on the moral high ground
may 2003

Next time you're in an argument and you feel yourself getting angry at your opponent, make a note of it. Later, consider the argument and you'll realize that you were in the wrong. When you're right, you feel smug, or sometimes pity for the guy who just doesn't get it, or indifferent, but rarely angry. And nothing evokes such anger as arguing with the moral high ground. The self-righteous, complacent look on the face of your newly vegan friend as she explains what happens to chickens before you eat them is so infuriating that even vowing never to speak to her again doesn't completely rid you of your discontent.

The reason for this is that are any number of moral arguments that can not be satisfactorily refuted, and the more energy we expend ratiocinating against them the dirtier we feel. Some of these arguments are popularly adopted, so we must eat chicken looking over our shoulder as if our meat is telling racist jokes. Does this mean that we're immoral? By eating hamburgers, will history ultimately group us with slaveowners and witchhunters? Are the moral highgrounders right, and more importantly, do I have to stop eating hamburgers? The answer is what you knew all along: the moral highgrounders are right, but that doesn't confine you to a life of tofu.

Some years ago I was asked to take a position on abortion for a class and after writing a paper that nicely defended the pro-choice position, I realized that it was wrong; that the arguments were ad hoc, reactive, improvised, ineffective. I rewrote the paper taking an extreme pro-life stance, and it was startlingly easy. Easy because abortion is, in fact, immoral. Immediately I recognized that despite this epiphanic ethical discovery I would certainly want any girl I might impregnate to have an abortion, and this caused much anguish to a young philosophy major. Though I could not challenge the antiabortion arguments I had compiled and presented, I was certain that killing a four-cell embryo was inconsequential in the face of bringing into the world an undesired child. I wasn't sure about a twenty week fetus, and I was confident that killing an unwanted toddler was wrong, but I was just as certain that one could abort a four-cell embryo with a clear conscience. I clung to this certainty, though I couldn't explain it. Now I realize that my instincts comprised all the elements of the answer, I just needed to put them together.

The point is that immoral and wrong are not synonymous, which is to say, an act can be at the same time immoral and permissible, or even immoral and clearly appropriate. The moral value of an act is only one of the act's attributes to consider in deciding what to do, to be weighed against parameters such as utility, feasibility, sustainability and others. These latter variables can be grouped to form the value we set in opposition to an act's moral status: practicality (in opposition because when something is immoral and impractical, or moral and practical, there's no dilemma). The error of the moral highgrounders is that they think that morality always trumps practicality.

This mistake is illuminated by the idea that an act of immense practicality and of trivial immorality should doubtless be performed. For example, a rabid dog must be killed. That rabid dogs spread a disease that is uniformly fatal in humans does not make killing the dog any less immoral - the dog is diseased but innocent - but the magnitude of the practicality in killing the dog greatly overshadows the magnitude of its immorality. What if the dog were a human? Since killing a human is more immoral than killing a dog, we might imprison/isolate a similarly rabid person rather than kill her, but what if she gave off a fume, uncontained by walls, that killed everyone in its indefinitely expanding radius? That no such fume has yet existed does not diminish the certainty that this innocent woman must be killed.

Thus while it is immoral to abort a four-cell embryo, it's much less immoral than killing a five year old, and allowable when faced with the prospect of completing an unwanted pregnancy. While it is immoral to test inchoate medical therapies on animals, the enormous benefit to humanity makes such experiments allowable, provided all reasonable steps are taken to minimize the magnitude of their immorality (e.g. by minimizing the animals' suffering). I mention this example to highlight that while morality doesn't trump practicality, practicality doesn't trump morality either; again the magnitude of each must be compared.

I haven't mentioned the motives of moral highgrounders - a topic I've used to console myself for years - because I don't have to, but I want to. The vast majority of these people adopt their positions based not on the positions themselves but because the adoption of such positions puts them in a group they want to belong to. Unfortunately the dubiousness of their motives does not undermine the validity of the arguments they adopt from the more sincere.

With regard to hamburgers. Simply the act of eating an animal in the face of alternative foodstuffs may be immoral; I suspect it probably is despite the weakly-proclaimed argument that we are at the top of the food chain. (That animals eat smaller animals does not make it morally correct - animals also eat their own children; animals are not capable of moral action and their acts are neither immoral nor moral - they are amoral.) Certainly the way that animals destined for supermarkets are raised and killed is highly, highly immoral. All this opposed to the practical argument that is essentially that we like the taste of meat. You're on your own with this one.