Jul

15

 On a moral note, which I feel totally inadequate to opine upon, why is it considered so universally reprehensible to be a stool pigeon, or to dessert a sinking ship? Maturin always refused to spill the beans on his fellow mariners even when it would have helped to defeat the French or save his ship, or help out his best friend, because of the moral stigma.

Jack Tierney comments: 

This dilemma is dramatically presented in "Scent of a Woman." Al Pacino gives a rip-roaring soliloquy on why his "ward" is justified in not implicating three associates who violated the school's honor code - first, by behaving in an ungentlemanly manner, and second by not admitting to it. Due largely to the speech, the young man is exonerated to cheers from his fellow classmates and much of the faculty. The line from the speech that I recall vividly goes something like this: "Many times I was faced with the choice of doing right or wrong. In every case I knew what the right decision was. I never took it. Why? Because it was too damn hard!"

Almost everyone seemed happy with the conclusion. I was not. As far as I'm concerned. the over-riding issue is whether, once we have sworn to adhere to a code, it is permissible to toss it to the winds because popular opinion or powerful forces believe otherwise. The young man and Pacino are, unsurprisingly, both portrayed heroically. Hollywood has a history of lionizing scoundrels and demonizing those who spoke against them. Should that be the template by which we measure honorable behavior?

Rudolf Hauser comments: 

This may well be something some of us are genetically programmed to do. The fact that the trait is so common across cultures is suggestive of this. Genetic traits depend on survival of the gene that carries them, which means they aid survival and reproduction. The logic is that on the evolution of reciprocal altruism is that it genetically paid to help one's siblings since they shared many of the same genes, increasing the odds that the gene that encouraged such behavior would be more likely to survive since some of one's siblings would share that gene. But then there was a recognition problem.(The evolution of such traits is likely to have started among our pre human ancestors who did not have the benefit of language.) An older sibling would know who its younger siblings were but not the other way around. But the odds of the gene thriving would increase if it acted in the interest of those who helped one as they might be older siblings. Members of the same tribal group would be more likely to share that gene than outsiders. But altruistic behavior has costs to the entity engaging in it. The most favorable trait would therefore be to appear to be altruistic without being so in fact but benefitting the altruistic behavior of others toward oneself. But that is costly to those who do engage in altruistic behavior, so a genetic response in which the behavior of cheaters and traitors is punished would tend to reduce such cheating. Experiments have shown that people are willing to punish cheaters even if it has an economic cost to them of doing so. Along similar lines, there is more of a hostile attitude toward those outside a group than those within one's group. Both of these traits account for why it is considered so reprehensible to be a stool pigeon or engage in other behavior inconsistent with what are viewed as societal obligations to the group.

From a moral standpoint, doing what is right morally is far more important than loyalty to someone whose moral behavior turns out to be reprehensible. The purpose of liberty in part is the belief that one should be able to act on the basis of one's individual conscience rather than following the possibly evil dictates of society. The opposition of society to such behavior is one reason the fight for liberty is often so difficult and why individuals are often reluctant to stand by what they believe to be right.


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