The other day a student at another university related an interesting tale to me. According to his ethics professor, anything goes between consenting adults. The student remarked during office hours that by this standard, voluntary incest, voluntary cannibalism, and voluntary bestiality would all be okay. The professor agreed. “What’s the harm?” he asked. He wasn’t playing devil’s advocate; this was really his view.
That’s not what makes the story interesting. Such is the state of our intellectual culture that opinions like this are not at all unusual. What makes the story interesting is what came next. When my young friend politely suggested that incest, cannibalism, and bestiality are immoral, indecent, and disgusting, and that consent doesn’t make them okay, the professor – who is rather shy in lecture, he says -- became enraged and aggressive. The conversation, apparently, went on for some time, and went steadily downhill. The professor became angrier and angrier. “What’s the harm?” he kept asking. In a gibe against the young man’s Catholic faith, he sneered “You have already lost – you have already lost.”
“I have never seen anything like it,” my young friend told me. “It was almost as if he had found out that I had raped his wife during his anniversary, and I was confessing it to him.”
He adds that he is drained and demoralized by the conversation and needs to talk about it, but he hesitates to do so. “I feel bad about speaking about it, not because I feel as though as though I did something wrong, but because I'm not sure that I can share this darkness with others. How do you begin a conversation with a friend by telling him that your professor thinks that marrying your mother and eating people's flesh is morally permissible?”
Despite having spent much of my career criticizing such views, I too find them difficult to talk about, and most people find it difficult to hear about them. Morally undamaged people find such topics creepy, with good reason. Natural modesty makes them want to cover their ears. The shame of it is that such reticence allows people who hold these creepy views to have their way in our schools, courts, and other opinion-forming institutions.
Where does one begin? At any number of points. For instance, we can talk about the sheer incoherence of the professor’s opinion. His persistent question “Where’s the harm?” suggests that nothing is ever morally wrong unless it causes harm. But isn’t it a little strange to suggest that eating a person doesn’t harm him? The function of the professor’s ancillary principle, mutual consent, seems to be to reclassify being eaten as a special kind of harm, which doesn’t count as harmful. John Stuart Mill, the pioneer of this way of thinking, had all sorts of devices for reclassifying harms as non-harms. By his lights, the corruption of mores which safeguard human flourishing is not harm; seduction to evil is not harm; insult is not harm; conduct by which a person destroys his abilities to fulfill his obligations to others is not harm; and the risk of harm, distributed in such a way that we do not know on whom the sword will fall, is not harm either.
From a rational point of view, making such points is very good. In a situation like the young man’s conversation with his professor, it is useless. People don’t become enraged because they want to reason with you, but because they don’t want to reason with you.
Why don’t they want to reason with you?
Maybe because they have something on their conscience. They have done something wrong, they don’t want to admit to themselves that it is wrong, and they are acutely uncomfortable when their rationalizations are called into question. Their rage is a “tell,” like the little tics and gestures most people make when they are lying. It signals that at some level, even they know that the views they are trying to defend are indefensible.
This is only to be expected. Thomas Aquinas points out that the foundational moral principles are “the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge.” This little grenade of a proposition means that the moral basics are not only right for everyone, but in some sense known to everyone. It follows that although anyone may make an innocent mistake about the remote implications of a first principle, if someone contradicts the first principle itself, his mistake isn’t innocent. He is lying to himself.
I suggest that the hypothesis of moral self-deception explains a lot of things which the hypothesis of innocent error cannot. We don't get angry just because people disagree with us. The reason the professor is so angry is that he is trying to hide from avenging conscience, and someone is calling out to it, “Look! Here he is! Come and get him!”
How can one talk with self-deceived people? Should one confront them? That’s what my young friend wondered: “I am starting to think that a valid response to some arguments is a good old fashioned ‘bulls—t.’” This suggestion was half-right and half-wrong. “Bulls—t” may be a valid response to certain kinds of opinion, because it cannot be rational to deny first principles. However, it is rarely a persuasive response, because confrontation usually makes people more belligerent, not less. And I don’t just mean professors.
Next week: Leaving professors aside, can conscience be dredged? Can suppressed moral knowledge be brought back to the surface? Can anything be done, conversationally speaking, to help people recognize their own moral self-deceptions?