Friday, June 16, 2017

The Conservation of Virtue

“The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” said Henry David Thoreau in Resistance to Civil Government 1849.  Ever since Thoreau, who refused to pay a tax supporting slavery, people have continued to break laws in the name of a higher good.
In the late fifties, Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus; African American students held sit-ins at white lunch counters.  These protesters, whose cause was equal treatment for all, broke contemporary laws, but did not endanger anyone.
The Civil Rights movement was followed by the Peace Movement against the Vietnam War.  Most of us can agree that peace is better than war, although some felt the dangers of world Communist domination overrode the evils of war. Most of the protesting was peaceful.
“The nice ways always fail,” sang Malvina Reynolds in1964.  But the data shows they don’t. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in Why Civil Resistance Works 2012 showed that nonviolent campaigns to be more than twice as effective as violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals.  Nevertheless, some antiwar protesters went so far as to bomb facilities supporting the war, killing innocents who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A statement by mathematician Jordan Ellenberg in How Not to Be Wrong 2015 applies to activists as well as pious people.  “We become like those pious people who, over time, accumulate a sense of their own virtuousness so powerful as to believe the bad things they do are virtuous too,” -- what I call the Conservation of Virtue principle.
A just cause may justify civil disobedience, but does an act of civil disobedience mean the cause is just?  For instance, in 2015, Kim Davis defied a Federal court order and refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples.  Correspondingly, in math speak, the fact that all primes greater than two are odd does not imply all odd numbers are prime.
Al Gore understands the value of making a political cause a moral cause: “The climate crisis also offers us the chance to experience a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause . . .”  An Inconvenient Truth 2006. Hence, climate activists can presume the conservation of virtue.
In the case of the Valve Turner action in October 2016, climate activists blocked transport of Canadian tar sands oil to US refineries to prevent burning fossil fuels that contributes to climate change.  Never mind their action endangered people at the present time.  Carl Weimer, executive director at the industry watchdog Pipeline Safety Trust, said  "Closing valves on major pipelines can have unexpected consequences endangering people and the environment.”
Other pipeline operators and safety experts said shutting off valves was extremely dangerous and that activists underestimated the risks.  “Pipelines can be heavily pressurized depending on length and altitude variation, and shutting off a valve could cause ruptures that are ‘catastrophic’ for the environment,” said Paul Tullis of Tullis Engineering Consultants.
Valve Turner Leonard Higgins, applying the Conservation of Virtue principle, says his actions were necessitated by the immediate danger that climate change poses to his family, his friends, and every other human on earth.  Given the responsibility to protect innocent people from the ravages of climate change, he had no choice but to take illegal action
"It's an act of desperation," Higgins says. "I don't think that there's a direct cause and effect that my taking this action will carry the day, but it contributes, just as in other acts of civil resistance in other movements in the past.”  Does Higgins see himself taking Rosa Parks’ seat?
So if I truly believe genetically engineered food endangers human health, biodiversity, and the planet’s ecosystems, should I attack Safeway?  Would my Unitarian Univeralist congregation hold a fund raiser for my legal defense as several congregations did for the Valve Turners?  I don’t think so.