The Myth of the Moral Multiplier

Is it moral to use government to enforce your morals on others?

Since even before our founding, Americans have been noted for personal quirks, eccentricities, differences, and hobby-horses.  This has always been visible in our politics with obsessive "single-issue" activists who care deeply about one and only one thing, hammering away at it until the world conforms to their vision.

Sometimes this is for the best, as with decades of lonely anti-slavery activity before the Civil War that finally put an end to that great wrong.  Sometimes less so, as with decades of prohibition meetings that led to the actual legal Prohibition of alcohol.  This well-intentioned but ill-fated obsession brought about the rise of powerful criminal gangs and extreme political corruption, from which we have not yet fully recovered.

For good or ill, though, all these movements share a common strategy: you will be made to care, by main force if need be.  It is not acceptable to simply choose not to own slaves or drink booze yourself; these actions must be condemned, outlawed, and their practitioners cast into outer darkness.  Most of the time, these obsessives remain nobodies, but occasionally their issue gets traction and our nation is forever changed.

Which brings us to a profoundly revealing article in the New York Times, so startlingly plainspoken that it almost rises to the level of a political gaffe - that is, telling a truth that your political position would be better off keeping hidden.

Yesterday's Ranting Maniac, Today's Respected Spokesman, Tomorrow's..?

With palpitating heart and the rhetorical cladding of a "The End Is Nigh!" sandwich board, environmentalist David Wallace-Wells breathlessly begins a global-warming screed by telling us... nothing we haven't heard a million times before: The world is ending, and it's All Our Fault.

Melting icebergs?  Check!  Mass extinction?  Check!  The end of civilization?  Check!  An author confessing his own cognitive denial, making it clear that his very article is an attempt to absolve his own sins and build up his own faith?  Double-check:

I know the science is true, I know the threat is all-encompassing, and I know its effects, should emissions continue unabated, will be terrifying. And yet, when I imagine my life three decades from now, or the life of my daughter five decades now, I have to admit that I am not imagining a world on fire but one similar to the one we have now.

Those of us who are not persuaded that the science is true would argue that this is merely Mr. Wallace-Wells' subconscious arguing for common sense.  As with any other religious belief, environmental warmism collects scientific and logical supports where it can but does not subject itself to them.

America was designed to allow differences in religious belief to coexist with each other, and as long as each belief accepts the need to allow different ones to also exist, this works pretty well.  As we've often observed in the past, that's not good enough with the modern Left: you can't just leave them alone to do their thing, you must participate unreservedly in whatever their demand of the day happens to be.

The Green Gestapo

So why is this otherwise routine article so interesting?  For the first time we've seen, it states in plain terms exactly why the green left has to be totalitarian and absolutist:

...But conscious consumption is a cop-out, a neoliberal diversion from collective action, which is what is necessary. People should try to live by their own values, about climate as with everything else, but the effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve.

Buying an electric car is a drop in the bucket compared with raising fuel-efficiency standards sharply. Conscientiously flying less is a lot easier if there’s more high-speed rail around. And if I eat fewer hamburgers a year, so what? But if cattle farmers were required to feed their cattle seaweed, which might reduce methane emissions by nearly 60 percent according to one study, that would make an enormous difference.

That is what is meant when politics is called a “moral multiplier.” It is also an exit from the personal, emotional burden of climate change and from what can feel like hypocrisy about living in the world as it is and simultaneously worrying about its future. We don’t ask people who pay taxes to support a social safety net to also demonstrate that commitment through philanthropic action, and similarly we shouldn’t ask anyone — and certainly not everyone — to manage his or her own carbon footprint before we even really try to enact laws and policies that would reduce all of our emissions.

That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals. [emphasis added]

According to our Founders, the purpose of politics is to preserve "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  Mr. Wallace-Wells views it differently.

As a single individual, he correctly observes, there's a limit to how much good you can do For The Planet.  You can buy a Prius, bicycle to work, go vegan, and eschew air travel (which, to judge from his publicity schedule, he himself does not).  But if your neighbor commutes in an Escalade, grills steaks every Saturday, and regularly visits his vacation home in Cancun, it'll all be for naught.

In fact, as long as someone else is able to live the American dream, it's not fair to ask "anyone" - even true believers like Mr. Wallace-Wells - to abandon the comforts of life to live in accordance with their beliefs.

Indeed, quoth he, that's the "purpose of politics" - to enforce compliance on unwilling people who don't agree with your definition of morality.  But that's OK, because if you're on the Left, you're right by definition, and anybody who feels otherwise doesn't deserve to be heard.  Isn't that the definition of fascism?

Environmentalism: So oppressive, even a caveman
knows better than to live following its dictats.

We've regularly ridiculed environmentalists who jet around the world as if carbon dioxide were the world's greatest fertilizer - which in fact it is.  Mr. Wallace-Wells' unique and worthy contribution to the debate, is a defense of why such hypocrisy is irrelevant: unless everybody lives as he wishes they would, it's unjust and unreasonable to expect anyone to.

Whose Morals?

Consider this perspective in the light of the morals of centuries and cultures gone by:

Unless everyone agrees that sex should be reserved for marriage, then it's unfair to expect that of anyone, even preachers or nuns.

Unless everyone agrees that only fish should be eaten on Fridays, then it's unfair to expect even the most devout of Catholics to restrict their diets that way.

Unless everyone agrees that murder, rape, and pedophilia is wrong, then it's unfair to expect anyone to refrain from murder, rape, and pedophilia.  Jeffrey Dahmer, call your lawyer!

This makes a mockery of the very concept of morals.  A moral represents something that is absolutely and inherently right - something that is right for you to do or not do, regardless of whether anyone else agrees with you or not.  Religions are full of examples of people who chose to live holy lives even in a debauched society; such personal dedication to the tenets of religion and moral living are particularly honored.

Yet here is an argument that morals only count if they are enforced on everyone.  How exactly is that supposed to work?  Of course you can always find someone who disagrees with any moral you care to espouse.

The old-time Spanish Inquisition felt this way: they knew that their moral sense was the correct one, and used any means necessary to enforce compliance.  The Inquisitors used the thumbscrews and the rack to multiply the power of their own morals, and history shows how well that worked in the long run.  We see the same thing today in areas controlled by ISIS: everyone trapped there must adhere to their Islamic Sharia (im)morals or be gruesomely killed.

Mr. Wallace-Wells doubtless understands this; his argument seems to be that morals are, and ought to be, defined by government action and force.  Torquemada would approve!

One wonders what Mr. Wallace-Wells would  think of using government to enforce morals he disagrees with, such as outlawing abortion or homosexual unions.  Even so, no government can actually change everybody's behavior - murder has been illegal since the invention of laws, and yet murders go unpunished every day.  Perhaps he is satisfied merely to have a suitable law on the books plus some good-faith attempts to enforce it?

What he's missing, though, is the elephant in the room.  He has acknowledged that it would be unreasonable to expect even environmentalist true-believers like himself to live in accordance with their professed beliefs and go dwell in a cave.  Why then, would it be reasonable to expect everyone, all together, to do so, even (really, especially) those that disagree with his beliefs?

No doubt, like his political fellow-travelers, Mr. Wallace-Wells will continue to attempt to seize power so as to enforce his totalitarian and anti-human vision of medievalism and self-denial.  Now that he's made plain his goals and his methods, and even embraced his own hypocrisy, it becomes the job of everyone else to make sure he never does.  Are you listening, AOC?

Kermit Frosch is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Kermit Frosch or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments

An example of Mr. Frosch's argument against the idea that laws are for everyone else besides oneself is modern China and its corruption scandals. There, the worst offenders of China's very modern system of law are officials, those in authority, business leaders, and often judges. In China's society, having an appearance of moral belief and behavior is enough for day-to-day life. It's only when one is caught that disgrace happens. Meanwhile one can live conscience-free breaking or ignoring the law because the internal sense of actual right and wrong has been set aside for two purposes: economic progress and the supremacy of the Communist party.

In European Medieval society there weren't laws "on the books" because everyone knew the "law" and knew immediately when that law was broken. Even earlier the apostle Paul wrote in I Timothy: "We realize that law is not enacted for the righteous, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for killers of father or mother, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for homosexuals, for slave traders and liars and perjurers, and for anyone else who is averse to sound teaching..." The whip is for those who need the whip.

You could argue that "laws" help to define moral conduct. However that form of an external moral code quickly becomes circular, constantly redefining itself, and in the end breaking down society as people realize there are no absolutes, and the "law" is simply something to get around.

February 20, 2019 10:40 PM

Leftism is a dynamic religion.
Nice article, thanks

March 1, 2019 10:47 PM

There is a four box matrix in economics that exactly describes this. Let us use population as an example: If we all pollute nothing gets done.
If I clean my factory emmisions but no one else does then I am at a disadvantage.
If everyone else cleans their factory emmisions and I do not then I benefit and there is little pollution.
If we all clean our factory emissions then we reduce emission and we are all competing equally.

Consequently David Wallace-Wells is discussing outcomes.

RE: Murder. Even one murder is wrong/harmful whereas the small amount of CO2 emitted by an individual is not.
RRE: Eating fish on Friday. It is an expectation for and by Catholics. My not eating fish has no impact on whether anyone else chooses to not eat fish on Friday.

March 6, 2019 8:30 PM
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