Commentary Magazine


Topic: morality

Let Us Now Praise Public Morality

By the time New York’s Democrats voted in their primary this week, the issue that transfixed the chattering classes earlier in the year had virtually disappeared. As it turns out, both of the disgraced celebrity politicians who sought redemption in this year’s municipal elections were soundly thrashed. The prospect that the political careers of both Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer are over is a source of understandable grief to headline writers and the bottom lines of New York’s tabloids, but the rest of the nation surely breathed a sigh of relief at the demise of the hopes of that unholy duo. That should cause those of us who wondered about what the ability of such figures to survive personal scandals meant for America to not be quite as shy about putting forward a case for public morality in the future.

The idea that public figures should be held to a standard of moral conduct is widely ridiculed by most of the chattering classes these days. It’s not that they approve of aberrant or immoral behavior, they tell us, but when those in the cross hairs of scandalmongers are either useful or popular, especially if they are liberals, then we are told not to confuse private conduct with public duties. The notion that there can be any link between immorality and qualification for high office is generally considered to be either passé or downright perverse. But it is also possible that after Weiner and Spitzer flopped at the polls, what we are seeing is that many voters, even in cosmopolitan New York, expect more from those they entrust with public honors than pop stars. If so, then that is something we should not only welcome but also encourage.

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By the time New York’s Democrats voted in their primary this week, the issue that transfixed the chattering classes earlier in the year had virtually disappeared. As it turns out, both of the disgraced celebrity politicians who sought redemption in this year’s municipal elections were soundly thrashed. The prospect that the political careers of both Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer are over is a source of understandable grief to headline writers and the bottom lines of New York’s tabloids, but the rest of the nation surely breathed a sigh of relief at the demise of the hopes of that unholy duo. That should cause those of us who wondered about what the ability of such figures to survive personal scandals meant for America to not be quite as shy about putting forward a case for public morality in the future.

The idea that public figures should be held to a standard of moral conduct is widely ridiculed by most of the chattering classes these days. It’s not that they approve of aberrant or immoral behavior, they tell us, but when those in the cross hairs of scandalmongers are either useful or popular, especially if they are liberals, then we are told not to confuse private conduct with public duties. The notion that there can be any link between immorality and qualification for high office is generally considered to be either passé or downright perverse. But it is also possible that after Weiner and Spitzer flopped at the polls, what we are seeing is that many voters, even in cosmopolitan New York, expect more from those they entrust with public honors than pop stars. If so, then that is something we should not only welcome but also encourage.

It must be admitted that each such case of a transgressor seeking redemption is different. The free pass much of the nation gave—and continues to give—President Clinton for his lies about sex and dalliances with a White House intern in the Oval Office led some, like William Bennett, to lament “the death of outrage” and to rightly point out the deleterious impact this would have on society as a whole. Perhaps if Weiner or Spitzer had not both been generally despised as obnoxious political loners even when they were riding high, they, too, might have been quickly forgiven and their detractors ostracized as Puritan hypocrites. Perhaps also the nature of some of these offenses has something to do with it as straight-forward adultery, such as that committed by former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, was more easily understood by voters in a society where divorce is commonplace than the bizarre doings of Weiner or Spitzer’s money-laundering that enabled his patronage of prostitutes.

Indeed, in Weiner’s case, it was, as was true of Clinton, the lies that were most damnable. Perhaps the time has not yet arrived when Americans will think nothing of a member of the House of Representatives tweeting photos of their genitals to strange women, but I doubt there will ever be much tolerance for those who do such things and then claim that the journalists (like the late Andrew Breitbart) who reported it were perpetrating a hoax. Nor will the public ever accept a politician who claims he’s reformed and then is revealed to have continued his mad behavior long after he said he went straight, as Weiner did.

But in a country whose worst problems are caused in no small measure by social pathologies such as illegitimacy and the breakdown of the family, can we really afford to be blasé about those who aspire to lead the nation whose personal immorality becomes a matter of public record?

To praise public morality doesn’t mean that we should be putting politicians who can’t behave in the stocks. We all make mistakes and those who are not reticent about casting the first stone should remember what happened to the political careers of adulterous House Republicans who impeached Clinton on charges relating to sexual impropriety. Neither party has a monopoly on morality or truth.

But it does mean that we should not treat these matters as lightly as many in the media would have us do when their favorites are not the targets of the tabloids. Outrage about wrongdoing doesn’t mean we must chain those who sin to a rock. A nation with high moral standards need not be a nation of saints, but it is one that knows the difference between right and wrong. Heaven help us if we ever become a country where not knowing that difference is no longer a political problem. The idea that there is no connection between loose morals and public integrity is a theory that admirers of John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and others adhere to. But that is a case that is hard to make for most ordinary politicians whose honesty is usually a fungible commodity.

Earlier this year, Mark Sanford ran for and won a congressional seat by apologizing endlessly for his misdeeds. That played well in a religious state where belief in redemption is widespread. Weiner and Spitzer’s apologies were perfunctory and quickly abandoned and they found out that in sophisticated New York, not so many people love a former sinner as in the south. Let’s hope their defeats will serve as an example that will help remind our leaders that their belief that they have impunity to misbehave says more about their egos than it does public opinion.

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Whose Morality?

In this interview with Relevant magazine the journalist Peter Hitchens, a Christian, was asked what he says to people who would say–as a good many people do these days–“Who are you to tell me that your morality is more right than mine?” To which Hitchens responded:

I would say the source of morality is not me. I’m merely informing you of another authority that seems to have a good deal more force than I could ever command. But in the end, of course, the illusion of self-authority—which has been one of the major developments of the past 100 years—has persuaded people that they need no such thing. And not only that they don’t need the concept of the deity, but that they actively want there not to be such a thing, which is one of the reasons the new atheism is such a passionate, intolerant and in many cases, rather unpleasant phenomenon. The people who have adopted it actively want there not to be a god. They know that if there is a god then that god must be a source of authority. If a purposeful creator made the universe in which we live, it would be idle to imagine that you could ignore that creator’s desires as to how you should live.

Mr. Hitchens is quite right. For some time now one of the most powerful currents of thought in the West is the belief that morality is subjective, that ethical norms are human inventions, and that it’s up to each individual to determine which standards we’ll live by.

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In this interview with Relevant magazine the journalist Peter Hitchens, a Christian, was asked what he says to people who would say–as a good many people do these days–“Who are you to tell me that your morality is more right than mine?” To which Hitchens responded:

I would say the source of morality is not me. I’m merely informing you of another authority that seems to have a good deal more force than I could ever command. But in the end, of course, the illusion of self-authority—which has been one of the major developments of the past 100 years—has persuaded people that they need no such thing. And not only that they don’t need the concept of the deity, but that they actively want there not to be such a thing, which is one of the reasons the new atheism is such a passionate, intolerant and in many cases, rather unpleasant phenomenon. The people who have adopted it actively want there not to be a god. They know that if there is a god then that god must be a source of authority. If a purposeful creator made the universe in which we live, it would be idle to imagine that you could ignore that creator’s desires as to how you should live.

Mr. Hitchens is quite right. For some time now one of the most powerful currents of thought in the West is the belief that morality is subjective, that ethical norms are human inventions, and that it’s up to each individual to determine which standards we’ll live by.

But as C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, while some of what we learn is mere convention (like whether we drive on the left or right side of the road), much of what we learn is (like mathematics) based on real truths. “If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality,” Lewis wrote, “or Christian morality to Nazi morality.”

Over the years I’ve asked acquaintances of mine (including Peter’s late brother, Christopher) the grounds on which a person who doesn’t believe in God makes the case for inherent human dignity. How does one make the case against injustice if you begin with two propositions: the universe was created by chance and it will end in nothing? How do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others apart from theism? How do you get from the “is” to the “ought”? And just what is the response to someone who says, “Your belief is fine for you but it’s irrelevant to me. God is dead and I choose to follow my own path. It happens to include gulags and gas chambers. You may not agree, but there is no philosophical or moral ground on which you can base your claim.”

It’s never been clear to me, then, on what basis we can argue that people can have intrinsic or attributive worth if we deny God and His transcendent truth. 

To his credit, this question troubled even Friedrich Nietzsche (though it doesn’t seem to much trouble the so-called New Atheists). Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, author of American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, has written, “From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct.”

One final observation on all this: The reason Real Morality exists isn’t based on divine censoriousness, arbitrary and capricious, whose intention is to stamp out pleasure wherever it is found. It’s to create moral norms that are based on the design of human nature. The purpose is to advance human flourishing–for us as individuals to lead more fulfilled lives and to repair the brokenness that exists in all of our lives. In the debate about moral truth this fact is too often overlooked.

It probably doesn’t help that over the years some of those who have been vocal advocates for Real Morality are less winsome than they are “wound tight with anger,” in the words of the author Philip Yancey. Nonetheless the moral law within us, like the starry sky above us, exists; and its Author, who created us, cannot be wished out of existence by any of us.

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Moral Presuppositions and Politics

In an essay that appears in a book he edited, Imaginative Apologetics, the theologian Andrew Davison tells about being in India and coming across a person with leprosy. As a Christian, he saw the leper and felt compassion and aided him, though much to the unease of Indians. It then struck him that those who believe in karma and reincarnation, as Hindus do, see a leper as someone atoning for past sins and doing what needs to be done for a future, and better, reincarnation. So they interpreted aiding the leper as doing something inappropriate.

Davison wrote, “We do not first see neutrally, and then interpret. The leper is seen as unfortunate, as someone upon whom to show pity, or seen as a miscreant, as someone to be reviled. Axioms operate at this very direct level as well as in more discursive reasoning.”

Professor Davison uses this illustration to show how our worldviews shape our interpretation of events and reality, to demonstrate how people can see the same situation and react to them in wholly different ways. 

This doesn’t mean there is no such thing as objective truth. I’m not post-modern enough to believe that reality is something that is simply shaped by, and objectionable actions can be simply excused by, interpretation. But Davison’s illustration can help civilize our politics just a bit. Let me explain what I mean.

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In an essay that appears in a book he edited, Imaginative Apologetics, the theologian Andrew Davison tells about being in India and coming across a person with leprosy. As a Christian, he saw the leper and felt compassion and aided him, though much to the unease of Indians. It then struck him that those who believe in karma and reincarnation, as Hindus do, see a leper as someone atoning for past sins and doing what needs to be done for a future, and better, reincarnation. So they interpreted aiding the leper as doing something inappropriate.

Davison wrote, “We do not first see neutrally, and then interpret. The leper is seen as unfortunate, as someone upon whom to show pity, or seen as a miscreant, as someone to be reviled. Axioms operate at this very direct level as well as in more discursive reasoning.”

Professor Davison uses this illustration to show how our worldviews shape our interpretation of events and reality, to demonstrate how people can see the same situation and react to them in wholly different ways. 

This doesn’t mean there is no such thing as objective truth. I’m not post-modern enough to believe that reality is something that is simply shaped by, and objectionable actions can be simply excused by, interpretation. But Davison’s illustration can help civilize our politics just a bit. Let me explain what I mean.

Most of us assume people see issues – abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, higher taxes on top income earners, entitlement reform, illegal immigration, climate change, judicial originalism, criminal justice, enhanced interrogation techniques, drone strikes, the Iraq war, and many others – through essentially the same prism we do. But it’s rather more complicated than that. 

Our interpretative frame and intellectual and moral tropisms are the product of many factors. The philosopher Cornelius Van Til once said that there is no such thing as a brute fact. Our presumptions alter the way we interpret things, including justice. For example, if one views abortion entirely through the lens of a woman’s right to choose, then restricting abortions is a gratuitous offense. If one views abortion through the prism of the rights of an unborn child, on the other hand, then subsidizing abortion is a grave transgression.

Or take same sex marriage. Some believe championing gay marriage places one on the side of equality, tolerance, and human dignity, as heirs of the civil rights struggle. On the flip side, opponents of gay marriage often root their views in their understanding of male-female complementarity, procreation and the health of the institution of marriage. They are acting to defend what they believe are traditional and necessary social norms. The differences on this issue can be explained by reasons other than bigotry on the one hand or wanting to rip apart our social fabric on the other.

What happens is we tend to deny to those with whom we disagree any benefit of the doubt. We assume they see facts, events and justice just as we do, which makes their differing conclusions from us very nearly inexplicable. This in turn makes it easy to characterize one’s opponents as malignant. Only a cretin could hold views at odds with ours. See Paul Krugman’s attitude toward those who differ with him for more.

It really would help our political culture if we understood that every one of us has an imperfect angle on reality and that our presuppositions refract truth. That our perception of justice is always distorted, even just a little bit. All of us see through a glass darkly and know things only in part. 

That doesn’t mean that some people aren’t much closer than others to apprehending truth, beauty, and goodness. Nor do I believe for a moment that efforts at persuasion are fruitless. I just happen to believe that Professor Davison’s illustration is a good one to bear in mind from time to time. If we did, our politics might be characterized by a touch more grace, a bit less anger, and a little more sympathy. There are worse things in the world.

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The Law as a Moral Teacher

Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of young professionals, most of whom are conservative. And one of the conversations I had was with a person who was asking me about the link between culture and politics, arguing—as others I know have—that culture is “upstream,” and therefore in many respects more important, than politics.

This question reminded me of a passage from the late Alexander Bickel’s book The Morality of Consent, which deals in part with the competing traditions of Locke-Rousseau and Edmund Burke in Western thought and in American constitutionalism and political process:

The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living. Nor is it bearable. To acknowledge no values at all is to deny a difference between ourselves and other particles that tumble in space. The irreducible value, though not the exclusive one, is the idea of law. Law is more than just another opinion; not because it embodies all right values, or because the values it does embody tend from time to time to reflect those of a majority or plurality, but because it is the value of values. Law is the principal institution through which a society can assert its values.

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Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of young professionals, most of whom are conservative. And one of the conversations I had was with a person who was asking me about the link between culture and politics, arguing—as others I know have—that culture is “upstream,” and therefore in many respects more important, than politics.

This question reminded me of a passage from the late Alexander Bickel’s book The Morality of Consent, which deals in part with the competing traditions of Locke-Rousseau and Edmund Burke in Western thought and in American constitutionalism and political process:

The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living. Nor is it bearable. To acknowledge no values at all is to deny a difference between ourselves and other particles that tumble in space. The irreducible value, though not the exclusive one, is the idea of law. Law is more than just another opinion; not because it embodies all right values, or because the values it does embody tend from time to time to reflect those of a majority or plurality, but because it is the value of values. Law is the principal institution through which a society can assert its values.

That statement seems to me to be quite right, and a nice rejoinder to those who say—with what must be barely a moment’s reflection—that we cannot “legislate morality.” In fact, we have legislated/legislate morality all the time—from slavery and segregation, to abortion and same-sex marriage, to welfare and environmental laws, to crime and drug use, to immigration policy and the global AIDS initiative, to much else. Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child abuse because we decided to legislate morality. It’s even said by some, mostly on the left, that the federal budget is a “moral document.” The law is, in fact, the most comprehensive embodiment of what a free society believes. It tells the world, and each other, who we are and what we believe.

This is not to downplay the significance of culture, which is enormously important to a society. But culture is, in some respects, subconscious and pre-social. The law, by contrast, is something that is actively thought out. That doesn’t mean it’s always well thought out, of course. But laws are a self-governing society’s conscious, willful expression of a set of beliefs and convictions. And among other reasons, that is why politics and government are, for all the complaints we (rightly) might have about them, terribly important and, at their best, something of a high calling. That’s worth bearing in mind even, and maybe especially, during a particularly ferocious presidential election.

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