The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 15.0°F | A Few Clouds and Breezy

Morals must be consistant

Guest Column/Alan Szarawarski

Debates about politics usually continue interminably and produce more enemies than converts. Controversy and dissension reign, leaving important issues unresolved.

Despite months of bitter controversy over pornography last year, few members of the MIT community understand the basic arguments of both sides.

Much of this disagreement occurs because individuals (and institutions) frequently first decide issues on the basis of their self-interest and biases and then formulate moral and intellectual justification for their positions.

Self-interest may be subtle. In a nation where ostentatious displays of wealth merit respect but one child in five grows up in poverty, many individuals avoid guilt by believing that poverty is simply the result of laziness.

On a lighter note, consider Duke's (from Doonesbury) quip, "Honey, all labor leaders are sensitive to the [plight of] the working class. That's how they avoid belonging to it."

However, those who attribute beliefs solely to self-interest are too cynical. People take strong positions on issues even when they have no clear self-interest. Legitimate disagreement occurs because individuals decide political questions based on the relative importance they attach to a handful of fundamental principles -- like compassion, fairness, justice, personal freedom and the intrinsic worth of human life.

A Libertarian, single-mindedly devoted to minimal government (on the principle of individual liberty) opposes government spending for the poor. A Libertarian will not be swayed by eloquent oratory about the poor's suffering. Such oratory leaves his or her underlying value system unchanged.

Because values are not amenable to strict logical tests, it might seem that the political goals of individuals or lobby groups are all equally legitimate. But many of the political action committees which influence government decisions are motivated more by self-interest than sincere commitment to moral principles. Clearly a method for challenging their positions is necessary.

While it is difficult to attack a set of values, one can demand that values be consistently applied. Opinions based on applying different sets of values to different issues are rationalizations for vested interests or examples of sloppy thinking.

The strength of this approach is demonstrated by applying it to the positions of a powerful voting bloc on two vexing issues -- the so-called Moral Majority's positions on abortion and welfare.

The several million members of the Moral Majority are led by Rev. Jerry Falwell, a man with an uncanny knack for avoiding critical scrutiny. To fairly test whether Falwell's beliefs are self-consistent, one must grant him his assumptions without completely avoiding skepticism. Falwell might be the recipient of Divine Guidance, but other Christians of substantial religous feeling, like the Catholic bishops, disagree with him.

Most Americans do not believe that women should be completely prohibited from having abortions. Millions of people who have not had or performed an abortion and who do not risk having their sexual activity inhibited by a ban on abortion still oppose Falwell's desire to ban all abortions.

That hundreds of thousands of women each year accepted great risks to have abortions when these abortions were illegal indicates that a great many women desperately want abortions. Furthermore, even a modest enforcement effort would require extensive government involvement in daily life.

These points are merely to demonstrate that Falwell is willing to accept government intrusion as the price of preserving life and avoiding possible pain by the fetus/baby.

Certainly a three-month old child merits the same consideration as a three month fetus. Falwell, however, seeks to reduce social spending, including programs directed at needy children. He is not willing to have the government impose on the public to fund such programs, but he is willing to have the government ban abortions. Falwell is not consistent here in his belief in the role of government power.

Falwell cites welfare fraud as a reason to cut benefits. Despite well-documented waste and fraud in the military, though, he supports the current military build-up.

Falwell claims that social spending undermines family structure. But why doesn't he advocate restructuring eligibility instead of reducing benefits?

Falwell and his supporters may not be troubled by the preceding questions. Nevertheless, examining political goals by questioning whether they are derived by consistently applying moral principles enables one to mount a serious challenge to positions on even the most complicated, emotion-laden issues.

Can supporting the overthrow of the Nicaraguan Government while opposing sanctions against South Africa be justified?