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Monday, May 23, 2005

Taboo Scenario 2: Lying to your dead mother

An old woman was very ill. On her deathbed she asked her son to promise that he would visit her grave at least once a week. The son didn't want to disappoint his mother, so he promised that he would. But after his mother died, he didn't keep his promise. He was too busy. He didn't tell anyone about his promise, and he has never felt guilty for failing to do as he said he would. Is anyone harmed by the failure of the son to visit his mother's grave once a week as he promised?
I believe that the man was harmed by his failure to keep his promise. Although the scenarios attempt to be free from direct harm, the attempt to establish that he did not harm himself is due to the fact that he did not feel guilty. Guilt is not a totally accurate indicator of moral harm, anymore than pain is a totally accurate indicator of physical harm. People can of course feel guilty when they have no reason to, and equally they can fail to feel guilty when they should. Keeping a promise is a test of character, and failing to do so, indicates a lack of character and hence a lack of morality.
Would it bother you to spend a lot of time with someone if you knew that they had not kept this kind of promise?
Yes, it would. That doesn't mean I would not spend time with someone who did this, but I would think less of them if I knew about it. Certainly I would have less trust in them than I would otherwise. Now, I don't think necessarily any promise can, or should be kept indefinitely. Sometimes we promise to do things that we later decide are unfeasible, or even undesirable. It is sometimes ok to renegotiate the deal, and in a case like this, that renegotiation would have to be done unilaterally. The aspect of the scenario that bothers me is less that the son choose to not visit his mother's grave, but the seeming unimportance he places on his sworn word. Deciding that it keeping this promise is no longer necessary is one thing, treating the promise itself as unimportant is another.
How do you judge the failure of the son to visit his mother's grave once a week as he promised?
Wrong. I should mention that this question in each of the series has wrong, a little wrong, and not wrong at all as choices. I don't hold much with the 'a little wrong' answer. I would probably apply such a description to a wrong choice that was made quickly and without much consideration and was not clearly wrong without introspection. While it is unclear how much introspection the characters in the scenarios are doing, the test itself forces us to do a great deal of introspection, and thus the answers generally become quite clear.
Should the son be made to keep his promise or punished in some way for failing to visit his mother's grave once a week? [Note: if you think that either or both of these things should occur then you should answer 'Yes'; only answer 'No', if you think neither of these things should occur.]
Now is a good time to talk about punishment, since I don't think this person should be punished, at least directly, for this action. Punishment is where the harm principle comes into play in my view. If an action does not harm anyone else, it should not be punished. Now, you can make arguments about indirect harm, and whether punishment is appropriate of not for that circumstance. Of course there is a difference between consequences and punishment. If many people come to know this person places no value on their promises, then as a consequence, people will be disinclined to associate with that person because they do not value their own word. That is not the same as punishment, although like punishment it may motivate more moral behavior. Punishment in my opinion is opposing not intrinsic, or extra, consequences on a choice. When the nature of the harm is not clear, we should be very careful about imposing any punishments.
Suppose you learn about two foreign countries. In one country, it is normal for a son to break a death-bed promise to his mother to visit her grave every week. In the other, if a son has made such a promise, then it is normal for him to keep his word. Are both these customs okay morally speaking or is one of them bad or morally wrong?
I believe that any culture which does not value the keeping of one's word to be morally wrong. Now, if the definition of the term promise is different from one country to another, in the lying country a it is known by everyone that this sort of death-bed pronouncement is known by everyone, the mother included, to be merely a polite nothing, that would be different. However, the term promise usually means something, and the scenario does not indicate that a promise is not equally regarded in both countries, merely that the one country consistently fails to abide by their promise.


Blogger Laura Brown said...

"I believe that the man was harmed by his failure to keep his promise."

I think this is a very insightful comment.

Have you tried that site's 'Battleground God' game? It's pretty interesting.

5/27/2005 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger Dave Justus said...

I haven't seen that, I'll look for it.

5/27/2005 12:25:00 PM  

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