A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post on how we sometimes impute excessive virtue to ourselves for being on the right side of historical conflicts, though a sort of proxy morality. I’d like to follow-up on the theme with the other area in which I think we often fall into a mentality of proxy morality: issue advocacy and solidarity with oppressed groups.
Let me start by trying to lay out a little bit more clearly what I think proxy morality is and why I think it is a danger to us. Proxy morality consists of drawing a strong sense of virtue or righteousness from identification with some cause or group. It is, I think, a dangerous tendency because it allows us to indulge in a great deal of pride and righteousness, while at the same time running of the risk of both excusing ourselves from taking any direct moral action in regards to the issues which we congratulate ourselves on due to proxy morality. It also presents the temptation of telling ourselves, “I’m a basically good person because of my support for X, Y, Z, and thus my minor failings A, B and C hardly matter.” Indeed, more generally, I think there is always a big of backslapping going on between Screwtape and his associates when one of us self-awards the “basically good person” label.
One area in which I think we often develop a sense of proxy morality is in regards to advocacy — often political advocacy. For those of us on the right, this may be in regards to opposing abortion, same sex marriage, euthenasia, and other clear social evils in the voting booth. This is clearly a good thing, and I think there is often significant moral wrong in not opposing these evils. However, casting a ballot or publicaly agreeing with a political stance is something that typically costs us very little at a personal level, and does little if anything to help specific other human beings. So while it would certainly be wrong if we didn’t oppose these evils, it is dangerous if we give ourselves too much credit for doing so. As the Chris Rock line goes, “What? You want a cookie? You’re supposed to do that!” For those of a more progressive persuasion, a similar sense of proxy morality is often felt by those supporting environmental regulations or programs intended to reduce poverty, etc. Leaving aside questions about whether such measures are successful in achieving their objectives, it must at the least be admitted that casting a vote or engaging in advocacy has significantly less impact on these matters of concern than actually living a “greener” life or doing something yourself to help those in proverty.
A related area of proxy morality is declaring oneself to be “in solidarity” with some particular group recognized to be suffering. If one is actually out living in Neuvo Laredo or Juarez and helping those suffering there, one can make some legitimate claim to be “in solidarity with the poor” — if on the other hand one simply means, “I really feel for the poor from the safety of my computer desk, unlike those nasty people who clearly don’t,” then one is engaging in proxy morality.
Similarly, declaring oneself to be “supporting” women in crisis pregnancies or women oppressed by traditional Islamic cultures is a rather empty boast if it is unaccompanied by any particular action (other than talking about it) and should be no great source of feeling virtuous.
Again, I do not want to imply that people should not take these stands or have these sympathies. Doing the opposite (opposing good policies or not sympathizing with those who are suffing) would clearly be bad. However, we accomplish very little actual virtue by taking these stands and we should never allow ourselves to believe that once we have done so our work is done.