–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Morality Everywhere?

by | Jun 13, 2024

Over the last few years, I’ve been having a certain kind of argument, over and over again. It always starts with feeling compelled to defend something that I really like and which I would have thought it quite normal to like against emphatic moral criticisms from various quarters. Eating food, for instance (well, food that includes meat or dairy), and going on nice vacations and having nice cars (we don’t have particularly nice cars, but we go on nice vacations) and even something as seemingly benevolent as supporting museums. Common things. The sorts of things that millions upon millions of people around the world do and enjoy, many of them multiple times a day.  

In her essay, “On Morality,” Joan Didion worried about excessive moral appeals, back in the morally heady 1960’s: 

The most disturbing aspect of ‘morality’ seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation… There is something quite facile going on, some self-indulgence at work.

Little did she know what was coming. Intense, aggressive moral scrutiny directed at the minutiae of everyday life – what one eats and drinks and wears and watches and listens to; what sort of car one drives to work (or even that one drives to work); what sort of job one has; how one spends one’s spending money; what sort of apartment or house or neighborhood one lives in; whether one uses gendered pronouns or words like ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘uncle’, and the like in one’s ordinary conversations; even what one thinks to oneself, entirely separate from one’s behavior. The sorts of things that would never have received even a moment’s moral notice just several decades ago are now at the front and center of much of our public moral conversation and increasingly, our philosophical one as well.  

I have found myself sometimes wondering if this development in the broader culture represents the vulgarization of a trend in philosophy, beginning in the early 1970’s with Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” which, if not the first, certainly was the first to have the effect of rendering the more humdrum dimensions of our lives morally charged in the way I’ve described, something that would only increase with his subsequent work, especially Animal Liberation (1975) and Practical Ethics (1979). (In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Singer argues that we are morally obligated to give away our money to the point that we are living just above the standard of a Bengali refugee, which means that spending money on and possessing nice things is to be morally condemned.) But Singer is hardly the only one. In Living High and Letting Die (1996), Peter Unger extended this sort of hyper-critical attention to those who send their kids to private schools or take jobs that they actually enjoy (as opposed to those that pay the most, so that one can give more to charity), things, again, that it would be almost impossible to imagine someone morally criticizing not very long ago. Indeed, it would seem that there is no element of our daily lives, no matter how mundane or common or routine, that is not receiving intense moral scrutiny. And all that one need do is stick one’s head outside for a few moments to see that our public discourse, especially online, is awash in this sort of thing – “callout” culture, online-mobs, hashtag campaigns – all devoted to expressions of moral outrage, assignments of moral blame, calls for people to be fired from their jobs, social ostracism, and worse.

Of course, this is socially and culturally corrosive and quite dangerous. As a practical matter, I’m not sure what should be done about it or even how one goes about resisting it. After all, an important, serious question is buried underneath all the annoying stuff, namely: What determines whether something is an appropriate object of moral scrutiny? Clearly, in principle, anything could be morally scrutable, but that is a far cry from saying that everything or anything should be examined through a moral lens on any particular occasion.

Perhaps the only things I’m sure of at this point are the following: [a] that this moral hyper-vigilance cannot possibly be a good or sensible way of approaching social and cultural life and [b] that we aren’t going to be able to come up with some theory or principle that will tell a person when something should be morally scrutinized or not. Beyond that, I can think of two boundary conditions or limits that I would apply to the question of the proper scope of morality.

First, it can’t be the case that one ought to be moral all the time or even that one should try to be. Put another way, moral considerations cannot and should not always be overriding. My reason is essentially the same as that given by Susan Wolf, in her landmark essay, “Moral Saints”: to act solely on moral considerations means that one will fail to cultivate any number of other virtues. Not only is this undesirable at the individual level – people whose only virtues are moral tend to be pedants and scolds and unpleasant bores – but at the societal level as well. A society that included nothing but moral saints would be worse than one in which people have cultivated different types of virtues. Consequently, we should resist the following, depressingly common sort of line: “You shouldn’t be doing (non-moral) X, because you could be doing (moral) Y instead,” which applies directly to Singerisms like “You shouldn’t be spending your money on (non-moral) X, because you could be spending it on (moral) Y instead” and can also be extended to the ethical vegan’s “You shouldn’t eat (immoral) X, because you could be eating (moral) Y instead.”

Second, it can’t be the case that too many people are too immoral too often. Put another way, if your moral outlook entails that too many people are bad, too much of the time, then something is wrong. This is, of course, vaguely put – how many are too many? – but deliberately so.  

At some level, immorality – badness – has to be understood as the deviation from a norm and thus, is something that should be somewhat rare. I am inclined to say the same thing about moral virtue. It strikes me as unlikely that most of our mundane, daily business should have any moral valence whatsoever, even when it involves the little kindnesses and slight cruelties, with which our ordinary lives are filled. Our moral meters should not be such sensitive instruments, and moral praise and blame should be infrequent; saved, as it were, for “special occasions.” For one thing, there’s something absurd, along the lines of an informal reductio, about suggesting that every kid’s bologna sandwich or family barbecue  or utterance of “Thank you, sir” constitutes a moral offense. For another, there is a real futility in targeting basic, common activities for moral condemnation: the point of moral praise and blame is to get people to behave better, and not only are most people not going to stop fishing or eating bologna sandwiches or saying “Excuse me, ma’am,” regardless of how often they are condemned for doing so, but one runs the real risk of affecting a general moral exhaustion amongst the public that will make it more difficult to persuade people, when the important issues come along. Put another way, “choose your battles” seems like generally good advice.  

Finally, to treat so much of what we do as morally obligatory or prohibited risks a kind of concept creep that threatens to undermine the relevant concepts themselves. Just as it is a mistake to suggest that what is supererogatory is obligatory, it is a mistake to suggest that what has no real moral significance falls under either a positive or negative obligation. If everything one does is morally charged then what does the claim that something is a “moral issue” really mean? If everything is moral, how special can the moral be? The irony, then, is that those who have done the most to moralize every activity and every minute of every day, may have only succeeded in making everyone else think that the moral isn’t anything of which to take much note.