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Trivial Moral Issues

February 3, 2012

Update: A revised version of this post now appears at In Mala Fide.

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I’ve waffled over time on the issue of gay marriage. But I stopped caring about it because I realized it’s a marginal and trivial issue. Only two or three percent of the population are gay, and an even smaller number will actually want to get married. Gays can’t have kids anyway, and gays also tend to be fairly wealthy, so they don’t need the financial benefits of marriage that much, and we have no reason to offer them those benefits. By contrast, the break-down of traditional marriage among heterosexuals actually matters to huge numbers of people.

Lots of ‘moral’ issues are completely trivial, and serve rather as feel-good status-markers. Fair-trade coffee, for example, probably does more harm than good to target countries, because of market-distorting effects. But studies have shown that when people buy fair-trade goods, they allow themselves to get away with worse behaviour in other areas, because they feel they’ve already satisfied their good behaviour quota for the day. So you don’t do any real good, but you buy something you wanted anyway, set yourself apart from the Wal-Mart crowd, and get to pat yourself on the back at the same time.

The daftest moral fad I can think of at present is the locally-grown food movement. The inefficiencies that would be involved in realizing such an ideal on a large scale would be staggering.

One thing to say about the last two fads in particular is that people are more isolated from one another than they used to be, and certainly our relationships with the various far flung people we’re economically bound up with are far more tenuous. Our moral sensibilities are formed (and were formed, evolutionarily speaking) on much smaller scales. Few of us really know how to react to our change in circumstances. People understandably try to make things more personal even when it doesn’t really help anyone.

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