Tag Archives: Moral Beliefs

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."