October 3, 2011

Panini Morality

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My friend stole a sandwich from Goldie’s the other day. When I asked him how he justified the theft to himself, he just shrugged. I figured he’d say something like “Cornell robs me constantly” or “it’s a five dollar panini — relax.” Nothing. He just shrugged.

Picture a man running with some number of parachutes attached to his back, varied in size, resisting his movement. There’s a panini at the end of the runway. Hunger is his fuel. Now, he’s got enough fuel to make it halfway to the panini given his current resistance, but not enough to make it all of the way there. He needs to cut some of his parachutes free.

So the first parachute holding him back is self-consciousness, but that’s easy enough to cut loose — he’s got a pretty good body-image and the panini is all lean meat and veggies. The next parachute is his identification with anti-corporate movements, which is also easy to cut — he frankly can’t see the relevance of anti-corporate ideals to a panini purchase. The third parachute is last week’s vegetarianism vow, which gives him some trouble but is ultimately snipped away — he’d already broken his vow twice.

And so the more resistance he sheds, the closer and closer he gets to the panini. His concern for meat-processing practices: gone. His ideological preference for locally obtained vegetables: snipped. He’s starting to smell the warm, crusty baguette.

But there’s this one particularly large parachute that’s being a real bitch: his responsibility to pay. The panini is 5.89. He spent 9.85 at CTB this morning, he really shouldn’t be buying more overpriced food. But just look at that oozy cheese! So here’s the dilemma he faces as he holds the cord of his final parachute in his fingers: does his hunger + his reluctance to pay 5.89 – his feelings of moral responsibility to pay = a positive value? Does his moral calculi permit a cord snipping? In my friend’s case, we know how the story ends.

Look, my point here isn’t that the snipping of any of these cords is morally wrong — one could easily construct a legitimate moral defense of a panini theft. Survival-of-the-headiest or something. Freedom over bondage, maybe. I have no idea how morality works. My point is not about the answer to the question “What is the right thing to do?” It’s about the answer to the question, “Do we ever even ask the question?” I’m also not (intentionally) suggesting that every decision we make in life is a moral tension between pursuits and parachutes: I think that sometimes people just do things. I think that there are pointless moral considerations — I think that if you constructed a valid moral argument demonstrating the immorality of my listening to Eric Clapton or my eating of not-yet-ripe cherry tomatoes or my blowing my nose in extra-soft Kleenex, I think that it would be okay for me to chuckle and forget you said anything.

What I am saying is that we need to be careful not to over-trivialize our decisions — this trivialization being the natural extension of a skeptical moral philosophy. It’s not about external measuring sticks of morality, it’s not about religious dogmas  or societal convention or what Mamma always says. It’s about us. It’s about self-respect and what constitutes a substantive individual. If we’re terming that “character,” then it’s about what character is composed of and most importantly what character consists in — that is, what makes character an important thing to have.

So what’s it worth? What’s in it for us? If anything is clear about our real life, moment-to-moment relationship with “morality,” it’s that it’s a fickle one. We encounter Morality as a frat-party bouncer, look at him skeptically and ask, “Who do you know?” … “What can you offer me?” … “Why should I  respect you?” But even if he had an answer, we wouldn’t know. As it turns out, we’re too busy beckoning girls to the front of the line, worrying about our liquor supply and chowing on our paninis to pay attention.

Our rationalization of this cheek-turning has come naturally. “Just be easy, man.” “It’s all good.” “Don’t sweat it.” “Let it go.” An all-encompassing tolerance, applied both to differences between people and inconsistencies within one’s self, is enough to make morality seem arbitrary, and this implies a futility of life that no person should rightly be expected to live with. Total tolerance, the demolition of value judgment, is a dangerous aspiration to hold.

Don’t be fooled: this moral agnosticism is NOT benign. The relativistic insight that “everybody is different and has different senses of right and wrong,” combined with a moral imperative against arrogance (in other words: that one should not view one’s self unlike one views others) has led us to view the root of our own desires as unknowable and even unimportant. This defeatism is an ideological sedative, and we demote the moral significance of our emotions, our desires and our drives in the name of our central moral principle: “Everybody else is different, I’m no different from everybody else and there are no right answers.”

It’s truly tragic, this predicament we find ourselves in. Because behind all of the shoulder shrugging, the irony, the stilted laughter and the glidings over, as individuals we know who we are. No one’s actually in the limbo of committed non-commitment (logical contradiction), and until we quit it with the cord-cutting, pussyfooting and feigned indifference — until we decide to live according to whatever the hell we do believe in — we’ll be all wilted and boring, like actors caught in some cringe-worthy RomCom: exchanging sarcastic witticisms in voices that sure don’t sound like us and starting to suspect that we’ve been duped.

Listen: once we’ve figured it out, there will be no parachutes. There’ll be no need to contemplate what we believe or don’t believe, and we’ll understand ourselves so thoroughly and immediately that we’ll leap out from our own heads and cross the interpersonal void with the serene competence of Gods. But it’s a long way down, and until we’ve got our shit together, we’d better not clip all of our chutes free.

Original Author: Nathan Tailleur