Conditional Morality

By lex

Posted on October 19, 2005


It seems to me that there’s a high correlation between those who think in terms of processes, and others who think in terms of results as cross-indexed with those who believe in moral absolutes, and others who think in terms of relative, or conditional morality.

Process-oriented people tend to believe that, so long as we have perfected the institutions of societal interaction or have at least made our best efforts at continuing to perfect them things will work out for the best. Take the law for example: In a well-ordered society with qualified and well-intentioned peace officers, lawyers, and courts officials, process-oriented folks tend to believe that that the systemic outcomes will be acceptable even if those results are not what they themselves would have chosen. They can live with the results because the process is seen to be fair. This is one of the reasons that many conservatives got so very steamed about the Miers nomination for SCOTUS – not only do they tend see the Constitution through an originalist lens (as opposed to mere constructionists) and believe that the process for adjusting the Constitution (making it momentarily a living, breathing thing – at least for the duration of the change envisioned) is found within the document itself, but they also look for people who are the most qualified to run the system. They don’t want to either skip any steps in the process, nor do they want to have any but the most qualified technicians operating it.

Results-oriented people on the other hand, already have decided what the proper conclusion of the process is supposed to be, and feel no particular compunction about short-circuiting the process on the way to the goal, whether or not a democratic consensus exists to determine whether that goal is proper or achievable. Using the judicial example again, results-oriented individuals look to the court system to deliver “fair” or “progressive” policy outcomes, even if the democratic process itself is elided. Perhaps the legislature lacks the political will to arrive at the proper conclusion; either the majorities don’t exist, or the issue is too polarizing to touch, or perhaps the legislators are all thought to be in the pocket of the power elite, or whatever the short-circuiting rationale might be. These folks don’t mind the use of the democratic processes to achieve their policy goals, but they don’t feel constrained by them. Many people who are results-oriented got themselves lastingly steamed when the Supreme Court in 2000 cut short the presidential election re-count rather than allowing the Florida electoral commission to settle on the least fair, most restrictive recount system (out of four under consideration) which would have guaranteed their favored result. The process was not important, the result was. Because theirs is a “higher” morality.

Except that maybe it’s not.

Because if you think that ad hominem attacks are wrong, unless it’s the other guy getting attacked, then it’s hard to claim the moral high ground.

Because if you think it’s not racist when you do it, then it’s hard to claim the moral high ground.

Because if you think that it’s an outrageous invasion of a man’s personal privacy to out him as a homosexual, unless he not only bats for the other team but also reports for them, then it’s hard to claim the moral high ground.

And if you think that protecting the freedom of speech is important – especially that class of speech to be found in a free press, whose most important role it is to hold governments and bureaucrats accountable to the people – unless that freedom somehow impinges on your ability  * not just to hold government accountable but also to try and stick it to them, then it’s hard to claim the moral high ground.

(I)t’s astonishing to see many in the journalism establishment, and in the media trade press, turn on Ms. Miller not just for questions surrounding the waiver but also for refusing now to identify all of her sources, turn over all of her notes and otherwise lay bare her reporting. Normally these commentators are among the first to defend journalists who seek to protect a confidential source. Reporters often rely on unnamed sources to expose corruption and incompetence in government. Neither Ms. Miller nor the other reporters in this case (including two at The Post) faced an easy choice in deciding the circumstances under which they could testify, but their struggle with the dilemma, and her decision to go to jail, merit some sympathy and respect. That Ms. Miller is receiving so little stems in part from disapproval over her too-credulous reporting leading up to the Iraq war and in part, in some cases, from animus toward the Bush administration. But the next time a journalist faces off with a prosecutor, these same commentators may regret the certainty with which they condemned Ms. Miller.

Original WaPo link gone; new Wapo link inserted – Ed. 

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, Neptunus Lex, Politics and Culture

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