Good-Heartedness and the Liberal-Conservative Divide

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In the last day of their questioning of Judge John Roberts in the Senate Judiciary hearings for his confirmation as Chief Justice of the United States, Senators Kennedy, Biden, Schumer, and to some extent Feinstein spent a good deal of time talking about why they thought they were rolling the dice with him. Schumer in particular expressed something clearly that all four of them were getting at in their final speeches. Schumer started by saying that he didn't expect Roberts to go against his stated intentions not to comment on cases that might come before the Court. He said he had hoped for a little bit more on Roberts the man, how Roberts as a person feels about certain sorts of things. Kennedy had accused Roberts of being mean-spirited due to certain of the views that he argued for as a lawyer representing the government position. Biden, Schumer, and Feinstein had insisted that they didn't have enough information to judge his character. Yet, on every issue their evidence that they didn't have a grasp of his character, it was because they didn't know what his view was on issues that concerned them. After hearing this all morning, Lindsay Graham stepped in to challenge the assumption behind all this talk about where Judge Roberts' heart lies.

What follows is Graham's speech, taken from the WAPO transcript:

Your heart -- nobody can question your intellect, because it would be a question of their intellect to question yours...

(LAUGHTER)

... so we're down to the heart. And is it all coming down to that?

Well, there are all kind of hearts. There are bleeding hearts and there are hard hearts. And if I wanted to judge Justice Ginsburg on her heart, I might take a hard-hearted view of her and say she's a bleeding heart. She represents the ACLU. She wants the age of consent to be 12. She believes there's a constitutional right to prostitution. What kind of heart is that?

Well, she has a different value system than I do. But that doesn't mean she doesn't have a good heart.

And I want this committee to understand that if we go down this road of putting people's hearts in play, and the only way you can have a good heart is, "Adopt my value system," we're doing a great disservice to the judiciary.

Thank you.

What's most interesting about this is that it seems on the surface to be the reverse of what you'd expect from a Republican criticizing his Democratic colleagues. It sounds as if the Democrats are taking the moral high ground in the sense of standing by their moral convictions, while a Republican is offering some sort of moral relativism to critique their judgments of Roberts' moral views. I think it's a mistake to see it that way, however. Graham recognizes that people have different moral views, some that he takes to be correct and others that he takes to be incorrect. Schumer and company are doing the same thing. It's quite clear from both parties that they're not working from a meta-ethics of relativism. The difference is not in whether they accept all views as legitimate. It's whether they can display the virtue of tolerance for those who disagree out of genuine moral disagreements. It's whether they can attribute moral character to someone whose views are very different in their outworking but who are starting from the very same point of an attempt toward moral decency, toward recognizing basic human rights, toward working out the balance of the many values that conservatives and liberals start with that they tend to balance out in different ways.

A helpful example is abortion. Conservatives on this issue do not hate choice. They are not opposed to women making choices to control their bodies, despite the narrow-mindedness of people like Schumer who claim otherwise. They do not seek to control women's bodies. That is not the fundamental value that drives opposition to abortion. They simply consider the personhood of the fetus and the value of human life at the pre-birth stage to be more important than the importance of giving women autonomy, in the same way that we all value the life of the ordinary adult or child over the autonomy of anyone else who wants to kill or rape them. On the other hand, pro-choice proponents do not hate life, despite what many pro-life activists will assert. They are not propagating a culture of death, at least not deliberately. They do not consider abortion a good thing. They just consider the value of the life of a fetus, whom they deem not to be a person with moral status (or with enough moral status to make a difference in some cases) to outweigh the importance of a woman's autonomy over her own body

It's unfair to either side to say that it does not consider the primary value of the other side (life or choice) to be unimportant. It's unfair to either side to say that they are necessarily morally insensitive, as if they don't consider the arguments of the other side to have some weight. For some people, this is surely true, but it doesn't necessarily follow. Someone can be pro-choice and consider abortion a tragedy but one we necessarily should allow because of the higher value of individual autonomy. I happen to find this to be backwards thinking, but I can't question the good-heartedness of those whose values are aligned that way. I think it's the wrong view, and it has disastrous consequences, but those who hold it may be of good character. Someone who holds the pro-choice position and the same meta-level view I'm defending here should say the same of me.

What Graham is trying to say here is that the kind of political game Schumer and his colleagues are playing here is really the greatest kind of intolerance you can find. It's the very thing liberals will often point out among less careful conservatives. Graham is simply pointing out that it's rife among mainstream liberals in the Senate. It is, indeed, a kind of mean-spiritedness that makes itself obvious to anyone paying attention. If these senators think the values that mainstream liberalism in this country at this time are taken to be so absolute that no one can be good-hearted without them, if the views that Schumer, Biden, Kennedy, and Feinstein happen to have at this point in their lives are the only ones someone can hold and possess the kind of moral character that moves someone to be concerned about the children of immigrants, the discrimination that some people have to face, and the equality and autonomy that all people are guaranteed by the Constitution, then I think they need to reevaluate how open their liberal minds really are. The sense that I get from hearing what they're demanding of John Roberts is that they consider someone to be hateful and mean-spirited simply for holding a different view on what will best carry out some fundamental values that all parties in the discussion share. This is a standard debate tactic against certain conservative views, and it's manipulated many voters by its deception. It's probably the most dominant meme in liberals' control over the sentiments of black voters (there aren't usually arguments to convince, just the charge of meanspiritedness against conservatives in exactly this way).

It's not mean-spirited to hold a different view on the practical level that comes from the same fundamental values. What's mean-spirited is to suggest that those who hold such different views must necessarily be mean-spirited, and I do believe I witnessed exactly this sort of mean-spiritedness from Senators Kennedy, Schumer, Biden, and to a lesser extent Feinstein during the closing comments of their time with Judge Roberts this week. Maybe there's something I'm missing about this, but that's exactly how it seemed to me, and I credit SenatorGraham for saying exactly what needed to be said to clarify what was really going on in those speeches. For further thoughts on the same issue in a different context, see Laurence Thomas' latest post, Open-Mindedness and the University.

7 Comments

This is just bogus stuff. You have it all wrong. Thing is, I believe you know you have it all wrong. What is the point of writing a spin blog? Does the republican party give brownie points?

"Mean spirited" come on. The only thing you got right was "It's not mean-spirited to hold a different view," but then you quickly veered into pointing fingers. Your whole article is just the new double speak of the right. Let’s find intellectual flaws in an emotional argument as if we were on a debate team and confuse the minds of all the people that are paying only half attention.

Here is the difference. The people that are pro-choice will also allow the choice to not have an abortion. No condemnation of that choice. Maybe sadness at the tragedies that might come, but they can also celebrate the coming life. Hey, you can even change your mind – pro-choice people do it all the time. There is a fundamental divide; one side is saying this does not work for my life, and the reality of the world, the other holds to an abstract ideal. Legal or not abortion has always been a fact and will continue to be a fact. One side has decided that they want to lord their “rightness��? over everyone and the other just wants to recognize the facts. If you are right then God will take care of all the evil girls, so what is it you are all in a huff about?

Personally, I thank God that if my daughter would want it that she can get a legal and safe abortion. I don't consider it killing a human being, I don't consider it bad or unfortunate, it is a good thing.

You've got to be kidding Redslime.

Determinate social policy that embodies only some of multiple conflicting moral viewpoints, and which therefore must do so because those viewpoints cannot possibly find expression in the same policy, should not be characterized as lording rightness over anyone in a morally pluralistic society. That's simply the only way for a pluralistic society to function.

I understand no one wants to have their morality suffer exclusion from law. But hey, those are the breaks. What's the alternative? Violence? Please don't say that everyone should just "recognize the facts." Gimme a break.

Jeremy,

I think that this post has a nice sentiment. I think that in a pluralistic society like America and particularly in the capacity of democratic representation we have a lot to get right. Indeed, many of our representatives tend to get carried away in their own personal agenda, etc, etc.

My concern however is two fold. In a group that has principles and values adjudicated at the federal level on issues like aborton it can't be that I must rely on the accedence of my federal representaives to tell me whether I can or cannot express my belief. The problem that government creates is that it centralizes and delineates values. I am not advocating any sort of relativism or subjectivism rather I think that no side has the claim on truth or the monopoly on coherent and right moral values.

Insofar as a person is autonomous and insofar as their autonomy has no conflict with the whole then the person is free to act according to their ethical code. Minimally, I think, we egalitarian and in this capacity there implications that restrict the autonomy of the individual. However, moving beyond this one need to be careful.

I am not entirely up on the politics of the country. However, insofar as it is the democratic and free society I hold it to be we must make sure that people are accurately and properly represented. Because we are a pluralistic society, the binary positions of liberal and conservative overshadow a complexity that misrepresents the issue and opinions.

Redslime, you just demonstrate your ignorance and your unfamiliarity with this blog. There's very little in this post that most on the right would agree with. Most people on the right, as most on the left, can't see beyond their own views to recognize that other people can be coming from the same humanity as they are.

You've also seemed to miss the most important point of my post. There's a levels distinction going on here. On the level of basic moral views, I would argue that most mainstream conservatives and liberals are starting from similar enough values. On the next level up of more complicated ways of sorting through difficult case, they apply those values differently, particularly when values conflict and when empirical information is necessary for figuring out which one to favor. Then on a still higher level still, they might condemn the other side for being inhuman or recognize the basic humanity behind it. I was insisting that we should do the latter and saying that those who don't are being mean-spirited. I'm trying to figure out how doing that on level three is inconsistent with recognizing that the level two differences can come from the same basic values of good, caring people.

As for abortion, the very issue at stake is whether it's good to allow someone to have the choice to kill their kid at an early enough stage of development. If you recognize that someone can consider a fetus a person and consider it morally wrong to kill a fetus and yet not be mean-spirited, then you should be able to recognize that someone can consider it tantamount to murder to kill someone's fetus, yet without being mean-spirited. Therefore, if you really did think it isn't mean-spirited to disagree with your view on abortion, then you shouldn't think it's mean-spirited for someone who holds such views to want abortion to be considered a crime. Yet your comment seems to me to make it clear that you do think it's mean-spirited not to give someone the choice.

The real reason your argument is just plain terrible is that you could say the same thing about what is indisputably murder. Legal or not murder has always been a fact and will continue to be a fact. One side has decided that they want to lord their "rightness" over everyone and the other just wants to recognize the facts. If you are right then God will take care of all the evil murderers, so what is it you are all in a huff about? The only difference is that no one thinks we should allow murder. But we don't, and there's nothing wrong with criminalizing it. You're going to need to say more than simply complaining that pro-life people think their view is right and think it should be enforced. Of course they do. So do people who think murder should be illegal. So do people who think stealing should be illegal. If you're going to complain about people enforcing the rightness of their views, complain about those too or give a more careful argument.

As for girls, I'm not sure what you're talking about. Most people who want abortion to be illegal want very serious penalties for anyone performing an abortion, i.e. any doctor who would violate the hippocratic oath to do such a violent act to a developing human fetus. I don't know of any mainstream pro-life positions that place much of the blame on young girls, who more often than not are manipulated by their parents and boyfriends into having abortions.

Erik, I'm not entirely sure what you're getting at. The way your comment is worded, it sounded as if you were agreeing with the general thrust of my post and then offering some disagreements with it. The only problem is that I can't figure out how what you go on to say has anything to do with what I was talking about. I was talking about how one person evaluates another's heart based on their views on complex and difficult moral issues. That doesn't seem to be what you're talking about.

I apologize for the confusion of the previous post, I do agree with the thrust of your post.

My point was that in a debate where one has to decide about something that affects everyone in a society we ought not rush to make a decision when we have not fully considered its implications. Since we live in a pluralistic society we ought to consider with a measure of prudence the most effective and right way of doing things.

I think the saying goes: "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".

I certainly agree that people can take wrong views. In the post I made it clear that I think the pro-choice view is not just incorrent but disastrous for society. It has terrible consequences. That doesn't mean that the people who hold it are all heartless creeps who would torture a baby for the fun of it. It doesn't even mean that they don't care about the pain a fetus can feel, the negative impact abortion can have on someone who has it, and the fact that this human organism has been robbed of a future. Some pro-choice people are well aware of those things and consider it tragic. They just think the right to autonomy over one's own body is strong enough that someone shouldn't be forced not to have an abortion.

Many pro-life people don't recognize that pro-choice views stem from the same basic values people with pro-life views begin with and use for many of their moral positions. They're just applied differently and interpret the evidence differently. In no way am I approving of the pro-choice view. I'm not going to place all pro-choice people in the same category as Hitler, even if the consequences of that view amount to something just as evil. In Hitler's case, the justification was self-centered, ethnocentric hate or fear.

There are certainly such irrational motivations for views in the U.S today. The KKK wouldn't exist if there weren't. I don't think it's that kind of thing that goes on with the pro-choice view, at least not with many people. I think it's a mistake in reasoning for many people, and they really are starting with the same groundfloor moral perspective as people who end up with very different conclusions about complex and difficult moral questions on the practical level.

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