While recently reading the book Originals by Adam Grant, I was intrigued by a study that was presented on the topic of raising children. The study evaluated discipline techniques of parents of non-Jewish people who housed Jews during the Holocaust, and the parents of those who did not. What separated these two groups? The study determined that those who were raised to develop their own moral conduct were more likely to be compassionate individuals (the group that housed Jews in danger). These people’s parents were more likely to encourage their children to consider how their actions affected others. The other group, conversely, was more likely to have been raised in a rule based system, which removed the need for the child to think about what they personally considered to be right and wrong; these people were more likely to be a part of the group that did not house Jewish people.
Although there are more nuances to this experiment that I presented, I think it speaks to some of the value of ethics as a topic of philosophical discussion. As Dr. Sandell noted in his lectures on Moral Philosophy, the discussion of ethics is supposed to “make the familiar unfamiliar”, to put a microscope to our actions and discover the basis of our moral decision-making. Throughout this unit, I’ve learned that the developing our own morals does not mean creating a set of hard-and-fast rules to follow, but identifying values that will guide us as we unpack difficult situations and make decisions. This is the ‘moral conduct’ mentioned in the experiment above. For me, the value of ethics outside of the classrooms is to promote a sort of independence in our actions. When we stand by the values we deem important, we can put more confidence in our idea of the ‘good’ or ‘moral’ action. When we look to Hollywood and other entertainment industries, the push and pull of good and bad, the hero and the villain, is obvious; however, in a world where our problems are not so clear cut, it is crucial that we think for ourselves, and that our morals are self-generated.
On the other hand, ethics in the classroom has been an interesting ride. Like I said before, the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is instilled at a young age, but I hadn’t really been exposed to the subtleties of the schools of thought that drive moral decision making, the two that we touched on being Utilitarianism and the Categorical Imperative. Like most of my classmates, I can’t marry myself to the values of one or another, but there are some threads within each that I find attractive.
Categorical Imperative: Probably the largest confirmation of this school of thought in my own moral conduct is my belief that some actions have more moral value than others. This was made clear to me after Eric presented a scenario in class:
A boy has a chocolate bar, sees a homeless man in need and sacrifices his own chocolately desires to give the bar to the homeless man. In another situation, a boy has a chocolate bar and takes a bite, decides he doesn’t like it, then passes it on to the homeless man in need.
Assuming that both situations have the same outcome (let’s say the man receives the same amount of chocolate), I would say that the decision of the boy in the first situation holds more moral value. The key part is that the boy makes a sacrifice, and although he thinks that he will enjoy the chocolate bar, he places the homeless man’s needs above his own. The decision is driven by a contemplation of needs and an overall selflessness. The other situation, although not immoral in my eyes, isn’t first prompted by an independent action towards charity, but as a secondary option that was fulfilled when his primary course of action (eating the chocolate bar) wasn’t so pleasant.
Of course, there are other conditions to explore in this scenario, such as whether or not the first boy performed his action for the praise of onlookers or as for fuel his own ego, but the principle remains the same. The good will of a person does affect the moral worth of the decision, and in general, if the will of a person is rooted in greed or exploitation, then it cannot be considered a ‘good will’. This would also mean that a a positive result could spring from an absence of good will, and that a negative result could spring from an action of good will, and these are the conditions that this school of thought upholds.
Utilitarianism: “Do the thing that makes the most people content” has some problematic strings attached, so for the sake of concision, I’ll stick to the parts that I consider the most personally useful. In the most basic sense, utilitarianism just seems practical; it support the act of letting people vote on a course of action, and implementing the most popular choice. In other ways, there are grey spaces that are made when we ask the questions “Does some people’s contentment matter more than others?” and “Should we consider what is best for a society’s function over the contentment of a group of people”?
However, I do believe in the notion that we do often have to make sacrifices for the sake of overall gain. What makes ‘most’ people happy or satisfied isn’t often what makes all people happy or satisfied, and we must accept that we may sometimes be on the sacrificing side so that there can be a net positive reaction. For example, this can manifest in the classroom when a student sacrifices their act of contributing to a discussion so that others may speak, contribute, and diversify the discussion. When organizing an event, an organizing member may volunteer to do a tedious or grueling task that is unpleasant but will ensure the success of the event and the enjoyment of many people. These examples are just simple situations of sacrifice.
It is very important to add that this doesn’t apply to situations of human rights. There is a crucial distinction to be made in the statement that certain groups of people should not experience reduced levels of human rights (legal, social, political, etc.) so that other groups should have more power. Although this situation is nuanced in many facets of our international society, I cannot say it is moral.
Now it’s time to put these ethical discussions to work.
The moral dilemma that I want to examine is this: to trigger warning or not to trigger warning?
For those of you new to the term ‘trigger warning’, it is a ‘statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content)’. I am interested to discuss the place of trigger warnings within the slam poetry community, where there has been a continuous conversation about whether or not artists should use before performing a potentially distressing piece. It is not uncommon to attend a poetry slam and see poets delivering trigger warnings for sexual assault, drug abuse, self-harm, and other topics associated with emotional trauma.
The pro-trigger warning side seems obvious at first. If artists can let people know about an upcoming sensitive topic, then those who might find the topic harmful can mentally prepare themselves or remove themselves from the environment. From a utilitarian perspective, we are increasing the amount of net happiness because those who may have experienced unhappiness from the artistic presentation were able to remove themselves completely. From this perspective, trigger warnings seem courteous and fair.
However, I do think this situation is a bit more faceted than that. I’ve recently been speaking with several of poets in the community about their thoughts on trigger warnings, and have uncovered a few more layers. Firstly, one of these poets was confident in saying that taking care of your audience is a responsibility of the artist on stage, but that this care doesn’t have to come in the form of a trigger warning; we want art to illicit vivid experiences in our audiences, so audience care (in it’s ideal form) means not preventing these experiences from happening. A crucial process in attending a poetry slam is facing emotions that are difficult to deal with, and ‘interrogating’ those feelings further (my friend noted that if she doesn’t feel uncomfortable at one point in a slam, she considers it a failure). This stand point challenges the utilitarian perspective because it claims that what is most challenging can also the most valuable. Being prompted to examine our feelings of discomfort isn’t often a purely joyful act, but it is still worth doing because it can lead to intrapersonal understanding, for example.
However, for these moments of discomfort and contemplation to take place, we do need to be in a mentally sound and lucid state of mind, and for some individuals, a certain topic may inhibit this state. That is the main push and pull of the trigger warning discussion. But where does our moral responsibility exist in this conversation?
I do agree that it is our responsibility to take care of the audience- to deliver a thoughtfully crafted poem that resonates with others an delivers a message. If we are using trigger warnings as permission to ourselves to present shockingly graphic and devastating material, we have to consider the value of such a piece.
Secondly, in terms of responsibility, we also have to consider that it is impossible to prevent all emotionally harmful reactions from occurring. We simply cannot always be sure of what kinds of things can act as triggers for different people (smells, locations, objects), and although we can try our best to be cognizant of the effect of our words, they have different connotations within different people’s lives. It is also important to point out that the real world doesn’t have trigger warnings- we can encounter triggering things in our day-to-day life, and it is important (to a healthy level) that we keep the slam space from turning into a sanitized space free of discomfort or challenging topics. I believe it is important for audience members to realize that when they enter a slam, they are acknowledging the possibility that they may hear or view things that will make them feel things (those things not always being pleasant), and that the organizers of the slam should also publicly acknowledge this possibility as well (this is commonly done in Vancouver). The slam, as my friend said, is a microcosm of our real world, and we should treat it as such. This means that the community values artistic diversity and experience, but does not tolerate hate speech, for example.
The conversation could definitely go on. For me, the trigger warning conversation is very intriguing because it is so closely tied to a community that I am a part of. The conversation also changes and evolves when we speak about trigger warnings on educational material, social media, and other social situations.
To tie back to what I said earlier about moral conduct, the discussion of trigger warnings doesn’t have to be one that decides whether or not we ultimately use them. We have to ask ourselves why we might use them, the effects it has on the people around us, and the ways we can change our mode of action to accomplish the same goal. I would love to hear what you have to say about the topic, so please drop a comment!