Why do dubious ideas persist? Janet Keeping argues that part of the problem is moral detachment. One can have the “right intellectual concepts in one’s head, but that is of little value if we do not act accordingly.
The range of dubious ideas that have been advanced over human history is of course enormous.And while the longevity of some of those bad ideas is of little concern, the persistence of others does huge damage and in some cases even threatens the survival of life on the planet.It may be amusing to realize that some people believe the earth is flat or Elvis is still alive – although one probably ought more to feel sorry for, rather than be amused by, the people who hold such ridiculous beliefs.But the persistence of seriously bad ideas, such as, the conviction that one race is superior to all others or denial of the environmental crisis, is worrisome in the extreme.
The good news is that individual people, and sometimes groups – even large ones – are capable of change.It has been said:if something is learned, it can be unlearned.But even when they occur, changes of mind can be partial.Not everyone has the opportunity to come to even a partial change of mind, and the impetus to hold certain dangerous ideas – such as, the necessity of “conquering” nature in all its many incarnations – is almost assuredly hard-wired into our species and thus is proving extremely difficult to overcome.
And so often standing firmly in the way of ridding ourselves of bad ideas is moral detachment – our willingness, even eagerness, to remain aloof from the ethical demands of life.
One of the rather more common ways in which people come to change their minds is through direct encounter with evidence that contradicts a previously held conviction.The evolution of views on whether gays should be allowed to marry is illustrative of how direct encounter can lead to the rejection of a bad idea.There have been many people in Canada, and elsewhere, opposed to gay marriage because they believed that allowing gays to marry would threaten the institution of marriage.Other grounds for opposition to gay marriage have been advanced, but that gay marriage would threaten the sanctity or integrity of the institution has been a significant one.
Happily, for many this belief was undermined when they started to meet gay couples (at first unmarried and then, when laws changed, married) and realized that the love, devotion or caring they saw reflected in those relationships could be every bit as authentic as can be found in healthy heterosexual partnerships and thus that the institution of marriage is not threatened by gay marriage.The undermining of the bad idea in such cases occurred as a result of direct human encounter, sometimes within the very families of those who were previously opposed.
One aspect of trying to lead an ethical life is taking responsibility for, or ownership of, our ideas.
It is not that the pernicious idea has disappeared altogether of course.But in Canada at least enough people have had a change of mind or heart that the balance of public opinion has shifted:a decisive majority of Canadians now either support gay marriage or are content to live with it.1
The country had years of debate on the possibility of gay marriage.Then the law was changed so as to allow gays to marry – and the sky simply did not fall.
As an aside, I have always thought that marriage was, if anything, strengthened rather than threatened by the fierce desire of many gays’ to be part of a small “c” conservative institution, one that they might very well have ignored, and one that many straight people had already turned their backs on.
Opposition to mothers of young children working outside the home or to interracial marriages, just to name two other dubious ideas, has sometimes been overcome in the same fashion.One meets counter-examples and understands one was wrong.
Of course, to have such a change of mind one has to be open to meeting those counter-examples, and some people are not.Indeed, some work very hard to avoid situations where they might come face-to-face with evidence that conflicts with their views, for example, by consistently refusing to engage with gay couples.
And avoidance is a broadly generalizable strategy. A friend recently related to me how far his father has gone to avoid having to face the fact that COVID is a real thing.His father and mother have held steadfastly to the idea that COVID is a hoax – a conspiracy by the drug companies to make that much more money, or something similar – and had therefore refused vaccination.When his father ended up in the ICU with what medical staff knew had to be complications due to COVID, he was so intent on preserving his belief that there was no such thing he refused to be tested for it.He was treated for COVID and survived, but was able to insulate himself from the fact he had been wrong about COVID by avoiding testing.
Another unfortunately resilient idea is that the alleged right to life of a fetus outweighs – for some people, always; for others, most of the time or just sometimes – the interests of the woman who wants to terminate her pregnancy.The accompanying result is that in many places women do not have ready access to medically safe abortions.And it is beyond unfortunate to see the persistence of this vicious idea, especially in the US where the goal of restricting or even eliminating access to medically safe abortions has increasingly distorted American politics.It is of particular concern that their passionate attachment to this idea has led many on the religious right of American politics to support Donald Trump – a flagrantly decadent and amoral man who one might have thought represented exactly that to which religious people would object – in his run for the presidency.They did so largely because he promised to appoint judges to the U S Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that gave American women greater freedom to choose to abort an unwanted pregnancy.
Notwithstanding the fervor with which many anti-abortionists hold their views, it is not all that rare for individuals to forsake this position, for example, when someone close to them – often one of their children – faces an unwelcome pregnancy.Some of the published accounts of changes of mind on the issue come from health care professionals whose medical training or practice has forced them to come to grips with the lived reality of unwanted pregnancy.An American doctor relates her change of mind on the subject in this way:
I was raised Catholic. As a teenager, I was 100% in the “Abortion is murder, ought to be completely illegal” camp.…
Then I went to medical school …
It was on the OB/GYN rotation that I started to see things differently. There was a woman who was terminating a pregnancy. I don’t remember exactly how far along she was, but into the second trimester. The fetus had anomalies incompatible with survival. She was devastated. This was a wanted pregnancy.
I stayed, I held her hand. And a light bulb went off in my head. How could I judge this lady? I couldn’t and I didn’t, and right then it dawned on me that for all of the women facing termination of a pregnancy I didn’t know, and no one but the woman knows, what led her to the decision. If it was understandable in this case, who was I to judge what was understandable in any other case?2
This doctor did not appreciate the suffering caused by an unwanted pregnancy until she saw it for herself.Close encounter was necessary for her change of heart.But she did have a change of heart, and it was a generous one.She could immediately see that the compassion she felt for this one suffering woman had to be extended to others because there are many ways for things, including one’s fertility, to go wrong:as she says, “These decisions are complicated. They’re personal, and they should not be dictated by the government.”
The above case is to be distinguished from that of another American doctor who, in writing about his encounter with a very ill pregnant woman, shows that not all such exposures result in a full-fledged awakening of empathy.
I have always been pro-life, perhaps even before I was conscious of it…
My mother taught me that abortion was wrong because it was a desecration — it destroyed something precious. Sex and childbirth were good, sacred, and holy, reflecting God’s goodness to married couples…
The sanctity of the human body that my parents impressed on me has fueled my missionary work as a family physician and teacher in East Africa, where I do my best every day to care for those in need and help others learn how to do the same. This sanctity has also driven most of my political opinions to the left of my parents…
However, I’ve changed almost nothing in my basic position on the political question of abortion: It should be illegal under nearly all circumstances to kill a baby in the womb because doing so deprives a human being of the right we afford to any other human being…
There is only one circumstance in which I think it is permissible — even right — to kill a baby in the womb: when the existence of that baby is killing the mother and removal is the only way to save her life…
The moral urgency of abortion in my patient’s case was clear. She’d already lost about half of her blood volume by the time she reached our doors. Without immediate action, she would have continued to bleed until she and her baby died. But the necessity of the abortion did not make performing it any easier. It shook my faith and tore apart my simplistic ethical ideals. If God does not want us to perform abortions, why did he put me in a situation where I would have to do one?3
It is more difficult to maintain the fantasies – remain morally detached – when there is contradictory evidence or a suffering person directly in front of you.
In critiquing the scope of this doctor’s change of mind, we should put his religiosity aside.Now is not the moment.(Although it could be:one might be tempted to ask, if God didn’t want women to have abortions, why then does s/he/it allow unwanted conceptions?Good question, no?)It suffices here to note that real life put this doctor in a situation where he had either to act against his beliefs – perform an abortion – or see both mother and fetus die.The most hard-nosed of anti-abortionists would have stood by, I suppose, and allowed both to perish.This doctor performs the abortion, but then writes a piece for the New York Times to explain why he opted to do so as – it seems clear to me – a form of self-absolution.His concern remains focused largely on himself, in getting himself off the moral hook, and in explaining how he is able to go on – brave man! – in the face of having carried out such a reprehensible procedure.
Instead of taking on board a broad empathy for pregnant women finding themselves in difficulty – as did the doctor in the first example – this one sticks to his guns, allowing just enough flexibility in his principles to justify what he did in the instant case.It remains beyond him that the lives of pregnant women can be wrecked in many ways besides bleeding to death.4
Racist views may also be abandoned, when they are, either partially or holus-bolus.Even today when racists do change their minds, their views may remain largely intact, with only limited exceptions made for, shall we say, “outstanding” Black people.But the outcome of change in a racist heart can be generous indeed.A recent podcast posted on the New York Times website5 is wonderfully illustrative of how far-reaching such a transformation can be, even on the part of a former Ku Klux Klan leader.
What we are getting at here, I think, is the moral imperative of getting beyond labels – pregnant woman who wants abortion, homosexual who wants to marry, Black person – to see what David Brooks calls “the full humanity of other people.”Brooks is writing in response to the repeated failures of the Southern Baptist leadership to deal appropriately with multiple allegations of sexual abuse.He notes that these men (and as Brooks emphasizes, they were all men)
…dedicated their lives to a Gospel that says that every human being is made in the image of God. They dedicated their lives to a creed that commands one to look out for the marginalized, the vulnerable. The last shall be first. The meek shall inherit the earth.
… when allegations of sexual abuse came, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention betrayed it all.… [A]ll those true teachings and good beliefs had no effect on their actual behavior.
“Instead,” he continues,
… according to an independently produced report released by the convention this week, those leaders covered up widespread abuse in their denomination and often intimidated and belittled victims. More than 400 people believed to be affiliated with the church, including some church leaders, have been accused of committing abuse.
Brooks wants to draw our attention to the difference between having a code of rules for good behavior in your head and doing the right thing when you encounter flesh-and-blood people in need of your help.He says:
The fact is, moral behavior doesn’t start with having the right beliefs. Moral behavior starts with an act — the act of seeing the full humanity of other people. Moral behavior is not about having the right intellectual concepts in your head. It’s about seeing other people with the eyes of the heart, seeing them in their full experience, suffering with their full suffering, walking with them on their path. Morality starts with the quality of attention we cast upon another.
Many of the dubious ideas that persist do so because too many of us, too much of the time, remain, in Brooks’s words, “morally detached.”We can, for example, continue to turn our backs on the homeless – if we think about them at all, we perhaps blame their situation on “poor life choices” – because we do not see their full humanity and thus do not recognize that they are worthy of our compassion.
When Brooks says “Moral behavior is not about having the right intellectual concepts in your head” he is not saying that having the right ideas does not matter, full stop.In the above quote, he is focused on how we act – what we actually do – not the doctrines, or whatever, that we espouse.He is saying that no matter what you profess to believe, if you fail to do the right thing when called upon to act, that is what matters.It is usually the case that how a person behaves is at least somewhat consistent with what they believe and thus it matters very much what ideas we have as to how we behave.Although this is not always the case:sometimes people claim to be one thing, racist or sexist, for example, and yet behave in a way that belies any such discriminatory attitude.Some people just do not understand themselves very well or have peculiar reasons for trying to mask their true natures.But what matters above all is how one behaves.
I do not mean to belabor the point but of course having the right ideas is important.And since I have used examples concerning abortion, I will return to that context.If one had a philosophically sound understanding, i.e. the right idea, of what it means to be an object of moral concern, one could not for a moment put the interests of a fetus over those of the fetus’s carrier when she wants to end her pregnancy.Fetuses have contingent, not intrinsic, rights.It makes sense for the law to hold a person accountable for harm done to a fetus if that fetus survives to birth and develops into a person who was damaged in utero.But if it does not survive, then there is no morally relevant person to which rights could attach.If you understand this, then odds are very good that you are going to act accordingly, i.e., support generous access to safe abortion.If you do not, then of course it is easier to remain detached from the plight of a miserably pregnant woman.
Moral detachment also occurs, I think, in a different way, at what we might call a meta level.We may conduct our lives so that we remain morally detached from many of the individuals we meet and indeed from whole groups of people in need of our compassion.But we may also be morally detached from the content of the ideas we have somehow or other taken on board.People can be very careless about which ideas they espouse or seem to support.Consider the doctor above who had a fulsome change of heart concerning abortion.As a young person she had merely accepted the ideas about abortion that she had been brought up with, never stopping to question them until she was practicing medicine.At one point she writes: “The issue was black and white for me. I didn’t think much about the women coming and going at the [abortion] clinic. I hope I didn’t yell at any of them.”(Emphasis added)
A friend related a story passed on to her by a White colleague from South Africa.The colleague was about to marry a Black woman and thought he should tell his grandfather in advance of their engagement becoming public as he, the grandfather, had been one of the central architects of Apartheid, the policy of rigidly segregating South Africans along racial lines.The grandson expected horrified outrage from his grandfather but instead was met with something far more low-key, more-or-less acceptance.When he asked how this could be, his grandfather’s explanation was basically, well, that was then, this is now.How could a human being be so casual about holding and then backing away from an idea as evil as Apartheid?Had he donned, indeed helped create, Apartheid as the fashion of the day only then to cast it off when “tastes” changed?So it appears, and while we are astonished by such a story – I was at least – moral shallowness is regrettably common, indeed to use Hannah Arendt’s term even “banal.”
One aspect of trying to lead an ethical life is taking responsibility for, or ownership of, our ideas.
But many of the dubious ideas that persist are of a quite different nature from those I have mentioned so far.They have moral import – indeed grave moral import – but are still not often seen as such.I am here thinking of the whole set of bad ideas that have led to the environmental crisis, for example, the notion that repeated failures to curb the greenhouse emissions that are causing climate change are nothing much to worry about.
Previously – before environmental issues blossomed into full blown crisis – we could say that such bad ideas did not relate to the quality of the attention we pay or do not to other people.Why?Because we did not yet have sufficiently compelling evidence of the link between those ideas and harm done to identifiable people.Those ideas were not yet so obviously linked to how we treat each other but instead – we could tell ourselves – about how we treat the ecosystems on which we all depend.The writing was on the wall – many could see they would become that sort of bad idea – but it was still possible to pretend otherwise and continue to behave as we always had, determined to conquer nature – ignoring that we are in fact constrained by it.
This tame-the-frontier approach was adaptive in the past when there were comparatively few people and humanity had therefore a comparatively small environmental footprint.But now that we are very many and collectively have a staggering impact, it is exactly the opposite – such ideas are profoundly dangerous, profoundly maladaptive.
Bad thinking on environmental issues is, increasingly, having devastating impact in many parts of the world.For example, climate change is creating intolerable living conditions in south Asia where temperatures recently reached over 49 C.The suffering entailed has clear moral import but still many of us remain morally detached.We do not see that the way we live – choosing energy intensive transportation options, for example, over greener alternatives – as having moral significance.
Close to my home in Toronto we have a regrettably perfect example of the persistence of this dubious idea.The current provincial government is committed to building yet one more super highway – the 413 – supposedly to relieve traffic congestion even though studies show it is unlikely to have that effect.There are already in the Greater Toronto Area many such mammoth roads with all their accompanying problems, amongst which the paving over of good farmland is high on the list.(As is in my view, a simply staggering and soul-destroying ugliness.)With good reason it is now often said that urban sprawl is Ontario’s tar sands – an environmental nightmare that should never have been allowed to reach the scale it has and that, for sure, should not be exacerbated.On the one hand, to propose the new highway is patently absurd, simply ludicrous.On the other, it is a perfectly predictable continuation of the bad thinking that persists on environmental matters.
In “The Power of Lies in an Age of Political Fiction6,” Frank Bruni observes that “for all our inventions, all our advancements, we humans seem more partial than ever to convenient fantasy over thorny truth.”It is more difficult to maintain the fantasies – remain morally detached – when there is contradictory evidence or a suffering person directly in front of you.It is much easier when the suffering is at a distance or we do not see the causal connection between how we live and how they suffer.One thing though seems close to certain:the convenience of the environmental fantasy may not last much longer as the devastation hits ever closer to home with increasingly destructive storms and wildfires becoming more common.
The scope for moral detachment, it would seem, is rapidly shrinking as “thorny truth” advances.
- A survey published in August 2019 showed that only 25% of Canadians opposed the legalization of gay marriage.The same survey showed that two-thirds of Canadians “fully support the right to same-sex marriage.”See:https://globalnews.ca/news/5713172/canadians-same-sex-marriage-rights-poll/
- See https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/20/opinion/abortion-doctor-pro-life.html
- I cannot resist noting something of a parallel between this doctor and the famous Grinch who stole Christmas.Dr. Seuss explains why the Grinch hated Christmas in this way:“It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps his shoes were too tight. But I think that the most likely reason of all may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”