Methland by Nick Reding: Moral Maximizing and the Drug War

January 15th, 2010 by Ravi Iyer

I just finished Methland, by Nick Reding, an in-depth portrait of the fall and hopeful rise of a small American town, Oelwein, Iowa, and a few individuals touched by the meth epidemic there.  What makes the book most powerful are the portraits that Reding is able to draw of the town having spent 4 years getting to know both the drug dealers, drug users, enforcement officers, medical staff, and politicians.  As a social psychologist, I swim in data, which has the benefit of objectivity, but which lacks a great deal of the nuance that defines the book.  Hearing the stories of people who used meth to be able to work longer at jobs which paid less and less seems far more convincing than studies looking at  “the role of drug expectancies as important operations involved in the development of substance use patterns.”

While there are brave souls who try to save Oelwein in the book, one can’t help but feel that there are larger forces that cannot be fought, that are transforming rural America.  Profit motives entice both poor rural Americans and poor Mexicans to take enormous risks to produce and sell meth.  Several times in the book, enforcement agents succeed at having drug laws enforced only to see drug use take a different turn to new forms of production, distribution, and use.  The best that people appear to be able to do is to minimize the associated harm.

The book ties the drug trade to a similarly intractable problem, immigration.  Mexican drug cartels “employ a miniscule percentage of the illegal immigrants in this country,” but the integration of immigrant workers into American life makes it impossible to find that needle in the haystack (p.159). Big agriculture firms place ads for workers in Mexican border cities and lobby congress for access to this labor.  Consumers demand cheap food and enforcing immigration laws would cripple the agricultural system.  The city prosecutor doesn’t enforce immigration laws as it seems like forcing someone “through the gate which is left perpetually and invitingly open” (p.171).

The psychological variable that this makes me want to study, but for which I cannot find much previous research, is the willingness to accept moral imperfection.  Perhaps it could be termed moral maximizing?  If anybody knows of previous research on this, I would love to hear about it.  It seems to me that there are some cases where we are morally opposed to something, but trying to force that thing not to exist does more harm than good.  I think drugs are bad, but I think the drug war causes more harm than good and there is little we can do to stop people in a free society.  We just don’t have that level of control.  I think there is some injustice in illegal immigration towards those who wait to apply legally, and I lament the drain of workers from the countries of origin.  But we just don’t have that level of control over the border either.  Sometimes we just have to accept moral imperfection.

There is lots of research on consequentialism vs. deontological thinking, which is often framed as the willingness to do a bad thing in order to prevent a worse thing.  I think moral maximizing is different in that it is simple willingness to accept a bad thing.  If you can’t accept injustice, you may find yourself causing more harm than good in trying to change what cannot be changed in some cases.

What kind of people are moral maximizers?  I took Barry Schwartz’s maximizer-satisficer scale and changed the questions so that they referred to maximizing in the moral realm.  I then gave the survey to visitors at  Questions are listed at the end of this post.  The differences aren’t large, but it looks like both extreme liberals and extreme conservatives have this tendency.  As a liberal, I might tend to think of instances where extreme conservatives make things worse by failing to accept injustice (e.g. invading Iraq to avenge 9/11)…but it would seem likely that extreme liberals are likely to do similar things in some cases.  For example, communists like the Khmer Rouge killed a lot of people ostensibly in the name of social justice.  Perhaps we should be wary of extremely morally motivated people (what I call hypermoralism) from both sides of the political aisle.

Moral Maximizing by Politics

Moral Maximizing Questions (alpha=.752):

When deciding on an action in a moral decision, I compare my action to the best possible action.

In choosing a moral action, one should never settle for a morally imperfect action.

One should never settle on a moral outcome that is less than the best.

I often fantasize about living in a better, more just world.

I have the highest moral standards for myself in making any decision.

No matter how satisfied I am with a decision, it’s only right for me to consider if it was the most moral decision.

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