Notes From Babel

The Place of Values in Politics

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FLG shared this interesting piece today by Stanley Fish at the NY Times, lamenting the widespread practice of parrying political criticism with tu quoque defenses:

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.

I think I agree, though I hesitate to downplay the value of consistency.  That’s a noble moral quality, too, is it not?  But Fish is right that we oughtn’t engage in “cheap tricks” and technicalities to skirt real, substantive objections against our guy, even if they did it when we lodged real, substantive objections against their guy.

Fish goes on with some deeper insights about the modern political soul:

The solution? Remove beliefs from the political agenda — we’re not going to vote on them or distribute goods on their basis — and come up with a formula for keeping them at bay while respecting the rights of citizens to have them. . . . And how do you do that? By making it a requirement that laws neither reflect the ideological view point of one party nor marginalize and/or stigmatize the ideological viewpoint of some other party. Only pass laws to which persons of any viewpoint could assent: “No one can put anyone else under a legal obligation without submitting simultaneously to a law which requires that he can himself be put under the same kind of obligation by the other person.” 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.)

What was perhaps merely a political expedient—i.e., emptying the moral content of certain topics to make them less politically unwieldy—has disrupted the integrity of our underlying political makeup.  We are, first and foremost, a virtuous people that recognizes certain universal moral precepts; that recognizes this is a world of values, and that laws are designed to assist that people navigate that world of values as that people embarks on its political enterprise together.  At one point in American political history, we led bifurcated lives in which, concerning matters of law, we were obligated to pretend at moral agnosticism; in other matters, conversely, we were obligated to ascertain good and evil, and to praise the former and denounce the latter.  But the triumph of secularism has been to take that narrow realm of legalistic agnosticism and turn it into the rule that governs all aspects of modern life.  The expression of moral values is resigned solely to the narrow domain of home life—and even there it’s not safe.


Written by Tim Kowal

March 15, 2011 at 10:57 pm

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