at all costs, facts are cherry-picked, even embellished, inflammatory ad hominem arguments become commonplace, and the other side is sometimes demonised. Anybody who professed to  sympathise with the opposite side in some way is open to attack, even if the majority of their views are shared with the attacker. As they have throughout history, not everybody, but most people become selectively compassionate towards their own “group”.

I understand that a view can be so outrageous to one’s values as to be difficult to listen to, but if we block out compassion for those who don’t agree with us, we deny our own fallibility and ignore the manifold contextual influences of each of our views. We harm our capacity to get at the truth, even if the truth is only as much as your personal truth in terms of your ethics (current and whatever they may develop into in the future). If you are afraid of being convinced of something, or of feeling compassion for someone whose worldview is opposed to yours, then you don’t trust yourself to make good decisions in the face of new information.

The Grey Area is a legitimate place to reside in. It’s not just a matter of sitting on the fence because you are lily-livered or too vanilla to take a real ethical stance. The Grey Area isn’t only a transitional stage before ending up on either side of a debate like the one on abortion because every view is potentially transitional if we keep our minds open. We don’t have to belong to either one of the poles and commit unwaveringly to an intellectual code. As we should all know by now, life isn’t always black and white. Moral decisions aren’t always easy to make. And it’s legitimate for you to think, for example, that banning abortion is an awful decision to have to make with sad repercussions for people who can be pregnant but that you will nonetheless be marking the “no” box because of your views about the development of sentience in the womb. Similarly, it doesn’t have to be self-contradicting to see abortion as a human right to bodily integrity of the pregnant person, but also, an unfortunate reality that can sometimes be carried out with a lack of compassion for a possibly morally relevant patient, and to be marking the “yes” box. Equally, it is perfectly sensible, if you find that your views are too balanced, not to vote. A democracy entitles you to a vote, it doesn’t enforce obligatory voting.

By no means do I want to suggest that adhering to what is commonly perceived as a polar view is necessarily wrong. Whether it is right for you depends on the issue in question and who you are. I merely want to propose that residing in the Grey can also be legitimate, and that there is even something commendable about grey thinking. Compassion will often lead one to the Grey Area. It is simply improbable that the lived experiences of about half of my nation are legitimate while the other half has nothing to offer. Listening to and trying to empathise with both sides (and everyone in between, of course) is not just the compassionate thing to do, but the logical thing too. When we choose to listen to only one ideology, it becomes far more probable that we too will end up as ideologues. And a narrow set of views, held too unquestioningly, handicaps our ability to avail of new information. New information should be appraised, and if the evidence ways more against than for, rejected. But not listening outright means you’ll never truly give yourself that option of sitting in the White, the Grey, or the Black, or somewhere you wouldn’t define as belonging to any of the above. Equally, or more perniciously, thinking that listening to the opposing views is always a waste of your time cuts you off from feeling due compassion for your fellow human being, who came to believe their different views for reasons that seem valid to them, as yours do to you.

The Walls Between Us: How We Limit Our Compassion

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A man is woken by the heavy engines and slamming doors of delivery trucks. It is a frosty morning in a wintertime city somewhere. The clothes he has on are the same he has been wearing for months, and he hasn’t been able to safely bathe in over a week. There is a place that provides hot meals a few blocks away, but it won’t open its doors until late this afternoon. More than the cold and hunger, it is the loneliness that gets to him. He wishes he hadn’t woken up.

A girl arises before the rest of her family in a mud hut in a hot, dry place. She has a long day ahead of her, so she must begin early and with haste. There is water to fetch, and animals to tend to, and when her father and brothers wake up, they will expect a meal to be prepared for them. Her brothers will go to school and play with their friends on the way home. If she works hard and her father is in a good mood, she will not be beaten today. If she has company on her walk to the well, she may not be ambushed and raped. She can’t imagine a very different life for a woman. She only wishes she weren’t treated with such contempt and could go to school like the others. Then she could imagine a better life.

Out into the calamitous environment he had only been able to hear before, a newborn struggles to his feet among the crowd – a miniature crowd, all chirping for someone who should be there but isn’t. They are all suddenly pitched about inside their plastic tray as they are carried to and deposited on a conveyor belt of rollers with gaps between them. The chick is terrified as his feet slip down between two metal rollers and he calls out, repeatedly, for the presence that hasn’t shown itself yet. Onto another conveyor belt below, he drops onto several others chicks and tries to right himself. He barely has time to focus his new but well-developed senses on anything, before hands much bigger than him maul him, checking feather lengths, and tossing him down into the oblivion of a dark shoot. He is gliding down polished metal, buffeted off other chicks, rivets, and the sides of the shoot. He cries out in vain. The presence he is calling for isn’t there. He has barely hatched and started his little life before consciousness will be put out painfully in the grinder, or less mercifully, in a skip of other dying and dead chicks. He is the waste by-product of a global, industrial food system.

The first story is easily recognisable to many of us, especially those who live in a big city. It may be that they stand out for not moving in the midst of ever-moving human traffic. Although they may be dressed in ordinary clothes, there may be a defeated anguish in their faces, or humiliation, as they hold up a container, hoping for a trickle of other people’s shame or pity, the compromise we make that we know isn’t enough. Not everyone does feel compassion for the homeless person they see on the street. Some are completely cut off from their plight, even disdainful. Some people tell themselves that you get to where you are on your own steam alone, so that your misfortune, too, can only be attributed to your own lack. Whether that is also a mechanism to shield ourselves from guilt or of the dissonance that doing nothing causes for those of us with a nice self-identity is another question, but I will assume that most people have at least some compassion in the face of homeless people’s proximity and a sense of our own potential vulnerability to homelessness.

The second story stars a child in a poor community where there is a large gap between the rights of women and men and many parents don’t allow their girls to attend school, believing the role of women is to stay at home and serve the family. Hers may not be as familiar as the story of the hungry or ill child that you have probably seen many times on television around an appeal for donations to organisations like Concern or Sightsavers (which, incidentally, it is all too easy for us to ignore as well). She may not be hungry, but for that, she has gone unseen for a longer time. Her plight is often presented in the form of statistics. Her life is very different from yours, perhaps. To relate to her condition, probably requires a force of will that wouldn’t be required for someone who looks, thinks, and lives near you. Or maybe you are a very empathic person and it isn’t hard at all.

But how about the last story? The protagonist is not a “person” in the traditional sense of the word. There is little doubt about the sentience of complex animals like chickens in the world of life sciences [see the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness], and we are learning more and more about the emotions and intelligence of different species with every new paper either asking a question about their nature directly, or using them instrumentally to answer questions that may apply to humans, or brains in general, and discovering more about the experimentee indirectly. Before Descarte and his assertion that nonhumans were automata who felt no pain and whose cries were merely mechanical responses to “stimula”, people widely assumed that nonhuman animals do have feelings and thoughts. They were more inclined to anthropomorphise animals than take them for fleshy robots. Whether Descartes sincerely believe his assertion is irrelevant to the fact that it was immensely influential to how we viewed animals in the occidental tradition from the seventeenth century up until recently, especially among those who fancied themselves hard-nosed scientists and rationalists. But after a revolution in the animal sciences, the expert view has changed. At this time, it appears that consciousness evolved long before humans, dogs, and even animals like vertebrate fish. It may have first arisen in invertebrates, like the insects and cephalopod molluscs.

But accepting that others feel as we do when they are hurt, sad, afraid, or lonely, is insufficient to cause us to act compassionately when prejudice and tribal psychology numb our compassion for anyone who we consider to fall outside the circle of the “deserving”: the ones who we deem to matter, to have rights, to have value. Where we lay down the border between those who we ought to care for and those we ought not, is overwhelmingly determined by the culture we belong to. And generally, the more like us we consider another to be, the easier it is for us to empathise with them. This is not in itself a negative thing, rather, the problem lies in the fallibility of our cultures to judge what the relevant differences and similarities are.

Humans are tribal by nature. We evolved a capacity to behave cooperatively within groups against other groups in competitive environments with limited resources. This tribal tendency afforded us an advantage that let us out-compete non-cooperative individuals, but since the world was always a perilous place where competition was also necessary to survive, we had to have a limit on our instinctive cooperativeness. (For more on the evolution of human tribal thinking, read Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes.) Lines would be drawn where family ties were diluted or where territories met. Nowadays, they are drawn in the same places and many more: where skin tones, cultures, religions, nationalities, languages, ideologies, genders, orientations, abilities, social classes, music tastes, ages, aesthetics, and species differ. But which, if any, of these is related to the moral value of a being? And why?

Most liberal minds don’t have a problem accepting that “doing harm” is a fairly good approximation of immorality (there is more debate over whether doing harm through inaction – such as, not helping the homeless when it’s within your power – can be as immoral as doing harm through action, but that’s for another discussion). However, the vast majority of people would agree with the idea that some forms of harm or killing are not immoral, because the victims of the harm are not in themselves morally relevant, or at the very most, not morally relevant enough to make hurting them or killing them immoral acts. But what part of an individual is hurt or offended in the first place?

The very fact of being human does not necessitate the ability to be hurt or offended. Dead or brain-dead humans, though unquestionably human by definition, nonetheless lack the capacity to experience anything, included pain, suffering, or affront. The goldfish in the tank of the hospital reception room have more sentience than the brain-dead human lain in the ward. Prick them both with a needle, and it is only in the goldfish that there will be an experience of pain, and probably fright and the wish to flee to safety. The colour, shape, sex, and DNA of the goldfish is irrelevant to it in that moment of pain and fear, just as it is irrelevant in that human who has a different set of beliefs, orientation, culture, different physical or intellectual abilities, or any other characteristics peripheral to their abilities to suffer. The experiences of pain and the wish to go on living rather than dying evolved long before humans did, and though everyone experiences and deals with pain in the medium of our distinct bodies and minds, pain is biologically a consistent phenomenon and universally repellent. It is the existence of that capacity in an individual that should be key to distinguishing who is enough like me to be considered morally relevant to me and deserving of compassion (or, at the very least, my respect).

I used the three examples at the beginning of this article to give you a rough idea of a scale where you might delineate the limits to your compassion (alter it according to your current worldview). All of us have limits. Wherever we find we draw the line, with the knowledge of how happenstance our moral thinking can be, and if we care about our morality, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves why we draw the line there and whether or not it could handle a bit of nudging outwards. We have a responsibility not to be too complacent about our current conception of the world, and instead, be sensitively analytical and curiously open-minded about new information which may reveal the plights of beings who have resided, as yet, under out moral radar.

The Essential Nature of Compassion

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From as young as a small child, my parents had taught me to consider the feelings of others, whether they be human or not; to always be gentle and polite. As with the majority of humans, and as I developed self-awareness, I also developed altruistic capacities. This was around the toddler years. But in my conscious memory, there has never been a time when I saw others as objects rather than sentient beings that must be like myself. In fact, there were periods in development when I saw even inanimate objects as having person-hood, when I played with my toys, or imagined malign entities in the shadows under my bed, or feared the bizarre portrait of a man with a powdered face on an upside-down record sitting in a storage room in my house. Chances are that you were not all that different.

Of course, I have acted with a lack of consideration, even cruelly. Other motivations overrode my empathy for others. My desire for something else would cause concern for others to fade out of my immediate consciousness. Then I could plod all over the feelings of others. Regret, if it came, might come later, when the damage was done.

However, although I continue to act insensitively at times these days, it was all the way back in elementary school that I developed an intellectual conviction that being kind is of utmost importance. Even when others were unkind to me, it didn’t come instinctively to me to retaliate or to bully back. I did, however, wonder if my difficulty with manipulating, lying, and bullying meant that I was weaker than other children. I couldn’t understand their behaviour easily. I could see the outward benefits they reaped from putting others down – a tough reputation, a defence against the very thing they were inflicting on others. But I felt so terrible any time I realised I hurt someone’s feelings. How was their conscience able to bear it?

Now, I feel lucky that I had the adults around me that I had. We were far from perfect, but I think I had the sort of unconditional love and relatively strong attachment with adults that other children may not have had. Bullying is strongly correlated with problems in the family environment. But it also seems to be the case that children are aggressive to each other for hierarchical reasons, and not just because they may have difficult family backgrounds. This suggests that, even as young children, we have a tendency towards cruelty, in the absence of any psychological distress. This is disturbing, but I still wonder if these children had families who made a concerted effort to bring up good, kind children.

Humans vary, but all of us share a combination of appealing and not so appealing attributes in varying proportions. Regardless, research on compassion shows us that compassionate, kind acts increase a sense of wellbeing in most of us. One way in which this can be seen is how spending money on others seems to have a more pronounced positive effect on our happiness than spending money on ourselves. The same effect can be seen in toddlers [you can watch some of the videos from the University of British Colombia study here], who are found to receive greater emotional rewards from giving their own treats away than passing on a treat allocated to the other, and to favour characters who behave altruistically over those who hinder others with their actions.

Compassionate thoughts and actions also ease states of depression and anxiety. These negative states are self-focused. When depressed, we dwell on the negative aspects of our own condition. This narrow perspective can be broadened by switching our focus outwards to others in the world. By helping and caring for others, we can’t spend the same energy focused on ourselves, and we see ourselves as one individual in a vast world where everyone is fighting their own battles.

Of course, implicit in the acknowledgement that you are just another individual experiencing the human condition, is that you are also deserving of that compassion which you show to others. If you can look on yourself and your pain with openness and a genuine desire to understand, rather criticism and despair, you will better equip yourself to accept the aspect of your psychology and your past that have been hurting or shaming you. By showing yourself compassion, you can soothe yourself and, perhaps, fend of feelings of depression and anxiety.

Compassion is an essential component of the kind of environment humans (and many other animals) need to thrive. In his book, The Compassionate Mind, Dan Gilbert frequently returns to the importance of compassion for human health. This is especially crucial for the young, whose brain development is hugely influenced by the amount of love and affection they receive. Our care-givers react to our physical and emotional needs, and in doing so, they help us learn how to regulate our own emotions and develop a sense of self-worth (“I am held in someone else’s mind as an important and worthy being.”). The person you are now, though sensitive to outside influence throughout your lifetime, was significantly affected by the quantity and quality of care you received as a child. A failure to learn to be in and accept our difficult feelings, can cause us to build a fortress within ourselves, pushing our feelings down into places where we think they can’t be felt, but this can turn us into outwardly cold, callous people who can have issues with cultivating healthy relationships. Inappropriate parenting may also lead to violent individuals who feel that they have to constantly fight for their right to exist in a hostile and unloving world. We are evolved to “expect” love at birth to such an extent, that even the absence of human touch can severely hinder our development in the early years, or even kill us.

The argument for the individual’s wellbeing also serves as a plea for a better world. What an astoundingly beautiful fitting together of two jigsaw pieces! Compassionate parenting helps develop emotionally healthy human beings who are capable of being compassionate themselves. Each act of kindness can bring a bit more happiness to the world and sets an example for others to act kindly in turn. Social environments alter according to multiple factors, but the behaviour of those within in them is an important factor. A generous and patient individual, who listens to the problems of others and empathises with them, can significantly disrupt an otherwise hostile and stressful social environment. Such behaviour shows people another way to be that doesn’t have to mean making themselves more vulnerable to the ill-will of others or sacrificing important resources. Compassion is contagious. We know that compassionate thinking and behaviour correlates with better mental health and the self-care that tends to lead to physical health, so what is stopping us from taking on the goal of nurturing our sense of compassion, ourselves, and the world? Compassionate living is a win-win.