Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Moral Person Principle

Many months ago, the New Yorker had an excellent article about Billy Graham and his son, Franklin Graham. It brought an old thread of thought back to the surface of my mind; the distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists. Billy Graham is an evangelical. Franklin is a fundamentalist. What is the difference? The difference arises not from dogmatic issues; Evangelical Christianity is not simply Fundamentalist Christianity Lite(tm). Fundamentalist Christianity is not Evangelical Christianity with extra Hellfire. The difference between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism arises from the degree of respect given by each to the unbeliever.

In the intellecutal bad-lands of business-speak, there is a worthwhile concept called the "Reasonable Person Principle". It states that if you have a disagreement with someone, you have to start from the assumption that they are a reasonable person, and are not being willfully stupid or dishonest. We can adapt this principle to the present discussion, and call it the "Moral Person Principle". I define this principle as stating that if you have a moral disagreement with someone, you start with the assumption that they are a moral being like yourself, and are not being willfully evil. (By "moral being", I mean an individual capable of moral reasoning, i.e. an adult human, not a cow or an infant.) The fundamentalist does not adopt this principle. Anyone who does not echo their creed is called a witch, a heathen, or a democrat, depending what century you live in. The evangelical, while they may appear similar to the fundamentalist in dogma, is qualitatively different as a result of their adherence to the Moral Person Principle. While many evangelicals adopt roundly conservative stances on issues such as homosexuality, abortion, and pre-marital sex, you can often have reasoned and calm debates with them about these issues. Not so with the fundamentalist, who sees no problem harassing or assaulting people entering a planned parenthood clinic. The reason that evangelicals are so much less noxious is that they respect your faculties of moral reasoning. While they do think they're right and you're wrong, they attribute this difference to a divergence in the reasoning you each have used.

This makes them more like you and I than most people care to admit. While many people take offense at pages such as this one, which claims that "with enough prayer, homosexuals can change", espousing such a position does not make one a fundamentalist. If it did, most of us would have to accept the label of fundamentalist liberal, since we of course believe that any jesusfreak can change too, if only they would read some Nietzsche. In fact, many of the liberals I know do in fact deserve the label fundamentalist, as they do not observe the MPP. It is all well and good to disagree, even vehemently, with the idea that homosexuals need to change or be "cured". But many people go farther, saying that anyone espousing such an idea is either willfully or congenitally stupid, or perhaps simply brainwashed. To attribute such shortcomings in these cases completely denies the agency of the Christian human to make moral judgements; it is a blatant rejection of the MPP.

I am not arguing for moral relativism. I believe that many beliefs held by conservative Christians are morally wrong, and I am always eager to present arguments refuting these beliefs. But without the MPP, we are essentially reduced to a pack of screaming apes. If you believe that anyone who disagrees with you is either too stupid to understand why you're right, or too brainwashed to see beyond their indoctrination, the implication is that your beliefs are the only beliefs a moral person could possibly hold. Are you really that sure of yourself? Would you really say that your way is the one, true way, the only path to the mountaintop? Because that sounds awfully familiar...

Some readers may object that you are not obligated to give respect to sufficiently backward beliefs, in much the same way that a science magazine need not host a debate between a flat-earther and geologist. However, that analogy is not suitable. Science is a framework for rational thought driven by empirical observations (i.e. an epistemology). The flat-earther has rejected that epistomology, and so the geologist, who still operates within the strictures of the scientific framework, is under no obligation to take the flat-earther seriously. In moral reasoning, no such framework exists, because part of moral reasoning is choosing the framework in the first place. A refutation of this idea would have to define the unique and superior moral framework that subsumes all others (Is is pragmatism? Or libertarianism? Maybe darwinism?).

Pragmatism, by the way, is what underpins my thesis. If we do not accept the MPP, we can never convince those we disagree with that they are wrong. You can't argue with someone if you don't first respect their humanity - i.e., their moral agency. You can only shout at someone who you regard as little more than an ape, even if you use big words to do it. The MPP is, quite simply, the only hope for changing people.


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