When does morality make a difference? This question came to mind as I listened to a Freakonomics podcast on possibly viable meat alternatives and the environmental damage done by meat production. One of the podcast’s interviewees, Mike Selden, founder of Finless Foods, says:
The goal of Finless Foods is not to create something that competes on ethics or morals or environmental goals. It’s something that will compete on taste, price, and nutrition—the things that people actually care about.
It’s a striking acknowledgment that moral suasion may not be enough to change habits even in people who might be troubled by the consequences of those habits. Desire not to cause suffering in animals is widespread, but it isn’t enough to induce most of us to stop eating meat. Almost everyone in the world not only eats meat, but prizes their ability to. Those who avoid it must make a conscious decision and give up long-held habits.
Selden’s acknowledgment that morality doesn’t move the needle is backed up on the podcast by the example of whale blubber, oil from which used to be extracted to fuel lighting. People were unhappy about killing whales, but the need for light outweighed their concern. Then, in the late nineteenth century, kerosene came along, a cheaper and less smelly energy source, and whale blubber ceased to be in demand. Good result for whales and human beings.
“Morals” go beyond ethics, which are typically dry assertions of what is right and wrong, to the passions that accompany deep beliefs. Ethics prescribe codes of conduct; moral claims are the passion that drives us to achieve or maintain ethical standards.
Selden’s statement got me thinking about whether, and if so when, moral suasion does help bring about social change. The counterexample that immediately came to mind was the boycott against South Africa that led to the country’s elite yielding power in 1994 to the black majority. South Africa may be enduring a difficult time, but if there has ever been a moral victory, in the un-ironic sense of that phrase, this was it.
However, South Africa was a special case: Except for the people who lived in that country, the boycott had little impact on the rest of the world, unless it was access to diamonds and the pleasure of watching the nation’s gifted athletes. Outside South Africa, we felt little sacrifice.
“Ideology” is a form of morality that also implies a moral world view that can agitate beyond simple self-interest. Ideology drove the Reagan administration to reject calls to require that cars be produced with airbags. Manufacturers baulked at the greater cost to production and resulting less attractive price tags for consumers. However, the administration might have been less adamant if not for its ideological position that car owners, as with all property owners, ought to have the right to make their own choices. Meanwhile, the effort by individual states to force the federal government to mandate airbags was also driven by ideology: in that case, the credo that government has an obligation to protect its citizens. The airbags mandate wasn’t enacted until 1991, during the first Bush administration.
But although this battle involved moral questions for both sides, it was heavily influenced by economics, again on both sides. While conservatives objected to the additional manufacturing costs, liberals pointed to the healthcare savings from fewer serious injuries.
The notion of meatless meat pits tangible gratification against a global concern so big that it can feel abstract. How can eating a hamburger once or twice a week really hurt the environment? What connection can there be between me on the East coast and an industrial animal farm in Montana? No question, the meatless meat creators are realistic in their acceptance that a moral case isn’t enough to convince most of us to change our habits.
Together, these three examples suggest that for a moral claim to prevail, there must either be no material sacrifice or it must go hand-in-hand with clear material benefits.
Then there’s the abortion debate. True, economic factors play a role for both sides. One practical argument favoring women’s choice is the cost of raising a child for parents with limited resources. Meanwhile, abortion opponents denounce government funding for facilities where abortions are performed. Nevertheless, those who invest time and resources in seeking an abortion prohibition do so with a moral urgency that supersedes any economic consideration. Those with an equal commitment to upholding the abortion option are also driven primarily by a moral imperative, in their case the conviction that women ought to be free to make their own decisions. When economic factors are relegated to the background, battles over morality can be the most vicious of all.
Indeed, morality is often equated with religion, and throughout recorded history, religious conflicts have caused disproportionate suffering to humankind. I write this even as one who respects the good that is also done in the name of religion. Economics involve self-interest, and self-interest encourages common sense. When self-interest is sublimated, passions take over.
A painful fact is that moral conviction can lead to terrible consequences, even though we think of moral causes as positive forces.
The contrast in how we approach moral questions in our everyday lives is telling. If a man walking with a crutch boards a bus, chances are someone sitting near the door will give him her seat. The only reward for this person’s moral act is the feeling of having done the right thing. We are also acting in a moral way when we run errands for a sick friend and when we take care of a pet for a vacationing neighbor.
Yes, there’s a quid-pro-quo factor in these examples. Even though we may not expect the particular neighbor to reciprocate in our hour of need, we do hope other neighbors will act as we have if a similar need arises in our own lives. But the connection between deed and reciprocation is tenuous. What truly motivates us is our sense of fairness, our desire to be neighborly—our notion of morality.
In our everyday lives, the moral questions that arise tend to be clear and the chances of our moral acts having an impact obvious. By contrast, when confronting questions that affect the country and the world, we are the equivalent of the single voter in an electorate of millions, knowing our vote is unlikely to have a discernable impact and sometimes wondering why we bother.
It was E.M. Forster who wrote the charged line: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”
When I first encountered this sentence, I was upset. Patriotism struck me as one of those higher callings, a claim on each of us that goes so far beyond self-interest that it can call for self-sacrifice. I still respond to patriotism’s call, even though today cyber warfare has muddied our understanding of what constitutes an act of belligerence. However, I’d hate to be trapped in the military if my government was engaged in a cause in which I didn’t believe. Even in the rare instance where justification for war is strong, loyalty and morality could well be at odds. As an officer, I’d have felt deeply troubled if, for the sake of the bigger picture, I were ordered to sacrifice a company of soldiers without their knowledge.
Countless espionage accounts and novels dramatize a frequent incongruity between obligations to friends and loyalty to country. Hard as it is to put private concerns over patriotism, especially in time of war, we can judge with confidence only the people we know and with whom we share a network of reciprocal feelings, favors and confidences.
However we feel about Forster’s dictum, it suggests why we act on our moral judgments in our local lives more readily than we do on broad social issues.
These reflections take me to the famous witticisms about youth and middle age, stated variously as:
If you’re not a socialist before you’re twenty-five, you have no heart; if you are a socialist after twenty-five, you have no head.
If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no head.
As an aging liberal, I don’t subscribe to these sentiments, but from a certain vantage point, they make sense. Many young people think their private actions can change the world. Indeed, our nation and the world constantly experience change, and youthful idealism has contributed to changed attitudes. In the past quarter century, gay people have won a once unimaginable degree of acceptance. Likewise, since the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect in 1994, disabled people not only have access to vastly more resources and opportunities, but they’ve also gained wider acceptance on their own terms. Gays and disabled people still have a long way to go, but the difference from half a century ago is like night and day.
All that said, as we get older, not only do we see the slackening of many of the idealistic movements of our youth, but we also gain a wry awareness of our private moral compromises. The earth is under greater threat than ever, and yet most Americans continue to use more energy than any other nation and, yes, to eat meat. We might still hope that big things can be accomplished and that we might contribute to the cause, but the older we get, the more we find our responsibilities focused on our local, or private, conduct. It’s surely one big reason why middle age has always been anathema to youth.
Recognition by the developers of non-meat meats of the limits of our willingness to act on our moral beliefs is both sad and uplifting. It’s sad because, for one thing, it means we are implicated in causing suffering for others. It’s uplifting because we may well be in reach of a workaround with plant-based, albeit genetically modified, Impossible Burgers and other meat substitutes.
In the event we one day make this transition, morality won’t be the loser. We would get satisfaction from knowing that meat consumption hasn’t meant the suffering and death of our fellow animals. It may seem like a false comfort, but it’s more than that. As leaders in the meatless meat movement expressed on the podcast, their initiatives come from a moral place, even though they avoid reliance on morality as a tool of persuasion.
Morality can make a difference. Regrettably, it isn’t always for the good. Because religion and ideology often subordinate self-interest and suppress common sense, they can do harm. But however much we may feel it compromised, our desire to do the right thing is real. The generosity we experience in our daily lives from our family, friends and neighbors is a constant affirmation that our better selves crave expression. Without this nearly universal desire for the good to prevail, the changes the world needs would never come about.
Note: My thanks to Bascove for alerting me to the Freakonomics podcast about meat in the response she posted to my March essay, “The Cougar Within Us.”