I repeatedly find myself thinking that it is a horribly sad, sad commentary on our society that the old “moral conundrums” that ethics classes liked to pose are becoming reality. Remember the one about, “If everyone can be really, really happy, but this happiness is bought by the continual torture of a perfectly innocent child until it dies (to be replaced by another innocent child being tortured), is it moral?”
The immediate, gut-level response says, “Of course not! Besides, how could anyone be ‘really happy’ knowing that was going on?”
The clever prof would then correct you and explain under which ethical systems this would be perfectly right, and in fact preferrable. For example, you’ve maximized happiness for the most people, so utilitarianism would give it a green light. The loose coagulation of thought characterized by “if it makes me happy, it’s good, everyone else is their own problem” would be satisfied with the arrangement, as long as you weren’t the tortured child. And so on.
Someone with an ax to grind would chime in, “Yeah, doesn’t that make Christianity stupid and/or evil, since you guys say Jesus was pefectly innocent? You’re all ok with that, so that means you aren’t moral, either, by what you just said…”
Add the mandatory “ethical philosopher” with, “Hey, if you had Anne Frank in the attic, wouldn’t you lie? So, really, no morality is absolute, it’s all situational…”
And the conversation would completely jump the rails from anything even remotely resembling a solid discussion of ethics, morality, or philosophy.
(No, I am not making this up. If you’ve been in a good ethics class, count yourself lucky. This was a group of students, about to graduate from the Naval Academy (which puts just a little emphasis on persnickity things like honor, duty, integrity, and all that) and become naval officers, discussing ethics in seminars that were supposed to counteract the cheating scandal we had just had. A friend who was attending Georgetown (which still had some faculty who were Catholic religious brothers) had seen the whole blow-up in The Washington Post, and comforted me by saying, “Hey, if we had a test here where nobody cheated, that should make the front page. It drives the brothers nuts, but that’s reality.”)
The answer to the gut-level response to the initial question, however, is “mob mentality” and “self-centeredness,” and it isn’t any nicer if we call it something else. “If we’re all complicit, none of us is actually guilty,” says the mob, desperately trying to believe it.
No, it just makes us all guilty.
It applies to abortion and embryonic stem cell research in a very direct way. It applies in a more tangential way to the other social engineering we’ve countenanced in the last century, while ignoring the torture it puts children through of divorces, abuse, etc.
History has told us about the great civilizations that collapsed when they became too soft in their morals and their living, too overreaching in their spending and government, too careless about the weakest in the society.
Too bad they don’t really teach “dead white men” in history anymore; we might’ve learned something.