Coercion and Complicity

I'm not quite sure that I understand the complicity argument that has sprung up among some of those who lost the election and who are upset at Obama's policies. Gerson gave a particularly virulent formulation of it today:

There is a common thread running through President Obama's pro-choice agenda: the coercion of those who disagree with it.

. . . .

Now, taxpayers are likely to fund not only research on the "spare" embryos from in vitro fertilization but also on human lives produced and ended for the sole purpose of scientific exploitation. Biotechnicians have been freed from the vulgar moralism of the masses, so they can operate according to the vulgar utilitarianism of their own social clique — the belief that some human lives can be planted, plucked and processed for the benefit of others. It is the incurable itch of pro-choice activists to compel everyone's complicity in their agenda. Somehow, getting "politics out of science" translates into taxpayer funding for embryo experimentation. "Choice" becomes a demand on doctors and nurses to violate their deepest beliefs or face discrimination.

The argument seems to be that the fact that some people of conscience disagree with a certain policy on moral grounds presumptively legitimates the conclusion that the policy should not be enacted. The argument seems to be

1. People of conscience are free to have their own moral beliefs.

2. Freedom of moral belief entails (requires) that one is not "forced" to act counter to one's moral belief.

3. Therefore a policy that "forces" you to act indirectly against your moral belief is wrong.

4. Paying taxes to support an activity that runs counter to your moral beliefs is being "forced" to act counter to your moral beliefs.

5. [Therefore the government is wrong to spend money on activities that run counter to some people's moral belief.]

Gerson, being the moral relativist that he is, relativizes the difference in moral views to "social cliques" and then suggests that the government has no business intervening in this matter of taste–non disputandum gustibus I guess. Gerson makes that Nietzschean mistake of confusing sneering at those who disagree with you with argument against their position.Gerson and others can, of course, take the route many others of serious moral conscience have gone before. But, I can't see how it follows that a government cannot make any law legitimately that would be conscientiously objected to by a "social clique" even if we drink the radical relativist kool-aid with Gerson.

But, it seems to me that there is ultimatley something worrisome about Gerson's notions of "coercion" and "complicity" here. This argument may not seem fallacious as such. He is, of cousre, entitled to define coercion this broadly. But it overloads his premises, and, because he does not make explicit the real claim that he is making here, it seems to come close to begging the question. He is at least using emotionally loaded terms in order to persuade the reader without adequate justification of the wrongness of Obama's order. (Begging the question seems too strong here, better would be a fallacy of loading the key term of the argument.)

I'm really fascinated by the concept of complicity, though I can't say that I understand what the conditions for complicity would be. At the same time I don't think we can do without a fairly robust notion, at least, in our moral thinking. But, the sort of argument that Gerson is trotting out here, seems to be the argument of the defeated: No longer able to argue against fairly overwhelming democratic and popular support for the policy, no longer able to enforce their view by fiat, they claim that any policy is the result of an "incurable itch of [pro-choice] activists to compel everyone's complicity in their agenda."

5 thoughts on “Coercion and Complicity”

  1. I tried out a related point yesterday. It seemed to me then however that Gerson has equivocated on the nature of “coercion.” You’re right that he’s free to loosen the meaning, but he’s not free to play on multiple meanings to make his whiny point. As you point out, he gets his foot in the door with the coercive power of the law–that after all is what the law is for, that’s why people run for office, support candidates, etc.–but then he shifts the meaning of the coercive power of the law–its legitimate use (meaning its legal use)–to its extralegal use.

    In addition to this silliness, as you also point out, Gerson is guilty of radically mischaracterizing arguments for conclusions other than his own (“vulgar utilitarianism”). That, I think, is a straw man plus argument by sneering.

  2. A similar point which refrains from drawing the explicit inference in the NYT letters today:

    To the Editor:

    I have happily paid federal income taxes for 64 years. President Obamas repeal of our current ban on embryonic stem cell research will force my tax money to be used for what I believe is murder.

    As a Christian, and a Roman Catholic, I know that my beliefs are shared by a multitude of other Americans. We are appalled, angered and saddened to be powerless.

    Elaine C. Murphy
    Boynton Beach, Fla., March 10, 2009

  3. People too often speak with cheeks puffed out about the significance of their own deeply felt but poorly articulated moral intuitions (what makes a frozen embryo a life now?).

    One more remark on Gerson–what work does “vulgar” do in the second paragraph (“vulgar moralism of the masses” and “vulgar utilitarianism”)? Does no one in this conversation have non-vulgar moral beliefs?

  4. I think that some people’s frustration is more with the system, not with Obama necessarily. Like you said, the policy has “a fairly overwhelming democratic and popular support”. Does that make it morally acceptable? Are we seeing the problems that Plato was anticipating in a democracy?

    I also think that some people lived in the fantasy world for some time now. They never thought we’ll end up here. They thought that they can always “enforce their view by fiat“, or that the majority will always be on their side.

    In other words, democracy works when you’re in the majority 🙂
    When you’re not, you don’t like it anymore.

    I think that’s also why we also judge (wrongly I might add) arguments based on their power of persuasion, rather than their soundness. Because deep down we know that in a democracy it does not really matter to be right, what matters is to be popular.

    …there I go … being frustrated 🙂

  5. That sounds right to me–and explains why many of these arguments attack the order because it seems to turn over the decision making to scientists who are presumably without moral capacity, or at least, not to be trusted in their moral capacity. I think, however, that there is more ethics being done in conjunction with the NIH, than perhaps many believe. See here for example. I may be wrong about this, but it seems premature to attack the process because it takes “ethics” out of the decision, and turns it over to that social clique, the scientific community. And so, although I recognize Levin’s concerns, I think ethical considerations will be a part of the policy making process, though perhaps not the ethical and religious considerations that many critics want to be a part of the process. Although I’m very sympathetic to some of the carefully formulated moral concerns about embryonic research, I don’t think that the argument that O. is wrong to place the policy-formulation in the hands of scientists and bioethicists and Sec H&HS gets very far as a critique of the process.

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