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.

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