“Right this way, please,” says the waitress after inquiring how many in your party and grabbing an equal number of menus. You follow her through the crowded dining room and as you do, you think you hear a familiar voice and turn your head just for a second to see where it is coming from. This causes you to step slightly more to the right and as a result, your hip bumps into a chair in which another patron is sitting. Stop. What do you do? Do you find yourself thinking of the options? Are you wondering what you could say to make yourself feel better? Or are you more concerned about what to say that will make the woman in the chair feel better? Maybe you are aware that everyone is looking at you and you owe it to the entire restaurant full of people to say something that will be acceptable and regain favor in their eyes. Hardly. “Oh, excuse me, I am so sorry,” is what comes tumbling out of your mouth before a single thought enters your mind. I make moral decisions like this one every day and I bet you do too. What? You don’t think that is a moral decision? Well, let us think this through for a moment.
For over 20 years I lived in Portland, OR where they have one of the largest transit systems in the country. Some of the buses start running as early as four AM and would run as late as two AM. No matter what time of day it was or where you were going, on every bus there were people in need. Whether it was an elderly woman who couldn’t figure out how to open the door to get off, a homeless man trying to get his cart of cans and bottles onto the bus, a wheelchair coming on, or a woman with small children, a stroller, and nearly a dozen bags of groceries, someone or two or three would jump up and immediately offer their assistance. If a pregnant woman got onto a crowded bus, she was offered a seat by several people. Very often there were Korean or Russian women who were unable to speak English, frantically trying to convey to the driver where they wanted to get off. Knowing the driver was busy watching the road and keeping us safe, someone would take a moment and calmly communicate in one way or another and then relay the message to the driver. And if you got on the bus and didn’t have quite enough change to ride, it was not uncommon for other riders to ask, “How much do you need?” and make up the difference.
British philosopher, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was a Utilitarian Moralist and wrote much on the subject of morality. In one of his books, Utilitarianism (1863), he recognized that moral decisions are not always, and in fact, very seldom, made in the interest of society or out of duty to our fellow man. He writes that some may object to his ideas and argue that for one to act justly for the sake of society when they really don’t want to, and to do this on a regular basis is just asking too much. Mill responds to such potential objections by pointing out that more likely than not, we act and react for many different reasons, or “motives,” and so rarely do we do so for the sole reason of the betterment of society.
“…those among them who entertain anything like a just idea of its disinterested character, sometimes find fault with its standard as being too high for humanity. They say it is exacting too much to require that people shall always act from the inducement of promoting the general interests of society. But this is to mistake the very meaning of a standard of morals, and confound the rule of action with the motive of it. It is the business of ethics to tell us what are our duties, or by what test we may know them; but no system of ethics requires that the sole motive of all we do shall be a feeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety-nine hundredths of all our actions are done from other motives, and rightly so done, if the rule of duty does not condemn them. It is the more unjust to utilitarianism that this particular misapprehension should be made a ground of objection to it, inasmuch as utilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost all others in affirming that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent.”
In other words, the majority will act morally as it is characteristic to do so, even if they have one or more of a multitude of motives, such as compassion or empathy, or in some cases, no motive at all, and should not be thought less of if duty was not their intention. Mill concludes this portion by asserting the efforts of utilitarian moralists that have come before him and stand with him in his time, that they believe that actions are not about their motivations as much as they are about the worth of the one acting.
Mill further contends, “The great majority of good actions are intended not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up; and the thoughts of the most virtuous man need not on these occasions travel beyond the particular persons concerned, except so far as is necessary to assure himself that in benefiting them he is not violating the rights, that is, the legitimate and authorized expectations, of anyone else,” meaning that when we behave in such a way that is moral and virtuous, we generally do not first debate how our actions may help the world or society as a whole, but instead are content in helping a single individual or a few and know that in doing so, we are contributing to the whole of society. Mill also writes, “…the occasions on which any person (except one in a thousand) has it in his power to do this on an extended scale, in other words to be a public benefactor, are but exceptional; and on these occasions alone is he called on to consider public utility; in every other case, private utility, the interest or happiness of some few persons, is all he has to attend to.” Yes, there are times in which we may be faced with a monumental moral dilemma and have to make a decision in which we must consider all who will be affected by our decision, as Mill points out, and this should be given grand acknowledgment, but the reality is, focusing on the here and now and those who are in front of us are all we have to concern ourselves with, as this is what occurs on a day-to-day basis.
I have used my hands to indicate numbers and to point to the door to indicate getting off the bus to help a foreign language speaking individual communicate what street they wanted to get off at and told the driver of their desired destination. I have pulled the lever on the seat to lift it and make it ready for a wheelchair that was ready to board. I have carried off many a stroller, opened it for a young mother who had her hands full and then while she kept her children close, brought her groceries off the bus to her. I have not only done these things, but have seen many others do them as well. I, at one time, was the young mother with the stroller and too many bags to carry off alone and have been helped by many. Personally, if I had to specify my motives in such actions, I would say either that I was physically and emotionally capable of being kind, so why not act accordingly; or I would say that I have a deep sense of empathy and as Mill tied so neatly into one profound statement, “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”
Even a simple heartfelt apology when bumping into someone can do wonders for just the two of us involved. This is how we behave towards others in our world, in our immediate present, which generates smiles, gratitude, appreciation, relief. Most of the time, we don’t think about why we are doing it, but rather what needs to be done. When we treat others as we would hope to be treated, or in some cases, as we have been treated in our own time of need, we are acting morally and the end result is a good feeling for both the giver and the receiver. When a kindness has been extended to us, we are more apt to repeat the gesture when the occasion arises. Very much like the one tiny pebble that touched a single droplet of water in the middle of the lake, the ripples of our actions will affect society as a whole; not in that exact moment, but that one quick decision to jump up and offer the pregnant woman your seat has a much bigger impact on our world than we give it credit for.