The Worst Argument about Morality on the Internet?

photo-1459789587767-1a947412a440_optTake an issue, any issue.

If you make an argument or state an opinion about that issue, let’s call it X, somebody somewhere who agrees with you on the immorality of X, but wants to do X, will say: “How can you care about X when Y is so much worse?”

A common variation is “don’t talk to me about X when Y is happening.”

This might be sensible if the person meant something like this: “X is bad. We aren’t doing X ourselves, but our focus in on Y, because Y is so bad.”  It seems obviously true that when facing Nazis in 1939, Germans should have focussed on arguing against Nazism and spent (far) fewer resources on an issue like littering. However, if one went to an Anti-Nazi Rally and saw a good friend littering, surely one might say: “Hey, let’s use the public trash cans and set a good example.”

At this point, one would surely hear: “How can you care about littering, when Naziism is so much worse?”

I have picked very extreme moral examples on purpose to make a point and because if any of my readers think there is a good case for littering or Naziism, nothing I say on morality will ever help them. Nazism is far worse morally than littering in the park, but note something: the person using the argument is not a Nazi, but is littering. They are committing this (small) moral evil, while not committing the big moral evil.

This is bad. God did not call us to not do great evil that our little evil may flourish.

In fact, because times are so bad and we are on the side of the angels, we may feel we get a moral pass on anything we do. If I am opposed to U (insert your least favorite political leader here), my rudeness is acceptable. We might be mean to all the people we know, but we are fighting U, so our boorish behavior is fine.

No.

We can oppose U and stop littering, tip better, be kind to animals . . . any number of things. The great thing about being human, created in God’s imagine, is that we can do several moral things at once. I have managed to chew gum and not spit it on the sidewalk while walking in a rally opposing X. A person can spend most their time, treasure, and talent on Y and still agree that X is not good and stop doing X.

This is not hard. Someone might ask: aren’t you inconsistent, because you praise great women and men for getting the big thing right even though they made important mistakes?

It does seem true that after they are dead, we should evaluate women and men as important heroes by whether they got the big issue right. Churchill and Martin Luther King both did wrong things or had bad views (Churchill was a colonialist, and King was an adulterer). We can celebrate Washington’s life for the great good he did, even if he owned slaves, but God help us, if we had known Washington, we should have pointed out to the great man that he should not own slaves.

Washington was wrong to own slaves, Churchill was wrong to support colonialism in India, and King was wrong to cheat on his wife. These great men do not get a pass for their evil deeds, just because they got the big issue right. Washington is a role model, because he turned away from political power, when most would have taken it. Churchill was a hero, because he was dogged in opposition to the Nazis when many conservatives were not. King helped lead a peaceful fight against apartheid in America.

We honor them for their virtues, not their vices.

So let’s note that X and Y are bad. We can oppose both with the effort they deserve. If X and Y are both bad, we should not imply that either one is good, because one or the other is worse.

We can get this right. If we don’t, we are wrong!

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About John Mark N. Reynolds

John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. He is a follower of Jesus and a student of Socrates. He is also an owner of the Green Bay Packers. Opinions here are his own ... even Hope doesn't agree with him always.