The pleasure of putting other people in the wrong

Some of you may remember the recent case of Mark Souder.  He was the latest in a string of Republican social conservatives to go down in a sex scandal (with a female staffer).  Pardon the pun, but it turns out one of our favorite deep thinkers, Michael Gerson, worked for him way back when.  Aside from cheating on his wife, turns out Souder's a nice guy or something, which leads Gerson to meditate on the meaning of morality:

Moral conservatives need to admit that political character is more complex than marital fidelity and that less sensual vices also can be disturbing. "The sins of the flesh are bad," said C.S. Lewis, "but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither."

I think I agree with this stuff.  There is a lot more to morality than what one does with one's private parts.  And indeed, the "pleasure of putting other people in the wrong" is up there for me in the list of bad things. 

Gerson continues:

Yet moral liberals have something to learn as well. The failure of human beings to meet their own ideals does not disprove or discredit those ideals. The fact that some are cowards does not make courage a myth. The fact that some are faithless does not make fidelity a joke. All moral standards create the possibility of hypocrisy. But I would rather live among those who recognize standards and fail to meet them than among those who mock all standards as lies. In the end, hypocrisy is preferable to decadence.

I don't think anyone (serious) fits the description of "moral liberal" here.  The failure of self-righteous jerks like Gerson's former boss does not mean the values those self-righteous jerks hold are empty.  That's like a logical fallacy or something (play along at home–name that fallacy).  And I think attributing such sloppy thinking to non-existent opponents is a kind of "putting people in the wrong."  Moreover, it's just dishonest arguing.

But it gets worse.  Gerson seems to think that there is a stark choice–live among the inconsistent, but strident proponent of that old-time morality, or be a moral relativist.  He'd be first of alll hard-pressed to find moral relativists of the type he suggests anywhere.  Second, granted their existence somewheres, it doesn't follow that they are the only reasonable alternative to moral hypocrties.  That would indeed be a logical fallacy.  Can you guess which? 

h/t Alicublog

3 thoughts on “The pleasure of putting other people in the wrong”

  1. Gerson seems to be using the term "moral liberal" to mean "libertine" or "hedonist". I am not sure whether that's because he wanted to create the easy-to-knock-down hollow man, or because he truly believes that anybody who doesn't want a legislated moral code is a libertine. He may be deliberately playing into the stereotype implicated by such language as "values voters" or "moral majority", that people who aren't part of those movements lack values or are immoral.
    Gerson's statement that he prefers to "live among those who recognize standards and fail to meet them than among those who mock all standards as lies" seems, to me, to be his attempt to implicate the basic tenet of Christianity that "all men are sinners" – that God sets a high standard for us that at times we will all fail to meet, but we can nonetheless try and can atone and be forgiven for our failures.
    But I think he's being disingenuous in his definition of hypocrisy. Save perhaps for sociopaths, everybody has standards for themselves that they sometimes fail to meet – that makes us human. The hypocrisy deserving of condemnation is not the failure to meet your own high standards, even if you work to advance those standards. The hypocrisy deserving of condemnation is when you don't actually <em>believe</em> the standards that you would impose on others, and nonetheless advocate for them, often in pursuit of wealth, power or other personal advantage.
    In both cases he constructs a false dichotomy – you're either a "moral conservative" or a libertine; you're either a flawed human being striving to be a better person or you mock all standards as lies – with the apparent hope that his target audience won't recognize that no such dichotomy exists and that the number of people in the latter groups is vanishingly small.

  2. The first fallacy was Guilt By Association, and the second was False Dichotomy.

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