Moral Presuppositions and Politics

Published February 18, 2013

Commentary magazine

In an essay that appears in a book he edited, Imaginative Apologetics, the theologian Andrew Davison tells about being in India and coming across a person with leprosy. As a Christian, he saw the leper and felt compassion and aided him, though much to the unease of Indians. It then struck him that those who believe in karma and reincarnation, as Hindus do, see a leper as someone atoning for past sins and doing what needs to be done for a future, and better, reincarnation. So they interpreted aiding the leper as doing something inappropriate.

Davison wrote, “We do not first see neutrally, and then interpret. The leper is seen as unfortunate, as someone upon whom to show pity, or seen as a miscreant, as someone to be reviled. Axioms operate at this very direct level as well as in more discursive reasoning.”

Professor Davison uses this illustration to show how our worldviews shape our interpretation of events and reality, to demonstrate how people can see the same situation and react to them in wholly different ways.

This doesn’t mean there is no such thing as objective truth. I’m not post-modern enough to believe that reality is something that is simply shaped by, and objectionable actions can be simply excused by, interpretation. But Davison’s illustration can help civilize our politics just a bit. Let me explain what I mean.

Most of us assume people see issues–abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, higher taxes on top income earners, entitlement reform, illegal immigration, climate change, judicial originalism, criminal justice, enhanced interrogation techniques, drone strikes, the Iraq war, and many others–through essentially the same prism we do. But it’s rather more complicated than that.

Our interpretative frame and intellectual and moral tropisms are the product of many factors. The philosopher Cornelius Van Til once said that there is no such thing as a brute fact. Our presumptions alter the way we interpret things, including justice. For example, if one views abortion entirely through the lens of a woman’s right to choose, then restricting abortions is a gratuitous offense. If one views abortion through the prism of the rights of an unborn child, on the other hand, then subsidizing abortion is a grave transgression.

Or take same sex marriage. Some believe championing gay marriage places one on the side of equality, tolerance, and human dignity, as heirs of the civil rights struggle. On the flip side, opponents of gay marriage often root their views in their understanding of male-female complementarity, procreation and the health of the institution of marriage. They are acting to defend what they believe are traditional and necessary social norms. The differences on this issue can be explained by reasons other than bigotry on the one hand or wanting to rip apart our social fabric on the other.

What happens is we tend to deny to those with whom we disagree any benefit of the doubt. We assume they see facts, events and justice just as we do, which makes their differing conclusions from us very nearly inexplicable. This in turn makes it easy to characterize one’s opponents as malignant. Only a cretin could hold views at odds with ours. See Paul Krugman’s attitude toward those who differ with him for more.

It really would help our political culture if we understood that every one of us has an imperfect angle on reality and that our presuppositions refract truth. That our perception of justice is always distorted, even just a little bit. All of us see through a glass darkly and know things only in part.

That doesn’t mean that some people aren’t much closer than others to apprehending truth, beauty, and goodness. Nor do I believe for a moment that efforts at persuasion are fruitless. I just happen to believe that Professor Davison’s illustration is a good one to bear in mind from time to time. If we did, our politics might be characterized by a touch more grace, a bit less anger, and a little more sympathy. There are worse things in the world.

Peter Wehner
is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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