Decency Needs Better Company

There seems to be plenty of lip service these days championing the idea that our way of life is both admirable and necessary. We tell ourselves our intentions are fundamentally kind and honorable despite our occasional peccadilloes. We assume our society has been cultivated by a comparatively honorable system that deserves cautious but implicit trust. And we quietly worry that we don’t have the time, energy, or power to think things through a little more carefully.

For all we know, two hundred years from now, our descendants might consider our treatment of animals as barbaric as we now consider the flogging of slaves. Just think of all those Roman and American slave owners who spent almost no time at all puzzling out their moral vices. Most of them took the easy way out by merely viewing themselves through the looking glass of their peers. After all, slaves were an important commodity, right? Conquistadors and colonizers overrunning distant populations didn’t have time to worry about such things when cultural dominance and limitless wealth were at stake. Invasive species live to overrun and own and little else, and they’ll do whatever they have to in order to achieve these ends.

High or low, rich or poor, healthy or infirm, most of us must shoulder the blame, here. As Christopher Hitchens wrote, “Any fool can lampoon a king or a bishop or a billionaire. A trifle more grit is required to face down a mob, or even a studio audience, that has decided it knows what it wants and is entitled to get it. And the fact that kings and bishops and billionaires often have more say than most in forming the appetites and emotions of the crowd is not irrelevant, either.” Take your pick, ladies and gentlemen: getting stretched on the rack in a Church dungeon for heretical behavior or betting on a dogfight in Mississippi.

So, let’s scan the notion of “goodness,” starting with some basic criteria for moral behavior. My premises are as follows: We should never kill or hurt other conscious beings for mere pleasure or convenience, but only in order to preserve or save other lives. Pain in such cases should be kept to the bare minimum. In addition, whenever able, we should prevent the needless pain and death of other beings.

The “we should prevent the needless pain and death of other beings” part makes us responsible for pain and death that we may not have caused but could have prevented. It explains why, if you saw a child about to fall down a well but chose not to stop her from falling in, your inaction would be considered immoral.

Although most of us don’t frequent open wells, if you’re like me and have some disposable income beyond your basic needs, you actually hold a similar position of moral responsibility. For although many of us could use this income to save children from starvation, most of us choose not to. Many relief organizations calculate that it costs only fifty cents a day to feed a starving child. So that would be around $200 a year.

Couldn’t most of us with stable incomes afford at least that much? Sure, maybe this means one would have to eat out less, take less vacations, stop buying jewelry, live in a smaller house, and so on. But when one considers that these cutbacks would save a child’s life, isn’t it a matter of moral obligation to make them?

To see how we’re as obligated to starving kids as to kids falling down wells, consider the differences between the cases. I can think of two: starving kids usually live far away from us, and it costs money to help them. But let’s consider an argument analogous to the philosopher Peter Unger’s to see if these differences matter. Say you were in some control booth and saw, live on a television screen, the same child about to fall down a well. And say you were able to close the well before she fell in by pressing a button. Wouldn’t you feel morally obliged to press that button? It wouldn’t make a bit of difference whether your control booth was ten feet or ten thousand miles away from the well, as long as the button worked.

But what if the button was attached to a cash machine and you had to pay $200 to press it? And let’s say that $200 was not essential to your basic needs. Would you be excused for not pressing the button and letting the child die because you preferred to keep the money? If you wanted to put the money towards having a better house, would that desire be more important than a child’s desire to live? There’s not much difference between pressing this imaginary button and pressing a few buttons on your keyboard or phone pad to donate money to starving children.

The ethicist Peter Singer wrote a famous article about this issue, saying,

In the world as it is now, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. . . . If that makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way things are.

By the way, the excuse that many international charities are scams and keep the money for themselves has little merit. Organizations like the Better Business Bureau monitor and report on how charities spend their money. An even more disturbing objection posits that the starvation of certain children is just “part of nature” and a consequence of overpopulation. Cancer is just part of nature, too, and people are sure willing to battle this when they get it. Besides, worldwide starvation can be blamed on uneven resource distribution just as much as on population sizes.

We aren’t amoral just because we let bad things happen. We also cause potentially irreparable destruction in our quest for food and consumer goods. Widespread deforestation goes into the production of beef, palm oil, shrimp, timber, mined goods, and charcoal. Many of our clothes and electronic devices (Nike, H&M, Dell, etc.) are made in abominable overseas sweatshops that violate domestic U.S. labor laws. Apple has such bad conditions for its international workers that its Foxconn factory in China has been the stage of numerous suicides. And let’s not forget factory farming, which for the sake of cheaper meat subjects our livestock to stress, broken bones, skin abrasions, osteoporosis, mastitis, dystrophy, and fear. Testing consumer products like shampoo on animals is still common, too, e.g., forcing rabbits’ eyes open with clips, applying the product to their eyeballs, and assessing the damage done.

You’ll hear a lot of arguments justifying why animals get treated the way they do, why we can do with our money as we see fit, how sweatshops produce jobs, and so on. But consider that if these practices really are morally defensible, isn’t it a wonderful coincidence that they all also maximally benefit us? Would you expect someone who owns a sweatshop to be against sweatshops? An animal tester to be against animal testing? We should be suspicious of beliefs that, if overturned, would call for significant changes in our lifestyles.

Moral decency doesn’t require us to be perfect, but it does ask that we don’t thoughtlessly and repeatedly engage in the same immoral acts without remorse. Too many people, myself included, fail to meet this criterion. We engage in wonderfully moral acts every day, such as helping friends and family members, giving comfort and encouragement, volunteering in our communities, helping others through our jobs, and so on. But that’s not the whole picture. Human action continues to fall short of its own professed ideals. No one lives a perfect life, but it bears repeating that most of us really do need to try harder to improve the quality of life on this planet, and we’re running out of time.