Quotes & Commentary #48: Orwell

Quotes & Commentary #48: Orwell

We have become too civilised to grasp the obvious. For the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil.

—George Orwell, A Collection of Essays

What is the right thing to do in morally compromising circumstances? What should you do when, for example, you’re working for a company whose business practices you find exploitative? What if you’re working in a school system that embodies an educational philosophy you think is false or harmful?

Or consider the situation Orwell describes: When you are forced to choose between fighting in a war or capitulating to fascists?

This is a dreadful choice to make. On the one hand, fascism is ethically intolerable, and allowing fascism to conquer means allowing injustice to reign and persecution to run rampant. But to stop fascism means having to fight; and fighting means getting your hands dirty. “Getting your hands dirty” is, of course, a euphemism for all of the morally compromising actions that war entails. You will have to kill strangers, violently and indiscriminately; and in modern warfare the death of innocent civilians is inevitable, considering the weapons we use.

It is one question (which I don’t intend to address here) whether the so-called “collateral damage” of a conflict justifies the war. It is another whether the moral damage of participating in warfare compensates for the moral benefit of defeating an enemy. To use religious language for a moment, my question is this: Does inflicting violence for a good cause imperil your soul? Does the justice outweigh the sin?

Orwell thought the answer was yes, and he lived his principles. He fought passionately, both in word and action, against fascism, even taking up arms in the Spanish Civil War. To pick another notable example, Malcolm X also agreed that violent means were justified when used against violent tyranny. If white people were going to violently oppress black people in America, then why shouldn’t black people fight back with any means necessary? Indeed, I think most people nowadays would agree that violence is sometimes justified by the outcome. Despite all the atrocities of the Second World War, fighting against the Nazis was morally preferable to letting them win.

On the other side of this debate are people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and James Baldwin. The justification for pacifism is that violence corrupts, both the victim and the attacker. By committing violence, even in the service of a noble cause, we degrade ourselves.

This argument sounds religious, and it often is; but you can make this same argument from a secular perspective. James Baldwin, a man totally disillusioned with Christianity, was nevertheless a pacifist, because he thought violence, injustice, and oppression corrupts its agents. Baldwin thought this because the purveyors of violent oppression must create comforting myths for themselves so they don’t have to face their own immorality; and this leads to a disconnect from reality and an inauthentic life.

For my part, the risk with using unethical means for ethical ends is that it forces you to make exceptions in your moral code. You must create an inconsistency in your standards of right and wrong, and this may lead to a slippery slope. In other words, if you make a special rule to use violence against one type of person, this creates a risk that the rule can be abused.

For one, if you decide that violence is allowable against one special class of person—fascist soldiers, let’s say—this leads to the difficulty of determining whether any specific person falls into this class. If you make a mistake, you will commit violence to an innocent person. And it is clear that this rule can be abused (and certainly was during the Spanish Civil War), for example, by anyone who has a score to settle, through a false accusation or other forms of foul play.

The other risk is that, by creating one category of allowable violence, you set a damaging precedent. In the future, perhaps the category is expanded, or other categories of allowable violence are created, citing the first one for authority. In other words, you may unintentionally open the door for unscrupulous people, who wish to cloak their violence in legitimacy rather than use violence to accomplish a noble end.

I am not willing, for the moment, to assert that either Orwell or Baldwin are definitely right (although I admit I’m inclined to pacifism, if only because I’m cowardly). The “right” answer seems to depend heavily on the particular circumstances.

Thankfully, most of us will not have to decide whether to use violence against injustice. But by virtue of living in a society, we will certainly have to make many other, far less dramatic decisions about the right thing to do when given only undesirable options.

This question came to the fore during the 2016 elections, particularly among fans of Bernie Sanders. Many Bernie fans believed that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were morally corrupt, and they were not content to vote for the “lesser of two evils.” Now, in the case of Clinton and Trump, it seemed clear to me that Trump was incomparably worse than Clinton, so the choice wasn’t so hard. But in a general sense this question is certainly worth considering.

When faced with two unethical options, there is always a third option: don’t choose. That is, withdraw and refuse to participate. More generally, when you find yourself in a morally compromising environment, you can either attempt to navigate the environment in the least immoral way possible, or remove yourself from the environment.

Let me be a little more concrete. Imagine you are working in a business whose practices you disapprove of. Maybe you think the business exploits its workers—paying a low salary, with few benefits, and asking employees to work long hours—or maybe the business is selling a product under false pretenses, effectively fooling its customers.

Consider the latter case. To be even more concrete, imagine that you’re a salesperson selling a product you know is poor-quality. Your salary and your job security depend directly on how many units you sell. You have no way to improve the product. To sell it requires, if not lying, at least that you omit information—that is, that you fail to mention that the product is shoddy.

Maybe you’re first reaction is to say that the moral thing to do is to quit. If there is no moral way to do the job, then you shouldn’t do it, right? However, if you quit, do you really improve the world? The business will hire somebody else to replace you, perhaps somebody with less scruples, and the moral balance sheet of the universe will be unaffected. Indeed, by quitting, you inflicted harm on yourself by depriving yourself of the salary. And in that case is quitting the least moral thing to do?

This, I think, is the problem with morally compromising systems. By refusing to participate, all you do is damage yourself while allowing others to fill the same unethical role that you resigned.

True, you do have the option, in the example above, to try to create a movement against the business, to spread the knowledge that its products are shoddy (although this may be legally culpable if you signed a non-release form). Even so, when you think about it, the fundamental problem isn’t really that one business is selling a poor-quality product. The problem is that businesses can thrive by stretching the truth to sell products. (Or is the problem that consumers are not sufficiently well-informed? Where exactly does the business’s responsibility end and the consumer’s begin?)

Again, I’m unwilling, at least for now, to give a general prescription for conundrums like these. And yet the question cannot be put off. Life is one morally-compromising situation after another. How can we balance the need to look out for ourselves with the desire to harm as few people as possible?

Quotes & Commentary #13: Edward Gibbon

Quotes & Commentary #13: Edward Gibbon

“History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

—Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Gibbon does not merely assert this definition of history. In the thousands of pages of his magnificent book, he chronicles every type of vice, wickedness, immorality, imprudence, venality, depravity, villainy, and man-made calamity that has occurred beneath the sun.

For me, reading Gibbon was a thoroughly sobering experience. Nine out of every ten rulers was hopelessly corrupt, incompetent, or malicious. Religious sects spilled each other’s blood over tiny differences of doctrine. Wives poisoned their husbands, fathers executed their sons. Whole cities were destroyed, whole populations slaughtered. Good men were disgraced, bad men elevated to the height of power and respect. Whatever lingering sense of cosmic justice I had before I read that book—the sense that, in the end, most wrongs are righted, most crimes punished—was destroyed. History has no moral compass.

As a writer, Gibbon was at his best when he was portraying decadence. The Roman Empire began as one of the most noble and impressive creations of the human species. Then, slowly but inevitably, the great edifice began to collapse. Sadistic and cowardly emperors took the throne. The love of wealth replaced the love of glory. The desire for gain, comfort, and security destroyed the old Roman ethic of respect, loyalty, and bravery. Institutions slowly crumbled from abuse and neglect. Respect for knowledge was lost, then knowledge itself. Tolerance of differences faded, then the society became pervaded with a sterile uniformity of opinion.

When I first read Gibbon’s book, I thought that his emphasis on moral decline—the decline in values and character—was, at the very least, a superficial explanation for Rome’s decline. Aren’t values and character just adaptations to, and products of, social and economic circumstances?

After witnessing this election, I am inclined to give Gibbon’s view more respect. The degree of incompetence, cowardice, short-sighted ambition—in a word, decadence—displayed by the political class, the media, and the populace, is nothing short of embarrassing.

The debate was rarely, if ever, substantive. We were not seeing two competing philosophies of government, or two rival solutions to the country’s problems. Instead, we saw two outdated candidates who, in different ways, promised nothing but a recapitulation of the past.

Hillary was symbol of the political establishment. She explicitly linked her goals to her husband’s and Obama’s legacies. She would not do anything radically new, but protect (and maybe expand) the work that Obama accomplished against a Republican onslaught. And Trump, with his promise to Make American Great Again, explicitly placed America’s glory days in some idealized past, where white men with little education were able to work good blue-collar jobs and were socially superior to every other demographic group.

(And while I’m at it, it’s worth pointing out that Bernie Sanders was hardly an exception to this. He more or less promised a return to FDR’s New Deal.)

In other words, Clinton promised a return to the 1990s, and Trump to the 1950s.

I can’t help but find both of these campaigns pathetic. Trump’s platform was emptier than a vacuum. His policy suggestions were bad jokes. He is so clearly, so obviously ignorant, and so transparently a con man. But I think it shows that there is something terribly wrong with the political establishment if the best defense they could put forward was Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

As a politician, Clinton has been consistently tone-deaf and uncharismatic. The entire ethos of her campaign was out of step with the country’s mood. The most persuasive reason to vote for her was to prevent Trump from winning. She had no new ideas, but only promised to continue the old ones—and I think it’s obvious by now that lots of people have no love for the old ideas. Many, including myself, were excited to have the first women president. But I think it’s significant that this was the most exciting thing about Clinton.

The media was also consistently pathetic during this campaign. Time after time after time, they predicted Trump would lose. This would be the end of the Republican party, a historic disaster from which they wouldn’t be able to recover. And yet, they gave Trump free air time. They treated his lies like valid opinions. His buffoonery brought them too much revenue, and they focused on profit rather than the truth. The old pundits analyzed, editorialized, and forecasted, and what they said had nothing to do with reality. Over and over, the political, economic, and social elite showed that they had no inkling of what was happening in the country.

In sum, I can’t help but see this election as an unmistakable sign of decadence in the United States. On both sides the campaign was intellectually empty, absent of any new ideas, explicitly focused on preserving or bringing back the past, and fueled by fear rather than hope. And I know from reading Gibbon that when you elevate a narcissistic, demagogic, and incompetent man to the height of power, the results are seldom pretty.

Why are we in the midst of a moral decline? I certainly cannot say. At the very least, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that this era will likely furnish ample material to historians of the future, as they document our crimes, follies, and misfortunes.