It’s the question that never needed to be asked, and Rupert Read of Talking Philosophy has answered it. In reviewing Craig Taylor’s Moralism: A Study of a Vice, Read explores a number of philosophical and ethical quandaries that inspire critical reflection, in addition to a desire to find Taylor’s book. In line with Read’s assessment of Taylor, my own assessment of Read is that he is largely but not universally correct. Take for instance the titular question, posed by Read in response to Taylor:
On p. 147, Taylor criticises an SUV-driver with a “No blood for oil” bumper-sticker. An easy criticism to make, but perhaps too easy. There seems a tacit danger at this of Taylor descending into moralism here towards individuals. For: It is a perfectly legitimate move for an individual to make under many circumstances to say that they would do something as part of a collective that they are not obliged to try to do merely as an individual. To think otherwise is to think in a way that is naïve or insufficiently politically smart. . . . An example is that it may well be legitimate to continue to fly and to enjoy the subsidies that are given to flying, while campaigning against those subsidies. To insist that this is hypocrisy and that one should instead have to go by train even when the train is far more expensive (and thus drains away funds that could otherwise be used for campaigning with) is moralistic and anti-political. (A more extreme example is roads, which were often made with some ingredients taken from non-human animals. Does this mean that vegans should refuse to use roads? An absurd conclusion.)
Like so many authors and thinkers, Read is kind enough here to answer his own question, thus saving the readers from the onerous task of formulating the answers for ourselves. Nevertheless, I wonder what precisely is absurd about the conclusion that someone who is principally opposed to the commodification of sentient life, someone who not only does not eat meat or animal product but who does not wear wool or decorate with ivory or use cosmetics tested on kittens should also not drive on roads made out of animals. The implication of Read’s logic, both with the example of veganism and the choice between planes and trains is that inconvenience (on an existential level) and utilitarianism (on an ethical level) collaborate to justify various incompatible moral choices. Because we cannot conceive of the absurdity of some people refusing to use roads, we assume that their ethics must be sufficiently sophisticated to handle the dissonance created by the common sin of killing animals for food and clothes and killing animals for transportation infrastructure. That hardly seems a necessary conclusion. Rather, the burden is on vegans to demonstrate such a sophisticated ethos to justify the apparent hypocrisy. The nasty thing about ethics is that they demand difficult action, if they are worth their philosophical weight in gold. When life and ethics collide, the responsible solution is to either change your life to suit your ethics or to change your ethics to suit your life. The latter is the more common course, naturally, but Read seems to prefer a third path wherein people continue to live in the self-delusion that they are consistent moral actors while behaving in morally inconsistent ways.
The distinction between individual and collective action seems equally problematic in that it assumes different standards of conduct for individuals and societies. Societies, unfortunately, have no real existence, not in the way that individuals do. (I realize that this is a ideological judgment on my part, but I trust it is one that will be widely shared.) A society is an abstraction, something constructed which has neither real existence nor uniform existence in the diverse minds in which it is conceived. As something which exists more in the realm of language than actuality, it cannot be held to ethical standards and therefore cannot be a separate ethical realm of action. If it is wrong for me to kill Bob, it is wrong for Rick and I to get together and kill Bob. It is wrong for Rick and I to round up a posse to kill Bob, and it is wrong for Rick and I to vote Barry in to office to kill Bob with a remote control stealth bomber being operated by some marine on an Xbox. My actions do not suddenly become more or less moral based on the number of people complicit in them. It is, of course, possible to construct certain teleological systems of ethics that oppose certain behaviors on a national scale by virtue merely of the scope of those actions, but those strike me as rather blatantly self-serving. Nations cannot do anything any more than societies can. Only people, those free rational agents Read is critical of (perhaps not unreasonably), do things. Whether they do them alone or in concert seems less significant than what they are doing. And if what they are doing is personally contributing to the demand for oil which has prompted the nation to collectively decide to invade oil rich countries, then in some infinitesimal but real way, they condemn themselves with their own critique.