January 22, 2007
The relative acceleration of my moral decline
What is morality?
Perhaps that's a silly question, for we all know it when we see it and those who don't are said to be moral relativists. By merely posing the question, I may have already caused hard-line moral absolutists (if such a thing exists in logic) to roll their eyes in disgust.
One of the things I touched on in the discussion of Dinesh D'Souza's newfound Islamic moral absolutism (assuming that's the right phrase; maybe his embrace of Islamic absolutism is morally relative) was whether or not morality is necessarily limited to sexual matters. A lot of people seem to think it is, or at least they act that way. Typically, there's a lot more outrage by these people over sex on the Internet than crime on the streets.
But I want to move away from sex, and examine the mechanism by which morality is manufactured. I suspect it's something like the manufacture of legislation and sausage -- something that goes on behind the scenes, in a very undemocratic manner. Until at last, before we know it, things that were once considered either "good" (or at least morally neutral) take on a moral tinge. A charge, even.
For example, is it immoral to build a house? To cut down a tree? In the huge North American continent, once the land of promise and opportunity, these things were considered "progress" and doing them -- when it took the form of what we call "development" -- was generally thought to be virtuous. Now, building a house or cutting down trees is seen by many people as downright evil. For years, an anti-sprawl movement has been fighting to stop development, and this movement been aided and abetted by pliant politicians and sympathetic reporters. While "sprawl" hasn't quite managed to take on the dirty connotations normally associated with phrases like "Larry Flynt" and "Hustler," sprawl (and development) are definitely dirty, and I see evidence that the anti-sprawl people are striking paydirt as the "Global Warming" meme heats up. Now is their moment of opportunity, and if they are lucky, the builders of new homes and roads will find themselves excoriated in a manner once reserved for the Larry Flynts -- maybe even drug dealers.
What prompted this morning's observations was seeing morality manufactured before my eyes right here in my county. Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, has not only decided to implement anti "greenhouse gas" measures, they're implementing moral rhetoric in order to put it over on regular people who often don't have time to think.
Today's morality play begins with the apparent conversion of a "skeptical" Republican County Commisioner by a mere graduate student at Penn State:
Climate change is by nature a global problem.What Glenn Brand would have us believe is that this is a "grass roots" effort by ordinary people, stymied by years of Bush Cheney greed, and who are trying to do what they can to "save" the planet.
Not included in the Inquirer write-up is the fact that Pennsylvania is said to produce "1 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions" -- of which Montgomery County is but a fraction. Add to that the fact that even the advocates of greenhouse gas theory admit that the world's total of human-emitted greenhouse gases are responsible for a tiny fraction of overall global warming and the contribution of Montgomery County is so meaningless as to be statistically insignificant. If the entire county were depopulated and shut down tomorrow by the Khmer Rouge, worldwide CO2 would not be affected.
But we're talking morality, not reality. Typically, moralists present their argument to people who are into feeling terrible and making everyone else feel terrible by scolding them. The goal is the infliction of guilt, and this does not work at first, so it has to be achieved in increments.
Back up to 1914 and the Harrison Narcotics Act. People who took drugs before that consumed opiates and cocaine purchased over the counter. If addiction developed, it was a personal health matter to be discussed with the doctor. While such a person might be seen as weak, the notion that it was "evil" did not set in until laws were passed, followed by years of yellow journalism.
When my father was a kid (he was born in 1909), drug consumption was a health problem as opposed to a moral problem, and when I was a kid, it was not considered evil to build homes or cut down trees. (I know I'm ranting, but I always remember this when I hear people screaming about the absolute, unchanging nature of morality.)
Back to the conversion of today's skeptical Republican by the graduate student. Am I allowed to express skepticism about his skepticism?
Back in June of 2005, Mr. Ellis sounded anything but skeptical:
Montgomery County earlier this month became the first in the state to take action by agreeing to create an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. That inventory would let county officials know where local sources of greenhouse gases are coming from, such as farms and traffic pollution, to help inform open space and smart growth policies, said Montgomery County Commissioner Thomas Jay Ellis.Hey, that's my county you're making into a laboratory for the nation, buddy!
What about us little guinea pigs? Don't we have any say?
Normally, I'd opine that hell hath no fury greater than the recently converted, except I don't think Commissioner Ellis's conversion was recent. As to the evidence that converted him, today's Inquirer article features an impressive chart showing Montgomery County's "total emissions in million metric tons of CO2 equivalent":
The source for the chart is said to be "A Global Warming Plan of Action for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania." I can't find any plan by that name online, although it might be a rebadged version of this EPA-funded project. The Inquirer describes this plan as a master's thesis by a single student, one Sarah E. Knuth.
Isn't it wonderful to see democracy and morality in action? One student -- with one paper -- can affect an entire county!
From the description of Ms. Knuth's EPA-funded "plan":
By targeting sprawl, I will capture a dominant process driving Montgomery Countys emissions and uncover opportunities for climate change mitigation that are tailored to local stakeholder objectives - combating sprawl is vitally important to county officials and residents.So says who? I don't remember being asked to vote on this plan.
How did the county manage to find this dedicated young activist? Apparently, the right connections never hurt, as her professor is a former law partner of the "skeptical" Republican Commissioner himself!
Knuth was a student of Robert McKinstry, a Penn State University professor and former law partner of commissioner Chairman Thomas Jay Ellis. Nelson said the county should work to reduce greenhouse emissions because it dovetails with county goals, such as open space and farmland protection. It also fits in with the county government's mandate to protect public health.McKinstry (who seems to be the power behind the scenes in today's scheme) is said not to be a scientist at all, but a well-connected lawyer and left-wing environmental activist (now professor at Penn State). Scientist or not, he certainly knows how to represent science:
Goddard Chair professor Robert McKinstry co-wrote a brief submitted in May 2006 to the U.S. Supreme Court representing a number of leading scientists supporting the position of a number of states contending that the federal government should regulate emissions of greenhouse gases from automobiles to address climate change.(I sure as hell hope they're not using my tax dollars to advance a left wing political position in which wreaking economic havoc is cloaked in "public interest" language.)
Let me admit my bias here. I think that what most people call "morality" is usually cheap partisan demagoguery in drag. I see this smoke-and-mirrors game being played across the political spectrum, and while I find it a bit exhausting to complain about it so often, the alternative is to watch it go unchallenged.
Unless I am misreading today's think-globally-act-locally morality pageant, I get the distinct impression that they really want to reach out and touch everyone -- including me:
Tom Kreutz, a Princeton University researcher who models the performance of energy systems, said returning to 1990 emissions levels can be difficult for growing areas, yet that is "a pretty modest goal in general, compared to where the globe needs to go."Yes, every time I drive, and every time I exhale, I "dump" my CO2 into the atmosphere. Is the goal just to tax me? Or do they want me to feel guilty so that I'll be more willing to go along with their scam?
Sorry, but while I know they have the power to tax me, they do not have the power to make me agree with them. My morality stays where it is. Yes, on this issue I am a moral absolutist, and I don't mind saying so.
My breathing is not immoral!
They've got some kind of "mayor's agreement" but they don't think it will be enough. Not unless they get people "out of their cars":
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance this month released a discouraging report on progress made by 10 cities that have signed the mayors' agreement. John Bailey, a research associate who wrote the report, concluded it was unlikely that more than two could reach the Kyoto Protocol goals, "unless complementary state and federal policies are put in place," he wrote.Ah, I see it now! There are a lot of fat people who sit in their cars dumping their tax-free CO2 into the atmosphere while they could be bettering their health and saving the planet. Maybe this is a moral issue after all! Maybe we need some moral communitarianism. Besides a little forced marching is liberating for the soul. Get them out of their cars! Put them on bicycles! And tax the holy crap out of them them! Above all, make them feel guilty!
Of course, there are some people who are just born to feel guilty, and want to inflict their misery on others. There's plenty of misery to go around, and as I've noticed, things have reached the point where people are actually upset by unseasonably warm weather.
Because they're having what we used to call "a nice day."
What we the guinea pigs need are moral examples:
The most important result of local initiatives, several experts said, is that they serve as an example to residents and show federal and business leaders that people want action.Excuse me, but can I say "not in my backyard"? Or would that make me a NIMBY?
As to the author of the master's thesis which wants to reach out and touch everyone here in Montgomery County, she's headed to my old hometown of Berkeley:
Sarah Knuth wrote the Montgomery County report for her master's thesis. Now 24 and studying for her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, she's thrilled that the county is taking her work seriously. "This is a dream come true to have it at least leading somewhere," she said.Of course she's thrilled to have the county taking her work seriously.
Count me as less than thrilled.
It's all part of my ongoing struggle to preserve immorality.
Seriously, it's worse than anyone imagines. I actually enjoy breathing, and every time I exhale I revel in the terrible damage my untaxed CO2 is doing to the environment. I admit it's awful and I know it makes me a genuinely evil person, but it all began a long time ago. My slippery slide from absolute morality to absolute evil began when I was told it was evil that people were starving. I started to develop callused thinking at the dinner table, and it occurred to me that maybe it wasn't my fault, and that maybe I didn't have to feel as guilty as I did. Over the years, it got worse, and now I've reached the point where I actually think that some moral evils are worse than other moral evils.
My reactionary moral relativism has now reached the point where I think I should feel more guilty about letting people starve than about letting them breathe.
At this rate, I'll soon be a nihilist.
(Almost makes me wish for good old days, when you were immoral if you screwed but it was still OK to breathe. Now that everything has become immoral, nothing is immoral.)
posted by Eric on 01.22.07 at 10:12 AM
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