Can’t do it? Don’t back it.
"I am a vegetarian but I have no problem with animals as food, I just think
that if you are not prepared to kill it, you ought not to eat it."
Allan Beswick, columnist, Manchester Metro News, 11 April 2003
Confucius’s golden rule was "Do not do to others that which you do not
want done to you." Beswick’s golden rule seems to be "Do not have
done to others that which you would not do yourself."
It’s an extremely popular moral maxim. Anti-war campaigners berate "hawks"
on the grounds that they usually show little willingness to get out on the battlefield
and face the enemy themselves. Opponents of capital punishment can make those
with the contrary view squirm by asking if they would be prepared to flick the
switch themselves. Anti-abortionists use images of terminated foetuses to suggest
that we can only maintain support for abortion if we keep ourselves far removed
from the actual act itself. The message of them all is that if you can’t do
it yourself, then you’re a hypocrite to say it’s all right for others to do
it on your behalf.
The undeniable rhetorical force of the argument is not, however, supported
by any rational argument. Quite simply, there is no necessary link between the
rightness or wrongness of an action and one’s ability or inability to do it.
This can easily be seen by considering all four combinations of approval or
disapproval and the ability or inability to act.
Two of these combinations obviously carry no moral implication. The ability
to perform an action does not make it wrong. If that were the case, anything
we could do would be wrong and we could never do anything right. And the inability
to perform an action does not make it right. If it did, anything impossible
would be morally good. Yet it’s hard to see why we should think torturing people
with square circles would be an honourable, if hypothetical deed.
More interestingly, it is clear that the ability to perform an action does
not make it right. Beswick may be happy to allow the willing slaughterers their
meat, but anti-abortionists think those willing to carry out the deed they oppose
are wicked, not morally justified in what they do. Doves think the same of gun-toting
hawks, as do opponents of capital punishment of those willing to act as executioner.
All this would be surprising if one’s ability or inability to carry out an action
were any kind of indicator of its moral status.
Which leaves the original case, where an inability to perform an action is
supposed to indicate that there is something morally suspect about it. Yet the
only thing that follows from such an inability is the psychological truth that
we find the act unpleasant and so are disinclined to do it. But since when has
unpleasantness been any kind of reliable moral barometer? Most people would
recoil from undertaking an autopsy, yet that doesn’t make autopsies immoral.
Many of us would find it too unpleasant to kill someone or put our lives at
great risk in a heroic act to save others, yet that only says something about
us, not the morality of what we cannot do.
Indeed, it is often the mark of acts of great moral bravery that ordinary people
recoil from them. But you don’t hear people saying "I think that if you
are not prepared to attempt air-sea rescue yourself, you ought not to take advantage
of it if it’s offered to you," or "I can’t stand these people who
support helping the poor in third world countries but who aren’t prepared to
get out there and do it themselves." In these examples, the absurdity is
apparent. But the logic is exactly the same as in the previous cases of vegetarianism,
capital punishment and war: an inability or unwillingness to do something yourself
is taken to be a sign that you ought not to approve of it. The one just doesn’t
follow from the other.
I suspect that the reason why the move is so popular is that it disguises a
fair concern. It is reasonable to ask people in some way to confront the reality
of what they support, if that reality is unpleasant. People who support capital
punishment need to realise that it results in the death of a human being; carnivores
that animals die so they can get their steaks; and pro-choice campaigners need
to realise just what is being destroyed in an abortion. But accepting honestly
what a moral stance entails is not the same as necessarily being able to do
personally all which that moral stance requires. Our own squeamishness or cowardice
is not a reliable guide to morality.