Saturday, September 14, 2002

Moral Equivalence

Let’s talk about moral equivalence. Millions of heads are dizzy since 9/11, due to the surfacing of this concept. It was always there, usually found in the conceptual furniture of the academic left. But now that Arab culture has been thrown into the spotlight by bin Laden and shown to be one about which it is appropriate for the dean of Middle East historians, Bernard Lewis, to ask, “What went wrong?”, leftists have been bringing the concept out of the ivory tower and using it as a premise for defending that which would ordinarily be thought evil. Six months after 9/11, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flared up. The moral equivalence pundits turned up the volume of their message, so that the people defending themselves would be seen as just as wicked as the people murdering them. There are plenty of other examples. I won’t mention them. You can go find them easily. What is the idea behind this message of moral equivalence? The answer is threefold.

Egalitarianism. All people are equal. All cultures are equal. It is arrogant and nasty to consider one culture worse than another. It is wrong to take sides in a dispute; that’s bias. One should mediate it evenhandedly, so that it is resolved peacefully.

The trouble is that in leftist hands egalitarianism becomes an undiscriminating caricature of itself that doesn’t hold true often enough to be considered a sound principle. In some contexts it sounds true. When two different cultures are thriving and producing people who live good lives without injuring others, it is nasty for a member of one to consider the other inferior. When a judge hears a suit, it is wrong for him to start out making an unwarranted assumption about who is right.

Of course. But some cultures do not produce people who are apt to live good lives and refrain from using others as mere means to their own happiness. Therefore, the moral equivalence of all cultures is untenable. Criminals are not equal to the rest of us; they are people of lower moral standing than Mother Theresa or even than the average person. Sometimes the judge has heard the evidence already and is indeed morally and evidentially entitled to favor one side. These are things about which we should say, “of course,” as well. But when you discuss current events with the moral equivalence pundits, they will mumble something about these examples being red herrings. They will try to bring the conversation back to the cases of genuine equality, in culture or in evidential standing, in order to obscure the difference. Don’t let them do it. Tell them, “But wait a minute, in the case in question, the evidence is now in, just as much as in the case of Mother Theresa versus the criminal. Have you read the historical documents of the case? A is guilty and bad, and B is innocent and good. Culture A is not as good as culture B. You’re confused. You have in mind the time when we hadn’t yet examined the evidence.” Moral equivalence pundits cling to their caricature of egalitarianism and will therefore ignore and suppress evidence of genuine inequality. This makes it impossible for them to join in upholding good moral standards. But why on earth do they think that way? There must be a more fundamental reason.

Marxism. Not “Marxism”, really, but an insidious remnant of the creed, according to which a society’s standards are always attributable to a cultural background and therefore have no better foundation than any other society’s moral standards. You’ll get this in college. “If you grew up there, you’d have their values, too,” you’ll be instructed, as if it proved something. The professor will remind you of the egalitarian principle I mentioned, about the arrogance of judging other cultures to be bad. The Marxist addition to this innocent-sounding principle is that there can never be reason to make exceptions to it because the moment when “the evidence is now in” never happens. Why? Because there is no such thing as “evidence.” Standards are just the effects of culture and this goes for standards of evidence, too. Standards have no real basis.

You send your kid to college to learn how to think - basically, to evaluate evidence - but instead he’s often taught that doing so is impossible and, even worse, that the notion that it is possible is a trick foisted on the oppressed by the oppressors who offer up thoughts the acceptance of which as evidentially justified will benefit the oppressors. Don’t let this happen to your kid. Suggest that your kid ask his professor whether he has any reason for the belief that good reasons are a myth and moral judgment a ruse. Or email the professor yourself and ask whether he has a reason why the moral judgment that all morals are equally good is good while the judgment that only some are good is bad.

Of course cultures give rise to morals. But some of these morals are ones for which we can find abundant reason, while others are not. Cultures give rise to every hypothesis in science, too, but not every scientific hypothesis is equal. The one about the earth being flat turned out to be false, while the one about the earth being round turned out to be true. It’s a silly business, this Marxist remnant. No one could believe it, unless there were something else pushing him to do so. What’s really going on?

Envy (and guilt). I remember that when I was a child I sometimes envied people who were better than me. I sometimes wished them to be taken down a notch or two, so that I wouldn’t have to endure the indignity of being lesser any longer. Okay, you caught me; I still do this as an adult, from time to time, when I’m bested. I’m only human. The problem is that a deficit in moral character in this sort of situation can lead to real problems. Winners can drive losers mad. The excellent inadvertently put the mediocre through spasms of twee rage.

What does this have to do with moral equivalence? There is a dominant culture of excellence today. It produces people who lead good lives and who are not likely to take advantage of others. It acts as policeman to the world and throws its huge military weight around. Imagine living in an ivory tower defending a nutty, multiculturalist, socialist utopianism that has now been deemed of lesser value by most of your country. You watch the Big Man strutting around, with his wealth and his happy, judgmental, confident and proud demeanor - it’s enough to drive you mad with envy. Champion the cause of the poor! This will help alleviate your guilt for not being poor, and it will give you a chance for revenge against Big Man. You’ll be able suppress your feelings of envy and guilt if you take up the leftist cause without flinching, no matter what flaws someone might find in your reasoning. Find out Big Man’s sins; try to bring him down a notch or two. Didn’t his spy agency put an evil dictator into power Nicaragua or somewhere like that? Of course, the regime was better than the alternative, but still, that can score a point if you twist it hard enough. And didn’t Big Man make some pretty valueless mass entertainment and some ugly suburbs? Yes, Big Man isn’t so great, and you can put him in his place. If you squint your eyes and cock your head to the side, it almost looks as though his record is morally equivalent to that of every other culture. And surely his values are no better, either.

That’s the ticket! We’re all equal, so he’s wrong to strut around with such arrogant pride and to meddle in others’ affairs. And Big Man’s values derive from cultural contingencies, just as anyone else’s values do, so they have no better foundation. If there aren’t any reasons, then you don’t have to listen to any. Yes, that eases the pain of failure and gives you a chance for stunning success. Radical chic feels so much better than envy and guilt! Grab onto it for all your worth and let logic be damned! It’s either that or admit that you’re a loser. A society of people living bad lives? Blame Big Man, be he Israeli or American. After all, he’s no better than anyone else, but he hogs all the happiness to himself and shoots at the poor people when they try to take their fair share away from him. Put him in his place! By any means necessary, even violence. After all, he uses violence, too. What if you’re a successful, wealthy leftist (where “wealthy” means able to afford a house, a TV, and a car)? Well, you don’t give all your wealth to the poor, of course. You find an excuse to keep the wealth. But you find the idea of maintaining the moral standards according to which you are entitled to your wealth and success to be a guilt-ridden prospect. You’re not up to it. You therefore envy the Big Man, who is able to embrace his success with no excuses and with guilt-free gusto. Those healthy, confident, smiling, blonde fat cats in their expensive new cars! Damn them!!

You won’t just embrace the nonsense of moral equivalence. You’ll even say it: “Big Man got what was coming to him on 9/11”. Envy, guilt, and cognitive dissonance can lead the mind into very dark places. You’ll say anything to get out of those places. Even that. Of course, you'll hedge, hem, and haw when confronted about that. Cognitive dissonance.

It’s all nonsense: Marxism and a mindless form of egalitarianism, both based on envy (and guilt). The leftist idea of moral equivalence is based on a mixture of nonsensical ideas and feelings of envy. This is the only good explanation for the phenomenon. There certainly aren’t any good reasons for moral equivalence, so I’ve had to look for psychological sources. Leftists who uphold moral equivalence are in a state of cognitive and emotive dysfunction. They need help. Do not turn a cold shoulder. Go the extra mile. Be kind, and lift them up. Approach them, show patience, compassion and sternness, and make an effort to correct their thinking. Show them their errors. Emphasize the compassion in your delivery. Otherwise, they’ll think you’re just Big Man lording it over them again.