Thursday, January 10, 2013

How self-interest deadens the conscience

Princeton lecturer Russell Nieli recounts his comments during a panel abortion debate many years ago:
"I am going to begin my remarks," I said, "with what is essentially a Marxist argument." There were some boos from the audience—Marxism is out of favor nowadays even among the student left. "Karl Marx," I said, "got most things wrong" (some cheers went up). "But he understood better than most thinkers before or after him how people's self-interest can warp their moral sense to the point that they are rendered incapable of discerning and acknowledging right from wrong."

Marx's biggest concern, I explained, was that material interests can distort our moral compasses. Drawing on the slavery analogy, I posed some simple questions: "Why did the Scarlett O'Haras and Rhett Butlers of the old South approve of the institution of slavery? Why did they think Africans so inferior to whites that it was morally acceptable to enslave them?"

The answer, I said, was simple: It was in their interest to believe these things. I went on: We human beings are very good at coming up with reasons and claims to justify what is in our interest to believe. So perverse is the human mind that we actually come to believe the sophistic arguments we tell ourselves when they reinforce our material or other vital interests.

The abortion issue, I said, is similar to the controversy over the rights and wrongs of slavery, since in both cases intense personal interests often dull the conscience. There are many out there, I said, who ... don't want to have babies because babies are enormously burdensome to take care of. So, like the plantation owners in the old South, they try to convince themselves that what is really a monstrous evil is no evil at all. Killing babies in their mothers' wombs is no big deal. Human embryos are just globs of tissue without sentience or thought. Those who claim a human right to life for such entities just want to cause trouble.

I tried to reinforce the themes of "interest-driven corruption" and "false consciousness" by the old tag line: "A pro-choicer is a pro-lifer whose teenage daughter has become pregnant." The saying is often used as a put-down of pro-lifers but what it really draws attention to, I said, is how weak and corruptible our moral sense and conscience really are. Self-interest produces willful blindness to evils that those less self-interested have no trouble seeing with the keenest of vision. The dairy farmers in Massachusetts, who had no personal interest at stake, had no trouble at all seeing the evils of plantation slavery in the old South.