A lot of us tend to see the world as a string of never-ending binaries because we’ve allowed the assumption that the world sees itself that way. Good is good, bad is bad, and the grey area is in between. Aside from that, there’s little else to perceive.
Growing up, I remember watching movies with my dad and asking him to identify the “good guy” and the “bad guy.” Every time, he would smile, shake his head, and tell me that it’s never that simple. “There is no good guy or bad guy,” my dad would explain, “because life doesn’t distinguish between good or bad in the way that we try to.” Though I still remember the dissatisfaction that I used to feel at hearing his answer, I now agree that it’s generally difficult for people to accept that there is no permanent, tangible divide between “good” and “bad.”
After all, life is neither dark or light. There’s no such thing as taking turns like the sun and moon do in the sky. Rather, life is an explosion of everything at the same time, and that’s just something we often struggle to comprehend.
It’s really no surprise. I mean, most people aren’t used to stormy weather on a sunny day. And though there are many colors that make up the palette of life, we think too much like artists in our insistence that certain colors don’t mix.
If only life was a piece of art…
I’m gonna guess that this is all sounding a bit random and directionless, but my brief exposure to the topic of ethics in my Philosophy & Film class this year has caused me to reflect on the concept of morality. And the more that I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to see that morality is often instinctual, and sometimes that instinct makes it selfish.
I promise that none of this is meant to sound dark and cryptic because I’m a hopeful person. It’s just that we’re so locked in on this definition of ‘morality’ that we’re adamant for it to have a conscious and noble connotation when it might not be so conscious and noble all the time. Man is not a slave to morality. Morality is a slave to men. It’s just that we often feel compelled to act on it a certain way.
I don’t mean to say that it’s selfish for us to want to do good for others because it fulfills us and makes us happy. Some philosophers might make that claim, but I say that that just means we’re good people.
Rather, I’m talking about when we choose the moral act that makes us less guilty because we’re too selfish to condemn ourselves-- even if it could be at the expense of someone else.
The reality is that we’re not always honest because we want to tell the truth, and we’re not always law-abiding because we believe in the law. Some laws don’t deserve to be believed in, but we do it anyways so that we can sleep at night. We do it because it has been defined for us as the “right” thing to do.
The most extreme concept that I can illustrate is one of life or death. My mom always says that a mother’s love (most mothers’ love) is unconditional and that she, along with my dad, would be willing to give their lives for my brother’s and for my own. This has always unsettled me because I know how sincere she is, but I also know that I wouldn’t let her or my dad do such a thing. If there was ever a situation (i.e. I was terribly sick) where I could live if one of my parents sacrificed their lives for me, I wouldn’t allow it. It’s not because I’m brave or strong. It’s because I’m selfish.
The selfish part, though, isn’t necessarily my desire to ease that pain and guilt because it’s natural for me to want to. It’s the fact that I’m so desperate to spare myself the pain that I’m willing to forget that I’d be condemning my parents to a fate worse than death. I’m not yet a parent, but I can’t imagine the pain of a mother or father having to watch their child die before them and know that they weren’t helpless in the matter. My parents, for one, would’ve never forgiven themselves for not having been able to sacrifice themselves for me-- a sacrifice they've always been prepared and ready to make.
It’s true that I would’ve been doing the moral thing. I would’ve been doing what I believed to be the right thing by not letting them die for me. But in doing so, I would’ve broken their hearts, and that is something they'd never recover from. No one wants to be the reason that their parents die for them--especially when there is a chance to avoid that--but if I truly loved them, then I would’ve been able to stomach my own pain and guilt so that they wouldn’t have to.
While I get that this is a pretty extreme example, it's nonetheless one in which my instinctual and moral choice would’ve been selfish because my desire to put my own conscience and feelings first would’ve made it impossible for me to consider what my choice could mean to my parents. I would’ve passed on and left the hurt and guilt behind, but my parents would've lived with it for the rest of their lives.
In this way (and in many ways) our moral acts are capable of being selfish--even when they’re right--because life and morality are not always about good or bad, or right or wrong. Sometimes they’re about making choices to spare someone else the suffering, and that might mean rejecting our unbending morals. A lie, for example, is not only told to deceive. Sometimes it’s told to protect. I’ve always believed that there are few things in this world that don’t come with conditions. And with those conditions, come exceptions.