One of the great evils of our time is that everyone is so concerned about its evils—the fact that virtually every issue is reframed by concerned parties as moral issue, after which such advocates internalize the associated moral pangs, leading them to experience all disagreements on related points with indignation, condemnation, and deep, deep fear.
Vegetables become a moral issue. Traffic lights become a moral issue. Car tires and indeed cars become a moral issue. Household textiles become a moral issue.
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The ostensible justification is always the same—that the issue, in some way, in some form, is life-or-death. It is, in a way, the logical extreme of the “think of the children” argument.
Pesticides on vegetables kill.
Traffic lights save lives.
Tires fill landfills and cars fill atmospheres with waste and gasses.
Synthetic fabrics are made with petroleum. Or natural fabrics sustain a history of slavery.
The problem with this justification is that it is secretly disingenuous. Applying it to any one issue belies the fact that at this level, everything is life-or-death. Humans are alive, after all, and because virtually any thing or circumstance may be said to shorten or extend someone’s life by some measure, from minutes to hours to days to weeks to months, and all in some future that, in fact, doesn’t exist yet. So nearly anything “may save lives” or “may prematurely cost lives.”
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The problem with moral issues is that they recast mundane differences as moral conflicts, questions of righteousness and salvation.
When everything is a moral issue, every even minor differences must become holy wars in which lives and souls hang in the balance. And then nothing can get done, no relationship can remain intact, and the supposedly moral issues themselves become embroiled in holy gridlock. Catch-22.
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Underneath it all, I suspect the reason for this reframing is historical. It’s the same reason we have an activist culture (which is, covertly, an inherently moralistic thing).
Recasting issues and disagreements in moral terms has been an effective method of issue advocacy. Morality is something that westerners in particular understand; it is the basis of much of their cultural narrative and sensibility.
A preference or a logical position may be mildly interesting, but a question of right and wrong, of good and evil, sways hearts and mobilizes support in ways that preferences simply don’t. The same goes for the ability to recast opponents as forces of evil that must be stopped.
Whether the issue is organic food or lower taxes or gun control or recycling, lives always hang in the balance. Good must triumph over evil.
If it was just a matter of policy, then we could agree to disagree and compromise. But this isn’t a matter of policy. It’s a matter of morality. And so my position isn’t merely justified, but also ironclad, not amenable to negotiation, possessing a significance well, well beyond the mundane and measurable dimensions of the issue at hand. Its meaning exceeds its substance by an infinite, indeed transcendental amount. And so you’d better concede to me, stick to the cause with me, remain involved, repent, “fight for change,” if I am to continue to vouch for your moral bona-fides. And if you are to be able to vouch for them to your conscience.
Because beyond lives, salvation also hangs in the balance.
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In an age in which everything is holy to someone, and in which holiness is seen as one of the better mechanisms for pursuing policy and action, holy war becomes pervasive.
It’s tempting to accept this state of affairs in international diplomacy. Civilizations exist on a scale that makes their holiness seem plausible (doubly so given Durkheim’s discussion of society).
But it’s easier to see how pointless it is when it comes to vegetables, or light bulbs, or shoes, or classrooms.
These aren’t, I argue, or at least shouldn’t be, moral issues.
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Much has been made of the need to return to deliberation, discourse, and respect in politics.
I don’t believe it’s possible, in Judeo-Christian societies in particular, to discuss reasonably anything that people come to believe is a matter of morality. That’s not how monotheistic cultures work. If there is a “right” answer, then alternate preferences are not just illegitimate, but ultimately evil.
If we want to be able to discuss things with our neighbors or loved ones again, the solution is to let go of the idea that things are moral issues—that there is, in fact, a “right” preference, and that this preference and its rightness are somehow deeply associated with our very being. We have to let go of the absolutism about “lives” and “souls” being affected by things. Lives and souls are affected by everything. We can’t afford to turn everything into jihad. Wr must accept our own fallibility and mortality and concede that if something may shorten a life by a month or a year at the ripe old ages of 80 or 65, that cannot be allowed to be the same thing as “lives hang in the balance.” Quality of life cannot become an absolutist question of anything-but-perfection-is-damnation-or-death.
Because the larger the sphere of moral issues grows, the greater the extent to which holy war will overtake communities and households.
If you make vegetables and light bulbs are a matter of moral right and wrong, in other words, you’d better be prepared to lose your friends and relationships over vegetables and light bulbs.
That seems to be okay with a lot of people. In the climate we live in, it even appears to seem “right” to many people. They end relationships with a kind of indignation over the moral failures of the people and communities that they once loved, secure in their righteousness and full of resentment.
But it seems sad and unnecessary to me. A recipe for unhappiness submerged beneath the thinnest veneer of piousness and propriety.
Morality is not the solution to our problems, it is, in fact the problem in many cases.
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To restate this in simpler, more Buddhist terms, attempts to make life and people more perfect can only ensure that and they it will be less so. Acceptance and relatedness are the closest things we can get to perfection. These things and life itself are inherently imperfect and different from our own ideal preferences, yes. But it is all downhill from there, despite any crusades upon which we embark.
And these days, we tend to embark on many.