One often finds, among highly educated people, the belief that moral judgment is a matter of study, reflection, and analysis — that nuance is inherently superior to assertiveness. But it isn’t at all clear why this should be so. Moral dilemmas aren’t intellectual problems, but rather calls to action.
In normal individuals, a well-trained moral sense becomes the guide to right action, driven by the logic of the situation: if p then q. For example, if an adult is savagely attacking a small child, then I must intervene and put a stop to the abuse. Or if a stranger drops a wallet full of money, then I must return it to its owner.
Most moral dilemmas are of this sort. One may be afraid to intervene and save the child — one may be tempted to keep the money — but I’m not sure what would be added by more facts or deeper analysis, other than the possibility of failing to do the right thing.
The worship of nuance in morality leads quickly to an inability to judge, then to the glorification of nonjudgmentalism. Every situation is too complex. Everyone is a sinner, and all the sinners saints. This attitude has become ingrained among us: if I call someone “judgmental” it invariably implies criticism, aimed at a Victorian prissy.
In this context, it is interesting to read (via Instapundit) Walter Shapiro’s characterization of John Edwards’ fall from public grace. Edwards, put simply, is the latest of a long line of politicians who cheated on their wives then lied about it. Shapiro, while happy to tar Vice President Cheney with “megalomania,” presents himself as a naif in the Edwards soap opera: who, knowing the man as he did, would have suspected him of “reckless behavior and shameless hypocrisy”?
Now, to give Shapiro credit, “hypocrisy” comes close to a judgment. In fact, however, Edwards lied. In the scale of vices, hypocrisy pales before dishonesty.
But “reckless behavior”? Are to to infer that the lying and the hypocrisy meant to conceal the fact Edwards was taking a risk with his career? But why was it risky business in the first place — because Edwards was a politician, and the voters demand an unfair standard of their office-holders?
That is where Shapiro finally comes down: “If we stopped expecting would-be presidents to be paragons of marital fidelity and shining examples of religious faith in the public sphere, we would not set ourselves up for constant disappointment at human frailty.”
As the late, great Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote: “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” We should practice forgiveness because the flesh is weak. At any given moment, any person may yield to temptation. But human frailty is the reason we need morality in the first place, and converting moral failure into a prudential or political calculation merely expands the circle of immorality.
Edwards’ actions weren’t reckless — they were wrong. Whether we were disappointed in him or not, they would remain wrong. In fact, our expectations are totally irrelevant to the case. Suppose, for example, that a “would-be president” turned out to be a murderer or a thief. What would our disappointment add or detract to the meanness of his deeds? He might be condemned or forgiven, but his character couldn’t be wiped clean. And, in the end, many of us look to a politician’s character, more than to ideology, when we choose our office-holders.
Public discourse in this country has been strangely warped by the nonjudgmental taboo, but in the end Americans pass judgments. That’s why Edwards has (in Shapiro’s word) “flatlined” as a political figure.
In Britain, if this depressing article by Theodore Dalrymple (via City Journal) is accurate, Shapiro’s low expectations for politicians have been extended to the entire population. Violation of the most basic human obligations, like that of a mother for her children, inspire no repugnance in the articulate classes, but rather anger against those who would judge such frailty.
Dalrymple relates several cases of dreadful parental neglect. Fiona MacKeown, for example, in 2007 went on a six-month vacation to Goa, India, with a boyfriend and eight children by five fathers — the whole thing paid for by the dole. She abandoned one of her daughters, a 15-year-old, with a man ten years older whom she scarcely knew, then moved on with her vacation. After a series of sordid events, the daughter’s dead body turned up on a Goa beach.
Fiona MacKeown rejects accusations of parental neglect. That is to be expected. Just as predictable is the support she has received from the liberal press in Britain. Here’s the Guardian: “The opprobium . . . served up to Fiona MacKeown . . . has been hideous to behold.” Why hideous? Well, men who have children by many women are considered “studs,” while women who do the same by many men get labelled “hussies.” Everyone is a sinner, and all the sinners saints.
Dalrymple, one of my favorite Brits, reflects on the matter:
What explains the nonjudgmental attitude among elites? The reluctance to criticize Fiona MacKeown might be an expression of sympathy for someone in the throes of grief: however foolishly (or worse) she behaved, she certainly did not deserve the murder of her daughter. Furthermore, the Guardian and Observer journalists might argue, we do not know enough about the details of her life to criticize her fairly. Perhaps she is a good mother in most respects; perhaps her children, apart from the drug addict and the murdered Scarlett, are happy, and will lead lives of fulfillment and achievement. After all, no style of upbringing guarantees success or, for that matter, failure; and therefore we should suspend judgment about her.
I suspect, however, that the main consideration inhibiting elite criticism of MacKeown is that passing judgment would call into question the shibboleths of liberal social policy for the last 50 or 60 years — beliefs that give their proponents a strong sense of moral superiority. It would be to entertain the heretical thought that family structure might matter after all, along with such qualities as self-restraint and self-respect; and that welfare dependency is unjust to those who pay for it and disastrous for those who wind up trapped in it.
Maybe so. But contempt for the family is part of a larger problem: the rationalist impulse, which seeks to impose abstract formulas on resistant human flesh. The rationalist seeks nuance when action is called for, and holds traditional institutions like the family, and traditional notions of right and wrong, to be simplistic if not primitive. The marital oath, the mother’s obligation to her children, every form of duty passed down from our ancestors — the very idea of virtue, a word never uttered without irony — are considered invitations to hypocrisy.
In its latest incarnation, the rationalist reflex has tended to devolve into a kind of mindless hedonism, of the kind that produced Fiona MacKeown. It’s a miserable existence, a drifting through chaos and dark night. Instead of achievements one has impulses. Instead of spouses one has transient “partners.” Instead of a moral community one has the mirror. Instead of duties one has state support.
Morality, which makes acceptable and predictable the behavior of strangers, constitutes community. A nation that has lost its moral convictions, therefore, has become a aggregation of private desires. It can survive in that state only until it encounters aggression: until the first challenge that requires, for the survival of the group, self-discipline and self-sacrifice. At that moment — in disregard of rationalist formulas and the pieties of Guardian editorials — an irrevocable judgment will be rendered.