The Moral High Ground

Last week there was a piece on NPR about the high percentage (50%) of the population on Maui that is on welfare. During the discussion, a local resident opined that people on Molokai took better care of their island than their neighbors on Oahu. More was left to nature, there was less garbage, pollution, traffic, etc. This environmental superiority was offered up as a kind of compensation for half the residents living on the dole.

We also frequently hear lobbyists for public health organizations lambasting their counterparts who work for tobacco companies for their lack of moral fiber. Public prosecutors relish raking private criminal defense attorneys over the coals for their sordid bending of the law in attempting to get all manner of vicious criminals released back onto the street.

As if each side had made those kinds of job decisions consciously. As if they each reached some kind of moral crossroad in their lives and elected to go one way or the other based on their personal notions of right and wrong.

Come on, folks. Two things wrong with this picture:

First, the fact is that most career choices are made opportunistically. (I’m speaking now not of the field one chooses to go into, which is often voluntary, but for whom one winds up working.) For example, many criminal defense lawyers come out of prosecutors’ offices, which is a great place to get a whole lot of trial experience quickly.

Lobbyists hunting around for the next project often don’t much care whom they work for. So if they happen to land at the Tobacco Research Council (an insidious euphemism for a PR organization owned by the tobacco companies and dedicated to manufacturing lies about cigarettes), it doesn’t necessarily make them morally inferior to their friends who got picked up by the American Lung Association. It’s just happenstance, not design, and claims to the moral high ground are usually groundless.

Second, you don’t get to claim moral superiority unless you had a genuine opportunity to be morally inferior and opted to reject it. For example, I’ve heard it said that Native Americans never built a thermonuclear weapon. Similarly, Eskimos don’t contribute to global warming.

Well, what do you know about that.

Now, if the Lakota Sioux had a thriving nuclear industry and specifically declined to build hydrogen bombs, and if the Eskimos really figured out a way to keep their automobile assembly plants and power generation stations pollution-free, hey: I’m all for giving them credit for social responsibility.

It’s one thing for a financial columnist to decry the greed of corporate raiders, but it would be a lot more compelling if that writer turned down a couple hundred million in investment return at some point because he thought the deal too greedy.

But who's kidding whom? Whenever someone claims the haughty high ground, look beneath his feet to see how he got there in the first place.

Virtue is no excuse for impotence.

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