Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Gut reactions

I'm going take another swipe at Collin Hansen's recent article, but before I do so I'd like to put the issue in a larger context. Ethicists often use hypotheticals to illustrate or undercut certain moral intuitions. Since these thought-experiments are abstract and artificial, no one really gets hurt. By the same token, I see lots of Christians who have bad rules of thumb for making ethical evaluations. Now, in normal times, society has enough padding that you can get away with illogical reasoning. Society is so big and diffuse that it can absorb many mistakes. 

However, in more extreme times, due to the cumulative impact of codified falsehoods and detrimental social policies, we no longer have that buffer. At that juncture, additional illogical justifications become exponentially more costly. 

I'd add that even before we get to that point, having bad rules of thumb for making ethical evaluations can still be very harmful at an individual level. Take medical decisions involving an elderly relative–or a family member who was wheeled into the ER after a terrible traffic accident. 

Christians need to have the right tools in their ethical toolbox for personal ethics and social ethics. The cummulative consequences of poor reasoning can be calamitous. That's why I did a recent post on some popular terminological fallacies:

Keep in mind that voters using bad rules of thumb are what got Trump nominated in the first place. When enough people shirk reason and evidence, that's the dire result. 

Back to Hansen:

To the older evangelicals planning to vote for Trump: You can try to explain the difference in electing a president and hiring a 23-year-old college graduate to evangelize students. You can say we’re electing a commander in chief and not a Sunday school teacher. You can say that God often raises up pagan leaders to deliver his people from their enemies. But no one is fooled by your arguments. 
They can see you will apparently excuse anything in a Republican nominee so long as the alternative is a manifestly unqualified Clinton. And they will conclude that they don’t really need to listen to you when it comes to “traditional, biblical ethics.” 

i) Notice how Hansen frames the issue. What he's done, no doubt unintentionally, is insidiously evil. He's cast the issue in a way that subverts rational persuasion. He preemptively discredits any explanation or justification in this case as "hypocritical". You'd be a "fool" to accept those arguments. Stop listening. 

That's a very dangerous tactic, because the liberal establishment will be only too happy to apply that to any Christian argument for Christian ethics. No one is fooled by arguments against abortion. That's just a cover to control women's bodies. No one is fooled by arguments for religious liberty. That's just a cover for homophobia, transphobia, bigotry, and intolerance. And so on and so forth.

How we frame a moral issue can be just as important as the issue itself, for if we get into the habit of miscasting issues, that sets a bad precedent. People build on that false premise to derive harmful conclusions. Notice how liberals routinely turn outrageous assumptions into unquestionable assumptions, then build on that rotten foundation. 

ii) Another problem with Hansen's contention is that he simply posits an analogy between voting for president and hiring criteria at a Christian organization. Notice that he doesn't provide an actual supporting argument to show how those are, in fact, relevantly analogous. He acts as if he should have the benefit of that analogy without having to argue for the analogy. But that begs the question. He seems to be really ticked off by the "religious right," and he's getting something off his chest. He has an inarticulate feeling that there's something deeply wrong. A gut reaction. 

iii) There is, however, nothing disreputable about taking the position that if you're confronted with only two viable candidates, both of whom are equally decadent, but one of whom is likely to promote and impose far more harmful social policies than the other, to vote for the less damaging candidate. That's a morally and intellectually respectable principle in voting. The way to attack the argument is not to attack the principle, but to attack the comparison. And that's a different objection. For instance, one objection to Trump is that, if elected, he will co-opt the conservative movement. He will corrupt the conservative moment from within. That's a legitimate consideration. And that involves a comparison between the overall consequences of each candidate–long-term and well a short-term. But as a matter of principle, there's nothing dishonorable about making choices that mitigate evil, if that's the best you can do. Both candidates have said and done things that ought to disqualify them from holding public office. What if both candidates fail minimal standards? 

iv) Finally, if I were arguing for Trump, I wouldn't say things like "we're electing a commander-in-chief, not a pastor-in-chief". The problem with that comparison is that it acts as if there should be no standards for president. An amoral Realpolitik philosophy. 

However, even that comparison does have a grain of truth. Gen. Patton would make a poor pastor. John Piper would make a poor president. (For one thing, Piper's a pacifist.) There are things that disqualify someone for pastoral ministry that don't disqualify someone from military command. What we want in a general is a guy with a good head for strategy and tactics. Adaptable intelligence. Situational awareness. If you're in a war for national survival, and your best general is a personal creep, you use your best general. 

Now, someone might object that my own analogy begs the question. Is Trump comparable to Patton? I agree. My analogy was deliberately weak at that point. I think it's a valid analogy to illustrate a point of principle. But whether the principle applies to Trump is a different question. I'm not making a case for Trump. But I am making a case for certain principles in decision-making. 

These are principles we need to keep in mind moving forward. This is important over and above the current race for president. Irrespective of who wins, and the consequences of that election, we need to frame ethical issues properly for the battles ahead.

1 comment:

  1. Collin Hansen:

    "To the older evangelicals..."

    What does "older" have to do with any of this?

    Otherwise, isn't it somewhat disrespectful of our elders? Perhaps it may even smack of generationism.