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Morality, Preference, and Other People

February 19, 2014

In this week’s Sunday NYT column on parenting, Ross Douthat speaking of himself says that “a Catholic columnist should presumably be trying to talk his acquaintances into having as many kids as possible.” There are two weasels here, a small and a big. The small one is “presumably,” a throwaway hesitation to acknowledge the contradictory narrative, which is that he sometimes complains about how much work it is to raise children. He doesn’t mean it.

The big one is the “wait, what?” of manipulating one’s acquaintances—not friends, which seems intentional—into having more or fewer children. His tongue may be in his cheek, but this only works if the enthymeme is that the right thing to do is have more children. It’s pretty clear from Douthat’s oeuvre, including this column, that this is, in fact, what he believes.

As a Catholic columnist this makes sense and the logic that takes one from “I believe that it’s right to have many children” to “I will try to persuade others to have many children” is clear. Matthew 28:19 (“go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) makes Christianity a noxious spirochete of imposition. Without this nifty turn, surely central to the ideology’s global success, there is no underlying logic that takes one from belief to persuasion beyond a sick will to power, which is common enough. I find the religions without the evangelizing gene—thinking in particular of Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism—far less offensive, and more congenial to a civil society.

But religious folks are far from the only ones executing this move, and in fact my experience is that it’s endemic to contemporary discourse, perhaps as a function of the internet. I recently engaged in an argument on Twitter not about whether it was right to continue to love the molester Woody Allen’s movies but about the perspicacity of calling “wrong” those who would go the other way. My interlocutor beat a hasty retreat when I pointed out the clear insanity of what she was saying, that it was wrong, with all that word’s freighted moralism, for someone to be so squicked out by the fact (or likelihood, take your pick) that he molested his daughter so as to no longer enjoy what he made.

In rhetorical situations like these, the most that one can reasonably express is a preference: I want it to be this way. I want to ignore Allen’s crimes when I watch Crimes and Misdemeanors; I want others to do the same, or don’t understand it when they don’t. The language of morality is almost always a superfluous appendage, and even if it’s not its primary function is almost always to cloud. Few positions are furthered buttressed by right and wrong.

The effect of this state of affairs on civil discourse, in my opinion, is profound. In the context of healthcare, for example, ready access to moral language licenses a broad spectrum of Republican condemnations of the Affordable Care Act, from hysterical (and demonstrably false) declamations of socialized medicine (=wrong ipso facto) to expressions of the belief that it is wrong to take money from the healthy to subsidize insurance for the sick. It is demonstrably true that the ACA does this. It is also demonstrably true that our current financing mechanism—indeed, any insurance-based financing mechanism—does this. But the insertion of “wrong,” rather than “not my preference” or “inadvisable” or “a bad idea” makes this conversation well-nigh impossible to hold.

The reality is that the Republican position is simply a preference not to have the government much involved in providing healthcare for its citizens. Whether supported by economic analysis, instinct, or blind ideology, this is a perfectly respectable preference, in my opinion. It’s not my preference—I prefer that everyone in my society have access to affordable healthcare—but it’s reasonable and could serve as the launching pad for a civil conversation wherein it is explained, evidence is brought in, and alternatives are explored, including the alternative of doing nothing. The resort to the language of right and wrong leaves none of these options open.

All this is a species of a long tension in Western thought, of the Enlightenment hedge against Platonism. The privileging of process over content has always been as ambiguous as Kantian noumena as to whether the mechanism was the end or merely the best means we had to a greater (Platonic, formal) truth. But Platonism, the belief in immaterial objects, is as infectious a belief as has been promulgated, with a deadly tendency to destroy all it touches. We are better off following the early Wittgenstein and cutting the cord.


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