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Today's Tom Sawyer


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Times and Seasons has, once again, provided interesting content at the hands of the talented Nate Oman. Here, he addresses the issue of complicity and consequences in decisionmaking, especially as it relates to consumer behavior. I just figured I'd spout my views here, since T&S has plenty of commenters and what I want to say is way too long to justify burdening that thread with my words.

Nate is right about halfway. Heck, probably two-thirds. He makes an absolutely CRITICAL distinction between the moral significance of high-consequence actions and low-consequence decisions. Not knowing of a better gospel example, I'd point to the way that Church members often address the law of chastity. We had a long discussion about this in the early days of the Manifesto (lo, these three months), but I think that most of us can agree that certain laws are overemphasized. Masturbation is often simply lumped in with "the sin next to murder", while Word of Wisdom violations are seen as proof-positive of devilish possession (note hyperbole here). I happen to think that it's way worse to hit someone in anger or key someone's car than to masturbate or have a cup of coffee. I think he's dead on target in stating that the consequences of actions (to be more precise, the intended or reasonably expected type of consequences) must be considered in evaluation.

I'm uncomfortable with where he takes this argument, though. Assuming we stipulate that a certain shoe company is an evil influence (which he does for the sake of argument), Nate claims that the practical consequences must be considered in our decision to boycott or not to boycott. Fair enough. I've already agreed to that.

But it seems to me that not acting in a way that you know to be right because the expected consequences are not significant or good contains something that is morally lacking. As Julie notes in a comment on the thread, even low expected consequences are worth seeking. If one is making the decision that fifty dollars to me is worth more than the ever-so-slight injustice inflicted on someone else, that's fine. But I do think that, if we're going to behave in that way, we need to be very explicit. I see it as pretty harmful intellectual sophistry to try and dismiss the moral reasons to act in a less selfish way through arguments about utility.

I've always struggled with this in evaluating the plan of salvation. If God is perfectly just, how can he punish me with more negative utils than I got from sinning? He knows everything, so he doesn't have to punish me for the stuff he didn't catch me doing, right? The answer in my mind is that by being obedient to the Spirit and assuming Christlike attributes (and, crucially, making related covenants), we unlock utils that we can't comprehend under a lower law (and the possibility of more negative utils as we become more accountable). I don't know how this works, but believe it to be true.

This isn't an attempt to exonerate myself. I'm wearing New Balances that were made in China because I could get them seventy bucks cheaper than the same things made in the USA. I don't think the shoes are that big a deal. I don't think that if you reach a transcendent level of moral perfection as a consumer that Nike will fall and the children will rejoice. I do think that on an individual level, it's important to progress to a point where you can be more critically conscious.

I also resent claims (such as one comment on the T&S thread, which happily did not represent a significant part of the discourse over there as of the time of this writing) that being a better consumer or being concerned with the problems of capitalism represents a failure to come to terms with the terrorist threat. This is non sequitur crap that just tries to paper over any non conservative objection to anything with vague references to the Bush Doctrine and catcalls of "un-American!" It's getting old, American right. There's so much actually wrong with the left that you don't need to invent things. Honest to goodness. I hate it when leftists shout "blood for oil!" because it misses the point. I hate it when rightists shout "war on terror!" because even they don't know what they want. Maybe there shall come a day in this country when thinking isn't considered a sign of Communist sympathies or moral weakness. That day clearly isn't today.

The shoes aren't a big deal. But making sure that your behavior is in accordance with your values to the extent that your means will allow is and I believe that great blessings will come to those that honestly try to be as consistent in their application of good as they possibly can. Wouldn't mind adding myself to that list someday......


3 Responses to “Today's Tom Sawyer”

  1. Blogger fMhLisa 

    Woo Hoo! That is an awsome post.

  2. Blogger Pris 

    I wear New Balance for the same reason...

    Great post. These things really bother me as well. I can't stand it when people (both right and left) can't/won't recognize the complexity of the issues and that just holding an alternative viewpoint doesn't necessarily make someone wrong.

    I try very hard to have internal consistency in my beliefs and I try to understand why I believe the things I believe and do the things I do. As such, I have a hard time understanding people who don't.

  3. Blogger Mike 

    The D-Tain pulls through with a very good post- but as you said it would have likely been lost amidst T&S comments.

    I have had a number of discussions with D-Train on this subject.

    Mostly it just raises questions I'm still trying to anser. Lately, I mostely just don't think about it.

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