Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Politics of Moral Certainty

In religion we are able to come to know Truth. But we are asked to live the Truth in a world that offers much more than simple wrongs and rights. We are taught to "Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment." The implication is that the world is more complex than what is simply on the surface and requires something more thoughtful than snap judgments and empty platitudes.

The debate over gay rights in Utah and California has exposed this as key difference between liberals and conservatives. Liberals tend to see issues and problems as more complex and come to solutions with less certainty. Conservatives tend to see the world as more black and white, and have increased moral certainty that their solutions are correct. Of course, on the extreme wings of either ideology the world is black and white, but this mindset seems to bleed further into moderate conservativism than into moderate liberalism.

On the issue of gay rights, for example, conservatives see homosexuality as a sin, and any acquiescence in the form of rights or recognition is a tacit approval of the sin, and therefore cannot be accepted by the government. Even moderate conservatives resist granting increased rights to gays because of the possible slippery slope to what they consider complete moral decay. Liberals, on the other hand, may or may not agree that homosexuality is a sin, but regardless see the merits of extending certain rights along the spectrum of possible rights. The moderate liberal is much more inclined to err on the side of granting rights because the issue is complex and it would be unjust to ignore all gays completely.

One more example is in the arena of welfare and Medicaid. The starting point for conservative thought seems to be that people on welfare and Medicaid do not deserve our help, likely because they are just lazy. The liberal view is that, sure, there are some people on welfare that do not deserve our help, but they are just a single cross-section of a multitude of people who legitimately need our help and since we have the means, we should give it our best effort.

The examples could continue from Guantanamo (the prisoners are evil and if we let them go they will attack America v. lets try them in court and actually find out just how bad they are) to immigration (a bunch of illegals breaking our laws and taking our jobs v. a lot of good people doing jobs Americans are not doing and just trying to live a better life), and so on.

The conservative moral certainty culminated in the figure of George W. Bush who famously looked into Vladimir Putin's soul and saw goodness, and who proclaimed, as to his action in the war on terror, you are either with us or you are against us.

Moral certainty reaching absolute in our political leaders is a dangerous attribute. The world is far more complex than lazy v. hardworking, sin v. purity, evil v. good, freedom v. shackles and we need leaders who understand that and can grapple with the nuances. President Obama has shown his immense talent in this area. In his most recent press conference his answers to the press's questions would often go on for ten or twelve minutes as he explained the pros and cons of issues and laid out in detail what his actions were and why he chose that way. Bill O'Reilly, Papa Bear, in a classic example of right wing moral certainty, thought the president's answers were too long and boring. He, it seems, would have preferred straight yes or no answers, tell us Iran and taxes are always bad and that America and big business are always good. This is the approach that O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh, and Congressional Republicans take. They tell us with certainty what is good and what is bad while President Obama gives us the grounwork and foundation of his decisions and lets us come to our own conclusions.

Two more points. First, the right wing absolute moral certainty has proven to be a hypocrisy trap. From conservative moralist Ted Haggard, to outspoken conservative Senator David Vitters, to outspoken conservative Senator Larry Craig, to absolutist Rush Limbaugh, to the leading voice against President Clinton's impeachment Newt Gingrich, we learn that when you present the world as only black and white, and when you so publicly and so condescendingly try to force those views upon others, you are setting yourself up for a big fall. That is not to say that liberals do not make the same mistakes, but they likewise do not set themselves up for the great hypocrisies and they are less willing to make absolute moral pre-judgments knowing that the secular world is complex and fraught with dangers that can expose any person's weaknesses.

The other example is with the stimulus bill that just came out. Not a single Republican member of the House voted for the bill, and only two moderate Republican Senators did. The reason for this strict partisan vote is that conservatives wanted to project the idea that more government is always bad. And yet many Republicans were more than happy, like Utah's Bob Bennett, to add spending to the bill that would aid his or her state. This again highlights the hypocrisy of railing against government spending, the absolute certainty that government can never fix an ailing economy and emphatically voting against the bill, while at the same adding spending to the bill in order to help the state's economy.

Finally, a perception that the world is black or white deteriorates critical thinking, which we need to encourage now more than ever. It is all a matter of how you frame the question, and when the question is framed in absolutes, therefore lending itself to only one clear right answer, no real thinking is required. When the question is posed with the implication that the solution will be complex and requires thought and debate and compromise, the latter something Congressional Republicans are unable to do it seems, then Americans are forced to think critically and grow and progress as a nation.

If the question is: Would you rather have a safe country with secure borders and lots of jobs and less crime, or grant amnesty to all illegal aliens? The answer is clear and there is no parsing the issues and getting at deeper truths. If the question is: Would you rather have rogue nations pointing their nuclear weapons at us and promoting terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and destroying the very fabric of worldwide democracy or start a war with Iraq? There is only one real answer and the nuance and difficulties of the decision are removed from the public debate. We are then free to not worry about the consequences of our decisions, to not question authority, and can instead go back to the eases of watching our reality TV shows and shopping at The Gap and buying our SUVs. In this way the powerful stay in power and the masses are falsely contented.

I understand the irony of writing a post decrying the political ploy of presenting false dichotomies whilst comparing two large political movements in generalities. I understand that not all conservatives think and act the same, just as not all liberals think and act the same, and that most people are really points along a political continuum instead of faceless members of a group that merely blindly follows. But when it comes to the basic tenets and rhetoric of conservatism and liberalism, there is a tendency of conservatives to offer up false choices between two opposites without conceding the many nuances and shades of gray.


T.J. Shelby said...

Absolutely amazing. As a socially liberal Mormon, you have summarized the bulk of my annoyance with the party.

peter said...

Come on Jake, I’ve totally had practice with shades of gray at church…caffeine, Sabbath day observance, and the right way to conduct an Enrichment meeting.  Kristy (Okay, that wasn’t my real response.)

However much I want to believe that, as a conservative, you did not just characterize me as being unable to think critically or to understand the nuances of a problem, you did. I know that though we often agree that there are problems that need to be fixed, we do not agree on the possible solutions to those problems. Let me clarify my position on several of the issues you brought up.

Gays and lesbians-We shouldn’t deny rights to people, but I reserve the right to believe that homosexuality is not moral. In California gays and lesbians already have the same civil rights that married couples have under the umbrella of civil unions. Prop 8 was intended to normalize homosexuality and give it a moral stamp of approval. Though I know and like several people who are homosexual, I do not believe that homosexuality is moral and do not want to be forced to accept it as such.

Welfare and Medicaid- Conservative understanding on these issues is not based on a belief that lazy people don’t deserve help but on self-reliance and responsibility. Both of these programs fill an important role in our society, but they shouldn’t be the end of the road and a way of life, they should be a stop on the way to self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, neither of these programs encourages saving or provides programs and steps for getting off of them. There are many people who honestly need the help that these programs give and I used to think that abuses of the system were not very common. However the last eight months of Peter’s job is revealing that abuse of the system and a sense of entitlement is far more common than I had believed.

Illegal Immigration-The individual cases are difficult and tug at the heart strings, but the crux of the problem is that these people entered illegally. They broke the law. I know there are issues dealing with poverty in their home country and children who have been raised here but are still illegal. I want to help them, but we need to either change the law so what they are doing is not illegal or uphold our laws. And I could go on…

It is unfortunate that so-called conservative politicians choose to act against what their base would prefer in an attempt to garner power and get re-elected. I’m sure that liberals wish that several top Democratic appointees didn’t seem to be having so much trouble paying those patriotic taxes they love so much. It, also, could easily be said that Democrats have a tendency slide along those “shades of gray” and say whatever is expedient to whatever group they happen to be addressing. But I wouldn’t want to over-generalize.

I admit to basing my political opinions and worldview on my moral principles. Is this not what everyone does, whether they are pro-choice or pro-life, big government or small government, Republican or Democrat? Could I not have critically thought through a problem, examined the nuances and decided on an intelligent solution or idea that is identified as conservative? It is fairly egotistical to believe that one political party or ideology has all the answers. I can see the point that you are making about Republicans and admit that some of your points are valid, but don’t miss the beam in your own eye.

peter said...

Just one clarification...all the answers to worldly problems, I wouldn't dream of implying that the Lord didn't have all the answers.

Iliana said...

peter, or his wife of whoever wrote that speaks better than me and shares my opinion. librals aren't the only critical thinkers buddy. there sure seem to be a ton of Obama kool-aid drinkers that have missed the boat on thinking critically. I'm glad that when it comes down to it, we all get to make our own discisions on whatever grounds we want. moral, spiritual, logically, or whatever, thank goodness we can decide for ourselves. I like people who stick to their guns when after much thought, it becomes thier moral conscience that drives them.

Jacob S. said...

My point wasn't that conservatives are unable to think critically. My point was that anyone, from anywhere on the ideological spectrum, that sees the world with moral certainty, black and white, is less likely to think critically about the issues. From my experience this is more likely to occur among conservatives, but it is found among plenty of liberals, as well.

But what's more, many conservatives count it as a point of pride. Do you remember the 2004 election? John Kerry was absolutely derided for his nuanced answers and positions. The Hannity/Limbaugh/Beck crowd and their millions of constituents called him wishy-washy, flip-flopper, elitist, etc.

But I honestly have no doubt that you, Iliana and Kristy, are critical thinkers, and I didn't mean to imply that.

SO said...

Iliana - if your kool-aid comment was a Jimmy Jones reference, then you just jumped a few spots in my book. Excellent reference.

Critical thinking, conversation, debate, curiosity, hope, etc. These are the prospects of a better world. We'll keep posting our points of view, and hope others will too.