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Boycotting the virtues away

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Oh no, here it comes: another rant about the Chick-fil-A fiasco and all it represents.

As GetReligion reports, little in the way of news has actually happened. That hasn’t stopped the chain of blog commentaries, facebook posts (guilty as charged), and official reaction. (I should mention that I was surprised to see the Boston Globe come out against Menino on this one, for what I think are the right reasons.) Ross Douthat, in yet another widely circulated column, has now weighed in, asking some good questions about religious liberty.

As far as I can tell, the most interesting response, however, has come from Jonathan Merritt over at The Atlantic:

But my bigger question is this: In a nation that’s as divided as ours is, do we really want our commercial lives and our political lives to be so wholly intermeshed? And is this really the kind of culture we want to create? Culture war boycotts cut both ways and are much more likely to meet with success when prosecuted by large groups of people, such as Christian activists, who are more numerous than gays and lesbians and their more activist supporters.

Here’s the problem that nobody seems to notice: ¬†whether or not you go to Chick-fil-A (or any business) does not exhaust your possibilities as a moral agent.

The whole discourse surrounding this controversy touches on real moral questions — no one should deny that. How do we spend our money justly? How do we promote a more just society? Not to mention the questions about marriage and sexuality. But the way that we’ve become accustomed to handling these questions, the way that we quickly move towards the boycott to solve problems, relies on a notion of ethics focused on individual decisions to the exclusion of all else.

In other words: the boycott-culture (whether conservative or progressive) assumes that, in order to be good people, we must spend our lives agonizing over every little decision, analyzing all its consequences and matching them with our values before proceeding. It’s a recipe for moral paralysis.

None of us actually lives that way. We do most of what we do without thinking about it, without providing constant situational-moral analysis. There are times, of course, when such analysis really is required. (And perhaps questions about where and what we eat should make that list more often!) But focusing so hard on those decisions makes it hard for us to think about the big picture.

It’s fine if people (or General Conventions, for that matter) want to boycott Chick-fil-A, or Starbucks, or whatever it is that makes them feel good about their spending. But let no one be fooled into thinking that this one action makes you virtuous, that this one action (or lack thereof) somehow completes your moral agency.

The virtuous person (to put it very traditionally) will simply act, at all times, in the mode of virtue: in justice, temperance, fortitude and prudence. Cultivating and practicing those virtues is much harder, I think, than making big public statements about fast-food chains.

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