Short vs. Long-Term Morality in Democratic Discourse

Posted on January 17, 2011

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In democratic discourse, is it morally acceptable for a person to violate their moral code in the short-term to avoid a longer-term ill, and where is the threshold that makes acceptable? I had a conversation yesterday with a friend about this, and after some thought, i have what i think is an acceptable answer.

To start off with a simple example of this dilemma, it might help to recall the scene toward the end of the movie The Sound of Music when a nun steals parts from Nazi cars (stealing is a clear violation of her professed moral code) in order to let the Von Trapp family escape from almost certain imprisonment and possible death. The nun then says to her superior: “Reverend Mother, I have sinned.” But did she? She clearly violated her own moral code in the short-term, which forbids stealing and lying. And we are all fairly sure that she prevented a longer-term ill from occuring.

In American democratic discourse, people seem to be faced with a similar dilemma. Glenn Beck, for example, violates his own moral code* in the short-term by stating at least partially untrue, inflammatory things like “This president I think has exposed himself over and over again as a guy who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture,” presumably because Glenn feels that doing so will help to avoid what he feels is a larger ill in the long-term. Sarah Palin also violates the same moral code in the short-term by stating inflammatory, at least partially untrue things like “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel..Such a system is downright evil,” presumably because she also feels that doing so in the short-term will help to avoid what she feels is a larger ill in the long-term. I could also violate the same code by making up lies to discredit both Beck and Palin because i feel that doing so in the short-term will help to get them out of the public consciousness and avoid a larger ill in the long-term.  But how do we figure out which of these dilemmas might warrant violating one’s own moral code?

Note: The reason i am choosing Beck and Palin as examples here is because they profess to be Christians, who have fairly standard written moral code. Many other people in all parties seem to be violating their own moral codes in the way they conduct democratic discourse.

There are two facts i thought of when considering this:

  1. Keeping the short-term moral code is the only course of action which guarantees that there will be some morality involved. In other words, if i tell the truth about Beck and Palin in a civil, upright manner, then even if they go on to create ills in our country, then the situation has included some level of moral action.
  2. Violating the short-term moral code is the only course of action which guarantees that there will be immorality involved. If i make up lies about Beck and Palin, even if that action helps to undermine their ability to create ills in our country, then there has been immoral action in the situation from the start. If i make up lies and they are still able to create ills in our country, then the whole situation is fraught with immorality from start to finish.
  3. The justification for breaking a moral code in the short-term must be related, then, to a person’s ability to foresee the likelihood that doing so will prevent a future ill.

The nun in The Sound of Music could foresee that the Nazis would have done horrible things to the Von Trapp family. If i were placed in her situation, i would feel fully morally justified in taking the actions that she did.  As for me, can i foresee that Beck and Palin are going to hurt our democracy? No. There are too many variables involved. So would i be morally justified in trumping up lies to discredit them? Absolutely not. In fact, i am called to “..be kind and compassionate” (Ephesians 4:32) to them.  Can Beck and Palin foresee that Obama’s administration is going to lead to bad things in our country? No. Far smarter people are unable to foresee such things. So are they morally justified in telling half-truths? Probably not.

* Each of the people in the examples are professing Christians, who are smart enough to know that our statements are at least partially untrue, which means that making such statements is a clear violation of the biblical code which calls for them to “..put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25), and for them to “.. not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

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