Moral Decency and Social Harmony

Nothing can replace moral decency.  And the very majesty of moral decency is that more often than not an act of moral decency cannot really be explained in terms of someone having a right to the behavior in question.  If a person named Connor holds the door open for an elderly person, then Connor does what is ever so decent, although it is hardly obvious that elderly person had a right that Connor so behave.  After all, it not as if the elderly person could not have opened the door for herself or himself.

Again, if Connor is right behind the person whose goods the cashier is processing and the person who is buying baby food comes up 15 cents short, then Connor does what is ever so decent although, once more, it would really be absurd to say that the person had a right to be given the 15 cents by Connor.

Flying back from Paris recently, and while we were still boarding the plane, a passenger asked me if I would change seats so that she and her husband could sit together.   I did note think twice about doing so.  But neither the wife nor the husband had a right to my doing so.

Of course, there is much to be said for having moral rights.  But the simple truth is that a world in which all that people adhered to were moral rights would very likely be a very unbearable world.  Indeed, it is so often the case in life that precisely what makes such a significant difference at a given moment is an act to which no one at all has a right.  In other words: A morally affirming world is not only a world in which basic rights are roundly respected, it is also a world in which basic acts of decency are ever so commonplace.

As a rule, basic acts of decency are not very demanding morally.  Indeed, they rarely, if ever, require some major sacrifice.  If Connor jumps into the water in order to save someone’s life, what we have in that case is not merely basic act of decency, but a morally significant piece of behavior on the part of Connor.

The point that I have just made in the preceding paragraph is rather revealing.  This is because the point underscores the very, very profound truth that living in harmony is not just about (nearly) everyone respecting one another’s rights.  That is absolutely necessary, but it is hardly sufficient.  It is possible to show considerable indifference or even callous to another person without violating any right which that person has.

A classic example no doubt would be the parent who offers her child a piece of candy right in front of another child of essentially the same age.  It is manifestly obvious that parent who offered her child candy in front of the other child should offer the other child (with the permission of that child’s parents) a piece of candy as well.

Philosophers often talk as if the moral landscape is primarily configured by rights and only by rights.  They are wrong.  To be sure, rights are ever so important.  But basic acts of decency play an enormous role in social interaction.  Or so it is in most well-developed societies; for the primary worry of individuals in such a society is generally not at all about their rights being respected.

I cannot recall when I have had a very serious worry about my rights being respected.  But I can think of lots of cases where I have wondered about the basic decency or goodwill of another.  Now what I have just made may reveal that I am a pretty lucky person.  Point well taken, I suppose.  Just so, the significance of basic decency is not thereby trivialized.  For even in a world in which we can generally take our rights for granted, an inescapable truth is that there is a kind of harmony between individuals that can come about only if basic decency is rather commonplace.

In effect, basic decency is none other than a helpful act that demands very little of the person performing the act but which is nonetheless sufficiently meaningful to the recipient of the act although there is no interesting respect in which the person’s well-being would have been diminished had the act not been performed.

I have never even thought about killing another.  So there is no worry on my part about whether I shall continue respecting the basic rights of others.  Of course, I will.  But I take tremendous delight in the fact that I strive to be a basically decent person.  And it is my hope and prayer that nothing in my life would result in my no longer striking to be that kind of person.  With a choir, the majestic melodic harmony is tied to each person singing her or his part.  When moral decency is commonplace in society, what have is none other than majestic social harmony.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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5 Responses to Moral Decency and Social Harmony

  1. Felicity says:

    Okay, you have never thought of killing another, but many people who have, were just ‘doing their jobs’ and otherwise are decent and moral people, I suppose. Does having morals or decency require an individual mind and perception or is being the proverbial ‘sheep’ always accepted and by whom?

  2. Felicity says:

    Alright, I have concluded that money speaks above decency,because we all need it to live. This is hardly new.

  3. We may not be too far apart. I take it as a given that police officials have given thought to killing someone, where the idea is that doing so would constitute a significant form of either prevention or protection. But I can say without any hesitation whatsoever that such a thought has never crossed my mind. And the explanation here most surely not that I am a coward. Rather, there is a very straightforward respect in which no such need in order to survive has ever come even close to presenting itself. That could all change tomorrow. But I cannot imagine that the I am the only individual for whom that is true. What is more, my moral sensibilities are clear enough. Now, if things would come to be such that I need a gun in order to protect myself, there is no doubt about it: I would have a gun. So while I do not have a gun, it is hardly my thought that any citizen who does have a gun has made a morally unacceptable to decision. I do not think that at all.

  4. Sir, I will never deny the importance of money. In particular, I do not think for a moment that decency replaces money or that decency makes money irrelevant. That is an entirely indefensible line of thought. On the other hand, though, there is a straightforward sense in which in and of itself money does not entail decency. That is, from the reality that a person has money, it does not follow statistically that the person will be decent. Likewise, from the fact that a person is poor it does not at all follow that the person will be decent.

  5. Here is a further reflection, sir: The need for money has never been viewed as a moral excuse for utterly horrific moral behavior. To take an obvious example, the need for money has never been viewed as an excuse to kill someone. Never. To be sure, it is possible that certain forms of theft can be seen as excusable — such as a starving person stealing food from a store. But to state the obvious: Stealing a morceau of food in a store is a very, very, very long ways from robbing a person. And stealing a morceau of food is light years away from killing someone.

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