The Slow Poison of Bad Ideas

The Slow Poison of Bad Ideas

Every semester I teach a course in ethics (moral philosophy) at my community college. I tell the students that they don’t have to agree with me; they are entitled to their own opinions, even if their opinions are deeply erroneous. But I attempt to persuade them that there are certain popular theories of morality that are wrong.

In particular, I argue against three popular but (in my opinion) pernicious theories:

  • The theory that the rules of right and wrong are purely social creations.
  • The theory that we are free to create our own individual moral codes.
  • The theory that everything is morally permissible provided it does no obvious and tangible harm to non-consenting others.

On the other hand, I argue that there is a true theory of morality, namely the theory that all normal human beings have an innate knowledge of certain fundamental rules of morality, e.g., don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t abandon your children, etc. This might be called a “natural law” theory of morality, but I don’t insist on that name.

Needless to say, I don’t persuade all, or even almost all, of my students to agree with me. I console myself by saying this is okay. Why? Because maybe I’m mistaken, and if so I hope they don’t agree with me. Or because maybe I’m right and they’ll agree with me thirty or forty years from now. Or maybe I’m right but they’ll never agree with me – but if Jesus himself persuaded only eleven of his twelve, why should I be discouraged that I can’t persuade all my students?

The other day, however, a young man in my class shocked me (actually he amused me) by clearly and frankly defending a theory of morality that I regard as absolutely horrible. He is a good student, sincere and amiable; and he’s not at all the kind of student teachers sometimes run into, I mean the kind who disagrees with the professor just to be a pain in the neck. Not at all; far from it; he’s a nice kid.

He contended (even though I had attempted to refute this obnoxious theory earlier in the semester) that individuals create their own morality, and therefore what’s right or wrong for you will not necessarily be right or wrong for me. As long as you do what you personally believe is right, then it’s right. Likewise, if I personally do what I believe is right, it’s right.

Now, whenever a student makes this point, I bring up Hitler: “If Hitler believed that the Holocaust was the right thing to do, then you say it was right for him to murder six million Jews, not to mention millions of others – is that what you’re saying?”

Death and the Masks by James Ensor, 1897 [Is that figure in white with the skull face FrankenPope? – AQ moderator Tom]

When I bring Hitler into the discussion, the student usually backs away from his or her assertion. (I sometimes suspect that God may have allowed Hitler to commit his mass murders so that professors will be able to use him as a horrible example in classroom discussions.) But this young man didn’t back away the other day. He stuck with the logic of his position. He said that what Hitler did was right because he believed it was right; and that therefore he (my student) would not condemn Hitler for doing the wrong thing.

At the same time, he assured me that he himself has a quite different personal morality. He personally would never commit genocide; it would be wrong to do so because it doesn’t accord with his personal moral code. I’m sure this is true. As I said, he’s a nice kid. I have no fear of mass murder when I walk into the classroom.

But this reminds me that we can change our minds more easily than we can change our hearts; we can change our opinions more readily than we can change our feelings. Among the most deeply embedded of all our feelings are the moral attitudes we acquire in the days of our childhood and adolescence.

Our moral attitudes, though, whether good or bad, are different from our moral opinions. That’s why it’s so difficult to talk a person out of bad habits. The advice you give this person may be 100 percent sound, but, still, it’s almost impossible to budge him. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, with people who grow up with good moral attitudes.

Does this mean that bad moral theories are harmless or that good theories are useless? Not at all. If you’re a person with good moral attitudes, your bad theories will probably have little impact on your actual moral conduct. But it may well have an impact on your children.

As you bring them up, you will be giving them a good example by your conduct (let’s say, habits of honesty); but your bad theory will be telling them, “I personally believe in honesty, and I personally hope you do the same when you’re an adult; but always remember this, that honesty is nothing more than my personal preference. Remember to be tolerant of crooks and liars and thieves who happen not to believe in honesty.”

Bad moral theories, then, will have bad moral consequences, and good moral theories will have good consequences. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It will take a generation or two, or maybe a hundred years, or maybe two or three hundred. Jefferson wrote, “all men are created equal” in 1776. This implied that slavery must be abolished. But it took 87 years and a great civil war before this happened.

“Ideas govern the world,” a French philosopher once said. And that’s true; they do. But in most cases, only gradually. We have a lot of bad moral theories floating around the USA today, not just my student’s bad theory. If we don’t check them, they will destroy us – if not in the short run, then gradually.

 

 

 

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4 comments on “The Slow Poison of Bad Ideas

  1. Of Paradigm Shifts
    /
    Russell Shaw – THURSDAY, APRIL 5, 2018
    /
    Flipping through a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot that I’ve had since college days, I recently came across one I had never read before. The title was “Thoughts After Lambeth.” It turned out to be Eliot’s commentary on the Lambeth conference of 1930. Lambeth conferences are gatherings, held every ten years, at which bishops of the Anglican Communion meet to weigh a variety of matters – some doctrinal, others of an administrative nature – that require attention.
    /
    In Eliot’s astute and occasionally acerbic evaluation of the 1930 Lambeth, one section particularly caught my eye: a five-page treatment of Resolution 15 in which the Anglican bishops, for the first time ever, extended guarded, conditional approval to the use of contraceptives by married couples in cases where there is both “a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood” and “a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence.”
    /
    As I read on, I was surprised to discover here a brief but enlightening description of what these days is being championed by some Roman Catholics as a “paradigm shift” in the way the Catholic Church thinks about morality.
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    As far as I can determine, this talk about a paradigm shift had its beginning nearly two years ago in an article published by Cardinal Walter Kasper in a German journal and now part of a new Kasper book. Cardinal Kasper, it will be recalled, led the charge five years ago on behalf of giving communion to some divorced and remarried Catholics who haven’t received annulments of their first marriages, a practice guardedly endorsed in chapter eight of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life, Amoris Laetitia.
    /
    According to Cardinal Kasper, the framework of approval for this controversial practice can be extended to many other matters as well. Contraception is a notable example. Thus he argues that we now have, thanks to the Pope and Amoris Laetitia, a paradigm shift in moral theology. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago have lately repeated this idea of a paradigm shift.
    /
    Obviously, T.S. Eliot was not thinking of all this when he wrote in 1931. While Eliot, an Anglican, thought Lambeth’s position on contraception was right, he also confessed that he would have preferred a more general statement than Resolution 15. This then led him to contrast what he called the “Roman view” of morality with the view proper to the “English mind” – which I assume can be taken as the mind proper to Anglicanism.
    /
    Let me quote the relevant passage in Eliot’s text lest there be any doubt whether I am representing him accurately:
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    To put it frankly, but I hope not offensively, the Roman view in general seems to me to be that a principle must be affirmed without exception; and that thereafter exceptions can be dealt with, without modifying the principle. The view natural to the English mind, I believe, is rather that a principle must be framed in such a way as to include all allowable exceptions. It follows inevitably that the Roman Church must profess to be fixed, while the Anglican Church must profess to take account of changed conditions.
    /
    What Eliot says about the “Roman view” would no doubt have to be reconsidered today in light of what Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical on moral principles, Veritatis Splendor, says about absolute moral norms.
    /
    But the fact remains – and this is the point I’m making here – that what he says about the Anglican mind (“a principle must be framed in such a way as to include all allowable exceptions”) could serve as a concise statement of what the paradigm shift advocated by Cardinals Kasper, Parolin, and others proposes to bring about.
    /
    If that were to happen, it would mean a seismic shift in the Church’s positions not only on Communion for the divorced and remarried but also on contraception, same-sex relations, abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia, lying, some forms of theft (“I only took what was coming to me”), and a great deal else.
    /
    So how, someone might ask, would moral principles be formulated in this new paradigm? Take contraception as an example – an example likely to get extensive attention this year, the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae.
    /
    The paradigm-conditioned principle might be along the following lines: “The Church cherishes and upholds as an ideal for husbands and wives that each and every act of marital intimacy be open to new life, and married couples ideally should will and do nothing directly to impede that possibility. But in the circumstances of the present day, the Church, as a loving and merciful mother, does not seriously expect all couples to live by this ideal and does not pass harsh judgment on those who don’t.”
    /
    Extend this to moral issues generally, and we see the undoing of the edifice built up and defended by Catholic thinkers and the Church’s magisterium over many centuries, which the situationists, consequentialists, and proportionalists have labored to dismantle for years.
    /
    But let me give the final word to another Anglican – though one who would soon cross over to Rome. In a sermon called “The Religion of the Day,” John Henry Newman skewered proponents of “the brighter side of the Gospel” who stress its “tidings of comfort. . .precepts of love” in preference to “all darker, deeper views of man’s condition and prospects.”
    /
    After developing this thought at length, Newman concludes, with words that even today retain their power to shock:
    /
    Here I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction that it would be a gain to this country were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion. . . .Not, of course, that I think the tempers of mind herein implied desirable, which would be an evident absurdity; but I think them infinitely more desirable and more promising than a heathen obduracy, and a cold, self-sufficient, self-wise tranquility.
    /
    More desirable and promising, one might say, even than a paradigm shift.

  2. A very good piece. I even liked the Newman quote ( I’m not an advocate based upon Cd. Manning’s thorough distrust towards Newman ).

  3. A distinction needs to be made in the point the moral philosophy teacher raised in the OP. Slavery ended only a considerable period after the War for Southern Independence. It did NOT end in 1863. That is how it’s taught but it is not accurate.
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    Lincoln’s emancipation was useless in Confederate States since they were no longer a part of the tyrannical Northern Republic, which itself only outlawed the vice in toto following an amendment to the Constitution.
    /
    Lincoln was also on record admitting that universal emancipation would be, as history proved, a disaster for those it was politically advertised to benefit. He made several gestures to arrange for either repatriation or resettlement far away from the American continent, all of which came to nothing. The President was not a bigot and despite his record may have harbored regrets for the horror his policies inevitably produced. An opinion on his inner thoughts is not possible. Regardless, slavery was used as a convenient rationalization by liberal abolitionists in the North which proved of convenience to warhawks and others intent on destroying Southern culture for its want of sufficient progressivism.
    /
    The destitute slaves were never the real concern. Liberalism alone mattered.

  4. What amazes is that Carlin, and other “nice” “conservatives” don’t see that they are actually Liberals, and are playing into the hands of the enemies of truth, peace and justice.
    /
    Did Carlin really think that his “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach was prudent?
    When you’re tolerant of Liberal lies, you are not only supporting them in their Liberalism, you are making yourself a Liberal just like them; you’ve gone over to the dark side.
    /
    When Liberals hear “I strongly disagree with you, but that’s just my opinion”, their instinctual and unconscious reaction, if it would be expressed in real thought (which Liberals don’t do), would be “Yes, exactly. That’s why I’m going to retain my own opinion.”
    /
    THIS is the reason “it’s so difficult to talk a person out of bad habits.” When you “talk” to a Liberal in their own language, you aren’t actually *saying* anything.
    /
    What’s the alternative?
    Why, be “nasty”, what else?
    /
    But isn’t that counterproductive? Won’t it just turn liberals off?
    I say:
    1) First, it is absolutely certain that agreeing with Liberals in their Liberalism is counterproductive, so doing *that* is never a good idea.
    2) Second, given this, silence would be way better, because although it can’t possibly do any good, at least much of the time it won’t make things worse.
    3) Third, if there *is* anything that can do any good, that would be the only remaining option: expose the filthy stinking lies that they are enslaved to.
    /
    True, most will be turned off. The Pharisees were turned off when Christ told the brutal truth to them.
    But He did it anyway. He had tried being nice numerous times before. It didn’t work, because they were able to rationalize and excuse away His corrections, so they did, because they were self-willed, self-loving, therefore truth-hating people; that is, they were Liberals.
    Do we think we know better than Christ how to preach the Truth?
    /
    Let’s follow His example. State the truth simply, clearly and charitably (*not* nicely); state it AS truth, not as anyone’s damned opinion. If that doesn’t work, state the next necessary truth, that those who don’t accept truth are liars and are going to hell.
    /
    Of course…we ourselves had better be very, very sure that we ourselves are in fact stating truth, not our own opinion. And we had better practice what we preach.
    There is NOTHING worse than being a hypocrite; and nothing more damaging to the cause of truth than when hypocrites preach it.
    /
    But as long as that base is covered, jump in with both feet.

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