Ethics and Radicalism

A while back I posted on “Ethics and Evil,” about the perils of following one’s beliefs to their logical conclusions.  I focused on the fact that all knowledge is provisional, so one must always keep in mind that one’s closely held beliefs might be wrong.  The boldness with which we act should be proportional to the moral intensity of a situation, which might be greater for us in contexts we feel strongly about, but it should also be tempered by the magnitude of the evil we would perpetuate if we were wrong in our ethical assessment.

Today in the New York Times’ excellent “The Stone” series is another argument along these lines about veganism and animal rights by Bob Fischer and James McWilliams.  The hook is a (to me rather unconvincing) analogy about interrupting an opera to help a distressed audience member, but the gist of the argument is that people with strong, extreme positions, like vegans, should be willing to accept baby steps and half-measures, like giving farm chickens bigger cages.  It is, in short, an argument about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.  “Absolute certainty and purity of principle,” they write, “can be detrimental to moral decision-making.”

What I find fascinating about this particular argument is that it explicitly argues for a compromise position even granting that the vegan radicals are right.  Referring to an uncompromising vegan that demands a global adoption of veganism:

[he] isn’t crazy: he’s making the same inference that slavery abolitionists made in the 19th century. They claimed, as many animal activists do now, that it was pointless to call for the reform of an unjust institution. You don’t fix unjust institutions; you dismantle them. Entirely. Now.

The analogy to slavery is obviously flawed in an important way, since most people would give humans much more moral standing than, say, a chicken.  But aside from this huge difference in moral intensity, the analogy is a good one. Today, in depictions about the antebellum south, the absolutist abolitionists are often presented unquestioningly as the obviously rational good guys. But at the time, their “ask” — that white America voluntarily “give up” its single most valuable asset (i.e. free its enslaved people) — seemed crazy and impossible, even to supporters of the movement.  It took the Civil War to make it happen. It’s possible that in 100 years we will look back on today’s carnivores with a similar puzzlement and disgust to the way we look on those slaveowners today.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is interrupted during a campaign stop by Black Lives Matter activists

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is interrupted during a campaign stop by Black Lives Matter activists

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of radicals in society lately, and whether one can morally both agree with them and not do what they demand.

Fischer and McWilliams again:

We’re not saying that the activists should become more moderate. The point here isn’t that the activist’s principles are mistaken, but rather that those principles have to coexist with other moral commitments, and with the reality of the world as we find it, if he or she is to honor the beings for whom those principles were designed.

Of course, it is reasoning like this that lead many opponents of slavery to resist abolition.  On the other hand, many of those people also voted for Lincoln, who, more or less, spouted lines like this to get elected.  Back to the first hand, the radical abolitionists were right in a deep way that justified the Civil War. On the other hand, the moderates’ and incrementalists’ caution was not unwarranted: the costs (to white America, especially) were terrible, and if voters had known what they were getting into, they might have not chosen to vote for Lincoln.

Two famous, uncompromising radicals of the Civil Rights Era.

Two famous, uncompromising radicals of the Civil Rights Era. If you don’t think MLK was a radical, please read his works in full, or just start with John Johnson’s post here.

I’m sure about this much: we need radicals.  As the cliché goes, we should never doubt that a small group of radicals can change the world, “indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Behind every accommodationist, incrementalist reformer like LBJ or FDR were uncompromising radicals pushing them.  These radicals widened the Overton Window to give them political cover, and made life miserable for them until they used that cover to do “the right thing”.   As FDR supposedly told labor leaders upon taking office: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

This dynamic is not always as explicit or made with the mutual understanding as the FDR quote suggests. Today, hearing radicals and sympathetic moderates discuss things is a fascinating exercise in talking past each other (see, for instance, this game attempt by a befuddled Washington reporter to understand a supporter of Black Lives Matter here, or Hillary Clinton’s discussion with activists here).

So I’m still ambivalent about this. I think I buy Fischer and McWilliams’s apologia for a position of compromise and moderation, even when one agrees with a radical position.  And I stand by my earlier point about the perils of unwarranted certitude and a caution to consider the expectation value of harm you are causing (a tiny chance of error times a huge amount of evil can still be very evil).

But then I find myself haunted by the analogy to the abolitionists: is this all just an intellectual veneer around moral cowardice?

I don’t have an answer.  I’m still mulling it over.


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