Resetting the Moral Baseline to Resist Status Quo Bias

  1. “Everybody should give most of their income to humanitarian charities.”
  2. “All whites who don’t actively fight white supremacy are complicit in it.”
  3. “There is no alternative [to capitalism.]”
  4. “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”
  5. “Meat is murder.”
  6. “Abortion is murder.”
  7. “Murderers are people too.”

This list is an example of claims that we make to try to challenge status quo judgments about morality. They’re assertions (frequently contested) about what the moral baseline is.

I’m thinking about moral baselines because my friend Scu over at Critical Animal has a long post about them, wherein he evaluates the intra-activism debates over what the moral baseline ought to be in the animal activism community: veganism or activism towards the cause of eliminating animal exploitation and suffering:

I am worried about the rhetoric of moral baselines. The idea of baselines are clearly set to be exclusionary, and I worry that our movement is marginal enough as is, and that we have a tendency already to eat our own. I am further worried that it does not allow for flexibility and charitability in our discussions and debates over strategic, and indeed, ethical questions.

Scu here could be writing on prison abolition and reform as much as animal activism. My own post on this, Prison Abolition, Reform, and End-State Anxieties, raised much debate among my community of prison activists for precisely this reason: while to many people the reformer and the abolitionist are indistinguishably radical, there is a disheartening  tendency for reformers and abolitionists to fight rhetorical battles about the strategies and ends of the movement. Thus we are riven by rhetoric. To the abolitionist, this is because reform tends to reassert the status quo after superficial changes: the risks of complicity are real. To the reformer, though, this is unfortunate, because we could be more effective in solidarity.

Scu ends on the same note from Mckenna’s Task of Utopia calling for a detente through the focus on ends-in-view over end-states, so of course I think he’s right. But what does this tell us about moral baselines?

Much activism focuses on this question: which currently accepted practices are actually producing injustice? Call it the difference between the obligatory and the supererogatory. Some things are bad, some things are acceptable, and some things are affirmatively good. A lot of people think it’s important to settle where those lines are. In traditional ethics, it’s wrong to kill innocents, it’s permissible to choose whatever novel you like for pleasure reading, and it’s affirmatively good to give to charity. And to motivate change, activists must reframe those accepted practices as unacceptable: their goal is move some action or situation from the permitted to the prohibited. It’s easy to see this in action by simply looking to historical examples where previously accepted practices were overturned.

What’s hard, I think, is to consider which currently accepted practices are amenable to that treatment. Because the key to all this is that acceptability condition: to our grandparents, racial segregation somehow seemed ordinary. It wasn’t what evil people did: it’s what everybody did. And before that, slavery seemed ordinary! And just a few months ago, not letting gay people marry seemed ordinary! Meanwhile, today, it’s fairly ordinary for Black people to get killed for living their lives. Sure, there’s a nascent movement to change that, but right now it’s still accepted practice even as it’s being challenged: we know that #BlackLivesMatter is an unusual, unaccepted thing to say because it’s still not true–even though it should be. So anyone who is reasonably familiar with out policing culture can understand both the acceptance of that status quo and its rejection, and my readers are rooting for its rejection.

But what about the future? Could blogging be someday considered a terrible sin? (Doubtful, right? But maybe it will seem gauche or silly.) You can probably imagine that car driving will someday look pretty selfish, as may eating the flesh of animals (or at least those raised and slaughtered in factory farms.) These are possibilities, live options that we simply haven’t faced. I’d also like to think we may someday find mass incarceration to be atrocious, solitary confinement to be abhorrent, and the health and safety conditions in our prisons to be abominable.

And so the animal activism community is trying to redraw those lines. One version is: it’s wrong to eat meat, it’s permissible to hang out with people who do, and it’s affirmatively good to participate in activism around animal abolition. On the other version, though, it’s wrong *not* to participate in activism around animal abolition. Setting the baseline (prohibited) conditions so high is a rhetorical move. Prohibiting inaction is about making the community more exclusive–just as Scu notes. Communities have the right to do this, of course, but I think it’s where activism can start to fail. This goes beyond the left. You can see similar rhetorical inflation within the pro-life movement and among libertarians as you do among radical marxists.

(There’s also a strong deontic preference to prohibit acts rather than inaction; prohibited inactions run into defeasibility issues.)

The positive side of activists redrawing the lines of acceptability is that that’s how you get things like organized non-violence and other strategic decisions to stick. So if having non-vegans in the mix was a bad strategic decision for animal activists, then it’d be important to set the baseline there. If having quietist vegans who aren’t activists was somehow undermining the activism, it’d make sense to exclude them, too. I can’t speak to that question without more knowledge of animal activism than I have, but my suspicion is that that’s too restrictive.

What we know about social movements is that their efficacy comes when they are able to demonstrate WUNC: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. Unity, commitment, and numbers are always in tension: you need to get lots of people engaged, but you also need to keep them on message. You need to show others that the cause is so important that you’ll make ostentatious sacrifices to advance it, but you don’t want to scare potential allies away by making the sacrifices too great to bear.

Then, too, not all activists are social movement activists. You can be an activist by writing inspiring–and demanding–words. You can be an activist while also working inside of a regulatory agency. You can be a democratic professional. So pluralism–of means and ends–seems to be the most important baseline.

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