Dennis Prager’s post at NRO today is literally a series of conservative talking points on Islam and terrorism. All pretty much familiar fare, from identifying a persecution complex in their opponents (the irony!) to blaming the Left for encouraging them to their acts of violence, to just stopping short of calling Islam an ideology of indecency. But it’s with the last line of thought that Prager has an interesting line of argument. He holds that “Any religion or ideology that is above good and evil produces enormous evil”, and then he plays to make a contrast.
Unfortunately, most religious and secular ideologues find preoccupation with human decency boring. The greatest moral idea in history, ethical monotheism, doesn’t excite most people.
First, there are factual things in question. One is that most of the ideologies run on making the case that they are the last and best hope for decency. They wouldn’t be convincing otherwise. Liberalism is posited on the appeal of decency, by the way. Second, is ethical monotheism really “the greatest moral idea in history”? Solve the problem of evil before you say that, buddy. Moreover, I don’t even seen ‘ethical monotheism’ as really a moral idea — it’s more a meta-ethic, that God is the source of moral norms. That’s more a metaphysical idea. And aren’t there actual moral ideas that seem to be considerably more powerful than ‘ethical monotheism,’ anyhow? Deontology? Eudaimonistic ethics? Consequentialism? (It’s one thing you can say for Roger Scruton is that he’d never write anything this stupid. NRO and The American Spectator will miss his intellectual heft for sure.)
Finally, I suspect Prager’s got a very specific monotheism in mind when he says this… but, you know, his favorite ethical monotheism doesn’t have a particularly good track record, either. Would we want Christianity judged by the decisions made by George W. Bush?
Factual questions aside, Prager’s case is interesting argumentative strategy. It’s a kind of downplayer, but on his own side. As if to say, “Well, nobody pays attention to little old me… I just try to do my best to be moral and upright and stuff…” The implicature of the speech act, of course, is to make the contrast — so as to say that popularity is a kind of negative authority of what’s right and true.
I’ve started calling strategies like this ‘persecution strategies,’ those that set up the dialectical board in a way that makes it inappropriate to overtly challenge the view. It runs: this view has had a long line of critics and rejections, and most folks think it’s crazy. But it hasn’t had a fair hearing. The strategy, then, is to identify most of the going criticisms of the view as mere expressions of the standard knee-jerk rejection of the view. Now, for sure, some views haven’t had a fair hearing, and it’s worth making the case they should be given it. But, as we’ve noted with the iron man, not all views need to be fully developed before we can see they are losers. And sometimes, it’s not worth our time and effort to do the work. Recently, in my survey of informal class, I’ve started calling this tactic the little view that could.