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Right and wrong

BRETT Kavanaugh has just been sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States — but not until after he was pilloried, shamed and savagely assaulted by those who felt by his reputedly “conservative” position. I found it curious that throughout the acrimonious, really even shameful and shameless exchanges, there was no mention of right and wrong. It was merely a clash of individual and party interests, a collision of loyalties, a contest of allegiances! In fact, it hardly mattered whether Kavanaugh was right or wrong in what he stood for, nor did his detractors bother to argue the moral theories on which rested their vehement objections to his nomination — if they had any. They did not want him on the highest bench because he had hinted that Roe v. Wade was not one of his favorite pieces of jurisprudence!

What I found extremely paradoxical — and really corrosive to moral argumentation — was the performative contradiction in which his foes quite full-throatedly indulged. For while they lunged at what they derided as his absolutist moral positions that, for them, were conservative — a clear and present danger to their freedoms and liberties — they were quite absolute in the positions they maintained: that women had the right to decide about terminating pregnancies, and that other “conservative” propositions were just wrong — including, I presume, the proposition that marriage must involve a permanent union of man and woman. Witnesses testified against his supposedly questionable morals — groping at women and sexually exploiting them. So then, these are “wrongs” — and wrong, in their ethical estimation. They are not willing to concede to relativism on this point (the very relativism that allows them to elude debate on such a topic as abortion) and they insist, rightly I think, that exploitative conduct is wrong. But the inconsistency between the theory one maintains and the battle strategy one makes use of should be clear. You cannot stand firm on the absolute binding character of ethical propositions on the one hand — The deliberate termination of a fetus’ life is wrong — and at the same time insist on the absolute reprehensibility of certain forms of conduct, such as the exploitation of women.

And this is where matters go beyond Kavanaugh. On the one hand, we have no difficulty conceding that moral judgments are subject to revision. “Santiago Matamoros”….killer of Moros, and he was revered precisely because he could lead and inspire the slaughter of the hated Moors. We would not revere him for that now, and the examples are countless. To say that moral judgments are irreformable is to deny the capacity of the human intellect to shift perspectives, to think things over, and to rectify errors. It is in fact a tacit claim at the absurd proposition that we never err.

But to reduce “right” to “feels good” will not do either, because so many things are right that do not feel good: such as cleaning the elderly who are unable to care for themselves, or telling the truth when a lie would so easily save oneself from embarrassment. Neither is it strikingly intelligent to make “right” and “wrong” a matter of numbers — dependent on the pronouncements of pollsters and probably of machines, like those of Smartmatic! Most of Hezbollah would vote for the annihilation of Israel, and only the Nazis would agree with them that that would be the right thing to do.

The point, to me, is clear. To relativize is to escape from the problem. I need not make a judgment, nor need I think of the grounds and warrants for one if everything is relative to one’s ethnicity, culture, preference or inclination. In this respect, discovering what principles we ought to live by and organize our societies from behind a veil of ignorance, as Rawls proposes, is salutary. To reason things through is the courageous thing to do and it is obviously fraught with risks, because for every proposition one advances, one can reasonably anticipate objections and refutations, qualifications and exceptions. But this is exactly what we are rational for, and that is just what makes ethics never a subject for the timid nor for the intellectually slothful. We must advance arguments, test them, and settle for what is reasonable. “To go by the dictates of right reason”: that was the formulation of Scholastic philosophy. But that is the fundamental canon of discourse ethics as well and of ethical theories that refuse to reduce ethics to what one feels, which is not to say that feelings are unimportant.

Kavanaugh’s foes found themselves caught in a web of performative contradiction — not because they were dimwitted, which many of them certainly were not, although a good number were simply hysterical, but because reason is unavoidable and any attempt to argue against the normative character of reason must invoke reason.

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