Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tainted Lunch and Moral Compromise

Sometimes I am overwhelmed by guilt at the routine activities of living in America. I eat lunch. I contemplate the horrors of factory farming, of monocropping corn. Perhaps I see the bloody dead native Americans being cleansed from the land in the past in my mind’s eye. Or if, perhaps, there is some chocolate, I reflect on the role of slavery in modern West African chocolate production.

A blogger using the pseudonym VK, puts it this way:

“We mine, we bomb, we pollute, we steal, we kill, we poison and we destroy - Forests, oceans, lakes, mountains, land, the air and our very souls.

Everytime we go to shop, fill up our cars with gas, use any convenience that we associate with modern life. There is a price to be paid, someone will die or has died due to you your consumption. Think of the rivers of blood that have been spilt over land, water, power and oil. And the rivers of blood that will be as we begin our climate descent. Today's consumption and gratification means that someone, somewhere else will suffer and probably die.

Large parts of the world have been built on the backs of slave labour, including America and resource exploitation and the decimation of local/indigenous peoples.

Civilization is inherently brutal and being a 'civilized person' is actually being complicit in mass murder - genocide and ecocide. We deny this reality though, people choose to ignore this reality, absolve themselves of any blame, blame the banksters, the governments, the idiots in charge, anyone but themselves.

When you stone a child, does it matter whether you have thrown a smaller stone? Because this is exactly what we do, on a day to day basis. It is the root cause of the evils that we face in the world, the scars of death and murder, the trail of blood we leave is palpable in our very souls. It rots us from within.

No wonder then that denial is such a wonderful option. Living in our bubble is much better then ever admitting our role in civilization. We are a rapacious and greedy species, with an infinite blood lust. So remember this when you have your next meal, your next dose of medication, the next movie you watch or the next time you surf the web - Your existence has led and will lead to the deaths of many - take a pause and reflect.

Many times at night, this keeps me awake. I drown my sorrows over large amounts of whisky. Their is a madness in this world, one I can not relate too. We all like to think we are better, good, kind, generous. In reality, I am just a cold blooded killer. I don't even know who I've brought suffering too, I just carry on though, as a hypocrite and a charlatan.

So the next time you are happy from consumption or think you are happy? Ask yourself this - what blood price had to be paid to cause that happiness? Suffering brings us a deep connection - to the reality of our world and to ourselves. The unhappiness, the existential torment and emptiness is a sign from the earth - why do you kill me child? Why do you destroy that which bore you, why do you lust for your brother's heart?”

Well, many times at night, for years now, this keeps me awake too. To me, this is the great problem of contemporary moral theory. The good and the terrible are causally intertwined in deep and complex ways. Everything we value is systematically dependent on what we deplore. In a sense, that is even what it means to BE a world, for a set of events to be systematically intertwined, and we could think about this in metaphysical terms if we want, but I like to think of it in day-to-day terms. I had cabbage-cheddar pie and a piece of zucchini brownie for lunch today. And that lunch was morally tainted in many ways (West African slavery, land ownership issues, the treatment of the cows involved in the cheese production, the moral problems of the multinational ag. corporations that raised the feed that the cows ate, etc). So how are we to think about moral compromise in day-to-day situations like this?

A moral system must pass a series of hurdles to be attractive to the modern mind. In “The Morality of Coping” I argue that four main challenges or hurdles have shaped the development of the moralities we see today. Any competent moral system must help encourage children to grow up to be “conventional” or “normal” members of their society, rather than “pre-conventional” or “immature” members – that is it must encourage and enforce normativity. Second, every moral system for a society with division of labor, must find some way to encourage people to become excellent at something the society values – that is it must encourage and enforce valuing excellence above the norm. But excellence is quite close to social eminence. Some moral systems embrace this analogy and picture the good as being essentially the same as the high-class, or the noble. But many moral systems develop the notion that someone can be high-class but still morally objectionable in some way. If so, then the third challenge of morality is to distinguish heroes from monsters; the right high, powerful people, from the wrong high, powerful people. And oddly this winds up being the same challenge as helping us not to be evil.

But it is the fourth challenge of morality that I want to explore here. The fourth challenge of morality is how to cope with the close intertwining of good and ill, right and wrong, valued results and dis-valued results. Moral dilemmas are the simplest manifestation of the problem, because both sides have some real cost, but the phenomenon is more general. How do we cope with the fact that what we want morally, is deeply interconnected with what we do not want, that every choice has a cost?

I think that this challenge is still the primary driver of moral thought today. The main moral theories that are contending with each other for the hearts and minds of Westerners today, distinguish themselves from each other, largely by offering different strategies for meeting this challenge, and no one approach to this challenge has yet emerged as dominant. Until one strategy for resolving this challenge emerges as dominant, there can be no fifth great challenge of morality, rather there will be plenty of lesser challenges of morality, and each approach to meeting the fourth great challenge, will have their own further developments, rather than morality having a more or less unified further line of dialectical development.

I believe that there are four basic strategies that have been offered for coping with the deep interconnection of the valued and disvalued, and that my own approach is a fifth one that has not been explored much yet.

The first strategy is that of Nietzsche and the ancients, don’t even employ the notions of right and wrong, of good and evil; restrict yourself to the notion of good and bad, better and worse, or higher and lower. Now dilemmas are merely a matter of finding a balance between competing goods. If you err a little on the side of generosity this time, then err a little on the side of thrift next time, but there is no need to see either side as “wrong” or “evil.” Dilemmas never really arise, rather we are constantly balancing goods, where no choice is really evil, they are at worst, unbalanced. Nietzsche advocates a fairly extremist vision of the good life, but more recent virtue theorists and Neo-Aristotelians, are making roughly the same intellectual move, albeit less boldly. Here we are never really compromising with evil, because there is no evil to be compromised with, we are merely balancing competing goods. From the point of view of this approach, my lunch is neither evil nor tainted, and guilt is a misguided concept.

The second strategy is to choose only pure rights, pure goods. If an action has some right-making features, and some wrong-making features, then don’t do it! Be as pure as you can. As much as possible do good and avoid evil, rather than seeking to do good by also doing evil. This is the strategy of Kant and Ross and of the human rights movement in general. If a government can accomplish some worthy goal, (say catching criminals) by violating some human right, then they must not do so! In this picture, the wrong is a line which must not be crossed, even to achieve important goods. Since right actions often have bad consequences, and good consequences often require wrong, or at least mixed actions, the strategy of purity has to be extremely anti-consequentialist, valuing or disvaluing actions for reasons divorced from their outcomes. Here there is an evil to be compromised with, and that is a possible choice, but we are refusing to engage in moral compromise. From the point of view of this approach, my lunch is morally wrong, and I need to find something else to eat, no matter how hard it might be to do so.

The third strategy is to think of the choice which is likely to have the best outcome as the right thing to do. The idea is to add up all the valuable outcomes of a choice (and their likelihood) and all the disvalued ones, and decide the overall value of the choice. Utilitarians add up all the values and disvalues to everyone; ethical egoists add up only the values and disvalues to themselves; corporate managers balance the costs and benefits to their stockholders, etc. But the basic adding and balancing of the cost-benefit analysis process works pretty similarly regardless of the precise flavor of Consequentialism used. It is essential to this strategy that the ends justify the means, that is - the likely value or disvalue of outcomes determines what the right thing to do is. A morally costly method can be the right thing if the outcomes are likely to be morally beneficial enough. Here we frequently need to build compromise positions, but we are never really compromising with evil or wrong, because the act of building a good compromise makes that choice the right thing to do. We cannot really compromise with the wrong, because compromise itself is right. From this point of view, I need to eat the morally best lunch I can, but if I have, then I have done nothing wrong.

The fourth strategy is to say that the ends sometimes justify the means, but not always. The idea is that sometimes it is appropriate to do morally costly things to bring about morally valuable outcomes, but that there are limits. In Aquinas’ thought about the doctrine of double effect, for example, it is justified to do evil in the process of doing good, so long as: 1) we intend the good rather than the evil, 2) the good overbalances the evil, 3) the act isn’t inherently wrong, and 4) the good effects do not work directly via the bad effects. But when these requirements are met, the action with regrettable side-effects is nonetheless justified and right. Aquinas is less of a moral purist than Kant, but more of a moral purist than Mill. Similarly, Islam’s strategy of dividing moral actions into the required, recommended, optional, disrecommended and forbidden means that mixed values are sometimes acceptable. An action can be bad but still permissible. Here it is possible to compromise with evil, and this is allowed sometimes, but we need some guidelines to prevent our compromises with evil from leading us down the slippery slope to worse and worse evils. From the point of view of this strategy, I need a moralist to help me decide exactly when my lunch is tainted but still permissible to eat, or so tainted that I shouldn’t eat it at all, and this decision may turn on a lot of complex reasoning.

My strategy is not quite like any of these, and I have not seen it articulated clearly before, although there are some elements similar to it in some earlier pictures. I advocate taking the best wrong action you can do, when right and wrong interconnect (as they usually do). Unlike Nietzsche or the virtue theorists, I think that right and wrong are helpful concepts even now, and even when right action is not possible. Unlike Kant or the purists, I think that consequences matter, that sometimes there is no right option, that ought does not imply can, and that striving for moral purity is a deep mistake. Unlike the Utilitarians and Consequentialists I think that the best option is not necessarily a right option, even if it is the best we can do. Some times all options are wrong, but one is nonetheless best. Likewise, the ends do not justify the means. Unjust means remain unjust, even when they are the best that we can do, because all options from where we are standing are unjust. Sometimes people ought to act unjustly, by acting in the best unjust way still possible for them. Killing enemy civilians in war is unjust; but so is allowing allied civilians to die. When war can be justly prevented, one ought to struggle to do so. When it is no longer justly preventable, find the best unjust option you can; but do not pretend to yourself or others, that the best option becomes just, simply because it is the best you can do. Finally, even the compromises of Aquinas are not quite right. Sometimes the best we can do is to cause good by causing evil, sometimes an inherent evil is the best we can do. And even when the best we can do fits all four of his criteria, sometimes that is not enough to make it justified or right. Morality is the struggle to do the best we can, whether are options are between right and right, right and wrong, or wrong and wrong. But for us, most real choices are choices between wrong, wrong and wrong. Choosing the best wrong is the heart of our morality, coping with a set of bad choices is our fate, and thus an authentic morality is typically a morality of coping. Here we are engaged in constant moral compromise with evil and wrong, but rather than setting any limits before hand, we must simply find the best compromise we can based on our power, our options, and the costs. The process of moral negotiations is the heart of moral decision making. I think this leads to a morality that isn’t exactly like that of deontology, consequentialism, virtue theory, or Catholic or Islamic thought. I haven’t worked the detail out very fully yet, but I call it a morality of coping, and it’s the subject of my long and unfinished work “The Morality of Coping.”

In the morality of coping, many emotions which are typically thought of as negative, like despair, guilt or pain are virtues, or rather can sometimes be traits which help us to function well, rather than mere hindrances or failure states. Guilt itself is part of this matrix of moral negotiations where we try to do the overall best wrong thing we can. If we wallow in our guilt, or are paralyzed by it, we may wind up doing less good than we otherwise could. If we wall off our guilt or tranquilize it successfully somehow then we may wind up doing more evil than we should. Guilt like physical pain, points to problem we should attempt to address, and by its insistent throbbing helps to remind us of problems we haven’t solved yet.
So my take on the situation is that when you eat your tainted lunch, (or participate in any other tainted aspect of our society), you should feel both joy and guilt entwined together. Joy to give you strength, to acknowledge what is good and valuable in the experience despite the taints. Guilt to remind you of the unsolved problems that lie in the causal story of your joyful but tainted lunch. If the guilt brings you to occasional reflection on the big-picture problems of our society, that is fine albeit unpleasant. But if the guilt paralyzes you or makes you unable to do the best you can from within the tainted situation, then it is poorly-functioning guilt, and needs to be eased. If guilt infects everything to the point of strangling the joy like weeds in a garden, then it is poorly functioning guilt and must be weeded. If guilt whispers quietly and lets you live your life without really responding to, or even considering the taints of the situation, then it is also poorly-functioning guilt and needs to be re-empowered. Being awake to the horrors of our world, being willing to face our own role in them and complicity with the roots of the causes of the horrors without blinking, and taking joy, joy, joy in the world anyway despite the horror and guilt, that is the cornerstone of the morality of coping.


  1. Hello Brian,

    Thanks for your comment. I am sorry about the loss of your job though :(

    Best wishes to you.

  2. I thought you might be interested in this: