Moral Common Sense

23:52 Fri 06 Apr 2007. Updated: 02:13 07 Apr 2007
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Perhaps many people don’t hold themselves to the strict standard of Kant’s categorical imperative, in that they don’t act as if their every action is to be held up as an example for all. But I still cling to the idea that most people aren’t simply utter hypocrites who will excuse themselves from moral judgment while lecturing others.

Those who may fall into the authoritarian camp appear to be an exception.

The vast majority of us are guilty of judging others more harshly than we judge ourselves. Many of us will always give ourselves the benefit of the doubt while denying that to others. Many of us have the actor-observer bias as an ingrained thought habit.

Nevertheless, I think that most people will at least pause for reflection before speaking formally about their own behavior or treatment. If you were writing a book, or issuing a public statement, wouldn’t you at least consider your own actions in relation to what you’re writing/speaking about?

Yet we get things like this:

Monica Goodling, a top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who has refused to testify before congressional committees about the prosecutor purge on the ground that she might incriminate herself, is now objecting to a request that she meet privately with members of a House committee instead. In a statement, Goodling’s lawyer, John Dowd, explains: “In a free country, every citizen should have the liberty to exercise their rights without threats or coercion.”
— Tim Grieve, “Quaint”, salon.com 4 April 2007, http://www.salon.com/politics/war_room/2007/04/04/quaint/index.html

This from a women who worked directly with an Attorney General dedicated to the idea that personal liberty must take distant second place compared to executive privilege, who helped set up the disgusting “enemy combatant” fiasco. And too many other anti-liberty measures to mention. I do not believe that she was somehow unconnected to those initiatives, but even if she had nothing to do with them, how can she let her lawyer come out with something like that, knowing (as she must) that so many are imprisoned, actually imprisoned, as well as threatened and coerced, for exercising their rights? She’s been involved at a high level with a movement that aggressively curtails and eliminates liberties, but when she’s asked to talk to Congress, suddenly she’s got her lawyer on a high horse declaiming about the importance of liberty in a free country? Truly unbelievable.

John Dean discusses Tom DeLay’s authoritarian aspect and finds that authoritarians tend to have “highly compartmentalized minds”, and that “beliefs and attitudes and behaviors that contradict each other coexist because they’re never ‘in play’ at the same time.” My interpretation of this is that people with authoritarian tendencies are simply so convinced of their own righteousness that they don’t feel any need to consider their own actions, that they simply assume that mitigating circumstances excuse them, or that there’s nothing wrong with those actions—even if they’re simultaneously attacking others for similar actions.

This is completely unacceptable behavior. Yet the highest levels of American society, particularly political leaders and the journalists who cover them, breeze merrily along acting this way time and again. The more i think about this, the less acceptable it seems.

It’s all rather simple. Treat others as you wish to be treated. When you consider the situation of another person, imagine yourself in their situation and how you would feel. Ignore any categorizations that might let you escape into “well, I’m not one of them“, and instead exercise both reason and empathy.

Group identification and exclusivity is one of the biggest obstacles to that empathy, which is one reason why I am so suspicious of it. It allows us to dehumanize others too easily, and dehumanization is really about cutting off our own empathy. This lack of empathy leads more or less directly to abuse, injustice, and quite possibly genocide if left unchecked long enough.

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