Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Morality and Liberalism

The liberal order depends on tolerance. In a democracy, people who disagree radically with each other are going to share the public space. You can't kill or jail the opposition, so you have to live with them. Since you have to live with them, it is often argued, you are better off refraining from insults and trying to treat everyone with respect.

This makes many people uncomfortable, and always has. Many people think the views of the opposition are not just mistaken but evil; consider debates over abortion or the invasion of foreign countries. Why, people of strong views want to know, are they obligated to act respectfully toward people advocating wicked ideas?

This comes to mind because Stanley Fish has a column this week about the old rhetorical device known as "tu quoque," or, "you're another." Criticized for some action, the speaker responds by pointing out that his accusers are no better and have often done the same. Accused of uncivil attacks on the President, whom they have called a Kenyan Muslim America-hating socialist liar, Republicans respond that the left was equally vile to George W. Bush. I agree with Fish that this is silly distraction:
I want to say that this is a bad move (and a cheap trick) because it deflects attention from the substantive claims being made and puts the spotlight instead on propositional consistency. The better move (by either party) would have been to insist that Obama or Bush was in fact those things and to back up the assertion with the marshaling of evidence. The better move, in short, would have been to take a stand on truth rather than shifting the focus to a calculation of reciprocal fairness. What gives someone the high moral ground is that he or she is right, not that he or she is fair.
On the other hand, as Fish points out, fairness rather than moral correctness is the core of democracy; the system does not guarantee that the right decisions are made, it only lays out a more or less fair means of making them. I have always suspected Fish of totalitarian tendencies, and he reveals them again in this column. Noting Kant's argument that states should stay away from moral controversy and only pass laws that almost everyone assents to, he says:
This seems admirable, but what it means is that moral judgment is forever deferred and made subordinate to the supposedly greater good of allowing all viewpoints to flourish. (Why that is the greater good I have never been able to understand.)
Fish supports democracy and free discourse only to the extent that they work toward the right answers, or the answers he thinks are right. When the democratic process leads to results that he finds immoral, he has no trouble attacking democracy; right and wrong, he believes, matter more than process.

It strikes me that Fish is clear about something that gets garbled in the politics of the Tea Party and their ilk. Like Fish, populist American conservatives have values that they think are eternally true and not subject to a vote in the free market of ideas. But among the things they believe are that America is great, ordinary Americans are wise, the Constitution is perfect, and American Democracy the greatest of human creations (if it was not somehow ordained by God). So what are they to think when the American system they value so highly produces results that they find immoral or wrong? They must believe that their beautiful system has somehow been hijacked and the true will of the people foiled. Thus their obsession with voter fraud, of which political scientists can find very little evidence, or with somehow demonstrating that Obama is not the legitimate President. Real Americans don't vote for socialism, so Democratic victories must stem from criminal conspiracies; real American leaders stand up for "American values," so a President who believes in universal health care and peace must not really be the President.

No comments: