Does Surveillance Make Us Morally Better?

Emrys Westacott in Philosophy Now:

Imagine that right after briefing Adam about which fruit was allowed and which forbidden, God had installed a closed-circuit television camera in the garden of Eden, trained on the tree of knowledge. Think how this might have changed things for the better. The serpent sidles up to Eve and urges her to try the forbidden fruit. Eve reaches her hand out – in paradise the fruit is always conveniently within reach – but at the last second she notices the CCTV and thinks better of it. Result: no sin, no Fall, no expulsion from paradise. We don’t have to toil among thorns and thistles for the rest of our lives, earning our bread by the sweat of our brows; childbirth is painless; and we feel no need to wear clothes.

So why didn’t God do that and save everyone a lot of grief? True, surveillance technology was in its infancy back then, but He could have managed it, and it wouldn’t have undermined Eve’s free will. She still has a choice to make; but once she sees the camera she’s more likely to make the right choice. The most likely explanation would be that God doesn’t just want Adam and Eve to make the right choices; he wants them to make the right choices for the right reasons. Not eating the forbidden fruit because you’re afraid you’ll be caught doesn’t earn you moral credit. After all, you’re only acting out of self-interest. If paradise suffered a power cut and the surveillance was temporarily down, you’d be in there straight away with the other looters.

So what would be the right reason for not eating the fruit? Well, God is really no different than any other parent. All he wants is absolute, unquestioning obedience (which, by an amazing coincidence, also happens to be exactly what every child wants from their parents.) But God wants this obedience to be voluntary. And, very importantly, He wants it to flow from the right motive. He wants right actions to be driven not by fear, but by love for Him and reverence for what is right. (Okay, He did say to Adam, “If you eat from the tree of knowledge you will die” – which can sound a little like a threat – but grant me some literary license here.)

Moral philosophers will find themselves on familiar ground here. On this interpretation, God is a follower of the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. (This would, of course, come as no surprise to Kant.) According to Kant, our actions are right when they conform to the moral rules dictated to us by our reason, and they have moral worth insofar as they are motivated by respect for that moral law. In other words, my actions have moral worth if I do what is right because I want to do the right thing. If I don’t steal someone’s iPod (just another kind of Apple, really) because I think it would be wrong to do so, then I get a moral pat on the back and am entitled to polish my halo. If I don’t steal the iPod because I’m afraid of getting caught, then I may be doing the right thing, and I may be applauded for being prudent, but I shouldn’t be given any moral credit.

Read on

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