A comment from smokervoter yesterday quoted a question that was asked of Republican candidates during the campaign. A couple of words jumped out at me. I’ve highlighted them:
Q: Healthcare consumes up to 17% of our GNP. It appears that lifestyles that are based in moral principles would reduce healthcare expenditures. Would you support a private healthcare approach that rewards behavior that promotes moral lifestyles– that is, avoiding alcohol and tobacco consumption, as well as obesity reduction, exercise and nutrition that promotes health?
I suppose that what struck me most about this passage was the near-equation of “moral lifestyles” with “reduced healthcare expenditures.” And also the equation of “moral lifestyles” with avoidance of alcohol and tobacco.
Drinking beer and smoking cigarettes is wrong, and good people who avoid such things live longer than bad people who don’t.
I couldn’t help but think, as I read this, that I inhabit a different moral universe than people who think stuff like this.
For me, what’s right and what’s wrong about some course of conduct depends entirely on the consequences that flow from it. If some act benefits people in some way, it’s a good and right thing to do. And if some act harms people in some way, it’s the wrong thing to do. In almost everything we do, there are costs and benefits, and the moral problem is one of assessing whether the costs outweigh the benefits, or vice versa.
But for these people, acts of one kind or other come ready-sorted and pre-classified as either a priori “right” or “wrong.” There’s no need for any agonising over consequences, and whether the benefits outweigh the costs. All you have to know is whether the activity in question comes from the “wrong” box or the “right” box.
And drinking and smoking come from the “wrong” box. They are always and everywhere unconditionally wrong. And a “moral” or “good” or “right” lifestyle is one in which people do all the “right” things, and avoid doing any of the “wrong” things. The moral individual is someone who, as it were, carries about his person a long list of “right” things (perhaps written in green ink) and “wrong” things (perhaps written in red ink), which he consults whenever he has to make a decision of any kind. If someone offers him a cigarette, he looks through his list of right things and wrong things, and finds it written in red, and declines the offer. Same if he is offered alcohol. Or bacon. Or chocolate. But not muesli. Nor lentils.
Theirs is a very simple moral universe. They are moral simpletons. There are lists of right things and wrong things, and to assess the moral worth of some activity, all you need do is run your finger down the list to find whether it’s right or wrong. It requires zero thought. There are no moral dilemmas. It’s all black and white (or red and green).
And if you’ve become really good at it, you can even get to memorise what’s right and what’s wrong.
They’re a bit like people who have memorised their “times tables” ( e.g. “six twelves are seventy two”) all the way up to the twelve times table, but have no means of determining what eight thirteens are or sixty-three twenty-sevens – because they don’t really know how to multiply numbers together. They don’t know why six twelves are seventy-two: they just know that they are.
And to me this isn’t any sort of morality at all. Because people who think in this way are likely to do really terrible things, if what they’re being asked to do doesn’t happen to be listed in their lists of right and wrong things. They are incapable of analysing new moral questions, and remain entirely reliant on previously determined solutions to an existing set of moral problems. Because, even though they may know what’s right and wrong, they don’t know why it’s right or wrong.
So, for example, Nazi death camp guards were probably, in their own minds at least, “good” people, because they did all the “right” things and refused to do all the “wrong” things. It was just that the entirely new and unheard of activity of driving people into gas chambers wasn’t on their list of “wrong” things to do. So they cheerfully went ahead and did it. And when they were consequently sent to prison or condemned to death, they were probably angry that nobody had told them that what they’d done was wrong. “How was I supposed to know?” some of them might have asked. “Now you tell me!”
The same moral blindness afflicts antismokers. For them, smoking is unconditionally wrong. A “moral lifestyle”, we have just learned, is one which avoids tobacco and alcohol. And so smoking bans are unconditionally good things too. And the consequences of such bans are not examined or explored. Antismokers are not interested in knowing that smoking bans shatter communities, bankrupt pubs, depress the economy, etc, etc. Because such considerations about consequences don’t belong in their simplistic black-and-white moral universe.
The simple-mindedness of this morality also explains the nauseating righteousness of the antismokers. In their view, they know what’s right and wrong, because they’ve carefully memorised it, just like their times tables.
Someone like me could never match them for righteousness, because for me moral issues are never black and white. For me, something might be right one day, and wrong the next (impossible for antismokers). And it always requires careful consideration, weighing pros and cons. And there’s never any certainty.
And when I consider drinking or smoking, they strike me as very largely inconsequential activities. They only become dangerous in excess. In moderation, they are positively beneficial. And this true of everything else in life as well.
And, as far as I am concerned, anyone who doesn’t weigh up pros and cons of some course of action, but immediately forms a firm and final opinion, isn’t a moral individual. They are, however righteous and firm they might be in their views, essentially amoral. And perhaps even immoral.
The collision between antismokers and smokers is in many ways a collision of rival moralities. It’s a collision between people with long lists of things that are “right” (and should be encouraged and rewarded) and things that are “wrong” (and should be discouraged and banned), and people who weigh things up from first principles according the benefit or harm that appears to consequent upon them. The former process results in instant decisions, and the latter takes a long time to arrive at uncertain conclusions. And so in the clash of the two moralities, the moral simpletons arrive at certainty immediately, while the weighers and measurers are still pondering over the pros and cons – and so the simplists tend to win in the beginning. But they always lose in the end, when the bigger, more considered picture emerges.