On occasion we are faced with acute moral choices - whether to join the Resistance or stay at home and care for our widowed mother; whether to run off with Vronsky or remain with Karenin. But largely, morality shapes our lives in ways we don't even think about, in fact it does so partly by excluding certain options from our thoughts. Most of us, for instance, wouldn't even consider (a) threatening to expose a colleague's adulterous affair to his wife unless he votes our way on a contested appointment or policy issue; (b) extracting some cash from the pocketbook of an interior decorator as she inspects our house, because we think she is overcharging us; (c) stealing a kidney for a friend who needs a transplant; (d) selling all we have and giving it to the poor. It isn't that we weigh the pros and cons and determine that the cons outweigh the pros. These things are not on the menu of options among which we feel we must choose. Such exclusions, as well as restrictions on what may legitimately be taken into account in some decisions but not others (prohibitions against nepotism, for instance), typify the complexity of moral standards and suggest that an accurate account of morality and its role in life will not be simple.
LRB 4 February 1999 | PDF Download