What’s So Bad About Doing Good revisited

This time I’m responding to Robert Samuelson’s column in this week’s Newsweek (as opposed to https://wiredsisters.wordpress.com/2009/11/18/whats-so-bad-about-doing-good/ last time.) He’s talking about why our political arena is so severely divided. Essentially he points to something most historians figured out literally centuries ago—that once something is framed as a moral issue, those on either side of it cannot agree to “split the difference.” That was true of slavery, it was true of civil rights (from both sides), true of the Vietnam War, and so on. Not to mention “Cartago delenda est” and the horrendous misdeeds of Catiline. And, most recently, of course, abortion and same-sex marriage. So far, so obvious.

But then he goes a step further, by presuming that the only reason people will refuse to compromise on moral issues is that seeing themselves as moral people makes them feel good.

Normally, I find Samuelson unexceptionable. But this presumption struck me speechless for quite a while. Me, us, the Wired Sisters who, as Mr. Wired is fond of pointing out, have never had an unpublished thought, sitting there with a blank balloon over my/our head/s. (Moro, can you do something with this?)

In fact, there are two problems with Samuelson’s analysis. One is that, at least most recently, American politicians aren’t divided because the issues they fight over just happen to be moral issues on which there can be no compromise. Rather, they are divided because at least some of them are choosing issues to fight over on which there can be no compromise (like abortion and same-sex marriage), to assure that we will be divided. A case can even be made that at least some of these issues weren’t moral or uncompromisable until one side decided they were, like the health care reform bill, which was sufficiently complex to leave lots of room for splitting the difference. Indeed, some people might suggest that if the Secular Socialist Party were to propose a bill declaring that pi is equal to 3.14159265 etc., God’s Own Party might prepare to fight to the death to legislate it down to 3.0 (as the apocryphal state legislature of Indiana is reputed to have done—ever wondered why your wheels feel funny when you drive through Indiana?)

But the other, as previously stated, is Samuelson’s presumption that nobody takes a moral stand except for the fun of feeling good about themselves. This makes feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, refraining from murder and theft, and picking up your own trash no different from skateboarding, needlepoint, pedophilia, and cocaine. And it makes those who prefer the latter pastimes just as acceptable, as neighbors and role models, as those who get their jollies from the former. This is relativism at its most pernicious. If I believed in the Antichrist and were willing to sic the Hutaree on him, I think I might point them in the direction of Robert Samuelson. This is probably not what Samuelson intended.

Jane Grey

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