Morality vs. Self-Interest

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There is an interesting sub-debate going on the coalition politics thread that I wanted to bring out. Here are a few comments.

Me:

If you truly believe a policy isn't in your interest, than you really should oppose it. I like Andrew and all, but I don't support gay marriage because I expect him to recant on the Bell Curve. I support it because I think family is a societal good--which benefits me individually. Raise your kid right, and I don't have to worry about him sticking up my kid. Pool your resources, and maybe I don't have to worry about you defaulting on your home. More abstractly, I simply don't enjoy living in a country that discriminates. That's my feeling. That's about what I want, how I want to live. I don't expect a reward for it. I don't expect a cookie.

DJ Moonbat responds to the point about not voting for policy that isn't in your interest:

No, you really shouldn't. You should try to behave in keeping with some sense of morality. American democracy, contrary to popular misconception, was not so spectacularly designed that it can produce good outcomes with a completely amoral populace.

Morzer:

This depends on how you understand interest, not to mention morality. After all, it may be in my interest to get eg. my rabid fox bite treated in hospital, but my morality may insist that such treatment is forbidden because of some religious imperative. Equally, one might argue that by being polite to the guy on the street one gets better directions, while one's morality might insist that a sincere, blunt request for information would be more appropriate.

Jamal:

Do you really mean this? That seems like a really cold way to look at politics, and it's certainly not the way I and a lot of other folks in my particular slices of the demography see things.

I'm an Arab-American (and a Muslim-American, albeit a secular one), and I can tell you that there's a tremendous amount of goodwill towards the black community for sticking by us on Palestine and on profiling and on all the other bullshit national security issues of the Bush years.

And so on...

Perhaps this is where I break with my fellow lefties, I don't know. But I don't think people really do things--en mass and maybe even individually--that isn't in their interest. I don't believe whites began supporting Civil Rights in the 60s strictly out of an attack of moral conscience--they were not interested in being a member of a community which sanctioned the fire-hosing of children. It's clear that Jim Crow and segregation worked to the immediate advantage of some white people, but I've never believed that it worked to the long-term advantage of most white people. The price of international embarrassment, of essentially shrinking the middle-class, of destroying valuable brain-power, of sowing resentment amongst a substantial minority of the populace, of creating ghettos is high.

I firmly believe that the case against racism is not just that it's unfair to black people, but that it doesn't benefit the country as a whole. When I look at the large numbers of black men in the justice system, I'm not very interested in how much the justice system hates blacks. I'm interested in whether our justice policy is in the best interest of the country.

Perhaps, I define "interest" too broadly. I include in that definition, not simply your short and long-term well being, but how you want to live your life. I hear people say that they support "black issues" even when they aren't in their interest. Hmm, I guess. But that's like saying it wasn't in my interest to be a writer. I should have gone to law school. Certainly I would have made more money. But I include in my interest what I want to see out the world, what makes me happy, what makes me smile, what I like and love. I guess it's not in my interest to spend a whole day watching football games--I could be making money. But it certainly makes me happy.
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I disagree with the "What's The Matter With Kansas" argument because I think people are rarely fooled--even when they act like they've been fooled. They may chose to be ignorant, but that's a choice that they have to answer for. In terms of "gay marriage," I think black people in California actually are voting what they believe their interest to be. Conservatives haven't conned these people. They have deeply rooted beliefs on how they want to live, individually, and what sort of country they are interested in living in, collectively. The white working class folks who helped disenfranchise blacks in post-bellum America were not tools of the evil planter class--they literally believed that blacks were inferior, and had forged an identity based on that belief.

Our challenge is not to appeal to some soft, mealy-mouthed, mushy, "we're all in this together" sentimentalism, but to make a strong, direct argument for why A.) Discriminating against gays directly hurts you, individually B.) Why, collectively, they should want to live in a country that encourages family--sexual orientation aside. The evidence for both claims is not hard to come by--just look at the HIV rates in the black community. Look at how black folks are constantly afraid that their families are falling to pieces. Look at how many of us have gay family members. What do we want for them? What do we want for our children should they turn out to be gay? What sort of world are we interested in creating?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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