Let’s begin with a story.
It’s Season 3 of Better Call Saul, and Jimmy and Charles McGill are brothers on opposite sides of a court case. More critically, though, they are on opposite sides of a spectrum of legal belief. Jimmy at this juncture has absolutely broken the law to make Charles lose a major client. However, Charles only had this client because he and his partner had taken another lawyer’s painstaking work from her, while continuing to punish her for her association with Jimmy in the first place. Charles had also for many years blocked Jimmy’s ability to rise through the ranks at his firm. Why? As he states in court:
“There’s nothing malicious in Jimmy. He has a way of doing the worse things for reasons that sound almost noble. But what I know for sure is that the law is too important to be toyed with.
The way my brother treats the law, it breaks my heart.” (S3E5)
Now, just as with Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul absolutely attests to the truth of those first two sentences for its protagonist. Jimmy is beloved by grandmothers, and indeed helps and listens where few others would. But Jimmy also cuts corners to grease the wheels of his industry… and we know he’ll eventually support some pretty bad dudes, too.
What this series highlights, though–and without any glamour whatsoever–is how profoundly unmeritocratic the industry already is. Because larger firms might very well comply with the letter of the law… but they will often do so for the most exploitative class of client. In this way, by-the-book legality often only fattens the coffers of those in power. So which is best? Focussing on the consequences of one’s actions, or following the rules because they are the rules?
These two ideas might seem like abstract philosophy, but they have life-or-death consequences in the real world.
Humanist vs. Self-Serving Consequentialism
Two major horror stories out of U.S. media in, oh, the last few days involve the Honduran Caravan and the U.S. government’s desire to define “sex” for documents with a huge civil-rights impact as a rigid male/female binary.
With a major U.S. election coming up, we know full well that these issues are dog-whistle politics at their worst–7000 human beings crossing through Mexico to try their luck as U.S. refugees is a drop in the bucket of a declining, not worsening immigration border crisis; and who in bloodly hell is harmed by people like this wanting to go pee in public buildings? But fomenting fear of racialized and gendered social “contamination” is good policy when trying to rally white Christian voters.
As such, it’s not enough to talk about consequentialism. We need to talk about humanist consequentialism, wherein the fear of the U.S. becoming more diverse is not given higher priority than the fear of not aiding those whose lives are brutish.
Can we even imagine being beset by death penalties or life sentences at the hands of local gangs that have unilaterally declared our earnings, homes, and family their property?
Or, in the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder for not performing sufficient traditional masculinity, can we imagine living in fear because our sense of self differs from what others want us to be?
The “Rule of Law” Defense
A self-serving consequentialist often appeals to rule of law in these cases.
But… but… but the borders! they cry–as if mass migration is somehow a novel or cataclysmic event. As if ancient indigenous ancestors to the Americas didn’t do it. Or North American colonists escaping cultural oppression. As if descendants of 19th- and early 20th-century economic exoduses out of Europe and Asia weren’t cut from the same cloth. Or those of mid-20th-century equatorial and African families in Europe and North America.
When have we ever not seen people migrate en masse towards safety, peace, and better opportunities for one’s young?
And how would we even conceive of doing otherwise, if placed inside the shoes of those facing the gravest threats of all?
A Quick Caveat
…But lest I fall victim to easy binaries myself, let me also plainly note that there is still logic behind the behaviour of people who advocate against aid in this manner. Unfortunately, psychological studies regard this sense of entitlement as natural. Even when people know a game is rigged in their favour, they still believe themselves entitled to their victory.
And so these folks–at their most charitable–will still feel for the suffering of others, sure. They’re humans, not monsters. But they’ll also hold firm to the belief that, if other families want the same safety they take to granted, those families will need to earn it. How? By applying through formal channels, and awaiting formal response at a predictably formal interval. And if they don’t take this path? Well, then they lose their deservedness for aid altogether.
Meanwhile, at their least charitable? These people simply cling to the idea that the law is our most sacred invention. Thus, anyone who breaks it does so at their own peril, because they have chosen to attack the foundations of civilization itself (!) with their selfish needs for safety and security and a little bit of hope.
Secular Slip-Ups into Spiritual Sinkholes
Consequentialists in this second category, who either articulate contamination prejudices or use Rule-of-Law appeals to deflect from charges of said prejudice, thus do something that we in the secular community should not tolerate. Even without a Holy Text on hand, they act as if that which is written down can still be inviolate.
What the hell is wrong with us on the secular side, that so many who proudly wear their irreligiosity are still as good as positioning Job as a worthy moral example? Why are we fostering in our secular spheres the same narrative parameters employed by the worst, most anti-humanist participants from surrounding faith communities?
Choosing Humanist Consequentialism
I wrote elsewhere of better uses for Biblical pedantry. If you were wondering then about real-life examples, well, this is the sort of argument we should spend more time unpacking. It’s not enough to slough off belief in a godhead if we still cleave to some of the most destructive lines of thought associated with spiritual practice.
So, sure, we call ourselves empirical thinkers? Rationalists? Great! But the research tells us that having more personal security negatively impacts our capacity for compassion. So what are we going to do about it? How are we going to offset this empirically demonstrable lapse in humanistic thinking?
We could start, maybe, by putting an end to debating at all the worthiness of our fellow human beings for aid or at least compassion. If we know ourselves to be speaking from places of immense personal comfort, then as good rationalists, we should recognize from the wealth of related behavioural research that we have damned good reason to assume that we’re biased against the plight of others–more self-oriented, and less externally driven.
Thus, it’s time for us Highly Rational Secular Types to offset our blinders–in this case, by making a concerted effort to think about the consequences of policy actions for others, before permitting ourselves to be swayed by fear of losing, say, our own status quo.
So What In Particular Can We Do?
I understand the helplessness even among those who want to be better agents of change. I’m a Canadian who immigrated this year to Colombia, where I hope to earn the right to live out my days. How can anything I say or do have an impact on civil rights attacks and general dehumanization of fellow global citizens in and around the U.S.?
But that despair is just more self-oriented thinking.
There are always ways to help, and here are some of my preferences:
1. Condemn the inhumane wherever you see it…
…even if an immediate solution is not apparent. I am no expert on border affairs. I follow the argument of (among others) Reece Jones in Violent Borders, that borders themselves create immense amounts of human suffering. Nevertheless, I have difficulty seeing how we will transition from their use. Does that mean I shouldn’t say anything? No, of course not. Declare the problem! Write your local representatives! Vote! Add to the cultural pressure calling for task forces that can more effectively design solutions.
2. Support your favourite non-profits…
…IF you know that they are also preferred within the communities you want to help. I support UNHCR and Médecins sans frontières, and local organizations as they come to me from issue-specific advocates more in the know. I used to support Red Cross, but the number of scandals in recent years has left it with a poor reputation among many communities. If you want to show you care about those communities, listen to them. Donate where they suggest you donate. The UNHCR has a specific fund right now for the Central American Refugee Crisis. In this comprehensive list of ways to support trans persons in the U.S. right now, #6 shows a few specific bail-out funds to keep incarcerated and immigrant trans populations from the violent cultural ramifications of a more rigid civil-rights definition of “sex”. If in doubt, refer to an advocacy group’s resource page!
3. Make a concerted effort to read and follow the news..
…in and around vulnerable communities. No, I know, you’ve already got your preferred mainstream outlets. However, it’s not enough just to follow reports on the after-effects of major news in progress. If you really want to understand the consequences of current public policy, and to do so in a timely enough fashion that you can contribute more directly to the solutions, you need to listen more to those most immediately affected by both. Here are a few links (mostly to active Twitter accounts for the aforementioned U.S. issues) but please, add more in the comments:
- La Coalición
- The Latinx Humanist Alliance
- National Center for Transgender Equality
Most of all, though, do not let yourself fall into the same rhetorical traps that we condemn among religious fellow citizens. There is a powerful difference between just being secular and being a practising secular humanist. Remember it.
And then remember, too, that no law should ever be considered inviolate simply because it was written down.
If it is inviolate in another sense–if it is the kind of moral code that should be scored upon our humanistic hearts–then its truth should be evident in active practice. We should see its efficacy alive and well in the world that we all share. Consequently, if a law of the land, a way of legalizing land and bodies themselves, is not yielding basic safety, security, and opportunity for all fellow human beings…
Then it just isn’t good enough.
And even if we can’t tear it all down and start over… we can sure as hell act and think in line with those more just laws that we want ours to become.