I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that we all think we know what’s right and what’s wrong. Even people who claim to subscribe to some sort of cultural relativism tend to admit they have a few pretty rigid ideas of what’s right and wrong if you push them hard enough. And for most people, they don’t really need to study some complicated ethical philosophy or read books on ethics in order to know what’s right and wrong. They just “know” it. It comes from their intuition. That’s how we “know” that certain rights and principles are “self-evident”, and that’s how Christians “know” which parts of the Bible are important to follow and which parts aren’t. And once we “know” what’s right and wrong, we can judge other people on their actions.
But what if we’ve actually got it backwards? What if we don’t judge people by their actions? What if we do it backwards, and we actually tend to judge actions by the people who commit them? I know what you’re probably thinking: “this guy is on drugs”. But bear with me for a moment here: didn’t you ever wonder why an Arab would make excuses for the actions of Islamic terrorists, while vocally condemning American military actions on moral grounds? Or, to turn the tables, why an American would make excuses for the death toll caused by American military action, while vocally condemning Islamic terrorism on moral grounds? Why do middle-class people in first-world nations wax poetic about the materialistic excesses of wealthy people like Paris Hilton, but get defensive when someone points out how the first-world middle class is obscenely wealthy and materialistic compared to the third-world nations that we exploit for resources and cheap labour?
For all the high-minded moral rhetoric that people spout, there is one element which is common to all of these examples: we claim that we judge people by their actions, but in many cases we seem to make excuses for actions if they are committed by people we respect, while raining thunderous condemnation upon similar actions when they are committed by people we despise. Oh sure, we can write long essays about various high-minded religious, cultural, or philosophical justifications for our judgements, in which we seize upon some distinction between our enemies and ourselves (as if they can’t do the same), but doesn’t it seem like a lot of smoke and mirrors? Especially when we find ways to justify actions from party A while condemning them from party B even if they produce very similar outcomes?
There’s probably no more blatant example of this than the abortion debate: why is it so important for anti-abortion activists to paint a picture of a self-centred sexually promiscuous woman when they attack what they call “abortion on demand?” Because that way, you will associate abortion with people you despise. That way, you will want to ban it. And yet, if a rape victim wants an abortion, very few are willing to stand up and condemn her for the exact same action. Why not? Because it’s not about the action itself, and it never was. It’s about the people. In order to attack certain groups of people, we pretend to hate particular actions they commit, when we actually hate the whole package. If we don’t hate the whole package, we mysteriously find a way to forgive the action.
Am I being too cynical? Maybe, but when you look around at the massive double-standards that people have, it sure as hell looks like people do exactly what I’m describing here. Maybe not everyone does this, but the people who rely mostly on intuition for their moral judgements certainly do. And take a good look at typical Internet arguments: how often do you see people defend some group or individual who’s accused of an unethical act … by pointing out that he (or they) did something good elsewhere? How does that have any bearing on the accusation? It doesn’t, unless you’re trying to paint the defendant as “good people”, thus implying that somehow, the action isn’t as bad.