Freedom of association: only skin deep

June 5, 2014 § 45 Comments

In the comments below I wrote that unqualified freedom of association is a libertarian fantasy, which led CJ to ask:

Zippy, not to get all positivist on you, but would you mind discussing principles that should be considered when qualifying freedom of association?

I think it will be easy enough to avoid positivism here, as long as we realize that we are just talking in order to wrap our minds around what is going on not writing computer code that can be executed to decide cases which have been specified in sufficient linguistic detail.

For our purposes here I’ll take “association” to mean pretty much any voluntarily chosen interaction between people, and “freedom” to imply legitimate choice.  Legitimate can refer either to legal legitimacy under the positive law or moral legitimacy under the natural law. I will confine my remarks to the latter.

Leaving aside questions of intrinsic morality which pertain to things like murder and adultery, whether and how to associate with other human beings – who to rent to, who to make friends with, etc – generally falls within the realm of prudential judgment.  Many right-liberals selectively take “prudential judgment” to mean that it is impossible to do wrong, or at least it is impossible to judge that others have done wrong, when it suits their purposes.  This is a particularly common rhetorical tactic when it comes to justifying war.

But here we know better.  Prudential judgment applies to acts that are not immoral in themselves as behaviors, but it doesn’t follow that they cannot be judged morally right or wrong based on intentions and circumstances.  In fact a prudential situation is precisely one in which the morality of what we do is determined by intentions and circumstances.

This applies to every choice we ever make.  There are no amoral choices, strictly speaking, which is why it is important to cultivate virtue, or habits of making good choices.  We can’t explicitly think through everything we do in every moment, despite the fact that everything we do is morally fraught.

But some choices are whimsical, idiosyncratic, and personal; whereas others involve more grave matters.  Whether to drink water or wine with dinner is mostly, for most people, just a matter of personal preference.  There is nothing at all wrong with personal preferences, but they can easily be overridden by more important considerations.  The choice of wine for an alcoholic is imprudent in a way that it is not for the rest of us: and because it is imprudent, it is morally wrong for him to choose it.

To model this more “algorithmically” (with the caveats about positivism in mind – this is just an intuition pump, not positivist rules), lets postulate three levels of moral gravity in the matter of a particular proposed choice: preference, serious, and grave.  Grave considerations outweigh serious ones, and serious considerations outweigh preferences.  So when a choice involves a preference set against a serious concern, a morally just prudential judgment favors the serious concern.

Choices about whom to associate with and why can involve any of these ‘levels’ of moral gravity in their particular matter; and to the extent that “freedom of association” implies that preferences can morally override other serious or grave considerations, it is just flat out wrong.

Most of the time, choosing Coke over Pepsi is just a matter of personal preference.  But doing so at the table with a bunch of Pepsi executives, knowing that one of them will be fired because of it, is a different matter entirely.  The attempt to sanitize our prudential decisions morally by invoking “freedom of association” is liberal tommyrot.

§ 45 Responses to Freedom of association: only skin deep

  • jf12 says:

    Lie down with dogs, birds of a feather, etc. But Jesus rubbed shoulders with publicans and sinners and lepers.

    “a prudential situation is precisely one in which the morality of what we do is determined by intentions and circumstances.”

    Ok, but who is doing the determining? If the determiners are one’s fellow human beings, then the freedom of association is being treated as communicating, e.g. “I’m with these folks because I’m like them in many way.”

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    “Who does the determining” is a subtle appeal to moral relativism. Whether or not a particular choice is morally defensible is a question of objective fact.

  • CJ says:

    Thanks. So it sounds like you’d simply apply the same analysis that you would with any prudential judgment rather than there being something special about FoA

  • Zippy says:

    CJ:
    Right, and when you put it that way it probably didn’t need its own post. But heck, pixels are cheap.

  • jf12 says:

    “Whether or not a particular choice is morally defensible is a question of objective fact.”

    Defensible to whom? It’s a real question; words have meanings etc.

    Clearly the idea behind judging based upon association IS the subjectivity of inferring intent. I don’t drink so I wouldn’t be tempted by going into a bar, but one of the main reasons I wouldn’t go into a particular bar to sample “the best wings in town!” IS because that my actions would communicate to others.

    “All things are lawful but all things are not expedient” is not the relevant reference for prudential judgment regarding association. The relevant reference is the meat discussion in Romans 14 wherein it is made perfectly inarguably clear that what matters is what *others* think of your actions.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:

    Defensible to whom?

    Defensible as judged as a matter of objective merit. As I said, you are sneaking in relativism where it was not implied in the OP.

    wherein it is made perfectly inarguably clear that what matters is what *others* think of your actions.

    Whether or not an action causes scandal is certainly one thing that matters, and pertains to making a good prudential judgment.

  • jf12 says:

    “Whether or not an action causes scandal is certainly one thing that matters, and pertains to making a good prudential judgment.”

    Ok, I agree. That’s allz I got. The substance of disagreement is the same as the substance of agreement.

    Is there a nice objective list of things that give scandal?

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:

    Is there a nice objective list of things that give scandal?

    Not a comprehensive one, no. That would be positivist.

  • jf12 says:

    An incomplete list of objectively scandalous things that require prudential judgment would be a nice present to me, and to others. Are there any actual entries on that list? What’s one entry?

  • Svar says:

    @ Zippy

    This is off-topic but I am curious about something I am learning in college and would like to get things clarified. I am taking freshmen English and we’re doing rhetoric. The professor says that ethos is just the establishing of credibility with your audience whilst I thought that credibilty was only a part of it by appealing to your audience’s sense authority by invoking the characteristic spirit, the values, ethics, and morals of a nation.

    She says the latter are more a part of pathos. I don’t think she is right. Who is right?

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    The question confuses me given that you already provided an example yourself. Attending a wedding you know to be invalid might be another example.

    Svar:
    I’m not much of a student of rhetoric so I’m probably the wrong person to ask. I just have this vague idea that ethos, pathos, and logos are appeals to the speaker, the audience, and the logic of the thing itself, respectively.

  • William Luse says:

    She is correct, but not in a black and white sort of way. Appeals to values (and emotions), authority and logic are finely interwoven in a good essay.

  • […] to patterns, and these are predictable, and they follow type. Jesus talked about looking at at the fruits of one’s actions to judge people. And Paul talks about not associating with […]

  • Svar says:

    “She is correct, but not in a black and white sort of way. Appeals to values (and emotions), authority and logic are finely interwoven in a good essay.”

    Mr. Luse, could you please explain what you mean by that she is not correct in a black and white way? And why is values being associated with emotions(pathos) instead of authority(ethos)?

  • Zippy says:

    Hello, Bill.

    Svar, you are talking to the right guy now.

  • jf12 says:

    “The question confuses me given that you already provided an example yourself.”

    But I considered that a subjective example, wherein I was concerned primarily about others’ opinions and not about the objective rightness or wrongness.

  • William Luse says:

    And why is values being associated with emotions(pathos) instead of authority(ethos)?

    You can talk about values (what you think to be true) in a strictly logical manner (as a theologian might) or in a manner that appeals to your reader’s emotions – by telling a story, for example, which embodies that value and brings it to life.

    Why don’t you read this one page introduction to Orthodoxy by Chesterton and watch him establish his authority by first establishing a rapport with the reader through self-depredation, and by wrapping his logic in humor. With the really great writers, these things become almost inextricable: http://www.online-literature.com/chesterton/orthodoxy/1/

    You can also look at the Wiki article, fwiw: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modes_of_persuasion

  • Svar says:

    @ William Luse

    Thank you, sir.

  • Janet says:

    jf12:

    “Scandal” is defined in the Catechism like this:

    “2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.”

    So, objectively, you have given scandal if you tempt another person to do evil by your (in)actions. In your example, you refrain from going to a bar (even just to eat good food), because you are concerned that someone who has a weakness for drinking to excess would be tempted by your example to go to the bar as well. That’s an occasion of sin for him (even if not for you, since you don’t have that particular weakness). But, to extend your example, getting the bar’s food for takeout and eating it at your house probably wouldn’t give scandal to anybody. You might still choose not to do it– say, you actually want the bar to go out of business and so are boycotting it– but that’s a different motive than concern for giving scandal.

    It’s not a subjective or emotional thing– you aren’t “rooting for the Christian team”. It’s objective, in that you are either making it easier or harder for the people around you to live a moral life, to thrive as human beings.

  • jf12 says:

    @janet, it’s objective only to the extent that someone’s internal states of mind are objective. If those aren’t subjective, then what is?

  • jf12 says:

    Wait, wait, it’s actually worse (or better, I’m not sure which!) than that! It’s my *concern* for potential future *choices* because of what some unspecified other person (or group of persons) MIGHT erroneously *infer* about my *motivations* for engaging in that association (e.g. going into the bar), and what that implies about their *judgment* of additional *permissibility* of that association for themselves, given some degree of *accountability* that they have *awarded* me with. I count eight degrees of subjectivity just off the top of my head.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    If your behavior scandalized someone else into doing something immoral, those are all objective facts. “Objective” is not a synonym for “physical”.

  • jf12 says:

    “If” is not a synonym for “physical” either.

    So, what is an example of subjectivity?

  • CJ says:

    Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.

    “Deliberately” sticks out like a sore thumb to the lawyer in me. Rationalization hamsters are gonna grab hold of that like a drowning man on a life preserver.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    Your interior experience of seeing the red light is subjective: what philosophers might call qualia. That you saw the red light is an objective fact about the history of your experiences. That the light was red is an objective fact about a historical state of the light.

  • jf12 says:

    “That you saw the red light is an objective fact about the history of your experiences.” True.

    My hesitation to enter a bar based upon hypothetical feelings and rationalizations of unspecified persons IF I did so, is not based upon objective facts.

  • jf12 says:

    I’m trying to think, even if it seems otherwise.

    To more directly apply your example, let us suppose that you and I can see red but I choose to associate with a degenerate group that can’t see red, or thinks red is green due to ordinary colorblindness or some more bizarre pathology. I don’t believe the details of their degeneracy matter. Anyway, it is an objective fact that they could benefit from association with someone who can distinguish red and can understand the effects of not distinguishing red. You could claim that I am objectively diminishing the importance of distinguishing red by associating with them, but I could *objectively* claim that you are objectively wrong because your judgment is purely subjective.

  • Janet says:

    @jf12: Sorry, I seem to have left you further confused, when I was actually trying to clear things up.

    I think part of your problem is that you’re looking for this to be a static logic problem, when in fact it’s not. Jesus didn’t die to give us a logical system, he died out of love for us and to let his love for all people live in us. There’s no a priori rule set about specific cases, since basically everything in the created world could be used for either evil or good.

    That’s where prudence comes in. It allows you to take ALL of the information you have about a SPECIFIC situation, plus the moment-by-moment inspiration of the Spirit, and come up with the right decision. You don’t have to solve every possible variation in advance. Indeed, you can’t solve them, since you have neither all of the facts nor any of the grace (which is given only at the moment it’s needed). Using logic to work through some general cases is a good and useful tool, but it only goes so far. Rather than over-thinking hypotheticals, you’d be better off spending your time getting closer to Jesus through prayer and practical service to the people around you. After all, Jesus really does know both what you knew at the time, and what you could actually control in the situation; he’s not looking to “zing” you because you couldn’t read someone’s mind. He loves you, he loves the people around you, and you can trust him to give you the right word to say (or right thing to do) at the exact moment you need it.

    The gift of prudence makes you see a difference between having a drink with your spouse before dinner at Charlie’s Bar and Grill, and taking a group of your hard-drinking co-workers to a stag party at the Bada Bing. Only the second one is imprudent, because it could reasonably be expected to cause the people around you to stumble into drunkenness and lewdness. And giving scandal is less about one single action than the habitual or repetitive actions that make it harder or easier for the people around you to walk a life of integrity.

    @CJ: You’re right, there are many people who will lawyer that up! But the only advocate at this tribunal is the Holy Spirit– and you’d best ask your lawyer for advice before you do something you can’t undo!

    (But basically, a grave sin requires intention here; it’s still wrong if done by negligence, but not mortally wrong.)

  • jf12 says:

    @Janet, re: “That’s where prudence comes in. It allows you to take ALL of the information you have about a SPECIFIC situation, plus the moment-by-moment inspiration of the Spirit, and come up with the right decision.”

    I agree. I don’t cower from the necessity of subjectivity, nor do a postulate a necessarily objective ranking of moral gravity.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:

    I don’t cower from the necessity of subjectivity,

    I didn’t take your comments as cowardly; just as lacking understanding.

    …nor do a postulate a necessarily objective ranking of moral gravity.

    But moral gravity is objective, because it is not a (subjective) qualia like ‘the interior conscious experience of seeing the color red’.

  • Zippy says:

    This is a good nerdy secular paper for starting to think about subjectivity and objectivity. (As usual, the recommendation of a good read should not be taken as an endorsement of everything in the text):

    http://organizations.utep.edu/portals/1475/nagel_bat.pdf

  • Janet says:

    Nor did I intend any implication of cowardice, for that matter. But I do seem to be missing the mark on this explanation, since my point was not that the moral decision is, in the end, subjective; my point was that it is objective, but based on the detailed particulars of a specific situation, and that you can’t expect to derive those particulars from a priori logical development. In the bar example, you’re deciding based, not on what effect you might have on some hypothetical person, but on how your behavior will affect the specific people around you in this specific situation, with the actual grace given from the Spirit.

    Perhaps I should say “fact based”. You may or may not know a fact, but it is “there” nonetheless. God doesn’t hold you morally to account for honest errors of knowledge, but honestly, most cases of scandal aren’t about some secret temptation that you didn’t/couldn’t know about and don’t have any subjective feeling for. Mostly, it’s straight up sneering at good, praising vice, or dodging consequences.

    So, you either did or did not encourage Bob to have an affair while at the convention by making repeated “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” jokes, comments about loose women, etc. That is the objective fact. It doesn’t matter that you were “joking” and “had no idea” that he’d actually do it. It doesn’t matter that Bob’s autistic and turns out he thought you meant “leave stuff in Vegas” and didn’t bring his suitcase home. It doesn’t even matter IF he actually did it, since you don’t control that– from “your end” you did wrong by denigrating a good thing (faithfulness in marriage) and telling him he could duck the consequences of a bad thing (adultery) because he’s in Sin City. You know what you’re communicating, and it’s not good. (St Paul tells us this sort of thing shouldn’t even be mentioned among Christians.)

  • jf12 says:

    “But moral gravity is objective”

    This is precisely what I’m disputing, in the specific instances under discussion. If the moral gravity depends upon *intents* and *perceptions*, exactly like in Romans 14, then it is by definition subjective and NOT objective. Whether you like it or not. I’m unafraid of subjectivity. Why are you?

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    You keep using the words “subjective” and “afraid”, but you don’t appear to know what they mean.

  • jf12 says:

    “you don’t appear to know what they mean.”

    I truly don’t know what you mean by “appear”. I know what they mean, to me, and I think I know what they mean to you. You approvingly proffer Nagler claiming not to know what “is” means, to explain to me what you think “is” the meaning of subjective to you. To me, subjective means simply that it depends on someone’s internal i.e. mental states: perception, judgment, etc. I don’t care that you have a fuzzy indefinition you can’t quite produce, but if you do have some real definite definition of subjective than please show it.

    In contrast, you definitely appear afraid of combining truth-values and moral values with subjectivity.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:

    To me, subjective means simply that it depends on someone’s internal i.e. mental states: perception, judgment, etc.

    Even given your sloppy understanding of subjectivity, moral gravity isn’t subjective. If you scandalized someone into committing adultery that is in fact morally grave no matter what perceptions you had or judgements you made. As always, personal culpability does depend on subjective factors, and in particular on whether the defect lies in knowledge or in the will. But it remains, morally and objectively, grave matter.

    And the rhetorical appeal to the idea that people who disagree with you are “afraid” just signals the insecurity of your argument.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    @ jf12

    If I shoot a child at play because I genuinely believed that toy in his hands was a real firearm which he intended to use on me, then that is a deficit of knowledge.

    If I shoot a child at play because I’m a sadistic nutcase, then that is a deficit of will.

    In the first case, I’m not culpable for the evil I committed. In the second case, I am culpable for the evil I committed. However, the gravity of the material evil that took place is the same between the cases.

  • […] that, seemingly without irony.  Putative reactionaries argue in my own comboxes for “freedom of association” as some sort of absolute right that renders actions motivated by “freedom of […]

  • Your account seems to suggest that personal preferences have moral importance in themselves, so that (if such were possible?) it would be immoral to act against one’s preferences in the absence of a serious reason. Have I misunderstood? Preference does not seem to be any level of moral gravity, not even the least one.

  • Zippy says:

    Nicholas Escalona:

    Have I misunderstood?

    Well, I don’t see offhand where my account suggests that, so if it does maybe you can show me where and I can fine-tune my wording.

  • “lets postulate three levels of moral gravity in the matter of a particular proposed choice: preference, serious, and grave. Grave considerations outweigh serious ones, and serious considerations outweigh preferences.”

    Suggesting, as I see it: “absent grave considerations, serious ones determine the moral choice, and absent those, preferences determine the moral choice.”

  • Zippy says:

    Ah, got it.

    Keep in mind that those are like verbal “tics” on an analog thermometer, except what is being displayed by the mercury level is moral gravity. Perhaps I should have used a word other than “preference” for a low value. Though it is an interesting if academic question as to whether there is a moral “absolute zero”. I suspect not, intuitively.

  • Dystopia Max says:

    Funny, when I hear “Freedom of association” from neoreactionaries it’s usually a none-too-subtle reference to what was effectively banned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    I.E., the freedom NOT to associate with dangerous minorities at your place of business.

    Sure you aren’t just tilting at windmills and triangulating between nonexistent pointe here?

  • Zippy says:

    Dystopia Max:
    The OP has a context to which it links.

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