The Smiths, Jack Jones, and Carla, characters created out of whole cloth for the purposes of discussion (and I assure the reader that no paper napkins were used in this simulation), evinced a posture of moral rectitude based on little more than idiosyncratic criteria. Sometimes people, like Jack, take up a moral position on an issue only when it suits them; it’s the cause de jour, if you will. What I’m addressing here isn’t merely a question of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another, not practicing what you preach. But I’m also talking about the selectivity of our morality. We can take a passionate stand on one issue and virtually ignore others that, all things considered, seem just as important, just as pressing. For example, one might be an outspoken critic of cruelty towards animals. It’s a passion that comes through in almost every conversation one way or another, and this person might even follow up words with action: volunteering at the local animal shelter or protesting outside of scientific laboratories or writing congress representatives about foreign trade partners who kill dolphins. Does this person get as worked up, if at all, about other disturbing realities like the conscription of child soldiers abroad, sexual slave trafficking, or domestic violence in our country? Carla, for instance, expressed a moral caveat regarding violence but did not seem to acknowledge the dangers of promiscuity. I have no problem with their chosen crusades, but that’s the point: it’s selective, even downright capricious. We can’t do everything. Everyone has their pet project or pet peeve or pet monkey—sorry, scratch the last one. Time is short, our days are numbered, and the world is chalk full of injustices. Add these realities up, and we can’t help but be selective. The problem is when we prioritize moral causes for other people.
I use the term crusader purposefully. The original crusaders of history, the Christian warriors who traveled from Europe to kill Muslims in the Holy Land throughout the Central Middle Ages, were the ultimate capricious crusaders. Having received their plenary indulgence, they killed, tortured, maimed and raped in the name of a religion that teaches meekness and love of neighbor. They didn’t see it this way of course. The more pious among them joined a religious order, mortified their flesh with whips, perhaps gave to the poor, and prayed to the Prince of Peace. Once the mission bell rang, though, they were off to whoring, plundering and dispatching the Jew and Turk. Hip Hip Hoorah! I’m being a bit unfair here, for a handful of these warriors had noble intentions and lived exemplary lives. They believed wholeheartedly in a cause, granted, a cause of dubious worth from our 21st-century vantage point, namely, the protection of sacred sites via shield and sword; yet they opted, or better yet, elected to expend their energy on a religious mission in a strange land at the behest of the pope rather than, say, help reform the church back in their communities.
Let us depart the blood-drenched lands of Palestine and set ours sails for the misty Isle of Hypocritia, where we can observe another strange beast: the moral symmetrist. These supercilious creatures practice the fallacy of moral symmetry—sometimes called the fallacy of moral equivalence—like a religion. For example, they might make a moral equation between Auschwitz and the Allied bombing of Dresden, or between Auschwitz and Hiroshima, or, to update a bit, Saddam Hussein’s mass murders and the American-led invasion of Iraq. That is to say, they believe these events are morally equivalent. The SS administrators and guards, on the one hand, and British and American pilots, on the other, were equally heinous, barbaric and merciless. I’ll let you decide for yourself. I’m willing to hear them out, whatever their assertion might be, provided their claim acknowledges and deals with facts or perspectives that don’t seem to fit their thesis; any solid argument entails potential objections to its claims and corresponding responses. (And if intellectual integrity truly guides the person then perhaps such a person would go so far as to bring up criticisms to the claim that no-one has yet brought forth!) Likewise, you should not let someone make an epistemological leap without the necessary spadework in logic and reason. Don’t be satisfied with glib, off-the-cuff, and unsubstantiated moral equivalencies.
Part of the explanation for moral symmetry has to do with our innate pattern-seeking propensity as a species. Think about our inclination to see faces and strange marshmallow men in the clouds or on the surface of the moon. Perhaps the attraction to moral symmetry, like pattern-seeking, stems from our evolutionary heritage. We can locate a design, a symmetrical pattern, in a seemingly random landscape, structure or object with the same perspicacity an osprey eyeballs an unsuspecting northern pike at a considerable distance. According to evolutionary psychologists, spatial cognition and a pattern-seeking proclivity evolved over millennia during our nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence. To survive, our ancestors gradually became adept at identifying certain cycles in nature, as though the primate brain took some time to adjust to the harsh, bewildering world before it. The process of natural selection was at work here like a Paleolithic version of Where’s Waldo? But instead of looking for a goofy guy with glasses, a cap, and a white-and-red striped shirt in a parade, hominoid beings traced the migratory pattern of wildebeests or discerned the most fertile soil for crop cultivation. Such pattern-identification gave a species one-upmanship in the game of reproduction. I wasn’t around back then, but I suppose the scenario went something like this: Pierre the Cro-Magnon says to Hans the Neanderthal, “Did you ever notice how these fish swim upstream? I figure that…” Hans interrupts. “Whaaa? Hans hungry! Me want fish. Where fish?” Pierre thinks to himself: What an idiot! We’ll easily wipe these Neanderthals out and increase our gene pool. “Hey, Hans, I believe I saw some fish over that cliff yonder.”
Just because our pattern-finding aptitude is innate doesn’t mean it always gives us accurate information. As science writer Michael Shermer point outs in his book How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, we might be searching for patterns in nature that aren’t there or don’t have the meaning we ascribe to them, like the image of the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. Likewise, moral symmetry is often baseless and easily leads to communication breakdown. Let me give you two examples from our current political discourse, one from the left and another from the right. I should clarify at the outset that I am neither advocating nor condemning the following viewpoints; my objective, rather, is to explain the pitfalls of moral symmetry.