Herd Immunity and Moral Individualism, Part 2

So what does herd immunity have to do with morals? Bear with me a moment. I believe there is a Moral Consequences Immunity in the realm of ethics which has parallel functions to herd immunity in the realm of epidemiology. In other words, a population of people can be protected from the deleterious consequences of immorality if the vast majority of that population are virtuous. On the other hand, when a large enough percentage of that population embrace immoral behavior, the consequences of that behavior will be catastrophic—epidemic even.

In order to understand this connection, we need to recognize the virulent combination of two typically American philosophies of life: pragmatism and individualism.

“Rugged individualism” is perhaps the first and most lasting of peculiarly American virtues. From the Puritans and Pilgrims who came to America to pull a life out of the wilderness… to the Western pioneers… to Emerson and Thoreau… all the way to John Wayne, Americans have been known for a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of self-reliance. And, originally, this individualism was based on personal responsibility, on the idea that no one but you is responsible for your success or your failure—so quit your whining and get to work. Much about this is commendable, but when individualism joined forces with pragmatism, everything went downhill. It’s like two relatively inert ingredients became actively explosive when they made contact.

Pragmatism does two things when combined with individualism: it removes the impetus for living by convictions and it tends to endorse short-term thinking. Think about it. Living by convictions requires that you sometimes do things that don’t seem to work. Why shouldn’t you steal that candy bar? Pragmatism says do it if you can get away with it. Why not, if it works for you? And that’s where individualism kicks in. Pragmatism turns individual responsibility into individual license. It changes the question from, “What is right for everyone always?” to “What is best for me right now?”

To be fair, true pragmatism should be far-sighted. It should recognize that short-term and personal sacrifices are often necessary to reach worthy long-term goals. But individualism forces pragmatism to orient choices around merely personal concerns. So, as individualism has grown along with pragmatism, the consequences for American culture and Western civilization have been less than salutary.

Now more than ever, people are willing to sacrifice any number of long-term goals, and even the future benefits of their neighbors, in order to get short-term personal gratification. When society suffers from this selfishness to enough of an extent, this will, in its turn, harm the individual. A trivial example:

Waiting in queues. Common decency says that you should wait in line. But if your entire idea of what is right depends on what is good for you personally and right now, what will you do? You will cut in line. When you cut in line, other people will react in one of basically two ways:

  1. They will follow your example and cut in line—either because you have given them tacit permission through your actions or in order to make up for the time you have caused them to lose.
  2. They will stubbornly refuse to be moved from their conviction that staying in line is good and mannerly. They may try to keep you from cutting by pressing inefficiently close to the person in front of them which will make the line in general move more slowly (think about the disjointed halt-and-jerk accordion effect that happens on a busy on-ramp). But one way or the other, this population (ever-shrinking) of the non-pragmatic citizens will be forced to wait inordinately long at the back of a hardly progressing queue because of the selfishness of others. It’s just another example of the relatively new proverb: “Nice guys finish last.”

Of interest here is that if everybody waited in line, the whole line would move more smoothly and everyone would be benefitted. It is also important to note that the individual decision of one person to cut in line encourages others to also cut in line, since the guilt of misbehavior gets displaced in numbers. When the guilt becomes shared—it becomes incorporated. So no one is responsible. Things are bad, but it turns out to be nobody’s fault really. This kind of group dynamic is what transforms a few lawless people and some neutral bystanders into a unified looting horde.

There are real communal consequences to personal choices, both for good and for ill. People like to think that their private lives and choices don’t have an effect on the society in which they live. This just isn’t true. Private choices can affect the opportunities and choices of others.

There’s a reason Kant’s “categorical imperative” makes ethical sense. But “What if everybody did that?” is only a valid corrective for bad behavior when people consider themselves a part of a community and have a directive that is higher than pragmatism. In other words, the only real difference between commendable self-reliance and society-destroying selfishness is the presence of absolute moral convictions.

Should we call in government to force us all to act the way we should? Or maybe government is what’s causing the problem, and less of it would do the trick? No. I don’t think the problem, or the solution, is ultimately political. (Sorry.) An article on the documentation of the rise of individualism in Western society had these sobering words for both individualists and collectivists:

Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

This story, if true, should cause discomfort on right and left. Conservatives sometimes argue that if we could just reduce government to the size it was back in, say, the 1950s, then America would be vibrant and free again. But the underlying sociology and moral culture is just not there anymore. Government could be smaller when the social fabric was more tightly knit, but small government will have different and more cataclysmic effects today when it is not.

Liberals sometimes argue that our main problems come from the top: a self-dealing elite, the oligarchic bankers. But the evidence suggests that individualism and demoralization are pervasive up and down society, and may be even more pervasive at the bottom. Liberals also sometimes talk as if our problems are fundamentally economic, and can be addressed politically, through redistribution. But maybe the root of the problem is also cultural. The social and moral trends swamp the proposed redistributive remedies.

Forget the epidemic possibilities of a deterioration of the herd immunity. We are in the midst of an extraordinary breakdown of civilizational morals. People talk about how people in the golden olden days used to be so much more virtuous, but not everyone may have been intrinsically so. I’m sure that just like today, most people were susceptible to immorality. They just didn’t have the same opportunities for evil that we have today. I’m not saying they weren’t better people and more respectful and virtuous in general. I’m just saying that society made it more difficult to be otherwise. Since then, individual choices over time have created a cultural transition that has created a ripe environment for the spread of moral “disease.”

Take one example: no-fault divorce. Have people wanted them in the past? I’m sure they did. But unless you were King Henry VIII, you probably weren’t going to get one. And he had to crown himself head of the Church to make that happen. So what did spouses have to do in the past? They had to work it out, that’s what. And they really did work it out a lot of the time, it seems. In our day, people will divorce each other because they can’t agree on the pronunciation of Gruyère. These individuals don’t care if they are destroying the lives of their children or tearing apart the family unit necessary for the health of their community. Because all that’s really important to them is what is good for the individual. And, in our society at least, that is unfortunately a far cry from what is right for the individual. Without fixed moral standards, goodness and rightness drift inexorably apart.

What selfish debasers of virtue don’t seem to understand though is that they are protected from the negative consequences of their actions by the fact that many people in their “herd” still uphold virtue. Think about the example of the queue. What if literally no one was staying in his place in line? It would be an absolute and complete block. Ironically, it is in fact the line-abiding people that make it “worth it” to cut in line! Without patient and unselfish people willing to form a line and stay in their place, there would be no line in front of which to cut. Like the anti-vaccination people who are accused of enjoying the benefits of herd immunity without having to endure the risks, immoral people enjoy the benefits of a society’s virtue without having to be virtuous themselves.

This should be scaring you now. Because the main question is this: what is the tipping point? At what point are there so few people committed to individual responsibility and living by conviction that the “herd immunity” effect is gone? I think we are getting dangerously close to that tipping point if we have not in fact already passed it. Millions of people now live off of the wealth of a small, albeit dedicated, population of people who still work hard and deal honestly from the conviction that this behavior is in fact objectively good, no matter the short term consequences. If these much-maligned people suddenly stopped working or exited the herd (a concept popularized by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged), the parasites wouldn’t have any capital left to steal. There would be no line to cut. Millions of people are committing crimes against the family and against society every day. And every day they justify these actions with phrases like: “This is my body. My choice. My right. How dare you try to legislate morality!” But I’m not legislating morality. Reality is. The fact is that every advocate and perpetrator of abortion was born alive. Every homosexual was conceived through heterosexual reproduction. Every thief needs someone else to keep making wealth.

And this is the hope. This is the silver lining, though it may be strange. It is the fact that immoral living is ultimately untenable. The only reason it works even in the short-term is because it relies on the grace, benefit, and productive excesses of its long-suffering hosts (and Host). The moral battlefront is multi-generational and attritional. Immorality will not survive, not even as a parasite. This epidemic will pass, and a virtuous community will survive. And when the epidemic passes again this time, for it has passed many times before in various forms, perhaps we will finally and totally be innoculated to it.

But for the time being, be one of the people that’s willing to wait patiently at the back of the line. Nice guys may finish last, but as you should know, “the last shall be first.” Stop being a pragmatist. Or rather, be a righteous pragmatist: Play the long game.