Thursday, March 26, 2009

cheap and easy morality

I'm trapped in Golden by a ferocious spring blizzard which seems likely to keep me here until tomorrow morning (the hilly road to Boulder is treacherous in the snow, as I discovered when I got stuck, sideways, on the road out of Boulder during the last storm) . With hours to kill in my office and only one other colleague in the building, this seems like a good opportunity to catch up on my neglected blog. Though I said I would not provide any political commentary, I think the following point, perhaps bordering on politics, but only in a general way, deserves mention and a bending of the rule.

I want to introduce a new term: cheap and easy morality. Now, the idea has probably been identified before, but I can at least claim independent invention since I developed this - or at least half of it, as I will shortly explain - on my own.
The part that I didn't invent is cheap morality. This idea has been brought to my attention at least three independent times: first, a few years ago at the European Forum, by Hartmut Kliemt, who used the exact term; second, by my CSM friend and colleague James Jesudason, who talks of "low cost morality;" and third, by my Harvard grad school friend, now at Stetson University, Eric Kurlander. Cheap morality means the expression of ethical views that earn social approval, but cost the person nothing. A trivial example might be all the people, especially numerous around Boulder, who have "Free Tibet" bumper stickers on their cars. Why do these people put these stickers on their cars? Is it really to free that far-off country, which they might even be hard-pressed to find on a map? What would its liberation mean? Or are they doing this to express something about themselves? Some might include in the category of cheap morality the expressed concern - and even the obsession, especially at universities - of affluent whites, with multiculturalism and race and gender equity. Being affluent and, in many cases, having job security, they devote themselves to these issues and spend little thought or effort on more challenging problems (more challenging especially to their own positions) such as, say, class inequality. I would include most pacifists in this category of cheap moralists, as well.
I recognize that there are some problems with distinguishing cheap morality from other, more legitimate kinds. Surely, we shouldn't require that somebody make a personal sacrifice in order to hold a position on some question. I find the slaughter in eastern Congo very disturbing - and would say so - even though I can't do anything about it. During the second world war, I would not have called it cheap morality if somebody had worn a button saying "Free Poland" or "Save the Jews." So why do I feel that "Free Tibet" is different? Perhaps the acid test has to be what motivates the morality, or its expression. Is the main, though perhaps subconscious, motive to appear to be caring, decent, humanitarian, etc? Here there are clearly connections to the expressive theory of voting. This is the idea that what people are doing when they are voting is not actually trying to influence the outcome - since they know, or should know, at least, that their one vote will never be decisive. The outcome of the election will happen regardless. What people are doing is expressing something about themselves, about their values. This might explain why, for example, lots of wealthy people vote for the Democrats (and why many poor vote for the Republicans): i.e. regardless of how I Wealthy Person vote, the election will have its outcome. In either case, I can feel that I Wealthy Person voted for the environment, the poor, etc.

Now I want to expand cheap morality into cheap and easy morality. Easy morality means that people evaluate situations in terms of motives and not in terms of consequences. The former is easier than the latter - and also less valuable. This became clear to me in a recent conversation with a highly intelligent woman concerned about the environment. She praised the German government's subsidies for solar panels. I pointed out that these subsidies for solar energy in perpetually cloudy Germany had dramatically raised the price of silicon (used in the panels), thus putting solar panels out of reach of many people and companies in much sunnier parts of the world than Germany. This intelligent person just huffed and refused to address my point. For her, so it seemed to me, good intentions outweighed everything, indeed, may have been the only thing. I believe this is a very common tendency in regard to all sorts of ethical and political questions. As long as the person's heart is in the right place.... I believe this is a benighted way of approaching the world because the world is a complex place involving all sorts of trade-offs (for good arguments in favor, basically, of an "ethic of responsibility," i.e. considering consequences, see Max Weber's essay Politics as a Vocation). Because it is so widespread, so easy, and perhaps even natural in some sense (i.e. it comes naturally to people, whereas considering consequences, especially when good intentions yield bad results, and especially when the consequences are far off, can be difficult, can run against our grain), I think teachers of all kinds - from parents to official pedagogues - have an obligation to encourage utilitarian, consequentialist thinking. Lessons in how good intentions can go bad, and bad intentions produce good, should be a major part of moral upbringing. This is not to say we should *only* consider consequences (no, I would not sacrifice 99 people to save 100). But since evaluating motives seems come easy to people, we need to cultivate the other form of moral judgment. It's more of a learned tendency.
The two sides - the cheapness and the easiness - go hand in hand. Both relate to motives and to the expression of ostensibly good intentions. In the first case, it's your own; in the second case, it's somebody else's.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out. I'm with you the entire way. Cheap and easy morality; that's why we don't have universal health care, top notch public education, or subsidized day care-- because the "Free Tibet", multiculturalist crowd would have to pay for it.

  2. Well said, David. Speaking of cheap and easy morality, is it really moral to pine over universal health care (or whatever the government largesse of the day) when the cost will largely be borne by a small minority of rich taxpayers? It reminds me of the typical Cambridge resident who votes for Ted Kennedy and then spends all day avoiding giving a dime to the homeless constantly underfoot.

    My personal introduction to the concept of cheap morality came from my step-grandmother, a devout "progressive" activist and wife of a career Democrat Congressman. Neither she nor her husband ever met a social program they didn't like. And yet when it came to her own money, she spent inordinate amounts of her time and effort finding clever ways to avoid paying taxes.