Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Rule Of Absolutes

     Recent exchanges of fire in national politics have featured accusations by one side that its opponent maintains a “double standard:” specifically, that it condemns members of the opposition for behavior it excuses in its own allegiants. This is common in political combat. Just now, of course, the fusillades have been over accusations of sexual misbehavior: first leveled at Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore by the Democrats, subsequently barraged at various Democrats, including the Dishonorable Al Franken, by Republicans and conservatives. No doubt the Democrats are sorry they ever started that firefight, as it appears likely to scalp many more Democrats than Republicans.

     However, there are at least two varieties of double standard. The one above describes a “standard” one does not apply to one’s own conduct. It’s usually called hypocrisy. (As it’s the most common form of hypocrisy – yes, there’s more than one kind — let’s call it Type I Hypocrisy to distinguish it from the others. What others? Patience; we’ll get there.) There’s another double standard that’s infinitely more important: a standard that exculpates someone who’s committed a moral wrong on the grounds of the “good stuff” he’s done.

     Not everyone would agree that that second version of a double standard is infinitely the more important one. But then, not everyone agrees that there’s such a thing as a moral absolute.

     First, a few words from Robert A. Heinlein on moral absolutes:

     ‘Maureen, when anyone talks about God’s will or God’s intentions or Nature’s intentions if he is afraid to say “God”, I know at once that he is selling a gold brick. To himself, in some cases, as you were just doing. To read a moral law into the fact that about as many males are born as females is to make too much stew from one oyster; it’s as slippery as Post hoc, propter hoc.
     ‘As for your belief that you will never be tempted, here you are, barely dry behind the ears and only a year past first onset of menses... and you think you know all there is to know about the perils of sex... just as every girl your age throughout history has thought. So go right ahead. Jump the fence with your eyes closed. Break your husband’s heart and ruin his pride. Shame your children. Be a scandal in the public square. Get your tubes filed with pus, then let some butcher cut them out in some dirty back room with no ether. Go right ahead, Maureen. Count the world well lost for love. For that’s what sloppy adultery can get you: the world lost all right and an early grave and children who will never speak your name.’
     ‘But, Father, I was saying that I must shun adultery; it’s too dangerous. I think I can manage it.’ I smiled at him and recited:
     ‘“There was a young lady named Wilde – “‘
     Father picked it up:
     ‘“Who kept herself quite undefiled
     By thinking of Jesus,
     Contagious diseases,
     And the dangers of having a child.”
     ‘Yes, I know; I taught you that limerick. Maureen, you failed to mention the safest route to prudent adultery. Yet I know that you’ve heard of it; I mentioned it the day I tried to give you an estimate of the amount of fence jumping going on in this county.’
     ‘I must have missed it, Father.’
     ‘I know I mentioned it. If you’ve just gotta - and the day might come - tell your husband what is biting you, ask his permission, ask for his help, ask him to stand jigger for you.’
     ‘Oh! Yes, you did tell me about two couples like that here in our county... but I could never figure out who they are.’
     ‘I didn’t intend you to. So I threw in a few false clues.’
     ‘I discounted for that, sir, knowing you. But I still couldn’t guess. Father, that seems so undignified. And wouldn’t, uh, my husband be terribly angry?’
     ‘He might give you a fat lip; he won’t divorce you for asking. Then he might help you anyhow, on the sound theory that you would get into worse trouble if he says No. And -’ Father gave a most evil grin,’ - he might discover he enjoys the role.’
     ‘Father, I find that I’m shocked.’
     ‘Then, get over it. Complacent husbands are common throughout history; there is a lot of voyeur in everyone... especially in males but females weren’t left out. He might jump at the chance to help you... because you helped him just that way, six weeks earlier. Stood lookout for him and that young schoolteacher, then you lied like a diploma to cover up for them. Next commandment.’
     ‘Wait a minute, please! I want to talk about this one some more. Adultery.’
     ‘And that is just what I’m not going to let you do. You think about it but not a word out of you on this subject for at least two weeks. Next.’
     ‘Thou shalt not steal. I couldn’t improve that one, Father.’
     ‘Would you steal to feed a baby?’
     ‘Uh, yes.’
     ‘Think about other exceptions; we’ll discuss it in a year or two. But it is a good general rule....’

     I do not endorse the above view. Saying that something is “a good general rule” is the enabling condition for Type I Hypocrisy: applying your “standard” to others while excusing yourself and your own. It’s no more honest than maintaining that your priorities are “right” but any that disagree with them are “wrong.”

     I don’t deny that decision-making pressures can be intense in critical situations – e.g., situations where someone’s life is at stake – but I do maintain that there are moral absolutes, and Commandments Five through Eight (Catholic enumeration) state them with precision. (For a compact treatment of the pressures and complexity, see this essay.)

     Please allow me the stipulation that there are moral absolutes: i.e., rules that state that certain deeds, in an adequately specified context, are absolutely wrong and are therefore forbidden regardless of whatever excuses might be made for them. Given that premise, in discussing such rules we are plainly talking about something other than priorities or preferences:

There is no valid way to compare the violation of a moral absolute with a difference in priorities.

     The above statement, the most important of all principles in moral philosophy, is what I mean by the rule of absolutes.

     All political exchanges concern either moral absolutes or political priorities. In recent years the Left, which is to say the Democrat Party and its annexes in the media, have strained to make every one of its issues about “rights:” i.e., a moral absolute in the political lexicon. When the Democrats have hegemony, they promote their policies as about “rights,” generally without any further justification. When the Republicans gain a foothold in national politics, the Left is at pains to claim that the implementation of Right-favored policies would violate some group’s “rights.”

     This is tactically easy to understand. According to the rule of absolutes, priorities and preferences must always give way to them. Therefore, if you can seize the “moral high ground” by convincing the public that your own contention is about rights while the opponent’s contention is about preferences, you can defeat your opponent “with prejudice.” But of course, the critical word in the previous sentence, as always, is if.

     But note: even if the Democrats are sincere about their “rights” claims, they’ll readily practice a form of hypocrisy – call it Type II Hypocrisy – when one of their own is found to have committed a deed that’s widely recognized as a moral wrong. A few names from the news should suffice to make the point:

  • Roman Polanski
  • John Conyers
  • Al Franken
  • Ted Kennedy
  • Bill Clinton

     The defensive antiphon to the accusation in the cases above was either “but he’s done so much good stuff!” (by Democrats’ preferences) or “we need him!” Both of those replies elevate preferences over moral absolutes. Yet in cases where a political opponent was accused of a similar violation, the Democrats’ chorus of condemnation was immediate and unsparing.

     The Type II Hypocrite deems moral rules to apply only to “the other side.” But consistency about the rule of absolutes would forbid that.

     An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public. – Charles Maurice Talleyrand de Perigord

     The sole escape from the Rule of Absolutes is to deny the existence of moral absolutes – in Stanley Fish’s formulation, to declare that “all preferences are principled.” The Left won’t do that. It would disarm the Democrats’ contentions about “rights” and deprive them of the use of an accusation of (Type I) Hypocrisy when some Republican is found to have violated his presumed moral standard. If Mark Foley is to be driven out of Congress for exchanging sexy email with a teenager, then John Conyers, Al Franken, et cetera must remain vulnerable to the same (and worse) charges. Their retreat to Type II Hypocrisy, which would never pass muster with the Right, is their way of “keeping the troops in line:” maintaining message discipline among their officials and spokesmen.

     Political obfuscation is indispensable to political interplay. Today the most important form is the attempt to co-measure moral absolutes against political preferences as if they belonged on one axis, when in fact they don’t belong on the same graph. But as Talleyrand said above, once the public has become incensed, political survival lies in confusing the issue.

     Food for thought.


BB-Idaho said...

RE: "Type II Hypocrisy, which would never pass muster with the Right"
We will elect a Senator and have elected a President who not only
passed muster with the Right, but in claiming to be a 'man of God'
and a 'man of the people' respectively, are deserving of some type
of hypocrisy IMO. Dunno- maybe Type IV ? But, the entire harassment
phenom begs the question. Is making a suggestive remark in the same
category as raping a young woman? Should we apply Type I..Type IX
to these situations in which the powerful male takes advantage of
his position?

Francis W. Porretto said...

I disagree with your assertions about Roy Moore and Donald Trump absolutely, BB. As for further subcategories of hypocrisy, feel free to work on them on your own time.