Overview:

William MacAskill, author of the new book "What We Owe the Future," extols the virtues of "moral weirdos" like the 18th century abolitionist pioneer Benjamin Lay. Who are today's moral weirdos?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

It’s one thing to align philosophically with fights against climate change, racism, homo- and transphobia, abuses of human and animal rights, and other injustices.

It’s another to do like “Little Benjamin,” as he called himself, and literally lay your body down in the pathway of morally complacent everyday people, forcing them to step over you and give a moment’s thought to the moral cause that you are dramatizing and that they would rather not ponder.

A “weird” thing to do? Yes. Annoying to those inconvenienced? Definitely. An indispensable method for challenging unacceptable status quos and advancing moral progress? Absolutely. 

Here’s to moral weirdos.

I first heard the term “moral weirdo” while listening to a recent episode of Ezra Klein’s podcast. Klein’s guest was William MacAskill, a philosophy professor at Oxford University who is a leader in the effective altruism movement and the author of the new book What We Owe the Future.

In addition to laying out his argument for the rights of the untold trillions of people who will live after our present generations (if we don’t screw things up too badly), MacAskill expounded on the importance of moral weirdos.

“A moral weirdo,” MacAskill explained, “is someone who believes things that are not widely accepted by society. Perhaps they’re even looked down upon or ridiculed by wider society. Nonetheless, that person stands up for what they believe in. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the right thing to do is to engage in guerrilla theater. … Nonetheless, you’re willing to go out on a limb for what you believe in morally. And I think that can be enormously impactful.”

MacAskill tells the story of a great moral weirdo who helped lay the groundwork for what became the abolition movement. As suggested by his self-given sobriquet, “Little Benjamin,” Benjamin Lay was quite small—a dwarf actually. A Quaker who was born in the late 17th century and active in the 18th century, Lay railed against slavery well before his Quaker co-religionists (or the larger society for that matter) had started recognizing the evils of the “peculiar institution.”

As reported in a lengthy article about him in Smithsonian magazine, Lay’s strident message and disruptive delivery methods got him thrown out of two congregations in England. After he and his wife emigrated to Pennsylvania, it was more of the same. The ministers and elders had him tossed from multiple gatherings, going so far as to appoint an enforcement squad to maintain watch over him and keep him out of Philadelphia-area Quaker meetings.

Lay would not go away. On one occasion when he was still in England, he got thrown out onto the rainy street but, instead of leaving, lay down in the mud outside the door, forcing attendees to step over him when they left.

The Smithsonian article recounts his use of a deep snowfall to make his point in Philadelphia one Sunday morning:

Lay stood at a gateway to the meetinghouse, knowing all Friends would pass his way. He left his right leg and foot entirely uncovered and thrust them into the snow. Like the ancient philosopher Diogenes, who also trod barefoot in snow, he again sought to shock his contemporaries into awareness. One Quaker after another took notice and urged him not to expose himself to the freezing cold lest he get sick. He replied, “Ah, you pretend compassion for me, but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields, who go all winter half clad.”

Viewing the history of abolition from our present vantage point, we might think its advent and eventual success was organic, natural, inevitable. It was none of those. Moral progress depends on people’s action, and those in the vanguard take that action at great cost to their comfort, social standing, and safety.

Quakers? Weren’t they out front in the drive to end slavery? Yes, eventually. But it took people like Lay to get them there.

Who are the moral weirdos of more recent times? I suspect those in the ACT UP movement would proudly wear the badge. Launched in the early days of the AIDS crisis, when most of society sloughed off AIDS as only “a gay man’s disease,” ACT UP staged theatrical nonviolent protests against the calloused inaction of the government and pharmaceutical industry.

Today, those in the animal welfare movement earn the exalted title, both for their tactics and their commitment to the radical—and valid—conviction that nonhuman lives matter. As do climate activist groups like Extinction Rebellion, which strive to wake up a liberal establishment that agrees with them on the reality of global heating but fails to act with the requisite urgency.

The first Western seculars were moral weirdos. Nontheism was not exactly accepted in the 1500s when nonbelief made its first appearances. It was unheard of, impossible, dangerous. It’s still seen that way in some places. You’ve probably read a thing or two about what happened to “blasphemers” of centuries past. Things like floggings and executions. 

William MacAskill might be something of a moral weirdo himself. No, publishing a book and doing interviews are not guerilla tactics. But by taking the rights of future people so seriously, and by examining their moral standing with such a rare level of precision and conviction, he is sticking his own neck out.

Moral weirdos are weird indeed—weird in a positive sense of the word. Because most of us, most of the time, lack the courage and idealism and passion to stick our own necks out.

To be sure, moral weirdos are not always right. One can be absolutely committed to a cause and pursue it in self-sacrificial ways and be thoroughly wrong about its rightness.

But when the passage of time and the evolution of public morality validate the righteousness of their once-lonely crusades, we can see moral weirdos for what they really are: moral heroes.

Avatar photo

Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...