6.09.2010

an all-or-nothing trap: the impossibility of moral purity

Hello, I'm back! I've been toying with two different ideas for essays, and I'm thinking the two might be related.

I've been thinking about moral purity: the impossibility of achieving it, the concept of moral purity used as a wedge to divide people of good conscience, used as a hammer to bludgeon good ideas, or as a knee-jerk to dismiss cognitive dissonance.

And I've been thinking about setting boundaries: how difficult it can be, and how necessary, and how necessarily incomplete.

I think perhaps the two intersect.

* * * *

In any arena in which ethics are controversial and debated, the concept of moral purity will surface. Where ethics are well established, no one raises the issue. No one justifies slavery by pointing to Cambodian factory workers earning 33 cents an hour. "Thirty cents an hour is practically slavery, and you buy t-shirts made in Cambodia, so stop complaining about slavery!" But click on any online story about the seal hunt in Canada, and a commenter is sure to be yelling, "Are all you people vegans? If not, then shut up, you hypocrites!" (Although that is likely to be spelled "hippocrats".)

This non-argument is so often thrown around, that we may have stopped examining it. So let's think about it.

Joe says that because Jane eats meat, she cannot cannot oppose the slaughter of seals for fur coats. Joe, mind you, is not a vegan himself. Joe eats meat and he thinks the seal hunt is just fine. Joe does whatever he wants. But he disagrees with Jane and thinks that by waving a banner of moral purity, he can dismiss Jane's moral concerns. Unless Jane does x - x being an extrapolation of her beliefs as judged by Joe, an opponent of that belief - Jane has no right to oppose y.

Does Jane's consumption of meat actually have anything to do with her opposition to the seal hunt? Should it?

According to this view, because I choose to eat meat, I cannot oppose: puppy mills, the slaughter of animals for fashion, irresponsible animal breeding, dogfighting, bullfighting. I also should not stop eating specific foods because of the cruelty inherent in their production, like veal and lobster, or to reduce my consumption of factory-farmed beef and chicken. My efforts - and my beliefs - are worthless because I am not a vegan.

So what do we have here? We have one person painted into a corner, and another absolved of all responsibility. Either you become vegan, or you must accept all animal cruelty. Joe is off the hook. He doesn't have to think about how his choices affect the planet. Jane must shut up and walk away.

Now it's open season for any and all practices of profit-driven corporations that view animals as industrial resources rather than living creatures. All unnecessary, environmentally destructive, or cruel practices are off-limits for protest. Only vegans are "allowed" to object.

The moral-purity argument is a cop-out, a red herring, a false dilemma, and a few other logical fallacies.

We should try not to get caught in this nonsensical trap.

One can condemn a cruelty, in and of itself, without extending the supposed logic to all other cruelties that might ever take place, or which one might have a part in.

Using the animal-cruelty example, many people draw a distinction between killing animals for food and, for example, forcing animals to kill each other for human entertainment. A distinction between eating animals and wearing fur. A distinction between eating some animals for which the practices are simply too cruel (lobster, veal, foie gras) and eating any animal at all.

Other people may disagree with those distinctions and find them false or hypocritical. But for the person that finds one thing acceptable and the other cruel, there is nothing wrong with speaking out against the cruelty.

Those of us who eat meat are perfectly justified in speaking out against dog fighting, bullfighting or other forms of animal cruelty used as sport. It may be wrong for humans to eat meat. I don't think it is. But I know it is wrong to torture and kill any living creature for sport and profit.

None of our hands are completely free of any connection to any cruel act. It's not possible to live completely free of taint in the modern world. Sometimes ethical choices come into conflict with each other - as an example, I wrote about the organic lettuce and non-recyclable packaging dilemma.

Most of us cannot live carbon-neutral lives. Does that mean we should waste energy with abandon, make no effort to reduce our consumption? And so on.

But throwing the moral purity argument around is very convenient. Given the all-or-nothing choice, people can choose nothing, shrug their shoulders and walk away.

* * * *

This brings me around to boundary-setting.

Once you become an activist - and even more so, once you become an organizer - setting boundaries is a constant challenge. (I realize boundary-setting is necessary and important in many other areas, but this is mine.) As an activist, there's no end to how much you can do, because the need is so great, and so constant. Not only is there no end to the actions - rallies, protests, letter-writing, talks - one can participate in, but there's an even greater need for organizers to make those events happen.

In fact, the need is infinite. But time and energy are always finite.

I know people who fill every available moment, drain every breath of energy, for activism. I admire them. But I know I'm not them. This is the one area of my life where I sometimes feel a pang of guilt. (It's true, I live an almost guilt-free existence.) But when it comes to saying no to activism, I am reluctant. I feel guilty. But I say no anyway. I tell myself, no one can do everything. I tell myself, just do what you can, and stick with that.

Sometimes my great need to set boundaries may work to my disadvantage. At the Marxism 2010 conference, there were many opportunities to join the International Socialists. They're an excellent group (more about why I love IS here), and they need the support. But, as I told several people, to me joining means organizing. It means being an active member - going to meetings, volunteering to get stuff done, being a go-to person. And since I'm unwilling or unable to do more than I am doing now, I don't join.

Our boundaries of ethical living are also important, but they need to be constantly tested. It's not enough to say, I'm doing all I can. Some time back I asked, Are my hands clean, and can I stand to get them a little cleaner? The answer is, our hands are never clean. They never will be. But that's no reason to keep them dirty. I just went back to that old post and found this line: "None of our hands are completely clean, but we don't have to purposely wallow in mud."

Just as we will never live ethically pure lives, there will always be more work to do than any of us can possibly do. And just as it is still worth making ethical choices, it's worth doing whatever we can, whenever we can, within our own boundaries. And testing those boundaries, always striving to push them outward.

16 comments:

johngoldfine said...

"I know people who fill every available moment, drain every breath of energy, for activism."

So did Dickens, and he didn't approve very much: Mrs. Jellyby.

L-girl said...

So did Dickens, and he didn't approve very much: Mrs. Jellyby.

Ah, Mrs. Jellyby! Thanks for that memory.

IIRC, which I may not, Mrs. Jellyby's activism was iffy at best. Wasn't she a missionary? And of course she dreadfully neglected her family, leaving the children to raise each other.

The people I'm thinking of neglect only themselves. But they do so by the truck full, often getting sick in the process. They also become angry and resentful of the pressure-cooker they live in, which of course is self-created.

I admire them but they also scare me!

M@ said...

As you know I share a lot of the same impulses as you -- if I join a group I feel I need to be active, etc. So I'm in total agreement with what you're saying here, and I'm definitely appreciative of being able to learn from your experience!

But I wanted to bring up one moral purity argument which has probably been around for decades, and seems to come up with frustrating regularity: the question of whether stealing office supplies is wrong.

I'm always uncomfortable with others' acts of subservience towards their employers, and I try very hard not to engage in them myself (while maintaining a successful career -- it's a balancing act, definitely). It pisses me off that the question is always asked in a moral vacuum, to conveniently force the worker to admit that, yes, the use of company supplies for non-company purposes is stealing. And from there we can extrapolate that use of company time (like commenting on blog posts!), company resources, or anything else for non-company purposes is also theft, and the worker is always guilty.

It's like a moral urban legend, intended to use fear and guilt to make people act in socially acceptable ways. It bugs the crap out of me.

Anyhow, enough from me for now. We should continue this conversation later during the designated break period. Sincerely, Homer Simpson.

L-girl said...

But I wanted to bring up one moral purity argument which has probably been around for decades, and seems to come up with frustrating regularity: the question of whether stealing office supplies is wrong.

M@, I never thought of that issue as being part of this discussion - very cool.

It's especially relevant as my day jobs have usually been working for companies that rob the people and the planet and get rich in the bargain.

As you know I share a lot of the same impulses as you -- if I join a group I feel I need to be active, etc. So I'm in total agreement with what you're saying here, and I'm definitely appreciative of being able to learn from your experience!

When I told one of my IS/WRSC friends why I haven't joined IS yet, she said, We need people like you as examples of how it's done - how one can be active and still protect one's boundaries and learn how to say no.

Knowing who said it, this was not just a more creative sales pitch! She actually meant it. So there's another hidden value of boundary setting.

M@ said...

It's especially relevant as my day jobs have usually been working for companies that rob the people and the planet and get rich in the bargain.

Even in the best companies, employers are taking things from their employees. They want more of your time, they want your enthusiasm and emotional commitment, they want you to rearrange your life and your non-work schedule to meet their needs.

I had to take part in a "team-building" game this morning, though, so I'm a little raw right now. Ugh. I'm gonna go lift some paperclips.*

* Note to network admins monitoring my web traffic: I am not actually going to steal any paperclips. Well, not many.

Amy said...

Great essay, Laura. It is very thought provoking. The moral purity position occurs in so many contexts. I know non-religious people who argue that if one does not follow all the rules and rituals of a religion, then one has no right to insist that others respect a desire to practice some of those rules and rituals; pro-war people who argue that if you would have fought in WWII, you cannot be a conscientious objector to other wars; and those who yell, "Love it or Leave it" to protesters, as if you cannot live in your country if you criticize it.

I see the two topics related in that both have to do with not seeing life as black and white. We all draw limits---in how we spend our time and in our moral choices. We are all human and have to deal with the world we have, not some idealized version where we all make pure moral choices and spend all our time making the world a better place.

L-girl said...

Even in the best companies, employers are taking things from their employees. They want more of your time, they want your enthusiasm and emotional commitment, they want you to rearrange your life and your non-work schedule to meet their needs.

Absolutely. They want more than the exchange of services for wages, and often even that exchange is so badly balanced as to be theft!

I wish I could think of the old lefty expression for stealing office supplies to use for activism. Something like "liberating the surplus..." ... can't remember for the life of me.

But I've always loved using photocopying, paper and other supplies for work that undermines how these companies make their dough. It's their involuntary donation to my cause.

And if anyone from work is reading this (which they're not), of course I never steal from my current job! Who me?!

L-girl said...

Thank you, Amy! Those are excellent examples. The all-or-nothing view about war is especially galling to me, as you may imagine. And "love it or leave it" is such a nauseating perversion of what are supposed to be American values.

(And, as Allan always points out, usually applies only to what Republicans want.)

redsock said...

Another way this criticism comes out:

"Why are you wasting your time writing about X when there are so many more serious issues in the world?"

L-girl said...

"Why are you wasting your time writing about X when there are so many more serious issues in the world?"

Yes, good point. Because of course we can only be concerned about one thing, and whatever we happen to be writing or speaking about is our only concern. Not.

johngoldfine said...

William Ian Miller's book 'The Anatomy of Disgust' has a lot to say about different kinds of purity and how it is 'lost' when boundaries of one sort or another are crossed.

L-girl said...

John, this post was actually inspired by a comment you once made (I believe in a gamethread, but I'm not sure).

You referenced the gruesome image of a person attempting moral purity in Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain. The young person who is dying - the heartbreak of the father trying to save her.

I don't know Anatomy of Disgust, I will look it up.

L-girl said...

Ah-ha! I did read a review of that book when it came out. Sounds really interesting.

johngoldfine said...

'American Pastoral' is the Roth novel, I think--an unforgettable character and situation.

johngoldfine said...

Perfect Purity can be attained by mortals--but not if Jim Joyce is the ump....

L-girl said...

Oh yes, American Pastoral, thanks. I never finished that book because I got bogged down in the unrelenting crush of pain. I might go back to it now.