Blog for Choice: Moral Reasoning

A guest post by lp, as part of our Blogging for Choice.

My top hope is a broader hope about (for want of a better way to put it) our moral sensibilities. When Obama spoke of setting aside childish things, I couldn’t help but think of the simple-minded morality that has accompanied the Bush era: we see good and bad, black and white; other nations are either our bedfellows or our enemies; human beings are either persons (American citizens) or beasts (terrorist suspects, Arabs, Muslims who are ‘too Muslim’). To my mind, this cowboys-and-Indians view of the moral landscape fuels, among other things, anti-choice propaganda: Fetuses are innocent, right? So that must make them the good guys. And that must make women whose lives can’t accommodate them bad guys. And a righteous people needn’t concern itself with the rights of bad guys.

It strikes me that there’s a reason we humans have spent most of our history pining for omniscience somewhere in the heavens: morality is really tricky. There are a mind-boggling multitude of shades of grey, and competing concerns, and utterly-conflicting but equally-important rights and worthinesses. Blinkering ourselves and refusing to see this does not make for righteous living: it makes for wilful, childish ignorance. Yet the Bush dogma has embraced, globally, just this approach.

So, my top Pro-Choice hope is that we all remember to have a good hard think about how the Bush era has shaped our moral reasoning, and that we as a nation make sure to set aside childish things.

15 thoughts on “Blog for Choice: Moral Reasoning

  1. lp, thanks for the very thoughtful piece.

    I’ve thought that it’s wrong to try to locate the pathology of the last 8 years solely in Bush – or Bush and a few others. There’s been a lot keeping him in place.

    The idea that the simplifications he’s promoted are actually part of what the public wanted is, I think, a stunning idea, and almost certainly right.

  2. thanks jender & jj!

    jj, i noticed that even my left-leaning, anti-bush friends were displaying some of this sort of thinking at the height of things. to my mind, it’s still okay to blame it on bush: these subtle societal changes can seep into one’s thinking even while one rejects the main claims. but of course, this is because i feel pretty well alright placing *any* blame on bush :). regardless, i think it’s something that can and should be retired right along with GW.

  3. Dichotomous thinking (as we in psych often call it) is something we all do more often than we’d like to admit. Any time one favors a universalist or rule-based ethics over sensitivity to context, one often ends up thinking in terms of right/wrong, good/bad. People with less experience are more likely to rely on either/or rules, as are people under stress, people who don’t like to think and, paradoxically, experts. It takes less cognitive effort to categorize something and dismiss it as thereby understood than to see it as nuanced.

    The problem comes when we reach closure on the basis of this kind of thinking, which ought to be instead our first approximation. This is where I fault Bush. Even in his farewell address, he was still fixated on Good vs. Evil as a desirable basis for policy. It’s been easy for the left to follow suit, whether this comes from matching the tone of discourse that’s already been set or from “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” thinking. Words like “childish” (and I liked that Obama said it, don’t get me wrong) can also feed into this way of thinking, by encouraging us to forget that it’s natural and ordinary for us to think this way, especially when stressed or afraid – we just don’t want to use it as a basis for policy or imagine that it properly corresponds to the real world.

    (I like seeing a whole post related to my “At Long Last” comment!)

  4. well-put lga, and interesting to get a psych take on the matter. but i think i do want to stick with ‘childish’: even if it’s natural to think in these terms, we can still criticize the practice of failing (or refusing) to let reason temper the thinking.

  5. Objecting outright to white/black thinking is falling prey to one’s own criticism. Some behaviors are wrong, and recognizing this need not be ignorance, nor a childish distaste for thinking.

    Bush’s with-us-or-against-us policy might be silly, but let’s not go overboard.

  6. jay, i didn’t claim that nothing is outright wrong. my concern is with moral reasoning that picks out *all* things are either outright wrong or outright right; with failing to see moral complexity where the situation is complex.

  7. Iga–I agree, and would like to see much more public education about how our brains work. As thinkers (like feminists) keep pushing the envelope, questioning dichotomous thinking, blasting open the limited categories we use to imprison ourselves, I predict that the human brain will become more developed. IOW, I don’t think we humans really know how to operate our brains. The cortex isn’t even online yet…

  8. Actually, Jay, I don’t think that there are any issues that are clear-cut enough to have only two sides. If they were that simple, they probably wouldn’t be issues anymore, because there probably would be an objectively right and wrong, or at least better and worse, option. Even if you say that a particular activity is always wrong and everyone or nearly everyone agrees with you – and I really can’t think what that would be – circumstances always come into play anyway.

    So I think it is OK to say that we should always resist binary thinking, and that nothing is ever simple. That’s not hypocritical, because it’s not constructing another binary argument to point out a fallacy. It’s not saying, this other side is right instead. There is no one other side, even in this debate.

    Best –


  9. There’s a relevant thread at the progressive blog Shakesville. The basic line of thought is that progressives should be talking about, eg, racist behaviour as opposed to racists, since people seem to tend to think about racists in a binary way — one is either David Duke or Martin Luther King. And I imagine any philosopher would enjoy the introduction of the Platonic Racist to illustrate the problem:

    If I tell myself “I’m not a racist” because I don’t resemble or act or speak like the Platonic Racist, I conclude that this means things I do or think or say must not be motivated by racial prejudice. I can provide rationalizations and explanations of why they’re not racist, if I’m pressed. But the real reason they’re not racist is that I did or thought or said them, and I’m Not A Racist. To be A Racist is to be a bad person, obviously, and I’m not a bad person, so I must not be A Racist, so whatever I did can’t have been racist.

  10. Actually, Jay, I don’t think that there are any issues that are clear-cut enough to have only two sides. If they were that simple, they probably wouldn’t be issues anymore, because there probably would be an objectively right and wrong .. option.

    I don’t think we want to say that all of the clear-cut moral dilemmas are in the past. I like the idea of emulating those who knew slavery was wrong when such a position actually mattered.

  11. nuomena, i think this shakesville thread sounds right on (i haven’t had a chance to read it yet) from what you say. i was thinking about it this afternoon, and the really vicious thing about this thinking is that it makes *people* out to be black and white–two-dimensional. and surely no person is simply good or simply bad. (with the possible exception of gwb, of course.) and further, if you see them as such, you misinterpret their actions, and in fact are probably blind to some aspects of their behaviour, like in your racist example. good stuff. thanks for the link.

  12. another relevant thread on shakesville, the blog for choice post, casts the issue as one of trusting women with the ability of moral reasoning, which is i think an important aspect of the discussion. if it were assumed that we absolutely trust that women have the ability of moral reasoning, or if we absolutely trust women to make the best decisions for themselves in whatever situation they face, then would this be such a problem? this is an aspect of the larger discussion that i was first alerted to through bitch, phd.’s writing on the subject; i was surprised i hadn’t really thought it earlier, and i’ve found it more compelling as time went on.

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