By Gregory Kyle Klug
April 1, 2021
Contemporary political discourse is prefaced on certain assumptions about what constitutes right and wrong. The core principles are generally not in dispute—people in the U.S. and abroad largely agree that the Golden Rule—or some variation of do unto others what you would have them do unto you—is valid and binding on oneself and one’s neighbors. Despite this consensus, there is and has been vigorous disagreement on what counts as a violation of moral standards. At the heart of these disagreements are certain moral fallacies, i.e. thought-patterns that lead an individual or group to a morally erroneous conclusion. It is possible to conceptualize theoretical stages of moral fallacy as evinced in a particular society. Doing so will help us to observe patterns in the apparent noise of contemporary discourse—news commentary, social media posts, political speeches, etc.—and avoid the critical pitfalls to which all are susceptible. In this essay, moral reality—an objective domain of rights and wrongs that cannot be explained in terms of the subjective experience of human brains—is taken for granted, since the idea of moral reality is as robust and rational as it ever has been in human history.
The first moral fallacy to which society is susceptible is Unreflective Acceptance—or Uncritical Acceptance—which is simply the failure to recognize moral errors in one’s own culture. The fallacy is that If society says it’s ok, then it’s ok. For example, If chattel slavery is legal in my state and accepted by my peers, it is morally permissible; or If my country says women shouldn’t have the right to vote, they shouldn’t have the right to vote. Fallacious thinking of this kind may be unconscious. As such, it betrays self-ignorance. If no one had ever gained the self-knowledge required to escape it, moral progress in society would have been impossible. Unreflective Acceptance is synonymous with a sleeping conscience. People have the potential, however, to awaken to moral reality when moral error is brought to their attention.
In opposition to Unreflective Acceptance, a reflective person asks Why? Perhaps a child asks Why are those children forced to work and I am not? Or Why shouldn’t women have the right to vote in a democracy? In the absence of convincing responses to such questions, the injustice is exposed. One may then challenge the status quoby opposing the moral evil or inequity, and even risk one’s life, wellbeing or reputation in the process, as did historical figures such as Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King Jr. The one who thus thinks freely about his or her culture’s customs and traditions and rejects inadequate justifications of abuse or inconsistency is, by definition, a liberal. Liberalism is the view that the errors or inconsistencies in the traditional practices or beliefs of one’s society ought to be acknowledged as such and duly rejected. Activism takes concrete steps to effect change in light of liberal criticism. Liberal Activism is the antidote to the moral fallacy of Unreflective Acceptance.
Uncritical Acceptance is the byproduct of the economic or social advantage that an immoral practice affords—and by the lack of leadership exposing the error for what it is. Slavery, unequal suffrage, and many other evils and inequities from history and the present day confer advantages to certain people, and these advantages tend to blind them to the injustice of the situation in the absence of voices rising up against it. In modern society, for example, we unreflectively accept the use of high-speed personal automobiles as a valid primary means of transportation without acknowledging, or else shrugging at, the cost we incur by doing so. Tens of thousands of lives are lost every year in the United States to automobile accidents. To question the sanity of this situation is to question the economic advantage we enjoy because of it—since modernizing our transportation systems and urban infrastructures would incur significant up-front costs; but the advantage is seen as being so great that it must apparently outweigh the value of some 30,000 human lives in the nation every year, including some of your friends, relatives, or neighbors.
The Liberal Bias
The next stage of moral fallacy is a perversion of true liberalism. We may call it Perverted Liberalism, or simply the Liberal Bias. The Liberal Bias is the tendency to accept criticism of one’s own culture (or an aspect thereof) in the face of evidence to the contrary, or to reject criticism of another culture (or an aspect thereof) in the face of evidence to the contrary. For example, an American exhibiting the Liberal Bias may claim that sexism was not part of traditional Samoan culture in generations past, but always has been a problem in America. Such a bias might seem innocuous, but in certain situations, it does real, tangible harm. Relativistic-minded anthropologists, for example, have observed extreme violence among the Yanomamo Indians in the Amazon rainforest, and documented their practices with “scientific” detachment—without making effort to protect or help the victims. Meanwhile, missionaries in that region have offered medical assistance to injured and sick people, and have taught the tribes to forgo violence and the beliefs that perpetuate them. The Liberal Bias accuses the missionaries of interfering with Yanomamo society. This is a blatant moral error. Perverted Liberalism is not just an intellectual inconsistency; it stands idle when real harm is done, so long as the harm done does not offend its peculiar sensibilities. Meanwhile, back in America, the Liberal Bias opposes the traditional value that human life ought to be preserved when it conflicts with the revisionary ethic that women have the right to do anything they want with their bodies. Late-term abortions are seen as the right of the woman in the face of compelling evidence that fetuses in the third trimester—and possibly younger—show no less sign of sensitivity to pain and pleasure than newborn babies. To annihilate the latter counts as murder, but to abort the former is a “woman’s right.” The Liberal Bias, in its eagerness to revise traditional ethics at home, does real and tangible harm—in this example, regarding what women, or rather their doctors, have the moral right to do with a developing fetus.
When confronted with a wide variety of contemporary political or social issues—Is capital punishment ever justified? Is marriage to be defined as a social contract between a man and a woman? Should transgender identification be treated as a psychological disorder? Should police in the United States be defunded? etc.—the Liberal Bias simply opposes what it sees as the traditional response of the culture and adopts the antithesis. The conclusion, therefore, is not based on evidence and sound reasoning per se but on the desirability of the preferred conclusion. If the evidence happens to support that conclusion, it does so fortuitously; if it does not, endless disputation is raised up as a pretense for valid reasoning.
What can be the motivation for one to systematically critique one’s own culture and avoid critiquing foreign cultures?
First, it must be acknowledged that Western nations, by virtue of the power they have attained through the cooperative development of technology over the centuries (artillery and the alloys use to build them, the printing press, seacraft, etc.), have wreaked havoc around the globe, especially from the Colonial Age to the de-colonization period of the twentieth century. This historical reality represents the context for the Left’s condemnation of the West’s social and political institutions. The evils done by Spain, Great Britain, the United States, France, Belgium, and Germany arouse indignation in the breast of every person endowed with feeling and conscience. It clearly does not follow, however, that the positive or neutral aspects of western cultures can rationally be condemned along with the crimes of the powerful individuals representing them. The Liberal Bias oversimplifies things by allowing its resentment toward the West to blur the distinction between the good and bad aspects of culture in it. (Beliefs are part of culture; and false beliefs are bad; it follows that culture can have bad aspects if it has false beliefs).
Aside from this, we know that pride is a real psychological phenomenon in human nature. Its antithesis is humility, which Benjamin Franklin defines as the imitation of Socrates and Jesus. Speaking of pride as a sort of internal enemy, Franklin writes, “Even if I could conceive that I had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.” The self-awareness evident in this admission is above-average for human beings. Pride is scarcely detectable in oneself; it is therefore widespread, if not ubiquitous. The lust for moral and intellectual superiority is ever-present in contemporary discourse—not to mention all kinds of discourse throughout the ages.
Pride is difficult to detect because it hides behind virtue. To perceive things that are wrong with one’s own group or culture requires moral sensitivity, intellectual honesty, and open-mindedness; to stand against such errors requires courage. Similar qualities enable one to perceive the virtue in other cultures and to rise to their defense when necessary. The one who does this is intelligent, conscientious, and brave. He is a True Liberal and does service to humankind. It is possible, however, for one to be motivated by the desire to win praise for demonstrating these virtues rather than by the desire to achieve justice. Keenly sensitive to the psychological reward of feeling morally and intellectually superior, a vain person has an incentive to adopt liberal views. The one who is simply interested in truth, like Socrates, Jesus, or Benjamin Franklin, will regard such an incentive as completely irrelevant to the business at hand, viz. to think clearly about the world. His motivation is not to appear a certain way, but to get truth. The best humans are not motivated by the desire to appear virtuous. If such a thing ends up happening—which in fact it tends to do for them—it is a collateral benefit. Vain people, however, are susceptible to the Liberal Bias, and with it prone to virtue signaling or moral posturing, i.e. attempting to demonstrate moral or intellectual superiority over others.
Finally, the Liberal Bias, like any bias, saves one from having to invest greater mental effort into evaluating particular events or propositions. Suspending judgment until sufficient evidence is gathered is unnecessary. All one must do is divine whether something agrees with or contradicts the preferred evaluation. Then any meager amount of evidence will do. Having a quick formula such as this saves one from having to think deeply about specific issues, incidents, or ethical problems. This makes the Liberal Bias convenient as a labor-saving formula. Add to this the fact that it enables one to achieve the perception of moral superiority and we have two very powerful psychological forces potentially affecting an individual’s seat of judgment.
The Conservative Reaction
In contrast to liberalism, conservatism is the view that the traditional values of one’s own culture ought to be acknowledged as valid and duly embraced. Conservatism is, in fact, a reaction against or response to liberalism (in a society without liberal voices, no one would bother identifying as a conservative). Conservatism opposes either True Liberalism or Perverted Liberalism and is therefore valid or not depending on what kind of liberalism it is opposing. When it resists True Liberalism, it is invalid; when it resists Perverted Liberalism, it is valid. We may call the latter variety simply conservatism, since that term is seen as inherently positive. Conservatism that opposes True Liberalism, however, is a perversion of the valid concern that good traditions ought to be conserved. We may call it Irrational Conservatism since it opposes rationality; or the Conservative Reaction, since it is usually angry and resentful at what it perceives—rightly or wrongly—as the Liberal’s moral posturing.
The Conservative Reaction accepts criticism of foreign groups despite evidence opposing it and rejects criticism of one’s own culture despite evidence supporting it. Just as the Liberal Bias was unwilling to accept the reverse, and multiplied tedious speeches to support its preferred conclusion, the Conservative Reaction sets to work about presenting all manner of “evidence” in favor of its preferred conclusion. In the absence of compelling logic, it simply goes on the counter-attack in attempt to find fault with some moral or intellectual inferiority in the enemy. After all, argument is just a competition to see who is smarter or more virtuous; it doesn’t matter how one can score points against the opponent as long as they are scored. Changing the subject is a perfectly acceptable strategy in this situation…or so Irrational Conservatism thinks.
When confronted with various contemporary social or political issues— Should state governments spare investments into social welfare programs such as health care in order to keep corporate taxes as light as possible? Should American citizens have the right to bear arms outside the context of a well-regulated militia? etc.—the Conservative Reaction simply holds on to what it sees as the traditional view. This response saves intellectual labor, and, in the United States, happens to comport with the romanticized vision of the rugged individualist, a powerful trope in imagination of the Right wing. In addition to the fact that the Conservative Reaction formula saves mental effort, just as the Liberal Bias did, it often seeks to preserve some economic or social advantage—e.g. avoiding the cost of investing in public wellbeing, or the feeling of power that comes from holding a warm gun in your hands.
The Conservative Reaction buttresses its position, meanwhile, by ignoring or denying the aspects of history or contemporary society that undercut its willful defense of tradition. For example, laissez-faire policy, popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, celebrates individuals and businesses pursuing their own interest as an Invisible Hand guides society towards the greatest prosperity. Certainly this theory should be celebrated when it works; it should also be modified, supplemented, or rejected when it doesn’t work. History offers us several examples of its failure, famous among which are the abuses of the meat-packing industry during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, President Hoover’s failed leadership at the outset of the Great Depression, and the shady practices that led to the United States Housing bubble in the years leading up to the 2008 stock market crash. In the present day, the right wing is embarrassed by the fact virtually all scientists agree that human activity—i.e. carbon emissions and industrial agriculture—is contributing to adverse changes in climate. Rather than acknowledge the problem and attempt to solve it, Irrational Conservatism ignores it altogether, since doing otherwise would mean that the government must act in order to avert serious environmental catastrophe—but this, of course, runs counter to laissez-faire theory.
Everything that was stated about the Liberal Bias’s predilection for the appearance of virtue applies to the Conservative Reaction. It is different in that the latter tends to cherish different virtues, such as independence, frugality, hard work, and for Ayn Rand’s disciples, pride. In any case, moral posturing on the left or the right inspires moral posturing on the other side; which inspires it anew on the other side, and so on forever. This leads to noise rather than rational dialogue. Perhaps the tendency to devolve into such bestial rancor is a shortcoming of democratic society itself; but identifying democracy’s limitations is outside the present scope.
Recall that the antidote to Unreflective Acceptance was true liberal activism. Such activism amounts to a commitment to justice and a willingness to risk one’s life, livelihood, or reputation in its pursuit. These are the very qualities needed to defeat both Perverted Liberalism and Irrational Conservatism. No one who is unwilling will change his view. But just as the heroes of the past succeeded by following and appealing to the powerful voice of conscience, the leaders of today must be unafraid to think deeply, question rationally, and make sacrifices for worthy causes. This kind of leadership will empower young people to resist to the common moral fallacies of the present day and inspire them to form a more perfect union in the decades ahead.
We have said nothing of the fact that politicians and commentators intentionally exploit the emotionally-charged nature of issues such as “abortion-rights” and “gun-rights” in order to manipulate citizens into voting a certain way; or the fact that the Right and Left wings in America are both eager to reincarnate the experience of their adopted origin stories—the American Revolution on the Right the Social Revolution of the 1960s on the Left; or the fact that the Left Wing and the Right Wing informally standardize their views and their language so that people who belong to one group or the other can be quickly and easily distinguished from others, like enemies on a battlefield wearing different colors. These are topics for another time. Here we may conclude with some practical considerations in light of the foregoing survey of moral fallacies:
It is difficult to tell what a person’s motivation is. Generally, it is charitable to assume that people have the best intentions. The risk of making this assumption, at the very least, is that one may waste time and energy listening to a person pretending to be interested in truth who is really interested in the appearance of virtue. The possible advantage is that, by believing the best about a person, the best may actually come true—or already have been true. It is perfectly possible that the self-proclaimed liberal or conservative is indeed interested in truth and motivated above all by the desire to discover it. If he is not, it is still possible that, as you listen in a spirit of humility, he may give up seeking the appearance of virtue after all. If you happen to be an elder, a father or mother, a spouse, brother, sister, or a close friend, then your willingness to listen may end up freeing him from any need to prove himself better than others. In some instances, the love of money or power may be too great for one to relinquish the beliefs that justify the practices that preserve them. A higher degree of self-awareness is necessary for all parties involved in democracy’s disputes, and only genuine virtue—humility, courage, open-mindedness, wisdom, and love—can ultimately defeat the self-interest that entices people, perhaps unknowingly, to fall into the moral fallacies that weaken the bonds of society and frustrate our collective determination to create a better world.