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