The Moralist’s Catch-22


OK, let’s make a couple of assumptions right off the bat for the purpose of this exercise.

  1. You want to help others.
  2. You’d like not to compromise your own values in doing so.

Simple enough. Now, what do you do when compromising your own values is the best way to help people?

This is the moralist’s dilemma, and every now and then it becomes a focal point of policy. Do we employ torture in the hope that it saves innocents, or do we shun the practice, deciding that the moral implications outweigh the potential good?

What’s interesting politically about such dilemmas is that they are a poor litmus test. For instance, someone on the right might say yes to torture but no to sex-ed that isn’t abstinence-based. Sex education, as with torture in the abstract, compromises their values. But in this scenario, our hypothetical right-wing friend doesn’t think the benefits of lower rates of teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease are worth the moral grey of handing out condoms.

I don’t mean to pick on anyone; the point is you can’t simply say conservatives make moral compromises, liberals don’t, or vice versa. In fact, it would be far more accurate to say that, when dealing with the morally grey, liberals and conservatives alike will only “go there” when the cause matches their ideological bent. Adding to the deficit is OK when it’s to cut taxes, but not when it’s to increase spending. And on, and on.

What brought all this to my attention was this Economist post discussing the recent report (pdf) that birth control in the third world would do six times more to reduce carbon emissions than our efforts to develop renewable energy. (Whether this is primarily a function of inputs [costs] or outputs [carbon reductions], I don’t know. If it’s more a product of the former, I doubt such efforts would gain much ground with environmental groups, to whom cost is not the overriding factor.)

Though the report itself is certainly discussion-worthy, what I found more interesting was the Economist’s discussion on the politics of family-planning.

Over the past 30 years, America has essentially taken itself out of the game of worldwide family planning and reproductive health issues. American “gag rules” on abortion, prohibitions on funding programmes that work with prostitutes, rules mandating that funding be split equally between effective prophylactic promotion and useless abstinence promotion, and so forth are instituted by Republican administrations and removed by Democratic ones; the upshot is that smart reproductive health organisations try where possible to avoid working with American government funding. And smart American organisations in other fields do their best to stay away from anything having to do with reproductive health. The officials running the worldwide anti-AIDS “PEPFAR” programme under the Bush administration would explicitly tell reporters that they expected the holes in their programmes, such as an inability to fund clean-needle programmes for heroin users, to be filled by countries that had no legislative restrictions on such funding, ie the Europeans.

Some of this stuff isn’t likely to change. I’d be mildly surprised if the U.S. touched anything relating to abortion with a 10-foot pole in my lifetime. And it stands to reason that a heroin clean-needle program, like this one in Australia, would spell political death in America where funding (Read: tax dollars) is concerned. (Can you imagine the FoxNews headlines? If you think end-of-life counseling in a health bill is scandalous, try “Govt. to Supply Needles to Drug Addicts” on for size.)

But I would wager that solid majorities of Americans, from the right and left, could be convinced that most moral compromises (if compromises they be) were, if not desirable, at least defensible policies. Ask Americans the torture question ten years ago and you wouldn’t find many who would say torture was acceptable in certain scenarios. Now that those scenarios have become clearer to the public, we’re suddenly a nation of utilitarians.

Spell out third world family planning in similarly clear terms, and I’m not sure how much political traction the opposition would have in the 2009 America of Lady Gaga¹ and Desperate Housewives. Abstinence promotion figures to weigh lightly on balance with the prospect of famine, disease, global warming and whatever else we can tie to rampant population growth.

Heroin needles are a trickier example, in that, to some degree, the government is facilitating a universally frowned-upon practice; it’s not just the value voters that detest heroin. But as with sex, the argument “they’re gonna do it anyway,” at least makes the case for minimalizing the harm, though it goes against many Americans’ morals to do so.

¹It’s been a year since this song came out and I still can’t get over the bridge (2:18 on the vid). What is she wearing? What is she doing with that dog? How did “bluffin’ with my muffin” make it through post-production?

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2 Responses to “The Moralist’s Catch-22”


  1. 1 Luke September 22, 2009 at 11:27 am

    This is perhaps going beyond the scope of this post, or maybe even providing evidence for your point about moralizing on a partisan basis, but I think there is a flaw in the torture and birth control analogy.

    That would be that it seems almost unarguable that birth control is effective in limiting unwanted pregnancies and reducing population. However, I don’t think there’s nearly enough evidence to fully support the theory that torturing people produces truthful information that can help others. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary.

    What would Lady GaGa say?

    Either way, it’s good to have you back bloggin’, sir. I would recommend one or two of my articles to you, but my employer has elected to make people pay for content online.

    • 2 Brian Eason September 22, 2009 at 12:50 pm

      Yeah, I agree. Both issues actually, are imperfect examples of what I’m talking about. For a lot of people, abstinence isn’t a value at all, so there we can throw out the moral conundrum entirely (although more extreme population control efforts, like, say, what happens in China, would still be fair game for such a discussion).

      Torture, as you pointed out, has a practicality aspect to it. Is it effective? Because if not, it’s more of a rational cost/benefit choice than a philosophical one. I personally am not convinced if it’s effective or not, and would still vote no on torture, so for me it’s still a ethical question, and to some extent a role of government question. (When I said “we’re suddenly a nation of utilitarians” I wasn’t actually including me in that.)

      In fact, I’m not even sure if there was a broader point I was trying to make with this post. Interesting to think about, though.


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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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