Attending a recent Red Sox game at Fenway Park, my party held $12 tickets for real estate somewhere in the uncharted territory beyond center field. However, perhaps due to the threat of rain, a considerable number of much more agreeable seats, situated directly behind home plate, were vacant and freely available to anyone with the nerve to assume them, which we did.
Afterwards, I hopped aboard a subway car home by entering through the rear door, and because the engine driver never asked, I never paid the fare.
Yes, in a mere matter of hours, I enjoyed a Fenway vista worth several times what I had paid, and I cheated the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority out of $2 thanks to the apathy of the conductor.
Were anyone else to pull off either or both of these sneaky little tricks, I would surely wag a disapproving finger in his direction, condemning his acts as flatly unethical. And yet I hardly hesitated for a moment to engage in such unseemly behavior myself.
Why is that, dear reader? Because I’m a hypocrite.
Certainly, in the annals of immoral activities, the above counts as fairly small potatoes—transgressions that nearly everyone has committed at one point or another, if only because they are so easy to get away with and inflict very little harm on others.
However, this does not make them any less wrong, and no more recommends that the public commit them en masse. Indeed, if every person in America were to engage in the same reprehensible behavior, the behavior itself would not cease to be reprehensible. Ethics are not derived on the basis of popularity, nor should they be.
While many Americans spent this Fourth of July wallowing in all the things that make the United States wonderful, others opted to reread pieces such as Paul Finkelman’s “The Monster of Monticello,” published in the New York Times last fall, about the veritable “pen” of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson.
Among other things, the article underlines perhaps the most important contradiction in America’s founding: The men who wrote and asserted that “all men are created equal” were, themselves, the proud owners of fellow human beings—more than two hundred, in Jefferson’s case—whom they did not even pretend to treat as equals, either in theory or in practice.
Finkelman rightly attacks the modern-day conventional view that Jefferson can be excused for his obvious hypocrisy in proclaiming everyone equal while practicing otherwise—as well as his obvious wickedness in owning slaves at all—as he was simply “a man of his time.” Perhaps slavery was wrong, but hey, everybody was doing it!
In point of fact, this assumption is wrong twice.
First, it is untrue to suggest that slavery in the late 18th century was universally accepted as inevitable and, if not exactly right, at least morally permissible. As but one example, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society had existed in Philadelphia as early as April 1775, and counted Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and Dr. Benjamin Rush amongst its original members (Franklin was later made its president).
Second, and more to the point: Even if the conventional wisdom were true, and every last soul in the American colonies believed black folk to be inferior to white folk, it would not make the principles in the Declaration of Independence any less valid, either then or now.
Morally speaking, it doesn’t matter that Jefferson and many other founders owned slaves. Slavery was objectively wrong—as Jefferson himself wrote—and would not have been any less or more wrong had Jefferson owned 1,000 slaves or none at all. Period, full stop.
Our preoccupation with, and exploitation of, the hypocrisies of our forebears so often distracts us from the far more important task of weighing the relative virtues of the principles they outlined—regardless of whether they lived up to them themselves.
This approach has considerable application to our own epoch, as we tend to expend far too much time and effort on each other’s intellectual and ethical inconsistencies, with scarce time remaining to evaluate the actual issues at hand.
The debate about the government tracking our phone calls and e-mails, for instance, used to break neatly along partisan lines, with most liberals protesting it while most conservatives came to the government’s defense.
Then, when Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush as commander-in-chief, a great number of Americans mysteriously flipped their views on the matter. Now it is largely the left that is giving the government the benefit of the doubt.
The problem—by no means limited to this particular debate—is that we have essentially resigned ourselves to the fact that nearly everyone has been a hypocrite on the issue and, in turn, resigned ourselves to the inevitability of a Peeping Tom government itself. Consequently, most meaningful debate about the merits thereof has effectively ceased to exist.
What a waste. We would do well to focus more on principles and less on individual actions, if we are to determine what is right and what is wrong.