The Process of Moral Changes

When I was younger version of myself, after having finally filled to the brim a hefty CD binder with all the best that music had to offer, the historic movement from CD to mp3 occurred, rendering such a collection all but useless. And so too did the process of purchasing make a fundamental shift. Instead of going to the store and looking through their selection of CDs, possibly taking a chance and buying something you did not all-too-well know, you suddenly found yourself inundated with the world of online music, and all of it from the comfort of your own home.

It was not very long before my annual spending on music plummeted from a relatively big number to zero. Music was online, instantly reproducible, and unregulated, so as a consequence all but the least tech-savvy of my cohorts and I downloaded it illegally and with ease. In those days, I did not think much about morality, although some part of my subconscious must have known something was wrong, as I often found myself justifying the act not only to others, but to myself.1)Such justifications are usually signs that you have a cognitive dissonance! “I’ll just listen to all of the songs to see if the album is worth it, and if so, I’ll buy it.” Never happened, but it sounds nice. Then there were: “Music is a digital good, which has both no marginal production cost” (and therefore entails no loss when stolen), or: “music is a non-excludable good” (my stealing it does not prevent anyone else from accessing it, whereas a CD in a store does), or: “I wouldn’t have purchased the music anyway” (so there is no loss for the company, but there is the positive value I get from it, a net win), or: “Humans have a right to culture” (so therefore I am under no obligation to pay, and in fact, am a moral crusader for the public good), et cetera and ad nauseam.

Needless to say, I no longer consume music this way, but know a surprising number of people who steal digital media and have no qualms with it, who would, however, judge the stealing of physical media in a store to be abhorrent. Can the physicality of the object or the method of distribution play the deciding role in the ethics of the situation? I think the most likely explanation which accounts for this phenomenon is that a change in technology has caused a change in morality, or at least how we respond to a moral question, instead of us deciding based on the relevant moral aspects of the situation alone. In other words, instead of taking an ethical stance on an issue (e.g. it is generally wrong to steal) and then applying it in an actual situation, the perhaps all too human response is almost the exact converse: wait for a change in the world, in this example, the ease of stealing music online and the lack of infrastructure to prevent theft, and then backfill a moral stance that is advantageous to the new situation. In other words: I claim it is the sheer ease with which one can steal music that is the driving factor of people’s willingness to call it a moral, or perhaps amoral act. People in a physical store cannot get away with stealing very easily and there is a large risk associated with doing so. Imagine a situation with these factors removed: there are no cameras, alarms, or guards at clothing stores and if you did somehow get caught, the penalty would be trivial. I believe that not only would many more people steal from stores, but would have little to no moral qualms about doing so, adjusting their conscience to the facts of the day.

This is important because it should make us realize that our moral compasses, which we normally hold to objectively guide us unwaveringly to The Moral, are subject to failure simply due to the arbitrary circumstances of the times. Instead of looking at the situation and taking a moral position given the facts, a type of world change (e.g. technological) puts us in a new situation where we need to form a moral opinion, and we often do so by only considering our self interest, although we are likely unaware of it, as is the case with downloading media illegally. This phenomenon can have vast, negative consequences.

Consider a much more grave issue: slavery in the United States. In 1860, over 25% of households had slaves in states where slavery was legal. We often look back at that time with horror, and are pretty sure we would not have had slaves ourselves. To most everyone, it is an obvious fact. But is it not plausible that this issue was not on the moral horizon at all, and that slave owners happily rationalized their misdeeds away? How else can we explain phenomena like the proposal of the “mental illness” drapetomania, which a medical physician in the time of slavery in the United States put forth as a theory to account for the fact that many slaves wanted to run away – they must have been crazy. Can you imagine a mind, and that of a doctor nonetheless, that could not conceive of the fact that slaves might prefer not to be in bondage? And yet it took a civil war, an outside force, to put an end to the terrible practice, at least in the United States. Now, in the 21st century, we are of course sure that we personally would not have been found among the slaveholders. With the distance so great and our personal interest so little, we can confidently and easily make this claim. It evokes the oft-cited and yet powerful quote by Schopenhauer:

All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; Third, it is accepted as self-evident.2)Original German: Alle Wahrheit durchläuft drei Stufen. Zuerst wird sie lächerlich gemacht oder verzerrt. Dann wird sie bekämpft. Und schließlich wird sie als selbstverständlich angenommen.

The question is not, however, what things in the past were wrong and right – as we have just seen, these are often easy to sort out through the simplifying lens of hindsight. The question is rather: what practices do we engage in today which are immoral, but seem moral, due to custom and circumstance? How will people judge these practices 100 years in the future? A related question is: once we believe was have a sufficiently justified moral stance, what is the best way to implement such a change? These questions eat up a lot of my precious time and are the reason I made you read all of the words up to now.

For years I thought that, given a well enough presented argument, people would change their minds on a given issue. It is not that I think that this pursuit is fruitless (indeed, it would render that which I am now undertaking futile), but I no longer believe it to be a very effective method. Instead, as stated above, I believe economic or technological changes to be the most effective way to make moral changes. This seems unfortunate, as it takes to a large degree human agency out of the morality equation, but seems nevertheless true. Consider a concrete example, one close to my heart: vegetarianism.

I think that most modern day issues have a level of complexity never before seen and that almost all issues have extensive pro and con lists that makes the forming of an absolute moral position extremely difficult, but with vegetarianism the case seems very clear to anyone who has done a modicum of research and who is willing to hear arguments on the matter.3)I plan to write about this topic in the future, so I will not lay out an argument here, but Ethics philosopher Peter Singer’s already 25 year old paper “All Animals Are Equal*” is a good start for the uninformed. I believe being vegetarian to be one of if not the most effective way for the average human to make a difference in the world, whether your concern is the billions 4)It is often easy to get lost in abstraction with large numbers. As Stalin famously said: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.” Consider the richness and profundity of your life: past, present, and future. Now imagine the systematic snuffing out of that whole life, one million times, and one thousand times that same process, every single year. (with a “b”) of animals that suffer and die under extremely horrible circumstances each year, climate change due to greenhouse gases, world hunger (as it takes more food to raise animals for consumption than it does to eat the food directly), or water scarcity. And I ask you, if none of those things listed concern you, what does?

Despite all of this, I believe the big wave of change to vegetarianism will come not from persuasion and outreach, although, they are effective to some degree and therefore worthwhile approaches. I believe, rather, that in the not-too-distant future, lab-grown meat will become ubiquitous and, not subject to the massive infrastructure and process costs incurred by standard meat production, will be significantly cheaper than “real” meat. I think, like most technological changes, people will be skeptical at first, but the sheer market forces of the situation will eventually drive the decision to lab-grown meat, with which the horrid factory farming system of today simply will not be able to compete. The next generation of humans will fulfill Schopenhauer’s expectations, and, distanced from the everydayness of meat consumption, shake their fingers so condescendingly and so confidently at the past, claiming our treatment of and apathy toward animals under the system of factory farming in the late 20th and early 21st centuries to be among our darkest days. It will be a frustrating and yet joyful time to be alive.

I do not expect to have changed your mind about a topic here, but I hope to have raised your awareness of the potentiality of self-serving stances on moral issues to some degree as well as to the possibility that our moral positions come not from within, but are in some sense determined by our environment, and that that fact demands that we consciously observe and reflect upon our moral decisions in our everyday goings on. As always, I would love to hear any comments or criticisms.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Such justifications are usually signs that you have a cognitive dissonance!
2. Original German: Alle Wahrheit durchläuft drei Stufen. Zuerst wird sie lächerlich gemacht oder verzerrt. Dann wird sie bekämpft. Und schließlich wird sie als selbstverständlich angenommen.
3. I plan to write about this topic in the future, so I will not lay out an argument here, but Ethics philosopher Peter Singer’s already 25 year old paper “All Animals Are Equal*” is a good start for the uninformed.
4. It is often easy to get lost in abstraction with large numbers. As Stalin famously said: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.” Consider the richness and profundity of your life: past, present, and future. Now imagine the systematic snuffing out of that whole life, one million times, and one thousand times that same process, every single year.