May 12, 2016
On Reaping What You Sow
Immorality often has bad consequences, for individuals and also for societies.
An enduring theme in philosophy is that being good is good for you, and being bad, bad. Moral goodness is good for you both instrumentally, that is, in its results, and intrinsically, or in itself. Intrinsically, because moral goodness involves being true to what is important for happiness in a worthwhile life, and instrumentally, because it makes you trustworthy and brings you the rewards of cooperation and friendship. Conversely, on this view, moral badness is bad for you because it prevents you from achieving happiness in a worthwhile life (or often even happiness alone), and because it makes you untrustworthy.
The instrumental thesis is widely held, as seen in the common saying: “Honesty is a good policy.” Economists and political theorists emphasize the importance of being honest and trustworthy in order to have a good reputation, and a good reputation in order to be able to cooperate to mutual gain. Generally speaking, those who repeatedly break their word, or fraudulently sell shoddy goods, eventually find themselves excluded from agreements and without any customers. The intrinsic thesis adds that even if someone succeeds in his goals by managing to fool people all his life, he is still harmed by his immorality because his life has been a lie and his success worthless, like the success of an athlete who wins only by cheating. Conversely, even if someone is punished for his act of justice or courage or honesty, his act is still intrinsically rewarding for him. A good example is Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing. Snowden stated that he exposed the illegal activities of the NSA not only because they were bad for Americans, but also because he didn’t want to support a system of mass surveillance, nor come to accept as normal the deceptiveness and dishonesty of the people in charge of running the NSA. Snowden knew that the consequences of his action might be dire: he might lose his freedom or his country or both. He went ahead anyway, because he saw supporting the NSA or getting used to its activities as intrinsically bad for him. And most people can understand this intuitively, even if they are inclined to dismiss the abstract claim that goodness is its own reward, and badness its own punishment.
In the rest of this piece, I want to discuss two historical periods in order to show that this philosophical thesis applies not just to individuals, but also to whole societies, or groups within those societies. I will focus on the intrinsic harm of immorality, but I will also discuss the multifarious ways in which immorality can be instrumentally bad for the immoral society, group, or individual.
My first example comes from the early years of Hitler’s rise to power and the attitude of the United States towards Hitler’s anti-Semitism, as documented by Erik Larson in his book, In the Garden of Beasts. It is safe to assume that neither the American government nor American society at large wanted another war or the Jewish holocaust. Indeed, both outcomes were quite contrary to the values and interests of everyone other than a handful of war-mongers or rabid anti-Semites. Yet American diplomacy dithered in its opposition to Hitler. The American Ambassador, William E. Dodd, alarmed by news of violence against Jews and anyone who spoke up for Jews, found himself unable to voice his objections to this violence firmly enough because of his own, and his country’s (admittedly moderate) anti-Semitism. In a conversation with Hitler he had to “admit” that Jews were a “problem” in his own country. What made them a “problem”? They had too much influence in Universities, business, and government – not because they had political pull, but because they had superior abilities. Dodd failed to stand up strongly enough for his values and criticize Hitler’s policies in part because of his own and his fellow citizens’ anti-Semitism.
Other efforts to do so also stalled for similar reasons. Senator Tydings of Maryland introduced a resolution in the Senate to get President Roosevelt to convey to the German government that its oppression of Jews was causing the American people great “surprise and pain”. The State Department refused to forward the resolution to Roosevelt because if Roosevelt agreed to complain to the German government, the latter might ask why Roosevelt’s own country did not prevent or punish the lynchings of blacks in Maryland and other states, and why it still tolerated anti-Semitism. So the moral flaws of many Americans, both in and out of government, undercut the American government’s ability to stand up for America’s ideals.
The State Department also prevented Dodd from being too outspoken out of fear that this would jeopardize the reparations that Germany still owed American citizens who had bought German bonds. Although this concern for American citizens’ finances was legitimate, reparations were not more important than defending Hitler’s victims and trying to stop Hitler. It was only after it became clear to Dodd that Hitler had no intention of paying the reparations, and that he had military ambitions, that he began to actively try to awaken the American government and society to the danger Hitler posed. But it was too late. The misplaced priorities of the State Department and the latent anti-Semitism and racism of some government officials and parts of American society prevented those who could have from taking a firm stand against Hitler and doing their utmost to discredit Hitler in Germany and abroad.
This is not to say that speaking up sooner and more strongly would have prevented Hitler’s hold over Germans and the Holocaust or WWII. It might or might not have. The point I want to emphasize is that the anti-Semitism, racism, and misplaced priorities of some American government officials and citizens undercut the American government’s attempt to stand up for their own better values. Their moral flaws were intrinsically bad for them.
Another example of how people’s moral flaws can be intrinsically bad for them comes from slavery in the southern United States. Here I draw on Thomas Sowell’s masterly study of the economic causes and consequences of slavery in his book, Race and Economics. Economically, plantation slavery was highly inefficient, requiring constant and costly supervision of slaves, who did their best to passively resist and sabotage the system. This does not mean that slavery was not profitable to the slave owner, but that it was less profitable than free labor would have been. The cost to Southern society as a whole was even greater. Although the vast majority of Southerners were not slave-owners, they all bore the cost of the police and military tasked with preventing slaves from escaping and with putting down insurrections. There were also intellectual and political costs. As slavery became controversial, Southern states started censoring what southerners could read and write and what schools and colleges could teach. But they were able to do this only because both slave-owning and non-slave-owning whites supported slavery and whatever was deemed necessary for perpetuating it. Ironically, just as slavery deprived the slave of any intellectual development or political freedom, Southern white society’s support for slavery led to a decline in its own intellectual condition and political freedom. The deepest, most far-reaching harm, however, was a psychological and moral harm that was instrinsic to support of slavery: even those whites who did not own slaves saw themselves as members of a superior race, and came to look down on business and work as being beneath free people. They worked only when they had to, and not too well then. Ironically again, in this they shared the attitudes of the slaves they despised.