Neutrality isn’t neutral

August 3, 2012 § 14 Comments

A person who adopts a position of neutrality on a moral question, doesn’t.

Presume that we have before us a moral question, for which there is a good answer and a bad answer. A person who adopts a position of neutrality on the question is respecting both the good answer and the bad answer. As a result, the person who has adopted a position of neutrality has made the bad answer appear more respectable. Adopting a position of moral neutrality means respecting the bad answer.

Supporting neutrality with respect to moral questions, then, results in making evil more socially acceptable and good less so. In fact when neutrality is seen to be a good in itself, it is tantamount to supporting evil and undermining the good.

Respecting persons who are wrong is a different matter, of course. But adopting moral neutrality as a means to the end of respecting persons, is evil.

§ 14 Responses to Neutrality isn’t neutral

  • Tom K. says:

    What does it mean to support neutrality with respect to moral questions? Traditionally, a doubtful law doesn’t bind, so neutrality — in the sense of not asserting one answer over another — is effectively asserting the non-binding answer.

  • One might support neutrality with respect to a moral question by, for example, hosting a discussion in which both sides of that question are treated as equally respectable.

    I suppose the point I am making is that some moral views are not merely false but are not respectable, and that “possibly false but respectable” or even “likely false but respectable” is weak tea as a condemnation of evil.

    There are plenty of legitimately controversial questions, of course. “Legitimately controversial” is higher status morally than “definitely wicked” though, and what I am suggesting is that it is wrong – that is, it is doing evil (with all the usual caveats about culpability) – to treat the latter as if it were the former.

  • Lydia says:

    This is one reason why I would counsel any young Christian thinking of going into philosophy *not* to go into bioethics. I know that seems like abandoning the field, but there is literally no way now to specialize in bioethics without treating views like the legitimacy of infanticide and the non-personhood of people in a long-term comatose state as respectable. Abortion got treated as respectable in bioethics discussions (even by those strongly opposing it) long ago. Now we’ve moved on to pontificating about the legitimacy of infanticide, taking organs from people like Terri Schiavo, and more. I saw someone recently talking about the Minerva pro-infanticide article and about answering it and saying that we must do so in a respectful manner. Nonsense! To Wesley J. Smith’s credit, that was what he said. He said we can and probably should respond to such horrible stuff, but with outrage, not in a stuffy, academically respectful manner. (Those weren’t his exact words, but that was the substance of his position.) But of course that would never be publishable if you were a professional philosopher. This means that it’s only think-tank employees and other independent actors like Smith who can respond appropriately.

  • Lydia says:

    Being a philosopher is especially supposed to make one willing to be neutral on all questions. In another venue I was recently chided (by a philosopher) for refusing to “confront” such interesting (!) questions as whether, if there are some subhuman beings (the context clearly indicating that these might be _human_ “subhuman beings”) it is or is not morally licit to torture them, more so than for simply human beings.

    I note the implication that one is somehow _threatened_ by odious ideas and thus that one’s outraged and disgusted rejection of them as beyond the pale of civilized discourse constitutes a “refusal to confront” them, which philosophers in particular are never to do.

  • Tom K. says:

    I’d propose a “cooperation with evil” framework for thinking about things like hosting a discussion on a definitely evil topic. The added respectability of the evil position must be unintended — it might, for example, simply be acknowledged that a respectable number of people hold that position — and the intended good effect must be proportionate.

    On the questions Lydia raises, and speaking as someone who once read something someone said about it, it may be that “the specialization of bioethics,” considered as an academic or professional field, is itself a “definitely wicked” thing, despite the existence of many legitimately controversial matters of medical ethics and social policy. Much like eugenics is a definitely wicked thing, despite the existence of (at least potentially) ethical activities related to improving the genetic health of a society.

    The ability of philosophers (professional or amateur) to dispassionately discuss outrageous and disgusting questions relates to what I call the Pitchfork Point: the point in a philosophical conversation when any normal human being jumps up and shouts, “My God, man, you’re talking about whether it’s wrong to pitchfork babies!!??!!”

  • Cooperating with evil looks like the right frame: adopting a position of neutrality on a moral question, even a trivial and/or uncertain one, is always and necessarily cooperation with evil. Doing so can only be justified in any case whatsoever by a proportionate reason; and the more grave the evil, the higher the bar is for proportionate reason.

    In the case of a genuinely uncertain question, that proportionate reason might be finding the answer so as to know how to think and act morally. I’m still not sure this captures the situation well though: there is real depravity in not knowing that it is wrong to pitchfork babies. The graver the matter, the less excuse there is for controverting it.

    I think I remember you mentioning the “pitchfork point” before, but I’d forgotten about it.

  • Tom K. says:

    In a case where intuition leaps ahead of discursive reasoning to a certain conclusion, there may be value in going through the discursive reasoning dispassionately — to work out principles of use in other circumstances, say, or to pinpoint the disagreement with someone with a depraved opinion.

    But that’s, so to speak, a methodological neutrality, sort of like what St. Thomas uses in putting the objections first in the ST. That still requires proportionate reasons, but I’d guess you had in mind a more absolute sort of neutrality when you wrote your post — like an editor of a Catholic journal publishing opinion pieces based on the academic qualifications of the author, rather than the article’s consistency with Catholic doctrine or Christian revelation.

  • William Luse says:

    Back in 2008, asked by Rick Warren when a conceived human baby had human rights, B. Obama said that the answer to that was above his pay grade. This is an attempt at neutrality. In his legislative life, though, he fully supported an unlimited right to abortion, even of the most horrific kind. My guess is that an attempt at neutrality regarding a genuinely wicked “liberty” results, 9 times out of 10, in final support for that wickedness.

  • Robert King says:

    “Taking a position of neutrality” is, it seems to me, first and foremost taking a position – that none of the proposed answers to a question are worthy of assent. Thomas’ “methodological neutrality” is not taking a position so much as taking the question seriously.

    Similar to the way that God is infinitely intelligible in himself but only intelligible with difficulty to us, there are some moral questions that are abhorrent and unworthy of respect in themselves, but are not clearly so to many in the world.

    For example, my home parish is planning a series of discussions on the moral issues involved in the upcoming elections. We fully expect that many will disagree with the Church’s clear teaching. It is important to show that we really do fully understand the reasons that (for example) some consider same-sex marriage to be “equality” or that some consider torture and drone attacks to be legitimate means of waging a “war on terror.” To explain the arguments, given a context of fully explained Catholic teaching, is not to advocate for them or to take a position of neutrality toward them; rather it is to establish their weakness in the face of Catholic teaching.

    Now, I understand that this sort of discussion may often take the form of a debate between equals. Moderators who want to give the impression of impartiality would indeed be giving at least the appearance of “taking a position of neutrality.”

    But a debate/disputation of the kind that informs Thomas’ Summa is not a cooperation with evil – unless any acknowledgement of evil is to cooperate with it.

  • Scott W. says:

    One could say Obama’s idea of “evolving” on same-sex marriage was the faux “neutrality”. It reminds of what someone said (Auster?)–when someone says they are in favor of same-sex unions but not same-sex marriage, that means they are in favor of same-sex marriage but just not ready to say so yet.

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