Human nature being what it is, we almost never admit that something we do habitually is wrong. We might condemn others for doing the same things, or critique our own vices in the abstract, but if it is something that we do not want to give up doing, we will pretend we are innocent, and either deny it’s a vice at all, or pretend that we don’t do it. It is for this reason that moral arguments can place very little stock in claims that come in the form: “I’ve done such and such for years and it’s never done any harm.” Such claims are rarely credible and have been used to justify of all manner of systemic evil.
To see this, consider an example that may at first seem trivial, but turns out to be anything but: Speeding. Most of us consider speeding a minor vice at worst, and could give a thousand reasons why it really isn’t that bad, how it has never done me any harm, how it is sometimes more dangerous not to speed, etc., etc., etc. But the truth is these are just excuses. We enjoy speeding, it gives us a thrill and, supposedly, saves us time, so it’s tempting to dismiss it as harmless and acceptable. Thus, even when we do get in an accident, this rarely convinces us to make a consistent or concerted effort to change. We just do not want to make the sacrifices necessary, even though an honest appraisal would recognize that speeding doesn’t actually save as much time as we imagine, and adds a great deal more stress than we usually admit.
For the truth is that speeding is not harmless at all. It directly contributes to auto accidents which injure or kill over 50 million people a year and cost untold billions in property damage. Though we like to tell ourselves that speeding is a private choice, that we are adults who know the risks and have the right to take them if we wish, speeding does not just affect the people who do it; it impacts everyone around us: other drivers, pedestrians, the families of those hurt or killed, businesses and insurance companies, health care providers, law enforcement and other government agencies, and through them, all of us. Though we, as individuals, may be lucky enough not to be seriously harmed by it, every individual choice to speed carries these risks and encourages others to speed as well.
Moreover, even when it doesn’t cause an accident, speeding uses more fuel, which costs more money and contributes to the energy crisis and all the attendant evils that has wrought, environmentally, economically, geo-politically, and more. Therefore, while as individuals, it is easy to tell ourselves that our own speeding does no real harm, this ignores both the small-scale risks and the large-scale impact that our actions have on the world around us. Of course, there are various technical solutions offered to these problems—seat belts, air bags, crumple zones, etc.—and the development and use of such things should be encouraged, but if allowed to excuse speeding as a choice then they can only be self-defeating, for they do not address the real issue, which is moral, not technological.
As this example illustrates, self-focus and private vice, even in “trivial” matters, can sometimes lead to massive evils beyond any one person’s control. And this is not just true of speeding. Most vices, even those widely considered “private,” are defended with the same kinds of excuses, yet they result in similar large-scale tragedies when they become broadly accepted. For instance, and to take up an example from recent discussions, promiscuity falls into just this category. Though everyone knows the dangers, these are dismissed on a personal level with the excuse that “it’s my body and I have the right to do with it what I wish.” But as with speeding, promiscuity creates both potential risks and large-scale tragedies.
Each year, there are more than 340 million new sexually transmitted infections (virtually all of which derive from promiscuity) and 42 million abortions (at least a significant portion of which derive from the same). The widespread acceptability of promiscuous behavior has also drastically increased the rates of illegitimacy and single-parenthood, which in turn result in poverty, abuse and increased crime rates. This impacts not just the people choosing to be promiscuous, but their families and communities, local businesses, insurance companies, health care providers, law enforcement and other government agencies, and through them, all of us.
Additionally, by fostering a widespread belief that sex can legitimately be separated, not just from reproduction but from relationship, these have in turn increased the demand for and acceptability of prostitution, leading to a worldwide system of sexual slavery and human trafficking. As with speeding, of course, there are technical and legal methods of reducing some of these risks, but to appeal to the availability of contraception or some hope for better government control to justify promiscuity is rather like appealing to seat belts and traffic cops to justify speeding.