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In defense of bad ethical decisions

Eating meat. Abortion. GMO crops. Animals in zoos. These are all hot topics in the news lately--mostly because they present ethical challenges. But here's the thing...sometimes, something can be totally 100% unethical but completely outweighed by positives. As I sat watching the Planned Parenthood drama yesterday the thought kept entering my head that people on the "defund Planned Parenthood" side don't understand the basic fact that just because something is, yes, in fact horribly unethical doesn't mean it should 1) be illegal or 2) doesn't have a fair value in some other way. It's nasty, disgusting business to end the life of a fetus. But I'm 100% pro-choice because there are issues in play that far outweigh that terrible thing. Like, you know, the human rights of an already-existing person. Medical privacy. The black market. Botched procedures. Our complete lack of cradle-to-grave care in the United States.

When I was a little younger, I once wrote to an ethics columnist about a dilemma I was having over a vending machine refund in Indiana. It was one of those rest area snack lobbies that ate my change and their procedure to get your refund was to mail a postcard to the company owning the machines. The only trouble was that the company failed to put on prepaid postage. So in order to get my $.50 back, I'd need to buy a stamp taking up the majority of that amount. I'm not sure the columnist understood the foundation of my question about weighing ethical problems. To some people, ethics are quite literally black and white. He said it would be unethical to lie about how much I'd lost in the machine--adding in the stamp price--to make up for the company's oversight, poor business practices, shady scam, however you want to think of it. It really doesn't matter because, in the end, the business never sent me a refund of any value. Unethical business beats customer with ethical misgivings about how to treat unethical business. The larger point is doing the "right" thing is never easy to define.

I took my daughter to the zoo on Friday and we rode the carousel, petted the goats, and got a bonus third ticket item where she chose the dolphin show. She was absolutely delighted. Constantly looking over at me, smiling, clapping, pointing out the amazing animals as they swam, did "tricks," and were introduced along with their trainers. She now says she wants to be a "dolphin zookeeper" when she grows up. My daughter, of course, has no clue that some people find this whole thing totally and irredeemably corrupt. Zoos, circuses, theme parks, animals in captivity in general let alone eating some creatures. The farming of meat is so outrageous to some that they think it must be stopped at all costs. Even zoos themselves, I've noticed, seem to shy away from embracing the "spectacle" aspect to focus on highlighting natural behaviors, conservation of wild populations, and the academic or breeding value of animals. Definitely not, heaven forbid, the value to humanity from up close observation, gaining interest, delighting families, and being trophy members of a species.

Here's the flip side...nobody cares about many of these species if it weren't for zoos. We sometimes see animals we've never even heard of before on our trips. Do you think anybody is going to be interested in saving wild populations of species in remote, far off places if they can't first see them in a zoo? Do you think the cows, sheep, horses, chickens, and pigs alive today could live on their own without human intervention if we suddenly set them all free? Do you think we'd continue to have viable populations of livestock if we weren't eating them, using them, finding value in something they produce? Is eating meat unethical and environmentally suspect? Sure. But I want to continue to see, for instance, the critically rare Leicester Longwool sheep survive as a breed...and that means eating them. Finding ways to use their wool. Convincing growers to raise them. Convincing more people of their not just historical value but commodity value as well.

People do these "unethical" things for reasons. Maybe reasons you don't personally agree with. In the case of, say, raising GMO crops it can be a question of money, the belief that biotech offers a brighter future, or simple convenience. My usual response to overzealous pro-lifers, vegans, and others on topics where there is an intersection of morals, law, and public policy, is that your solution can't be religious zealotry. Asking for an outright ban on abortion, GMOs, zoos, eating meat, gays getting married, etc. is the absolute wrong approach. If you don't like something, don't do it yourself. Politely try to convince your neighbor of why you see it as unethical behavior. But when others find value in something that you struggle to see, retreating to simplistic "my religion is better than yours" behavior is not only counterproductive but unethical itself.

Nobody likes someone knocking on their door asking them to convert. Worse still is trying to use the power of the law to force behavior. The Kim Davis fans and Obamacare critics of the world may have that correct. What they often miss is that policy has to be set in order to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. I'm a utilitarian in that way. Just because you don't like something doesn't mean someone else has to agree.

So was I somehow ethically compromised to go to the zoo on Friday and be amazed and awed by captive dolphins swimming in under-sized tanks and living un-natural lives? Probably. And so what? There are far worse things in this world and trying to reduce complicated, nuanced arguments down to reductionist platitudes about the unborn or the rights of animals minimizes the real work of having to make ethical trade-offs every single day. The heavy lift is the existential crisis--apologies to Kierkegaard, Tillich, and others--that we're abdicating ourselves from when we take too easy a way out of having real internal debate over our own choices.