In Roderick Long’s essay, “On Making Small Contributions to Evil,” Long attempts to tackle tough moral questions such as veganism, environmentalism, and tax evasion. In each case, participation in the cause comes at great personal expense with very little marginal societal benefit. Long argues that we do not have an obligation to participate in all of these causes, but to pick a number of them to focus on, and disregard the rest. After all, not everyone can do everything, and we can only account for our own morality, not the morality of society as a whole.
Long is right that we should not sacrifice ourselves for the sake of society as a whole. We must pick and choose between those public moral goods because we cannot do it all. I do not disagree that public moral goods exist. However, we can find reasons to fight for these types of causes beyond our own marginal benefit to society, and there are some public moral goods that are not morally optional.
One of the reasons we may participate in a cause is the joy we get from doing what we think is right. Altruism is not pure self-sacrifice when doing good and helping others feels good. Virtuous people derive happiness from virtuous acts, so by cultivating virtue within ourselves, we can more confidently decide which social causes are worth the “sacrifice.” The “sacrifice” is the cost associated with acting on a public moral good, including the opportunity cost of not choosing something else.
Recycling has very little social impact on an individual level, and can be a pain in the ass. Is it virtuous to recycle? That depends on facts about the particularized eudaimonia of the person making the decision. The cost associated with recycling for a person that is already devoting time and resources to many other social causes is much higher than the cost of recycling for a person who is sitting at home doing nothing all day. A person who is especially passionate about the environment will derive much more joy from recycling than someone who could not care less. By taking into account facts about our particularized eudaimonia, such as our individual interests, talents, and commitments, we can best decide which public moral goods to focus on.
Sometimes, however, looking at our particular circumstances is not enough. Take an extreme example: child pornography. Producing child pornography is obviously immoral as a violation of autonomy and consent. But following Long’s analysis, is consumption of child pornography not immoral? One person’s decision not to purchase it will not affect its production. For a pedophile, not buying child pornography may come at a loss of psychological pleasure. However, consuming child pornography for free seems to be no less immoral. Therefore, there must be a reason not to consume child pornography beyond its societal effect. What does it say about a person’s compassion and empathy that they can watch the violation of a child without feeling distraught? An empathetic, compassionate, virtuous person could not consume child pornography without guilt, regardless of the marginal societal benefit of them refraining from doing so.
Long discusses veganism as a public moral good we may consider. Veganism, unlike participation in many other public moral goods, is not time-consuming, so we do not have to choose between being vegan and doing something else. One individual person going vegan does not affect meat production. However, what does it say about someone as a person if they can eat an animal knowingly without feeling any guilt or aversion? If one is an empathetic, compassionate, virtuous individual, eating meat should make them feel bad. Going vegan would have very little societal impact on the status of animals, but one may choose not to eat meat because doing so causes them, as a compassionate, empathetic person, distress. However, if one lives in a food desert or has very little access to vegan food or lacks support from family, the personal costs of veganism may be too high for even the most virtuous individual.
With veganism, just as in the child porn example*, production may be worse than consumption. However, one step of removal from production is far from morally agreeable. Our moral obligations with regard to either do not depend on the social benefit of doing so or our duty to the public good, but on what our actions in either circumstance say about us as people. When weighing public moral goods, we should not forget to account for the relative importance of different social goods or what our actions with regard to public moral goods say about us as people.
Every virtuous decision is the result of reasoning and personal judgment, while taking into account the specific circumstances of the given situation. We cannot prescribe the correct action for every person in every situation, because the correct action depends on facts about the person in question that we do not have access to. When we weigh the benefits of taking on a social cause with the personal costs of doing so, we can determine which causes are worth our individual time and energy.
*I do not think eating meat and consuming child pornography are morally equivalent, but they are similar in that they are morally wrong regardless of the public moral evil associated with them.
This post was originally published on March 7, 2016 on thecirclemolinari.com.