Ten minutes into the local news tonight came a long story about the fact that a shark was beheaded over in Newport Beach. It was treated as a big deal, evoking a lot of deep ethical concern and moral tut-tutting.
I’m not going to make the conservative point about abortion here; I find that rhetoric yawn-inducing, as most other folks do. I will say only this, that the human tendency to feel moral superiority to others is pretty much ineradicable. If you make some things morally acceptable, people will just find something else to feel morally superior about. Call it the Law of Conservation of Judgmentalism.
But, no: I will not “say only this.” If I obviously agree with that rhetoric, and I don’t deny that I do agree with it, why am I so allergic to it? It’s because that rhetoric has flopped so many times that it depresses me to think about it. Every time there’s a story about some moral outrage du jour, pro-lifers ask the morally aggrieved folks, “Why do you care about X, but not about the unborn?” And the response they get is like the old RCA Victor dog looking at the phonograph: There might be something interesting going on here – but I have no idea what it is!
It is a sobering reminder of the limits of intellect when it comes to morality. I am one of the few people I know who became a pro-lifer entirely through rational, intellectual argument – and I think that’s a key reason my emotional commitment to the cause lags so far behind that of many pro-lifers I know. To believe something with one’s mind is important, but the heart – the source of “the moral sentiment” – is much more so. When a “pro-lifer of the heart” hears people saying we need 100 percent abortion-on-demand, immediately her stomach turns, as she thinks of innocent human beings who are being killed. When I hear people saying the same thing, I patiently add it to my rather long list of things that I think other folks are wrong about.
All this is by way of saying that I am grateful for the people who are passionate, because they’re the ones who create change. Whether it’s black people, women, gays, the unborn – whichever group is being unjustly treated – things get better only because of passion, because the moral sentiment is engaged. (Of course, I don’t want to sugarcoat it. Sometimes the moral passions get inflamed in a harmful direction, toward a harmful, immoral result. I trust that, in the context of the 2016 campaign, I don’t need to be any more specific about that.)
And if you consider yourself a passionate social-justice warrior, consider that there might be more endangered people out there — who need your attention — than you might already be aware of.