Ten Moral U-turns That Changed the World

William James, in his classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience, describes a typical "conversion." The subject, emotionally exhausted, suddenly "feels a wave overpoweringly break over (him)," leading to "a sense of perceiving truths not known before."

That's one definition of an epiphany. But epiphanies can also happen in a secular context. Every day, in almost every field, someone perceives themselves to be on the wrong side of an imaginary divide. The "second brain" in their gut -- that ten-billion-nerve knot -- tells them their life must change. And, on moral grounds, they jump the gap.

Think of it as a professional U-turn. When a conservative politician, after years of uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, decides she is really a social democrat at heart, and switches parties, we say she has "crossed the floor." Others in humbler quarters do the same: the ad executive who becomes a media critic; the prosecutor who becomes a social worker; the butcher who becomes a vegan.

Sometimes it happens in a blink, perhaps sparked by an external event -- the collapse of a marriage, the loss of a mentor, a close brush with death -- that sharpens the urge to invest what life remains with meaning. But often a reversal is simply the result of a private crisis of conscience. One day you can't quite meet your own eyes in the mirror. You balk. You confront the choices you have made that have taken you incrementally off course. Then, basically, you defect -- blowing up bridges behind you, marching into the arms of grateful new colleagues while the shouts of the furious ex-colleagues fade in your ears.

The conversion experience of Ray Anderson, CEO of the world's largest commercial flooring manufacturer, was worthy of the Biblical Paul. It happened in August of 1994, as he was sweating to prepare a speech about how his company, Interface, was meeting environmental expectations. Anderson had, he admits, "no clue what to say beyond, 'We obey the law.'" Serendipitously, Paul Hawken's book The Ecology of Commerce had just landed on his desk. Maybe there was something in there he could crib. He dipped in.

"It was as if a burning spear had been plunged through my chest," Anderson says. In Hawken's story of the reindeer of St. Matthew Island -- its metaphor of what happens when a species exceeds its carrying capacity -- Anderson saw the future. He realized just how badly his company had been screwing up. He wept. And when he stood before the task-force of his own employees, he opened with the truth. "Our products are petroleum-intensive, and in our 25 years of business, we've done more harm to the environment than I care to think about." He pledged radical change. And, indeed, since that day, Interface has been as green as a Seuss egg. The company's aim, and motto, is "Zero Waste," and Anderson has authored a memoir called Mid-Course Correction.

That same phrase could easily apply to Michael Allen Fox. A philosophy professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Fox used to be the guy journalists called on to rebut the arguments of radical animal-rightists. By Fox's lights, it was okay to eat meat and wear leather. Within reasonable bounds, experimenting on animals was ethically defensible. (On this subject, Fox wrote the book: The Case for Animal Experimentation: An Evolutionary and Ethical Perspective.) Animals are not, he insisted, our equals and thus should not have "equal rights."

But Fox recanted the day he confronted a philosophical conundrum: what if extraterrestrials landed on Earth tomorrow? They showed all the signs of "personhood": high intelligence, self-awareness, the capacity for complex speech. They had everything going for them that we did, and more -- yet they were not human. Would we still have the right to enslave and kill and eat them? He decided we wouldn't. And that conclusion forced him to retreat on his position on animals, some of which have all these traits. He stopped eating meat. He wrote another book, Deep Vegetarianism. He publicly reversed his previous position in a number of scientific journals -- making him an instant hero within the animal-rights movement and the scourge of many in the medical profession who once considered him a level-headed ally.

The true moral U-turn is not to be confused with the sudden, late-in-life beneficence of an entertainment mogul or diamond magnate; you can give a billion dollars to the United Nations, or endow a lucrative scholarship fund in your name, without demonstrably changing your politics, values or lifestyle. The motive is what matters. This is not about trying to buy a happy legacy, about cleaning up your act to clean up your image (or because your spouse leaned on you). To qualify as a real turn, the decision has to come from within, uncoerced.

The philosopher Sam Keen describes the felt shift that precedes the U-turn as the freeing of a stifled, internal voice, "a voice that seems to come out of the depths of your past or future that says: 'You are betraying your promise, your uniqueness, your gifts. The life you are living is not your own.'"

Bruce Myers knows that feeling. A young Canadian broadcaster covering the Quebec National Assembly and Parliament Hill, Myers was a rising star with limitless journalistic potential when he decided, a little over a year ago, to quit and enter the Anglican priesthood. "Part of my journey was slowly realizing that all of this stuff that was going on around me, which seemed so crucially important and which everyone was taking so seriously, were trivialities," Myers says. "It occurred to me, maybe my purpose is more than reporting the most recent tempest in a teapot, or reading the morning headlines between the latest hits from Britney Spears or The Moffats."

There's nothing to say U-turns can't happen in the other direction. In fact, the environmental movement alone has seen so many Rockfordesque reversals, the asphalt beneath it bears permanent donut marks. (Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman has come to denounce radical action; Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore works for a pro-clearcutting group.) But for the most part, left-to-right turns tend to be slower, over the course of a lifetime: that familiar, decades-long softening of the hard ideologies of youth. The moral epiphany happens, necessarily, in a flash. "It's not something you can conjure up on your own, I don't believe," says Ray Anderson of Interface. "It just happens." And its power is such that it compels immediate action.

That's the response the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer tries to provoke in the ethical challenges he issues from time to time. In a recent New York Times Magazine piece, Singer cooks up a hypothetical man named Bob. Bob is a car nut; his prize possession is a vintage Bugati roadster. One day, while out walking, Bob sees a train bearing down on a toddler who has wandered on to the tracks. Bob can save the child by throwing a switch and diverting the train onto a siding. But parked on that siding is ... his beloved Bugati. If he throws the switch and saves the child, his car will be crushed. The kid or the car: which to choose?

Nobody with any heart or soul would fail to save the child, Singer has us acknowledge. But wait: aren't all us First Worlders, in effect, in the same position as Bob? We know there are kids, in Africa and India, in the path of the speeding train of starvation or disease. With only a few dollars -- a tiny fraction of our disposable income -- we could save them. Singer provides the toll-free numbers for UNICEF and OXFAM.

"Now you, too, have the information you need to save a child's life," he writes. "How should you judge yourself if you don't do it?"

Whether you find Singer's approach inspiring or manipulative, it does, pretty effectively, push buttons most of us would rather not have pushed. It forces us to step back and look at ourselves and consider our choices objectively. The process is almost like engineering a moment of reckoning: if you suddenly see things Singer's way, you're obliged to rethink the way you live.

Reversing ground is certainly academically unfashionable; it's seen as the mark of an intellectual lightweight, or at best a moral relativist. But changing is our prerogative as human beings. If it's done for the right reasons, a U-turn may be the only sane response to a complex world that is itself morphing under our feet. Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, author of The Protean Self calls the willingness to radically change a source of strength and value that ought to be embraced, not scorned. There's no denying it takes courage. It's as if you're standing in the docket before a court of everyone you've ever known. You raise your hand and say: I cannot stand by what I believed yesterday, I cannot guarantee what I'll believe tomorrow. But today, this is my considered position.

OSKAR SCHINDLER

Until 1942, the German industrialist showed no signs of being any more more than a wealthy, fast-talking drunk with friends in high places. When war broke out in Nazi Germany, he profiteered, using his connections to acquire a munitions factory in Krakow, which he stocked with cheap Jewish labor. But something happened to Schindler to change him. Some say it was witnessing a German raid on a Jewish ghetto, during which the prisoners were packed into trains to certain death. Schindler became a turncoat humanitarian, sparing the lives of thousands of Jews whose names he put on his now-famous list. We'll never know why Schindler made the turn: in his lifetime, he never explained it.

MALCOLM MUGGERIDGE

The professional cynic -- editor of Britain's Punch magazine -- went from lecherous womanizer and critic of the church to one of the 20th century's great apologists for the Christian faith. What happened? During a near-drowning during a night swim in the ocean, he finally spotted the lights of shore, and read it as a metaphor. (Or, as an alternative conversion-story goes, he entered a church on his way to Kiev and discovered an outlet for his rage against Stalin's genocide.)

WILLIAM KUNSTLER

We think of him as a flamboyant, radical, civil rights lawyer, defending social outcasts of all stripes (and pissing off Right and Left alike by taking on clients like John Gotti and the World Trade Center bomber). But don't forget Kunstler was once a sleepy suburban tax lawyer in New York, raking the lawn on weekends, "bored out of my skull." It was one week in Mississippi in 1961 that turned him around. He'd popped down to lend a hand in the defense of hundreds of blacks who were moldering in prison on outrageous charges. He stayed for months. By the time of the trial of the Chicago 7, he realized he "had found my place in the world."

LEE BUTLER

If nuclear war had erupted around 1990, Butler, the US Air Force general and commander-in-chief of the US Strategic Air Command, is the man to whom President George Bush Sr. would have issued a command to launch American missiles. But Butler is no longer a hawk. After what he calls "a long and arduous intellectual journey," he is now a rabid peacenik, devoted to "putting the nuclear genie back in the bottle." In 1999, Butler founded The Second Chance Foundation, dedicated to global nuclear abolition.

JEFFREY "THE INSIDER" WIGAND

The chemist and a former top executive of Brown & Williamson tobacco company became one of the most famous whistleblowers of our time. Unable to live with the burning guilt of don't-ask-don't-tell, he went public with internal documents on how Big Tobacco systematically buried knowledge of the evidence of their product's deadly effects. Now Wigand takes his anti-tobacco crusade from school to school. If not the sexiest man alive (like the actor who played him in the movie), Wigand may be the happiest.

CLIFFORD STOLL

The California astronomer became a hero in the cyber-community after he brought down a German spy ring that was using the computers at his Berkeley lab to hack into the US Defense Department in the late-'80s. But Stoll poleaxed his fans when, tired of the hyperbole of the digital age, he wrote the book Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, which paints the Net as a vast time sink, and life on-line as corrosive to the soul. Stoll thinks Americans' blind faith in technology is misguided: "Computer networks isolate us from one another and cheapen the meaning of actual experience." (Stoll has now further entrenched his position with a follow-up book, High-Tech Heretic.)

JEFF GIULIANI A.K.A. "RONALD MCDONALD"

Mr. Giuliani worked for many years as the firehall-red-headed Mickey Dee's mascot, and he traveled around cementing children's allegiance to heavily salted meat on a white bun. One day, his conscience caved under the weight. Now he is a strict vegan, and misses no opportunity to trumpet the new cause and condemn the old one.

JAN WONG

A kind of double-recanter. The life story of the prominent Canadian journalist, the "long march from Mao to now," is a wild ideological ride -- from comfortable Western girl, to committed Chinese leftist (digging ditches in the cultural revolution and turning people in), and back. She now takes celebrities to lunch.

RON ARNOLD

"We're out to destroy the environmental movement!" Strange words from a former Sierra Club activist -- which explains Arnold's rep as just about the most famous turncoat in the annals of environmentalism. Arnold co-founded the anti-preservationist "Wise Use" movement, widely seen as a front for transnationals and the political right. Why the switch? By his own telling, the epiphanic moment came during a 1970 meeting of the Sierra Club's northwest chapter in which Sierra Club officers were planning a campaign against a timber company "that they knew was based on a falsehood"; the arrogance and deceit and weird science became too much to bear. The club's president at the time, however, remembers events slightly differently. Arnold became frustrated and left because "we didn't buy a slide show he was trying to sell."

GLORIA STEINEM

Most women, unlike most men, get more radical as they age, says Gloria Steinem. That's why the feminist pioneer's recent, decidedly unradical, turn threw her constituency for a loop. After three decades as poster-gal for the virtues of the independent life -- marriage, she insisted, was akin to "forced mating in captivity" -- Steinem announced that she herself was getting hitched. To a man. (In fact, the fellow who first imported skateboards to England.) Heresy! Inconsistency! Or simply humble sensibility? Steinem justified the turn with a line for the ages: "Feminism is about the ability to choose what's right at each time in our lives."

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