Pulmonary Disease -> Ethics

In one of Razib Khan’s Daily Data Dumps, he links to some research about African-American heritage and poor pulmonary function.

A commentor then points out that the hypothesis mentioned in Albion’s Seed, that the reason slavery never caught on in England’s more northern colonies was that tropically-derived slaves died too often, would seem to be reinforced by these findings.

It’s my general experience that people find ways of justifying actions and beliefs that are in their perceived self-interest. A similar principle holds for societies as a whole. Ignoring for a moment the question of whether the “right” answers our society tends to hold up on various issues, it seems clear to me that those positions only gained traction because they were workable – or perhaps more accurately, their primary alternatives were unworkable. Slavery came to be viewed as abominable in the North not because people there had any better views of blacks than Southerners – even cursory historical research shows that was frequently not the case – but because people had the economic liberty to form an opinion of slavery independent of their immediate gross economic interests.

I find that sort of short-sighted convenience to be a major factor in discussions I have with other people about their ethical positions. It’s not practicality, exactly. It’s not even hypocrisy. But they find ways to render the ideas and practices they use to make themselves comfortable ethically acceptable to themselves. People who “make a stand” on matters of principle, when in almost every sense they have something to lose and little to gain by doing so, seem to be very rare.

Quite a lot of people who take unpopular ethical stances on things seem to be trying to gain face or status within specific subcultures. I’ve just been reading Laurel’s Kitchen, a 1976 cookbook / vegetarian argument / incoherent sociopolitical manifesto, written by several women who used to live in Berkley, California. Their location may tell you a great deal about the style and content of their ideas. Their vegetarianism arises not from practical concerns, but from spiritual doctrines picked up from a Hindu meditation teacher and some confused ideas about world hunger. Much of the book consists of what appears to be (from my admittedly unfriendly perspective) demonstrations of how spiritually superior the role-model and inspiration of the book was, and suggestions that by emulating her lifestyle the readers can be awesome like her. Not explicitly, of course. It’s a matter of subtext and approach.

It’s something I’ve frequently encountered in books about vegetarianism and certain alternative lifestyles. Not always, and for the past thirty years or so not nearly so often. But there are subgroups of people who persist in the argument-from-righteousness, and their technique is reliably founded upon certain kinds of emotional appeals. Not even ‘good’ emotions.

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3 Responses to “Pulmonary Disease -> Ethics”

  1. I think “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches” is based on a similar idea. But I haven’t actually read it.

  2. I’d say that type of emotional argument is even more prevalent now than 30 years ago… and more “mainstream”. Maybe it will start to die off now since Oprah is going off the air.

    • “Why didn’t you choose a respectable religion – like Oprahism, or Voodoo?” – Prof. Farnsworth, Futurama

      I suspect the market for that sort of thing is just as big as before. Perhaps it’s just that the types of arguments you hear being made that way have changed, and not the style.

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