The Extremism of Moderation

Idealists with integrity are pretty annoying and demanding to be around. These are people who emulate Gandhi and hold that we should be the change we want to see in the world. Most others prefer to talk about what should be done and then find a host of excuses for not doing so.

One way to avoid acting upon our values is by making people who actually do so seem suspicious. Often we use a word borrowed from the world of religion to ward them off. They are: ‘fanatics’!

I have come across this phenomena several times over the last few weeks. One instance was in connection with the commercial collaboration between Tivoli in Copenhagen – a famous amusement park, but also national heritage in Denmark – and Kopenhagen Fur. Also, I experienced it in several discussions about eating meat. Allow me to briefly explain both contexts.

Tivoli made a deal with the fur industry that would benefit them financially. In return, the fur industry could use Tivoli to promote their products and thus sprinkle themselves with fairy dust from the stories of magic and innocent childhood that are usually associated with Tivoli’s brand. This was a very odd mixture of child amusement and brutal fur production, wherefore Tivoli received more protests than expected. What is interesting though is the discourse used by supporters of the collaboration in the social media (online newspapers, Facebook etc.)

Two strategies were employed: the first strategy was to point out the inconsistency of those who objected to the cooperation. ”How can you oppose the fur industry if you eat meat? If you want to be against this you must be a 100% vegan – it is just another way of using animals”.

However, it is obviously not a viable position to place each and every use of animals in the same category. One can argue that A and B are not the same and that there e.g. are differences in the way free-range pigs and mink are raised that make it possible to enjoy the first but not the other without being ethically inconsistent. Disregarding this it is striking how self-evident consistency is taken as an ethical prerequistite. If situation A and B are alike, you must without a doubt judge them in the same way. But this view-point is not self-evident, but much discussed within ethics, usually under the heading of the importance of context for ethical decision-making.

Behind this, however, lies a much more far reaching claim: If one is not 100% consistent, then one should not act at all! If one is not perfect in a moral sense then one might as well be an utter bastard. At least this is viewed as being better than inconsistency or, as it is also known, hypocrisy. The question must be whether this is actually the case though? Can you ward off criticism of your behaviour merely by pointing out the imperfection of your opponent? Should we refrain from acting, if our actions are not totally consistent? What if we give the homeless man 10 euros on the way home, but then stop at the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine for 20? Somehow it seems that I would be more consistent, had I not given the money to the homeless person.

The demand for perfection thus becomes an excuse of oneself on logical grounds. It is an avoidance of actually engaging with a life where perfection might never be attainable. Nonetheless, everybody is to some degree able to help other beings to a better life in countless situations – even if we could do even better. However, the moral demand becomes senseless, if it is reduced to an alternative between perfection and indifference. Morally the task must be to do the best you can and find practical ways of dealing with your shortcomings.

The demand for consistency has also played a big role in the current Danish debate on how to act in light of animal contributions to climate change. One way to reduce emissions is to limit the amount of meat and animal products (dairy, eggs etc.) in your diet: less meat is preferable, vegetarianism more so, and going vegan the optimal solution for the climate. The fewer animal products, the fewer emissions (However, this is only a rule of thumb, since e.g. food miles may be highly detrimental for the positive effects of eating fruit and vegetables.). At the same time animal production causes a range of other problems with regard to deforestation, changes in savannas, drainage of wetlands and desertification, water use among other issues.

It seems there are a host of good reasons to change our diets. Nonetheless, many people promoting this change are very careful not to become purists. ”Let us not become fanatics/extremists” they warn. Other times they insist there is ”…no need to become religious about it.” Indeed, many similar expressions are frequently heard in public debate. It seems that vegetarianism and especially veganism is viewed as being fundamentally wrong – too drastic. This perspective marks vegetarians as a kind of food-Taleban militia with no regard for common sense. This would perhaps make sense if changing one’s diet were received in revelation as a divine command. The deity demands veganism as a sacrifice: the lord giveth vegetables and taketh away the meat. This is not the case though: vegetarianism/veganism is actually a rational choice in the scientific knowledge of our day and age.

Rather, the prevalent rhetoric seems designed to preserve the status quo instead of actually discussing the values, arguments and choices in front of us. Interestingly, those who call opponents of the fur industry hypocrites also often use the discourse of religious zealotry in other connections – and the result always seem to be that they are excused from changing, their behaviour

The discussions surrounding the human use of animals shows how many of us use concepts to get off the hook. Finger pointing and shouting ”Hypocrite” or ”Extremist” is enough for most to feel justified in continuing on the given path although the charade is wearing thin. Indeed, it is becoming ever more apparent that we are putting up a show to avoid admitting our indifference about our victims, about changing our ways, or about the paralyzing effect our fear has on us.

Perhaps it is time to follow those who act, however imperfectly, rather than be afraid of them. Perhaps the world would be better off with more hypocrites. Perhaps it is the time to be afraid of our amazing ability to lie to ourselves and invent excuses that allows us to do anything. Who knows – we might even make things a little better along the way if we avoid the extremism of moderation!

The author would like to thank Thomas Derek Robinson for valuable suggestions.

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2 responses to “The Extremism of Moderation

  1. Thank you for this post and the interesting questions it raises. If I get your point correctly, the laboratory -like perfection of our ethical judgments should not be so demanding a standard to the extent that it prevents taking action. If, however, we are more interested in what is both reasonably good and feasible, I guess most of us rely on a sort of reflective equilibrium. In my view, this alternative, seemingly more modest in scope and better suited for practical decisions, can also be affected by a kind of bias, i.e. of the criteria by which we establish which moral value should trump the others.

  2. It’s already a long time ago but I still want to express how much I like this post. I think it’s so important that we “follow those who act, however imperfectly”! We should conceive of ourselves as a community of failing folks — but of failing folks who make incremental progress; and of failing folks that can motivate each other without anybody among us being perfect.

    (BTW, I think that in certain circumstances there is also the exact opposite effect of what you describe. Sometimes, the extreme idealists do not put others off but rather ignite and empower them with their example. It would be difficult for me, however, to know the difference between those cases where others are put off and those cases where they are motivated by the “extremists”.)

    Here’s one small critical comment: One strategy to ward off criticism of one’s behaviour consists in claiming that one simply *cannot* do better — it is just too much, too difficult, too tiring and too exhausing to become even better (“I am already trying; and anyway, I have enough other challenges in life already”). But while I fully *understand* everybody who doesn’t become a saint and while I am no saint at all myself, I think that it is just wrong to say that “perfection might never be attainable”.
    I believe that to say “Morally the task must be to do the best you can” is either trivial or misleading. In a literal sense it is of course true. In a non-literal sense, it tells us that as long as we’ve tried *quite* a bit and have exerted *quite* some effort, we have done all we were *able* to do and thus the moral task is done; completely exhausting ourselves would go beyond our abilities (and thus be no moral task for us). In contrast, I believe that becoming moral saints and completely exhausting ourselves for the sake of doing justice & making the world a better place *is* within our abilities. It is incredibly tiring and exceedingly difficult but still: The only reason we are not doing it is because we are not *willing* to do it. I think that it is a temptation to dress up unwillingness as inability. And I believe that this holds even for extreme cases.
    Once this is granted, I then fully agree with you that we must “find practical ways of dealing with your shortcomings.” As I myself am not willing to exhaust myself and to become a saint and to live fully justly, that’s an existential task for me, too. (I also think that religions such as Christianity play an important role here: They teach us how to face our shortcomings (be they large or small, understandable or not, widely shared among fellow humans or not, etc.)).

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