That Elusive Mark By Which To Distinguish Good People From Bad

In Journey to the End of the NightCéline‘s central character, Ferdinand Bardamu is confronted with uncontrovertible evidence of moral goodness in Sergeant Alcide–who is nobly working away in a remote colonial outpost to financially support a niece who is little more than a perfect stranger to him. That night, as Bardamu gazes at the sleeping Alcide, now once again, in inactivity, utterly unremarkable and undistinguishable from others who serve like him, he thinks to himself:

There ought to be some mark by which to distinguish good people from bad.

There isn’t, of course. But that hasn’t stopped mankind from continuing to hold on to this forlorn hope in the face of the stubborn difficulty of making moral judgements and evaluations about our fellow humans. Sometimes we seek to evaluate fellow humans on the basis of simple tests of conformance to a pre-established, clearly specified, moral code or decision procedure; sometimes we drop all pretence of sophisticated ethical analysis and take refuge in literal external marks.

These external marks and identifiers have varied through and across space and time and cultures. Sometimes shadings of skin pigmentations have been established as the distinguishing marker of goodness; sometimes it is the shape of the skull that has been taken to be the desired marker; sometimes national or ethnic origin; sometimes religious affiliation. (If that religious affiliation is visible by means of an external marker–like a turban for instance–then so much the better. West Pakistani troops conducting genocide in East Pakistan in 1971 were fond of asking Bengali civilians to drop their pants and expose their genitals;¹ the uncircumcised ones were led off to be shot; their bodies had revealed them to be of the wrong religion, and that was all that mattered as the West Pakistani Army sought to cleanse East Pakistan of those subversive elements that threatened the Pakistani polity.)

Confronted with this history of failure to find the distinguishing external mark of goodness, perhaps emblazoned on our foreheads by the cosmic branding authority, hope has turned elsewhere, inwards. Perhaps the distinguishing mark is not placed outside on our bodies but will be found inside us–in some innard or other. Perhaps there is ‘bad blood’ in some among us, or even worse, some might have ‘bad brains.’ Unsurprisingly, we have turned to neuroscience to help us with moral decisions: here is a brain state found in mass murderers and criminals; innocents do not seem to have it; our penal and moral decisions have received invaluable assistance. But as a growing litany of problems with neuroscientific inference suggest, these identifications of brain states and their correlations with particular behavior and the explanations that result rest on shaky foundations.

In the face of this determination to seek simple markers for moral judgement my ‘There isn’t, of course’ seems rather glib; it fails to acknowledge the endless frustration and difficulty of decision-making in the moral domain–and the temptation to seek refuge in the clearly visible.

Note: R. J Rummel, Death by Government, page 323

4 comments on “That Elusive Mark By Which To Distinguish Good People From Bad

  1. George Gale says:

    Two quickies, Samir:
    1. It is perhaps because of this lack of ‘mark’ of personal benevolance, that Hume turned to the notion that individual acts either had the property of benevolance, or they didn’t. Just a WAG.

    2. Don’t forget genetics as a possible saviour! While, as you note, neuroscientific ‘markers’ are problemesized, folks still are pursuing Kleinfelder’s as a sign of criminality (albeit, criminality ≠ evil) and finding it so.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Very good points, George, as always. BTW, what is a WAG? (Thanks for the paper link – very helpful!) Incidentally, I think in my ‘bad blood’ reference I was aiming at something like the genetics claim.

  2. Nqabutho says:

    Attempts to distinguish the ethical from the unethical using the theoretical tools of neuroscience, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology and so forth address only the questions of “quid facti”, but the question that leads us to understanding the question of the ethical is “quid juris?” Free choice is the defining feature of purposeful adaptive action, and when it comes to actions that have an effect on people other than the agent, the question is, which principles govern the choice? I think it will soon be possible to specify those principles that govern the actions of people we regard as good, honourable, virtuous people. The judgment as to whether a given action is ethical or unethical is determined by universal ideal objectively existing principles on the logical, not the material level of analysis, and if this is on the right track, it would seem that it is a possibility contained in Plato.

  3. Nqabutho says:

    Sorry, I just read your previous post, and I see you’ve already addressed sort of this question under the heading of “natural law”. The kind of civil law that you violated and were sent to jail for is a low- level procedural rule meant to allow smooth functioning of a civil society, and the kind of negative effect on other people that might have resulted is minor inconvenience. It’s not not as bad as if you had said something nasty about somebody behind their back; that might have caused somebody personal hurt, but it’s not against the civil law. To understand “natural law”, I would not see the need to invoke “human nature” or “God”, but I would try to understand better (not that I understand it as yet) the phenomenon of purposeful adaptive action and the need for coordination with other agents, all of whom are “created equal”, i.e., of equal value. (I hope you don’t take me as being negative; I just wanted to make this particular distinction as stimulated by your very interesting account.)

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