Moral Discernment: Loyalties, Interests, Passions
Philosophers (and some theologians) often talk as if moral discernment was simply a matter of correct reasoning (e.g., deontologists vs. utilitarians). The last 25 years has seen a mini-resistance movement focusing more on moral character (virtues, passions, affections)–a return to classic and medieval interests in a postmodern era. Glen Stassen’s 4-dimensional approach to moral discernment was a forerunner of this interest. We have looked at the dimension of basic convictions looking at the critical variables of God and human nature; justification and sanctification; love and justice; and the mission of the church in the world. (These are Christian convictions, but we tried to indicate that there are usually analogues in other religious or moral systems that function similarly.)
Moving clockwise to the next dimension we examine the critical variables of loyalties, interests, passions, virtues, & affections. The main point is that we all have loyalties and interests that affect our moral outlook. A scientist who sits on the board of Exxon-Mobil is likely to approach the issue of catastrophic climate change with a desire to defend the interests of the oil industry whereas an equally qualified scientist working for the Environmental Defense Fund will have a very different outlook.
(Now, usually when I point this out, someone screams that I am making an ad hominem argument. I’m not. At the end of this post, I will deal with the issues of ad hominem and genetic fallacies. )
Our loyalties include our friends, mentors, and role models. At least since Aristotle, philosophers have known the moral importance of friendship. Parents are right to worry about the friends their kids make, although the influence can go both ways–a good kid can be a good moral influence on a friend. The same concerns are prominent in the Wisdom writings of Scripture, especially Proverbs. Jesus gathered disciples and Paul held himself up as a role model for leaders in the churches he founded.
Our loyalties to our friends shape our moral discernment, but they need not determine it. We can be aware of the limits of our friends and mentors. We do not need to romanticize them. So, for instance, friendship with a rape victim who chose to abort may influence the way someone approaches the abortion issue, but it doesn’t preclude that person deciding that her friend made a moral mistake. Similarly, and sticking with the same “issue” for sake of illustration, if a person is the parent of a special needs child, he would probably respond very negatively to the kinds of “quality of life” arguments that a utilitarian like Peter Singer makes for abortion (and Singer also argues for infanticide!!) in cases of genetic “abnormality.” But such a person, deeply loyal to his child, also understands the huge demands of raising special needs children and his loyalty would not necessarily lead him to rule out abortion in ALL cases of genetic deformity–Tay Sachs is very different from Downs Syndrome. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that our loyalties do not influence our moral judgments, both for good and ill.
We also have loyalties to particular practices and processes. For instance, a particular conservative commenter who is not favorable to same-sex marriage nonetheless recently praised the Vermont legislature for passing legislation allowing same-sex marriage because he is committed to the priority of local and state legislatures and dislikes judicial decisions which appear to him to make new law. This is a commitment to representative democracy and to a very restrictive understanding of judicial review. A gay friend of mine disagrees: While happy that Vermont passed such legislation, he worries that rights that can be legislated into existence can be legislatively removed as Proposition 8 took away same-sex marriage last year in California. His commitment is to a certain view of universal human rights that it is the responsibility of courts to recognize, uphold, and enforce.
We also have loyalties to particular communities and institutions. The way this can shape moral judgment is too obvious to need to explicate further.
We also have interests, including monetary interests, power interests, prestige interests, etc. Some deconstructionists like Foucault may go too far in seeing all moral arguments as disguised power plays, but we are naive if we don’t ask about the interests of those who make moral arguments. To take an obvious example, former Vice President Dick Cheney has a strong self-interest in making his argument that the use of torture in interrogating suspected terrorists is both necessary and effective in protecting Americans. (So does his daughter, Liz, in defending his view and him.) Judges are expected to recuse themselves from cases in which they would have an interest in one side or the other prevailing (e.g., now that Virginia Thomas is heading a group connected to the Tea Party movement, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas should recuse himself from any case that has even a remote connection to Tea Party politics).
In addition to other loyalties, each person also has an ultimate loyalty. That ultimate loyalty may be to one’s nation or race or sex or to one’s religion or ideology. Christians (and other theists) would say that their ultimate loyalty is to God and would judge these rival claims for ultimate loyalty as idolatrous. But notice that this connects this dimension back to the basic convictions dimension because if our ultimate loyalty is to God then rival conceptions of God’s character become very important in determining moral judgment. Also, remember that classic theologians like Calvin have called the human heart an “idol factory,” and all of us deceive ourselves constantly. So, we may think that our ultimate loyalty is to God and someone else may examine our actions and conclude that our ultimate loyalty is Money or Power or the Nation-state. We are not always our own best judges concerning our loyalties.
Now for our “footnotes” on two logical fallacies. Ad hominem (“against the man”) arguments attack the character of the person making a moral argument rather than the argument itself. Nothing said about our loyalties and interests negates that. A scientist working for Exxon-Mobil may still have valid arguments against the consensus on global warming. I would say, against some ethicists, however, that examining loyalties and interests is highly useful. For those of us who are scientific laypersons, that scientist’s employer is a good reason to view his conclusions with suspiscion and to stick with the scientific consensus until the Exxon-Mobil scientist manages to convince a substantial number of peers who DON’T work for petroleum companies.
The Genetic Fallacy is a related logical fallacy. If one dismisses an idea or an argument or a moral position because of its origin, one commits the genetic fallacy. For example, I am a registered Democrat (and a social democrat in political philosophy), but I would be foolish to dismiss an idea just because it was advanced by a Republican. (Republicans have had two very good ideas in economic justice in the last few decades: The Earned Income Tax Credit and inner-city “empowerment zones.”) In diagnosing people’s interests and loyalties, we have not automatically discredited their arguments.