Moral Judgment

One thing experience shows is that good people sometimes do bad things, and bad people sometimes do good things. For moral judgment, that's a problem. How do you decide if people are essentially good or essentially bad?

Many solve the problem by ignoring it. They don't try to make moral judgments. Does that work?

Only if you don't deal with anybody. To cooperate with people, to trade with people, to make agreements with people, or just to be friends with people, you have to be able to predict what they will do. When you decide that a partner will keep his word, or that a friend will show up as promised, you are making a moral judgment. There is no way to deal with people unless you can decide what they are likely to do.

The process is called induction—discovering principles. To fix a sputtering motor, you must know its principles of operation; and to predict a man's actions, you must know his principles of operation.

Induction is done not by the number of things, but by the nature of things. You cannot just count the bad things and the good things people do and decide which number is bigger. You have to find out why people do the things they do.

The best way to do this is the easiest way: ask them.

"To me, what you did looks just evil—but I guess it doesn't look that way to you, does it?"

This question will get you a full—or furious—explanation of why an action was justified. The trick is to hear it. People with subjective habits left over from childhood are so busy trying to control the explanation that they cannot hear what it is. To find out the nature of the explainer, you want to avoid participating in the explanation, but simply hear what it is. Then you can compare it to rational principles and make a judgment.

If I do evil in spite of my principles, then it was a mistake, a loss of nerve, a lapse. If I do evil because of my principles, then I have bad principles. If I am willing to examine them, then I have mistaken principles. If not, then I want bad principles, so I am bad. But you cannot expect me to doubt my principles just on your say-so. You must offer proof and demonstration. If I think of you as someone who listens to what I say, then I may complain that things keep going wrong. You'll have a chance to point out that things go wrong when one operates on bad principles. You'll have a chance to help me compare my principles to rational ones, and notice the difference.

Have you ever thought it strange that communicating humans find other communicating humans so difficult to judge? Why does all that constant communication back and forth go for nothing? Because of the habit of substituting will-power for reason-power. I want you to be reasonable, so I demand that you be reasonable, and I threaten consequences, and I generally try to impose my will on you—for your own good, of course. You rightly resist this thrust of will. You defy me. Neither of us pays the slightest attention to reality, which responds only to reason, never to will.

The way to judge others is to discover their principles of operation, and compare those principles not to your preferences, but to the requirements of reality.

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