Film writer Sonny Bunch once argued that radical environmentalists make great super-villains because they are unshakably convinced of the rightness of their cause, and just as unshakably determined to make everybody’s lives worse. If we take that observation and scale it down from Marvel movie to farce, we get the latest environmentalist protest trend, which feeds green fanatics’ sense of self-righteousness while alienating just about everyone else.
In a recent attack, members of a group that calls itself Just Stop Oil threw mashed potatoes at a Monet painting hanging in a Potsdam, Germany museum. Other members of the group threw tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and before that it was cake at the Mona Lisa. In the UK, activists have been pouring milk on supermarket floors to protest the supposedly dire environmental impact of the dairy industry, and to agitate for a “plant-based future.” Others have blocked traffic on major British and US roads by sitting down in front of traffic and, in some cases, gluing their hands to the roadway. Earlier this month, a protester sprayed paint over the walls of a car dealership. And in an especially hilarious episode—well, I’m just going to quote the news report, because otherwise you won’t believe me: “Climate protesters who glued themselves to the floor of a Volkswagen showroom in Germany need to use the toilet—but now complain the company has refused to provide the group with ‘a bowl to urinate and defecate’ in.”
Anyone who’s ever been a parent will recognize these actions: throwing food, spilling milk, smearing paint on the walls, sitting on the ground and refusing to move. Add in the inability to properly dispose of one’s bodily waste, and the pattern is complete. This is the behavior of toddlers.
These protests have been met with widespread derision (especially that last one), and seem to have lost the activists more friends than they made. But the people behind these stunts are suffused with self-righteousness and completely convinced of the rightness of their cause. And some supposed adults are encouraging them, because, as one New York Times opinion writer put it under the headline, History May Absolve the Soup Throwers, “We cannot afford to forgo creative methods that might further the cause.” Remember that point about supervillains?
The fact that these tactics have become so widely deployed indicates a serious failure in our entire approach to morality. We have fostered and indulged a sort of moral toddlerhood.
Why do toddlers throw tantrums? Because they need something—food, a toy, a nap—but they don’t know what they need or how to ask for it. It’s not their fault; they’re too young to know. Hopefully, their parents will teach them, with a combination of firmness and patience, how to identify what they need, how to communicate it, and how to be patient.
Why do 20-year-old protesters throw tantrums? Same reason. They want something and have absolutely no idea how to get it.
But what do they want? Is it a political goal? Ostensibly yes, but one that is too vague to constitute an actual agenda. The name of their group, “Just Stop Oil,” sums up the mindset. It is a demand, not a program.
We’ve seen this approach to protest persist over the decades, for different causes—including poverty, nuclear weapons, and animal rights. (Nor is it exclusive to leftists. Not so long ago, moral toddlers on the Right conducted a mass tantrum at the US Capitol. Another thing small children have to learn is how to graciously concede when they lose a contest.) At some point, when the tactics remain the same but the cause keeps changing, you conclude that the tactics are an end in themselves and the cause is just an excuse.
What the protesters actually want is to feel morally important: to be heroes in a fight of good against evil, and to be better than everyone else. But they have absolutely no idea how to achieve this. So they act out like toddlers in the hope that pitching a fit will get them what they want. And we generally give it to them.
Of course, we don’t give them what they nominally want; we don’t give up fossil fuels. But we give them what they really want, flattery for their moral vanity, as we pat them on the heads and tell them that they may be misguided, but they are idealists.
The stage that follows moral toddlerhood is what one might call moral adolescence—the essence of which is rebellion without responsibility. The adolescent wants to overturn the existing order, to change the world and tell everyone what they’re doing wrong, while somebody else still cleans the dishes, does the laundry, and pays the rent. The best example I can think of is captured by a photo I recently came across, showing John Lennon and Yoko Ono taking a break from their 1969 “bed-in” protest so that the maid at their luxury hotel can clean the room and arrange the bedding. We want to fight against poverty, war, and injustice—so long as we don’t have to change out of our pajamas.
Moral adulthood, by contrast, means regarding yourself as an equal—an adult capable of shaping your own life and with your own share of the responsibility for solving problems. To achieve a goal, a moral adult identifies the goal, and figures out how to talk to other people, make a case, and convince them. As we like to tell toddlers, you figure out how to “use your words.” Above all else, where the moral adolescent demands solutions, the moral adult provides them.
Obviously, these stages do not necessarily reflect chronological age. Some reach the stage of moral adulthood early, while others make it into old age without ever getting there.
What distinguishes adulthood is the faculty of reasoning. The moral adult approaches morality as a matter of thinking: defining his moral goals, understanding the reasons for them, and formulating realistic solutions. But the widespread conception of morality is that it is primarily a matter of emotion or of social consensus. In practice, what we often get is a combination of those two: emotional posturing in order to create an impression of moral superiority in the eyes of others.
This problem comes with deep roots. Possibly the most damaging idea in the history of moral philosophy is expressed in the very first sentence of Immanuel Kant’s 1785 Foundations of theMetaphysics of Morals: “There is nothing that can be conceived, in this world or out of it, that is good without qualification except the good will.” As it came to be interpreted, this made morality primarily a matter of having the right intentions. If you mean well, or if you are perceived by others as meaning well, then you are regarded as moral. Kantian ethics banished from morality the consideration of the real-world consequences of one’s intentions.
Under this approach, the act of thinking is secondary to an idealism that is experienced on the emotional level, in the purity and intensity of one’s devotion. By that standard, the more extravagantly juvenile one’s form of expression—throwing soup, smearing paint, gluing yourself to walls—the greater proof it provides of one’s emotional commitment.
If the essence of maturity is the ability to govern our actions by reason, we shouldn’t be surprised if departing from that ideal churns out generations of moral adolescents, and now a new cohort of moral toddlers.