Gateway Drugs to More Ethical Lives

Gateway Drugs to More Ethical Lives September 10, 2015
(roujo / flickr)
(roujo / flickr)

A while ago, I mentioned that I’d found [X]-adjacent to be a helpful category when the X in question was bad.  E.g. rape-adjacent sex (unclear consent) may not break any laws or result in anyone feeling violated, but it makes it harder to identify predators, and it’s good to avoid sex that falls in this grey area.  Catherine Addington extended the idea to brutality-adjacent policing in an essay at AmCon.

And I wondered whether there was a flip side of [Y]-adjacent actions, where Y was a good thing.

Is there any morally good Y such that I would want to encourage people to start doing something that was close to that good thing, but not quite the same, in the same way I’d encourage people not to have ambiguously-consented-to-sex, because I thought increasing the prevalence of the X- or Y-adjacent thing would increase the prevalence of X or Y?

Ross Rheingans-Yoo took a crack at my challenge, offering both a few specific examples, and a general rule for when X- or Y-adjacency is a useful idea to bring up.  Here’s one of his suggestions:

Less Meat Mondays

  • Adjacent to: Vegetarianism

I think this one pretty much speaks for itself; it seems to fit the bill of

[Y]ou wind up wanting to promote the close-to-Y thing, in order to ease the way to really doing Y()

more than it represents an object-level moral good by having people just eat a lower volume of meat per anum. After all, I’ve found that pescetarianism+milk+eggs is a surprisingly not-large deal for me, and so I think that (1) giving people a chance to experiment with it and (2) giving food service providers some incentive to provide non-meat-based options in at least part of their menu is a very clear win.

Essentially, good Y-Adjacent actions are gateway drugs.  They give you a chance to try out a way of living that may sound too scary to commit to, but winds up feeling more natural after you try it out in a weaker or time-limited way.  Or they might make the boundary between Y-adjacent choices and full blown Y blurry enough that you slip from one to the other without making an active change.

But Ross has a good way to distinguish between X,Y-adjacent actions and anything else that’s just a weak version of a stronger action

{X,Y}-adjacent actions are usually at least somewhat per se {harmful,helpful} (or in some cases, risk being so). As Leah points out, though, there are some actions whose adjacency to greater {harm,good} is really their predominant moral characteristic — more so than their object-level (de)merits. It is these, I propose, which it is most useful to talk about as {X,Y}-adjacent actions, since we already have the moral vocabulary to discuss things which are object-level X or Y.

I like this way of putting the distinction!  I still can’t think of that many good-adjacent acts that I’d like to promote, but I think Ross’s typology gives me a better shot at noticing them in the future.



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