Monday, September 12, 2005

Rush Limbaugh on Cheering Disaster

Limbaugh claims that being religious makes him a better man than others because he knows that some things are absolutely wrong. However, it does not seem to have helped him recognize the moral fault of 'bearing false witness'.

On his website, Rush Limbaugh posted a transcript titled, "The Left Celebrates Katrina Destruction, Terror Attack They've Been Waiting For." In this transcript, he stated, "The left is happy. They're energized. They're excited in the midst of a national disaster where many of their own constituents were harmed and maybe killed."

One moral principle that transcends almost all moral systems (and all moral systems of merit) is the principle that it is wrong to "bear false witness against thy neighbor." Whenever a person speaks about his neighbor, he should make sure that his statements are true and accurate.

Speaking dishonestly about a neighbor leads to injustice. Unjust treatment is treatment that cannot be justified. Any treatment grounded on the words of those who bear false witness is, by that fact alone, unjustified in the same way that convicting an accused criminal based on lies is an unjust conviction. Civil society requires that its citizens have a respect for the truth if they are to prevent the misery and injustice of actions grounded on error.

In the Judeo-Christian religion, the prohibition against bearing false witness is a commandment; the 9th Commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." Though I think that the Bible was written by men without any divine intervention, they were men smart enough to see that civil society required that the people have a respect for the truth.

The Nature of False Witness

Limbaugh's claim that the left is celebrating the destruction in New Orleans is false in two respects.

Broad Statements are Always Unjust

First, "the Left" is not a unified body. "The Left" includes many poor New Orleans citizens who have watched family members die, or are friends and neighbors of those who have done so. The claim that they are celebrating this destruction is a very obvious lie.

"The left" includes people who have watched the suffering on television and sat crying for its victims. "The left" includes people who are reacting out of genuine anger that people could act in ways that bring about this type of misery, and who swear to do everything in their power to make sure it never happens again.

It is simply not possible to use a blanket term such as "the Left" in this way and make a true statement. This is why prejudice and bigotry are immoral. They are attempts to paint whole groups of people with a common brush, and they are never entirely true. They always bear false witness against at least some members of that group.

It is always unjust to blame one person for the actions of another, so statements that attempt to paint all people on "the Left" or any other group in one broad stroke are always unjust.

Compassionate Warnings

Second, consider the case of a mother who has told her son to wear a helmet when he rides his bike, just in case he gets into an accident. However, her son ignores her advice. Let us assume that the son is an adult not living at home.

Limbaugh's form of reasoning would have us think that this mother is eagerly waiting for her son to have an accident, so that she can run up to him, happy and energized, and say, "See, I told you so!"

Limbaugh seems unable to imagine the mother, living in anguish that her son's recklessness will get him hurt, reaching that fateful day when she gets a call from somebody who says, "There's been an accident." He seems unable to imagine the anger and hurt with which the mother greets her son in the hospital and says, "How many times have I told you to wear a helmet?"

When the son looks up at his mother and answers, "This is probably the happiest day of your life, isn’t it? You just could not wait for the day when you could come in here and say, ‘I told you so.’”

The son's words -- or anybody else who claims to be speaking for the son in these terms -- are not the words of a virtuous person. They are cruel and mean-spirited. A morally conscientious person would not say them of an individual without considering alternatives. No person can accurately make this claim of an entire group.

Arguing in Limbaugh's Terms

Some might want to claim that Mr. Limbaugh is not, in fact, bearing false witness because he truly believes what he says.

However, what Limbaugh believes is irrelevant.

I can illustrate the error in this way of thinking with a simple hypothetical story.

Imagine, Rush Limbaugh dies and is standing in line at the entrance to heaven. Ahead of him is a man talking to the gatekeeper. Limbaugh can hear the conversion.

Looking in his book, the gatekeeper says, "You blew up a bus. You killed a lot of people."

"Yes, I did," the man answers proudly.

"You have killed innocent people. You have broken the commandment against murder. You cannot enter."

"I do not believe they were innocent," says the man. "They were supporting an immoral government. I have a right to attack those who support my enemy."

"It does not matter what you think. It matters what you did, and what you did was to kill innocent people. You committed murder, so you cannot enter."

When Mr. Limbaugh steps up to the gatekeeper, the gatekeeper says, "You bore false witness against your neighbor."

"No," says Limbaugh. "I believed that my statements were true. I did not think that I was bearing false witness."

"It does not matter what you think. It matters what you did, and what you did was bear false witness against your neighbor. Therefore, you cannot enter."

Truth Matters

When this hypothetical Limbaugh tries to avoid moral responsibility by basing morality only on what he thinks is wrong, he is defending common moral relativism. This is the type of claim made by somebody who believes that there is no right or wrong except that which the person thinks is right or wrong. Since Limbaugh did not think he was bearing false witness, he wants to assert that he did no wrong.

However, he would be mistaken. The prohibition against bearing false witness in fact is that which generates the obligation to check one's sources, look for other interpretations, and show the moral integrity necessary to determine whether what one says is true and accurate before saying it. It is an obligation to have a love for the truth and a hatred for “bearing false witness” that is so strong that one tries to avoid it wherever possible.

We all make mistakes. However, the virtuous person will make fewer mistakes because he knows that he is morally responsible for his mistakes, and goes through the effort to make sure that he does not bear false witness. The vicious person does not care whether he bears false witness or not. He does not care about the truth, and is more than happy to try to sway others with a convenient fiction.


If Mr. Limbaugh truly believes in God, if he believes that this God punishes sinners, if he believes that it is a sin to bear false witness against one's neighbor, then I find it odd that Mr. Limbaugh is so apathetic when it comes to determining whether he is bearing false witness against his neighbors.

It is as strange as a person who believes that there is a God, that this God punishes sinners, that it is a sin to murder, and yet murders without remorse or apprehension.

However he may reconcile these conflicting beliefs in his own mind, from a more objective perspective this much can be said: Neither of these descriptions refer to a person of good moral character. A person of good moral character does not murder, and does not bear false witness against his neighbor.

A person of good moral character would not say that the left cheers the effects of Hurricane Katrina.


Michael Bains said...

It does not matter what you think. It matters what you did

I have uninimity of Thought & Feeling as I read your essays Alonzo. You are writing things the way I strive to see them; objectively.

Thank you very much for sharing your observations and reasoning.

Anonymous said...

"It does not matter what you think. It matters what you did"

But what you do is based upon what you believe. How can one help but act upon what they believe to be true? To what degree can one be held responsible for holding false beliefs? Surely everyone holds some false beliefs.

It is easier to conclude that the results of an action taken by someone are either good or bad than to judge whether the person who acted is good or bad.

Killing an innocent person is a bad result. But if the killer reasonably thought that the victim was moments away from detonating a nuclear bomb in a large city, then I don't see how he could be judged to be bad.

Now, I would say that there are times when we should expect a person to have true beliefs. A belief that leads to an action that will necessarily harm someone had better be well investigated. If it can be shown that minimal investigation easily demonstrates the belief to be false, then we can hold the person responsible if he acts on this false belief.

But real life is usually much fuzzier than that.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

notrab yecats:

I agree completely. Things are more complicated than can easily be described in a few lines in a blog.

People can be forgiven for innocent mistakes. A soldier in a battle sees a civilian with a stick that he thinks is a gun may shot and kill the civilian. This is an unfortunate accident, not murder.

Or...I have used this example earlier...a terrorist has hooked up an atomic bomb inside a vending machine. You are a cop in a noisy room and a kid, standing at the vending machine, could not possibly hear you. Do you shoot the kid?

I would argue that it is not wrong to do so.

When it comes to the obligation to have true beliefs, the issue is whether accused has the time to question those first impressions and, if they had time, if they made a good-faith effort.

Rush Limbaugh had the time, but lacked the good-faith effort.

Anonymous said...

"When the son looks up at his mother and answers, "This is probably the happiest day of your life, isn’t it? You just could not wait for the day when you could come in here and say, ‘I told you so.’”

I do think this analogy is mistaken. Limbaugh, if I am interpreting correctly, was not saying that the Left is cheering because they wanted to say "I told you so" to victims. For the analogy to work, it seems that would have to be the case.

It is more of a statement that (he thinks) liberal leaders and Democratic strategists are going to use this disaster for political gain. Democrat candidates will refer to the slow response in future political campaigns, the liberal media will pound on Bush for mismanagement, etc. It has nothing to do with anybody saying "I told you so."

*Note: I disagree completely with much of what Limbaugh says, and he is one of the main reasons why I vote Democrat. My defense of him in this case is not a defense of him in general.


Anonymous said...

"Limbaugh, if I am interpreting correctly, was not saying that the Left is cheering because they wanted to say "I told you so" to victims. For the analogy to work, it seems that would have to be the case."

On second thought, I think it entirely reasonable that Limbaugh would accuse the Left of doing that. I correct myself.

In his view, the Left is looking for any reason to blame Bush and Republicans, and to tell the rest of the U.S. that "I told you so about them."


P.S. I wanted to capitalize the B in Brian63 where it says "brian63 said...," but it automatically renders it lower-case. Can that be adjusted, so we can use some caps? Thanks.