I used to think I was a pretty good person. I certainly didn’t kill people, for example. But then Peter Singer pointed out that animals were conscious and that eating them led them to be killed and that wasn’t all that morally different from killing people after all. So I became a vegetarian. Again I thought I was a pretty good person. But then Arianna Huffington told me that by driving in a car I was pouring toxic fumes into the air and sending money to foreign dictatorships. So I got a bike instead. But then I realized that my bike seat was sewn by children in foreign sweatshops while its tubing was made by mining metals through ripping up the earth. Indeed, any money I spent was likely to go to oppressing people or destroying the planet in one way or another. And if I happen to make money some of it goes to the government which spends it blowing people up in Afghanistan or Iraq.
I thought about just living off of stuff I found in dumpsters, like some friends. That way I wouldn’t be responsible for encouraging its production. But then I realized that some people buy the things they can’t find in dumpsters; if I got to the dumpster and took something before they did, they might buy it instead. The solution seemed clear: I’d have to go off-the-grid and live in a cave, gathering nuts and berries. I’d still probably be exhaling CO2 and using some of the products in the Earth, but probably only in levels that were sustainable.
Perhaps you disagree with me that it’s morally wrong to kill animals or blow up people in Afghanistan. But surely you can imagine that it might be, or at least that someone could think it is. And I think it’s similarly clear that eating a hamburger or paying taxes contributes — in a very small way; perhaps only has the possibility of contributing — to those things. Even if you don’t, everyday life has a million ways that are more direct. Personally, I think it’s wrong that I get to sit at a table and gaily devour while someone else delivers more food to my table and a third person slaves over a stove. Every time I order food, I make them do more carrying and slaving. (Perhaps they get some money in return, but surely they’d prefer it if I just gave them the money.) Again, you may not think this wrong but I hope you can admit the possibility. And it’s obviously my fault.
Off in the cave, I thought I was safe. But then I read Peter Singer’s latest book. He points out that for as little as a quarter, you can save a child’s life. (E.g. for 27 cents you can buy the oral rehydration salts that will save a child from fatal diarrhea.) Perhaps I was killing people after all. I couldn’t morally make money, for the reasons described above. (Although maybe it’s worth helping fund the bombing of children in Afghanistan in order to help save children in Mozambique.) But instead of living in a cave, I could go to Africa and volunteer my time. Of course, if I do that there are a thousand other things I’m not doing. How can I decide which action I take will save the most lives? Even if I take the time to figuring out, that’s time I’m spending on myself instead of saving lives.
It seems impossible to be moral. Not only does everything I do cause great harm, but so does everything I don’t do. Standard accounts of morality assume that it’s difficult, but attainable: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. But it seems like living a moral life isn’t even possible. But if morality is unattainable, surely I should simply do the best I can. (Ought implies can, after all.) Peter Singer is a good utilitarian, so perhaps I should try to maximize the good I do for the world. But even this seems like an incredibly onerous standard. I should not just stop eating meat, but animal products altogether. I shouldn’t just stop buying factory-farmed food, I should stop buying altogether. I should take things out of dumpsters other people are unlikely to be searching. I should live someplace where others won’t be disturbed. Of course all this worrying and stress is preventing me from doing any good in the world.
I can hardly take a step without thinking about who it hurts. So I decide not to worry about the bad I might be doing and just focus on doing good — screw the rules. But this doesn’t just apply to the rules inspired by Peter Singer. Waiting in line at the checkout counter is keeping me from my life-saving work (and paying will cost me life-saving money) — better just to shoplift. Lying, cheating, any crime can be similarly justified.
It seems paradoxical: in my quest to do good I’ve justified doing all sorts of bad. Nobody questioned me when I went out and ordered a juicy steak, but when I shoplift soda everyone recoils. Is there sense in following their rules or are they just another example of the world’s pervasive immorality? Have any philosophers considered this question?
Your question inevitably comes to the issue of priorities and of personal accountability to those priorities regardless of moral influence.
Personal case in point: My 4 year old daughter contracted Streptococcus Pneumoniae Meningitis; serotype 19a. An extremely antibiotic resistant disease with a mortality rate of 20% with 48 hours of initial contraction (most people dont begin to show symptoms until 12 to 24 hours after initial contraction basically leaving them with about 24 hours to live). Of those who survive 80% are left with mild to severe mental disability. Her life was saved and she made a full recovery with no disability at all. Even the doctors were shocked at how well she recovered.
The antibiotic she was given is a synthetic drug that was developed in a lab and was allowed to go to human testing only after testing it on animals to determine it's safe dosage levels (some levels are considered corrosive and fatal). I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure many animals suffered and died during that particular phase of its development.
Ergo, numerous animals suffered and died so that my daughter (and many others that needed that medication) could live and return to a normal life.
I fully respect and understand someone's choice to not eat meat, even to go so far as to avoid animal based products. I don't believe animals should be made/allowed to suffer needlessly. However it seems to me that it comes to an issue of priorities (whether influenced by morals or not). In this case I find it morally wrong to make animals suffer, however my daughter's health is a much higher priority. Therefore, if an animal must suffer and die in order for my daughter live then so be it. The priority overrules the moral.
To anyone who would maintain that a conscious animal holds the same intrinsic and/or perceived value as a human I would simply ask this: would you allow someone you love to die so that you could prevent the suffering of an animal, or at the very least, not be a benefactor from the suffering of an animal?
Another, friendly way of putting it could be this: What are your priorities, not morals, regarding animal testing vs. human benefit and how influential are your morals when it comes to the establishment of those priorities?
While I used the issue of animal testing the basic logic can be applied to any area of your questioning.
I find it immoral to kill people.
Those I know and love are a higher priority than those I do not.
Someone wishes to harm those I know and love.
If needed I will end the life of someone I dont know to protect the life of someone I do know even though my morals say to not kill.
My predetermined priority (keep those I love safe at all cost) overrules my moral inclination (do not kill).
But this brings us to the core problem with societies of any size and as a whole:
What if the person who wished to do harm instead did what is moral because they made the choice to set their priorities according to a moral standard and hold themselves personally accountable to those priorities? Then I would not have my priorities overrule my morals because there would be no need; the example above would not have taken place.
You say it seems impossible to do what is moral but you're viewing morality at a level that you have no control over. If you focus on making your priorities line up with a moral standard and have personal accountability to those priorities then you will begin to see that, while you cant save the whole world, you can at least save a small part of it, yourself included.
Now imagine if everyone focused on making their priorities line up with a moral standard and saving their own small part of the world. Therein lies the strength and ability to save the world from itself.
Unfortunately the choice to hold to priorities that don't compromise (at least most) moral standards is a choice that society can only make as a whole.
ie. you decide you don't want to blow me up anymore; I can now follow my moral of "do not kill" without it being overruled by my priority of "dont get blown up".
True this doesn't help with the original example of animal testing to develop cures that save human lives, but if you find a way to instill moral standards in bacteria I will gladly nominate you for as many science awards as I can.
Having observed numerous animals, from domestic to naturally wild to feral, I can confidently say animals do not follow a moral system of any nature. Their priorities are survival and propagation (terms used in the broadest of sense).
Don't believe me? Go to the zoo. Go to a big cat enclosure, preferably one with a window that allows you to get "face to face" with them. Look that animal in the eye and see if here is any morality in there.
Really try to get face to face, nose to nose. While there, take note of your subdued instincts telling you "get away, get away now". They're telling you that for a reason.