Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Morality and Self-Interest

Most of us experience morality as a burden. It constrains our actions. It tells us either not to do what we’d like to do or to do what we don’t want to do. Morality is like a parent, a boss, or a drill sergeant: stern, demanding, unforgiving. For better or for worse, we cannot escape it. Making moral judgments is in our nature, and having moral judgments made about one--or one’s actions--is inescapable. We are hard-wired to think in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust. We are moral animals. Every now and then, however, morality and self-interest converge. It’s wonderful--and remarkable--when they do, as this snippet from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shows: By and by it was getting-up time. So I come down the ladder and started for down-stairs; but as I come to the girls’ room the door was open, and I see Mary Jane setting by her old hair trunk, which was open and she’d been packing things in it--getting ready to go to England. But she had stopped now with a folded gown in her lap, and had her face in her hands, crying. I felt awful bad to see it; of course anybody would. I went in there and says: “Miss Mary Jane, you can’t a-bear to see people in trouble, and I can’t--most always. Tell me about it.” So she done it. And it was the niggers--I just expected it. She said the beautiful trip to England was most about spoiled for her; she didn’t know how she was ever going to be happy there, knowing the mother and the children warn’t ever going to see each other no more--and then busted out bitterer than ever, and flung up her hands, and says: “Oh, dear, dear, to think they ain’t ever going to see each other any more!” “But they will--and inside of two weeks--and I know it!” says I. Laws, it was out before I could think! And before I could budge she throws her arms around my neck and told me to say it again, say it again, say it again! I see I had spoke too sudden and said too much, and was in a close place. I asked her to let me think a minute; and she set there, very impatient and excited and handsome, but looking kind of happy and eased-up, like a person that’s had a tooth pulled out. So I went to studying it out. I says to myself, I reckon a body that ups and tells the truth when he is in a tight place is taking considerable many resks, though I ain’t had no experience, and can’t say for certain; but it looks so to me, anyway; and yet here’s a case where I’m blest if it don’t look to me like the truth is better and actuly safer than a lie. I must lay it by in my mind, and think it over some time or other, it’s so kind of strange and unregular. I never see nothing like it. Well, I says to myself at last, I’m a-going to chance it; I’ll up and tell the truth this time, though it does seem most like setting down on a kag of powder and touching it off just to see where you’ll go to. (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn [Toronto: Bantam Books, 1981], chap. XXVIII, pp. 179-80 [italics in original] [originally published in 1884]) Huck could not believe that doing the right thing and doing what was in his interest converged in this case. It was “strange and unregular.” Well, here’s another case. Becoming a vegetarian (or moving in that direction by eliminating certain animal products from your diet) is both the right thing to do and the prudent thing to do. By ceasing to eat meat, you both refuse to participate in an oppressive institution and improve your health. You can become a vegetarian both for the sake of the animals (the moral reason) and for your sake (the prudential reason). I hope nobody thinks meat-eating is healthy. If you do, then you have not been keeping up with the science of nutrition. Not only is meat-eating not healthy; it’s unhealthy. It sets back your interest in health, and therefore your ulterior interest in a long, happy life. See here for a statement by the American Dietetic Association, which is a nonpartisan organization. Live clean. Do right. Vegetarianism accomplishes both.

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