A few years ago I had a professor who was particularly fond of going the extra mile to make his students look like idiots. His methods weren’t so much unjust as they were without mercy. “Did you not read the assignment?” he would ask. “Oh,” he would continue, “if you didn’t read the assignment, then you couldn’t have understood the question on the quiz. And if you didn’t understand the question, why did you put that down as your answer?” The student’s “Ummmm”, was in tune with a flat-line on any heart monitor. “So, let me understand what you’ve done. You read the question, you didn’t understand it, you decided to reinterpreted the question how you wanted, and then answered it in accordance to your interpretation?” He would then move on to the next student, “Did you read the assignment, or,” as he would walk over the previous student, “did what he did?” And he would continue from student to student until most of the class was either ‘those who read the assignment’ or ‘those like that student who didn’t.’
But one day, during his lecture, a student arrived almost half-way through his class. He stopped talking. Once the student sat down, he began to recall a memory of his, “Once I had a student who came in late. I asked why he was late and he yelled, ‘it’s not like I killed anyone!’” He was silent for a few moments as he glanced from student to student. “Didn’t you hear what I said?!” he continued. “He said he didn’t kill anyone! Oh my goodness! At least he didn’t kill anyone! He was one of my exemplary students; one who deserved a shiny gold star.” His point was a clear and as thick as his sarcasm: arriving late to class had nothing to do with not murdering someone, and for that student, didn’t save him from the professors remarks.
However, it is this sort of reasoning that prevails on Facebook, in politics, and in almost every realm of public discourse. I remember speaking to an individual about gay marriage. I had told him, “Gay marriage doesn’t support proper child development,” to which he replied, “Well, divorce doesn’t either, but we allow it.” Not only does this response appear to smack with the, “If you can do wrong, so can we,” argument, but it also fails to address my point in the most horrific sense.
Think about it. What if we were to adopt the principle, “Morally wrong act x is justifiable by not doing some morally worse wrong act y?” Could we tell the judge in traffic court that running a red light is perfectly okay as long as we skillfully dodge oncoming traffic, preventing a multi-car accident? It’s not like I was in a three-care pile-up. Could we steal that candy bar from Bel-Air, given that we don’t steal the whole box? Who knows where we would end. Would it be okay to murder every woman and child in the United States, given, of course, “It’s not like I killed every woman and child in the world!”
It’s a completely bankrupt principle with a fancy name – A Red Herring. So why do we allow it in discussing policies that define our culture? It’s easy – literally. Any act can be justified as long as you’re creative enough to understand that x just needs +1. You can do whatever you want and feel justified in doing it.