Saturday, November 12, 2011

Moral Consensus

     This week’s revelations about the crimes and cover-up at Pennsylvania State University clarify that all too often our heroes, like the idol in Dante’s Inferno, have feet of clay. That the most successful college football coach of all should have kept quiet for nine years about ghastly crimes, having made a single report to the university authorities, has disillusioned everyone. Of course the perpetrator himself should be jailed for as long as the law allows; but the sting, the sense of outrage and disappointment, rightly includes Joe Paterno himself. Knowing what he knew, how could he not have done more to prevent the ongoing offenses? No doubt he reasoned himself into acquiescence, in which whatever benefit he thought Sandusky provided the football program somehow outweighed the crimes Sandusky continued to commit. This is how otherwise moral people depart from the larger consensus of conduct.

     Our religious friends have a simple source for morality. For them, morality is what their God has commanded. For skeptics, lacking a divine mandate means constructing moral rules as a deliberate process. Fair enough, religious people themselves have done rather a lot of moral revision over the years, and Jesuitical casuistry has been infamous. Still, skeptics lack even a shared text from which to begin the process of casuistry. In the abstract, skeptical ethics ought to be wide open, so that every system from the Stoics to Nietzsche to Stalin ought to be at least intellectually plausible. By some of these measures, the conduct of Paterno—or even Sandusky himself—is hardly blameworthy. It’s no challenge to imagine the discourse: “A person in power took advantage of weaker people. And? Isn’t that what happens in nature every day? Doesn’t Nietzsche proclaim the right of the strong to take what they want from the weak? Besides, isn’t that not too different from what happens when we eat steak? Sure, cattle aren’t people, but they do appear to have consciousness, feel pain, and suffer fear. For that matter, Sandusky didn’t actually kill anyone or anything, unlike the corporate beef farms. Why the outrage?” This is the type of ivory-tower relativism that begets self-justification of the most predictable sort.

     Paterno himself likely didn’t approach it this way. He probably hasn’t read Nietzsche. Nonetheless, plenty of academic relativists will have already adopted such views. Sometimes they keep their opinions secret, only venturing to opine that “I’m not really that disappointed” or “I’m not really offended” or “I can imagine much worse.” Rarely, they do express their opinions openly, as is the case with an extant organization whose name I deliberately omit, so this site doesn’t turn up on searches for that organization. This is the organization that defends the very crimes Sandusky committed as somehow morally acceptable. In any event, the more circumspect academics give moral cover to the Paternos (and even the Sanduskys) of the world. Moral relativism truly implies that everything is permitted.

     Lacking a religious frame, how are skeptical conservatives to answer the relativists? For some of us, our instincts simply revolt at crimes like those of Sandusky. Nothing is too harsh for him; no punishment would violate the Eighth Amendment. This is sometimes the reaction of conservatives who are not even parents of 10-year-old boys. Still, apart from the visceral rage, what standard could ground such a response?

     Absent religion, the only basis for moral codes is consensus. This point is probably not controversial among Leftists, who seem to share a consensus that a fetus is not a human being or that men and women are interchangeable (and any opinions otherwise are anathema). Moreover, for Leftists, changes in moral consensus over time invariably represent progress. However, given the sliding scale of moral consensus, there is little protection against the kinds of changes conservatives detest. The current consensus among western nations appears to be that no moral blame attaches to the acceptance of government welfare for the able-bodied. I have known people of an earlier generation would have been ashamed to take charity unless truly at the end of a rope: “I don’t need your pity!” Now, the consensus has shifted to the point everyone seems to be hollering for benefits in one way or another. When standards of conduct become this slippery, they cease to be standards at all.

     The cure for such relativism, in a secular context, is to appeal to a larger consensus—the consensus of history. Over many generations, people have tried many different moral paradigms. In a sort of moral Darwinian sifting process, those paradigms that failed to produce stable, lasting societies have had to be discarded. Typically, this process has manifested as a religious revival, mostly because moral standards are almost exclusively carried as religious freight. Certain intellectual elites have always existed for whom philosophy alone was sufficient guide for conduct. For the larger mass of mankind, however, philosophy has been weak tea. Most people require a stronger brew to bolster their adherence to moral standards, even when those standards faithfully represent the contemporary moral consensus. Of course, the utility of religion in encouraging moral conduct is debatable. Intuitively, it seems fair enough to assume that however bad people have behaved under religion, they would behave even worse under the weak, contingent suggestions of secular moral relativism.

     The permeation of the latter throughout American society today is obvious from the Penn State debacle. Whatever the religious proclivities of the people involved, the morality of convenience—the historically recent consensus of relativism—ultimately triumphed. Those in power at Penn State apparently reached a local, private moral consensus that tolerating a child rapist was better than losing his contributions to the athletics program. And in adopting their private moral consensus, the Penn State principals violated the larger consensus, the consensus of history.


  1. Pragmatism is too often seen as meaning little more than 'whatever you can get away with' but your historical and cultural-evolutionary perspective equates to an enlightened pragmatism.

    I suspect, though, that there will never be a really satisfactory solution, and doubts and confusions will always be a part of ethical decision-making. Sometimes one has to turn off the analytical and discursive thought processes (the casuistry if you like) and just take a stand.

  2. Mark, you're right as usual. The slipperiness of moral answers sometimes simply requires taking a stand. For instance, I don't think there is a credible case to be made from historical consensus on slavery. The best seems to be that there has been a recent (<200 years) aspirational consensus against slavery, which before the industrial revolution was considered a necessary evil. Stoics like Seneca argued against the excesses of Roman slavery, which interestingly became less absolute during the Empire. But Aristotle wrote of natural slaves, so there really wasn't a consensus against slavery that was even just aspirational. As for a practical consensus, certainly it was in favor of slavery all the way until we began making things in mechanized factories more cheaply than slaves could make them. Still, testing a moral precept against the experience of many generations is generally going to yield stronger results than going with the majority of the moment.