Can an action like pulling a lever be moral or immoral? The intuitive answer is no. In a vacuum, where it is just one person arbitrarily moving their lever, it’d be hard to say that this has any moral value. However, in the classic trolley problem, where pulling the lever averts the death of five people by condemning someone else to die for them, that action does acquire an ethical ‘meaning’. Does it matter that we’re pulling a lever, though? The problem would carry the same implications if we pressed a button instead. In fact, if the question was “should you save five people’s lives if it meant ending another one,” we’d see the same dilemma without even describing a particular action. This suggests that actions find their morality from the context that surrounds them and the principles that underpin them. They are moral chameleons; once the trolley passes the split in the track, the action of pulling the lever loses its character. What happens if we try to give certain actions their own independent moral meaning—paint the chameleon? The intuitive answer is nothing good. Unfortunately, that seems to be a popular thing to do.
An example of this is the ‘Galileo complex,’ which I define as the fetishization of arguing against the majority. In the same way that we might declare “pressing buttons is morally good” after someone presses a button which saves five lives, we have come to associate all challenges of the consensus with Galileos. Society has sympathy for the iconoclast. I would be lying if I didn’t feel something for the ‘persecuted intellectual.’ The second I hear that they are being silenced—before I know why, or if that’s remotely true—the image of Galileo comes to mind. Ironically, even flat earthers today cut a Galilean figure simply because they are underdogs opposing a consensus.
However, it is important to recognize why Galileo’s struggle was noble, because it had little to do with him opposing authority or suffering for his beliefs. Rather, it had everything to do with the principle of his actions. Galileo spoke truth to power; the important word there is ‘truth.’ Having produced irrefutable evidence for his beliefs, Galileo opposed hegemonic power because he was following a principled obligation to identify and share the truth. The suffering he experienced as a result of that was noble because of the principle he was suffering for.
Had Galileo not researched his position and argued a hunch, his story would not be half as glorious. Had Galileo argued instead against a consensus of the Earth being round, nobody would remember his name. Had Galileo been punished for spreading misinformation rather than fact, many of us would say “good.”
There’s a reason nobody minds that the FBI monitors the Ku Klux Klan yet finds it awful that they did the same to Martin Luther King Jr. Both Reverend King and those Klansmen sacrificed for their beliefs, but there is nothing admirable about going to prison for an awful project like white supremacy. Reverend King, on the other hand, followed a consistent and admirable principle; his suffering is poignant because of the beliefs he endured it for—not because he suffered.
Fetishizing actions and aesthetic scenarios like speaking truth to power or fighting for your beliefs has three obvious results. The first is imitation. When you treat opposing consensus as a good thing, for example, you create contrarians. Almost every classroom has the “devil’s advocate,” the guy (usually) who seems to have a pathological need to go against the grain. They believe that their constant opposition makes them into a truth seeker, testing society’s preconceived notions like a white hat hacker testing for weaknesses in a codebase. They aren’t. However, this is the logical conclusion of treating “independent thought” as an innate good: people who believe they are somehow useful for arguing every point. Of course, independent thought can be very useful when it’s grounded in a principle. If you believe in equality in a society which doesn’t, then constantly disagreeing with others is, in fact, a service.
The second effect, which is quite similar, is co-optation. That is, people using the ‘Galileo Complex’ and other ideas like it to protect themselves or the people who they support. Thinkers who receive widespread criticism paint themselves as persecuted, and movements which are suppressed complain about the state fearing their truth. This is part of how the anti-vax movement survives. By attaching themselves to every value we hold, like a shipwrecked sailor holds onto driftwood, they keep themselves from sinking. Our fear of authority, distrust of major institutions and fetishization of contrarianism all keep that movement alive.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is the paradox of intolerance. That is, groups who preach evil doctrines avoiding accountability by invoking our societal obligation to tolerate “ideas we don’t like.” Though accepting difference is oftentimes good, that, too, is contingent on a principle. We are tolerant because it is good to allow others to express themselves; however, that only extends to people who aren’t hurting others. Nobody expects us to ‘tolerate’ a murderer who is doing their own thing. In fact, being okay with that is morally bankrupt. In that sense, glorifying the act of “inclusion,” without any eye for context or principle, allows people to appropriate it for their own ends.
This leads to the third, and perhaps the most interesting effect: the negation of the action. With time, people recognize that the actions we worship do not live up to their hype. Rejecting authority—which is oftentimes a necessary and moral thing to do—becomes associated with the loud and obnoxious anti-vax movements, or those who disobey mask mandates. It is a confusing perversion of a ‘good’ thing. Yet, on a surface level, the distinction is unclear. Someone who disobeys mask mandates is practicing civil disobedience, but it feels nothing like Rosa Parks’ refusing to change seats.
While one believes that actions can take on a moral character, this is a contradiction which must be resolved. Namely: how can performing a ‘good’ action be bad? Why are the Minneapolis riots and the Capitol Hill riot incomparable? After all, both involve a mass of people with a political grievance. While believing that an action or scenario has any meaning beyond its context, the best explanation is the unhelpful idea that there are “good and bad” protests. That response offers no meaningful framework to make moral judgements, and it devolves into ascribing morality based on what pleases the arbiter in any situation, or its aesthetic character.
This leads to situations where, for example, someone who questions the profit incentives of ‘Big Pharma’ becomes a conspiracy theorist. After all, critiques of the pharmaceutical industry often lend themselves, or are adjacent to, the sentiments of the anti-vax movement. Thus, they often become a ‘bad’ action, despite the fact that many people have legitimate, principled grievances with companies like Purdue Pharma, who helped start the opioid crisis. Similarly, many criticisms of politicians who are subjected to misogynistic attacks get labelled as sexist acts. We see this right now with Kyrsten Sinema dismissing critiques of her actions as wholly sexist.
Though, in both cases, there are individuals who legitimize its existence, such a categorization negates the existence of good-faith, reasoned actions. The similarities between a conspiracy theorist and someone who reads Wikileaks are noticeable, but superficial. What differentiates these scenarios is their principles and the context they are located in. By assuming that the mere act of doubting a government can be good or bad, you create a contradiction whose resolution can only ever be messy.
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In fact, the fetishization of actions limits our ability to do the right thing. Denying that actions are wholly defined by their context removes nuance from any discussion. If, for example, the act of breaking the law is believed to be innately bad, then that renders all forms of civil disobedience an immoral act, even though we know that this is not the case. If we categorize things as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ lawbreaking, then we become vulnerable to our own biases—internalized racism, misogyny, or simple ignorance—clouding our judgement. Someone might call a Black Lives Matter protest ‘bad’ simply because it makes them uncomfortable. However, if we glorify civil disobedience in itself, then not wearing a mask during a pandemic, or flaunting hate speech laws, will fall within the remit of an ethical action. Both options are a recipe for moral catastrophe.
The solution to this problem, then, is to recognize that the morality of our actions is determined by context and principle, and learn to recognize both. Developing some ethical code, and a willingness to engage with the context of a moral dilemma, are the best way to resolve contradictions when we face them. Martin Luther King Jr once wrote that:
“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
He was right, but the problem is that humans aren’t born with a sense of direction; we don’t always know the right way to go, and we don’t always know justice. That’s why, when we get lost, we need a compass, landmarks, constellations to know where we want to go. If we want to know about justice, we need to develop those same moral tools. The alternative is getting lost, and that rarely ends well.
Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.