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The peril of moralism

The Guardian (5 June) ran a story by George Monbiot about pharmaceutical companies promotion of baby formula in the Philippines. The article, together with readers responses, is online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2095325,00.html.

As in other underdeveloped countries, the majority of the population in the Philippines has access only to polluted water. As formula has to be mixed with water, its widespread use instead of breastfeeding kills thousands of children every year. Nevertheless, the corporations promote it in the most ruthless fashion. For instance, they encourage their saleswomen to dress as nurses to gain the confidence of young mothers. The Philippines government has tried to restrict the promotion of baby formula, but the Pharmaceutical & Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), representing the manufacturers and backed by the US government and Chamber of Commerce, has led a campaign to thwart the attempt, using lobbying, diplomatic pressure, legal action and (apparently) targeted assassinations.

All this is, indeed, horrifying, and indignation is a natural and healthy reaction. But against who or what should we direct our indignation?

Irrelevance of nationality

Often enough, indignation expresses itself as national hatred, typically as anti-Americanism. America Puts Profit Above Babies Lives runs the headline over the print version of the article. Of course, the American government and American business do put profit above babies lives (and above everything else). But the same is true of other countries. Ordinary Americans tend to feel that accusations against America are aimed at them too and respond in like manner: You British are just as bad!

Nothing could be more irrelevant to the issue than nationality. The first target of activists opposing the promotion of baby formula in underdeveloped countries was Nestlé a Swiss company. The members that PHAP represents include European, Australian, and Japanese as well as American companies. They are equally ruthless.

Bad guy approach

But blaming America or the Jews or the Japanese, perhaps, or some other nation or ethnic group -- is a form of the broader phenomenon called moralism. Alternatively, we might call it the bad guy approach. Track down the baby killers, the evil people responsible for the evil deeds and do something about them. Do what exactly? Here things generally get fuzzy, but one Guardian reader has an answer: The world right now needs another Revolution like the Bastille when all these greedy, unprincipled, corrupt and criminal politicians/industrialists are rounded up and are summarily executed.

That should do the trick! Or would it? The revolutionary remedy has already been tried in France, Russia, China and other countries. And yet there are still plenty of bad guys around, in those countries as elsewhere. Why should more shootings help? The more adaptable bad guys survive the revolutions by switching to the winning side in good time, and any who do get shot are readily replaced. What we have here is obviously an expression of extreme feeling, a fantasy of revenge, rather than a carefully thought-out solution. The moralistic approach stirs up emotions so powerful that thinking is paralysed.

Evil deeds without evil people

Really evil people are few and far between. They are not the crux of the matter. Most of the people involved in making and selling harmful products are not truly or intrinsically evil. The saleswoman dressed as a nurse to sell more baby formula and earn her commission, the Chinese tobacco farmer, the Afghan poppy grower, the armaments worker making landmines that will maim and kill children as they play they are all doing evil things. Their deeds are evil, but they themselves are not, for they have to make a living somehow. They have to feed and clothe their own children.

Even the corporation executives who organize the evil deeds are not doing evil as a free and deliberate choice. They are required by law to do whatever is necessary to maximize profits for their shareholders. They could, of course, give up their positions and join the working class, but you can understand why so few of them would want to do that! The shareholders, in turn, do not feel obliged to concern themselves with the morality of the businesses that provide their dividends. Everywhere we look we find moral ambiguity. Evil is certainly being done, but no one is clearly to blame only the social arrangement that we refer to as a system.

Some of us are lucky enough to come by a livelihood that allows us the luxury of a clean conscience (more or less). Some are not so lucky. The appropriate target of our indignation is the system that places people in such excruciating dilemmas, penalises altruistic impulses, rewards ruthless egoism, and inexorably turns good guys (or potential good guys) into bad guys. It is only by understanding the system that we can devise a way of freeing people to heed the voice of their conscience and freely contribute their talents to society, without thereby jeopardising their families survival and wellbeing.

STEFAN