Monday, December 15, 2008

Moral equivocation

The more I listen to people talk about politics and philosophy, the more I realize everyone has inconsistencies in their reasoning from time to time. Conservatives usually argue against big government, but some have backed the huge bailouts in recent news. Liberals often are staunch proponents of free speech, yet will try to prevent a racist speaker from coming to campus.

However, some inconsistencies are particularly disturbing to me. For example, in response to my concerns about the bodies exhibit (see Bodies... and capitalism ), those who still wanted to go regardless gave their justification when they said they were in. One response was something along the lines of, "while the possibility that they use chinese prisoners disturbs me, when I weigh the probability of that against the potential benefit to my patients, the patients win."

This is moral equivocation at its worst. Are you seriously trying to make the argument that going to the equivalent of a death freak-show is going to teach you more about medicine than you learned in medical school? Particularly for someone who is concerned about human rights, are you really that willing to turn a blind eye to "injustice" for a chance to see something you already covered in school? Or are you just using that as justification to do what you wanted to do, so you could be morally beyond reproach (from both yourself and others)?

Now, there are obviously too many injustices in the world to do something about them all, but if one of your goals is to live a socially conscious life, then shouldn't you do so even when it's inconvenient for you? Maybe I'm a little radical, but I think people should try to practice what they preach. If you are against government handouts, then don't submit receipts to get reimbursed by FEMA for an emergency generator. If you stand against illegal immigration, don't go pay one of the workers standing outside of home depot to help you move. And in the above mentioned case, don't lean on the potential to save lives as justification for everything. That sounds a little too Nazi-esque for my comfort level.


Matthew said...

there's a difference between moral equivocation and refinements of your principles. killing people is generally bad. killing someone who is about to blow up a school is not. those two statements are not inconsistent. most "conservative" supporters of the bailouts claim they are/were essential to preventing total economic collapse, unemployment, bank runs, rioting, etc. in that case, the principle that govt serves to provide peace and stability would seem to weigh more strongly than the principle that govt shouldn't intervene in private matters. supporting someone's right to speak and sponsoring a particular speaker at an inappropriate forum are different. schools have duties regarding the information they spread. allowing racists to speak conflicts.
these issues aren't moral equivocations as much as conflicts. if you believe in more than one principle, ultimately you'll have to equivocate on something.
declining govt assistance (especially if you're the one funding it) seems kinda ridiculous. is your friend with the generator a single female? :) why should trying to change the system require only accepting the detriments and rejecting the benefits of the programs forced on you? if we get the sort of socialized medicine where you can't purchase care outside the system should all the people who opposed it never go to a doctor? or if i don't believe agriculture should be so heavily subsidized, maybe i shouldn't eat.

Evan said...

But doesn't that same liberal tradition propose that we should believe in innocence until proven guilty? An investigation or a newspaper piece does not imply guilt. I think that until they are proven guilty we should consider their claim of innocence. Also, if the evidence were so overwhelming then it would not be difficult to get a court to order the exhibition to be suspended until guilt or innocence can be properly established - this has not happened! However, there is no smoke without fire ... so I think people need to make their own decision!

That said I did go to the exhibition and although I was suffering with some serious jet lag. I found it to be interesting although poorly presented ... it went for a sensationalist view without considering real educational outcomes for the lay person.

Amanda Z said...

Matthew and Evan make some very good points indeed. Assuming most people are not single principle people, there are bound to be conflicts. I guess there are limits to which we can live by the philosophies we believe in. However, that shouldn't stop us from making the effort. In the case of corn subsidies, perhaps one could make the effort to buy products that don't use corn-syrup or other corn byproducts.

As for the innocence until proven guilty, even in a full out court case, that could take years. In this particular case, Florida's state anatomical board tried to ban the exhibit but was in effect told they didn't have jurisdiction on museums, only on medical schools. New York, Washington, and California have all made legislative efforts since to prohibit exhibits that don't properly document the source of the bodies, but these things take time. Should we wait for Sudan officials to be convicted in court before mandating action in Darfur, or do we act based on convincing evidence available now?

Obviously without a clear conviction it is up to individuals to decide for themselves whether or not to go to the exhibit, but decide based on the evidence available, not on balancing your ethical viewpoints with potential benefit.

Kirk said...