Dying is worse

It’s important to remember that solution to a lot of problems looks like enabling the problem. It’s OK to acknowledge this. It’s OK to be frustrated by this. But it’s important to not get locked into a “pure” morality—or, to put it another way, it’s critical to be flexible about solutions.

That’s not to say we can’t disagree about these things. Of course we can! But don’t disagree reflexively (don’t use the moral muscles you’re used to). Disagree reflectively. Think about whether or not there might be something else at play when talking about problems and their solutions. Is there a deeper problem? Can it be fixed or treated or dealt with in a way that seems unintuitive?

Take racism. Just for right now let’s put systemic racism aside and use the common “discriminating on the basis of race” definition.

We can all agree that discriminating on the basis of race is wrong. But then aren’t affirmative action programs racist?

We shouldn’t be afraid to say… yes. They are. They are absolutely discriminatory. Because we’re not trying to fix “discrimination on the basis of race” with affirmative action. That’s not the problem. The problem is something else, a deeper, more pervasive problem that has the effect of discriminating on the basis or race without seeming to actually do that.

We’re not trying to fix people; we’re trying to fix systems. The system is the deeply embedded discrimination built into our hiring practices, university selection processes, and so forth. Where qualified candidates are being denied opportunities because they’re a certain race. We do that by intentionally making space for these people. This has the local effect of discriminating against someone, but the system-wide effect of making a more just society for everyone. (And obviously this is just one thing that we do; there’s opportunity for lots more.)

Or take drugs. We can probably all agree that being addicted to drugs is bad.

So then aren’t safe injection sites just enabling addiction? Isn’t decriminalization just tacit approval?

I hope you can see where I’m going here. It’s important to say… yes. Safe injection sites do, on the face of it, enable addiction. But they do that in order to try to prevent worse things like disease and death. And decriminalization aims to treat addiction instead of punishing it. Both these initiative aim to create a path out of addiction. Dying is worse. Going to jail is worse.

These solutions aren’t super-intuitive.

But maybe that’s an indictment of our moral imagination. The idea that you can punish someone into not taking drugs, or that tut-tutting at racial slurs is going to fix racism… these shouldn’t be the first tools in our moral toolbelt. Sometimes it takes a deeper imagination (a more prophetic imagination) to seek answers to problems.

What are these Values you speak of?

Maybe it’s me, but when someone says “value”, it’s impossibly vague.

I get it, you want a short-cut to mean “things I agree with and I think we should teach our kids”. But what are these values, exactly? Where do they come from? What do they mean?

The shortcut doesn’t help you there. Especially when you’re talking to people who might not even agree with what your values are. You say values, you mean one thing, they think another thing.

Maybe we should all just throw out that world. Let it mean something about data and databases and command lines. Let the values fall where they may.

Instead, let’s talk about actual values. Concrete values. Individually, and not as a group. There are important concepts here that need discussing. Respect for human life. Whether the group or the individual takes precedence. How to respond to authority. And so on.

I know it’s easier to just say “values”. It’s a wink and a nod. It’s code. But remember, we don’t all speak in the same code. In my social circle there may be a person who believes (sidenote: this person is wrong) that capital punishment is a good idea, and another person who believes that it is a crime on the level of aborting a child. They both talk about “values”. They both talk about how they wish to safeguard human life. They both speak the same language, but they mean very different things.

You may find when you define your terms that a lot of people pop out of the woodwork (suddenly, to your mind) who disagree with you. (You probably, on some level, already know this; this is one reason you use the code.) But then, this is healthy. Diversity breeds strength. Mono-cultures are fragile. Group-think that tolerates no divergence is brutality.

We need our conservatives, our liberals, our democrats, our socialists. We need different moral and political values. We need to remember that if there is one right way to live, we need the conversation in order to get there.