Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Moral Argument for Davis' Resignation in Detail

I’m going to have to put off my posting on the meaning of life for another day. I want to say more about the moral issues relevant to calling for the resignation of Representative Davis of Illinois. I want to address some of the concerns that people have about this and explain some of the moral implications of the options available.

By way of background, I commented on Davis’ arguments twice, in “Name of First Posting” and “Name of Second Posting”. Basically, Davis said that atheists had a philosophy of destruction and demanded that the atheist offering testimony leave because atheists had no right to offer testimony in a nation dedicated to God.

Before going further, I want to repeat a distinction that I have made in the past between political strategy and ethics. If this were a post on political strategy we would be concerned with what is or is not expedience, with little regard for what is right. However, as an ethics blog, my concern with what is right, regardless with what is expedient.

There is good reason for a person who is concerned with the right and wrong of an action not to offer compromise and to accept less than morality demands.

In the case of Monique Davis, the right thing to do is for her to resign. When she made her comments she demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that she is not fit to be a legislator. A legislator is a representative of the people, yet there is a law-abiding segment of the population that she has substantially said she will not represent because they have no right to representation. She will not consider their interests in future legislation. Furthermore, she cannot be expected to protect and defend the rights of this segment of the population when she denies that they have any rights.

She has even denied that they have a right to exist (or, if they do exist, they may exist only in a way that others do not know about it).

All of this renders her unfit to be a legislator in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

However, we live in a country where the denigration of atheists is perfectly acceptable in most quarters. Because it is acceptable, it is quite possible that Ms. Davis will get away with her expressions of bigotry. She may have the same odds of being called on it as a candidate in the 1850s who said that blacks are the moral and intellectual inferior to whites and had no right to serve on juries and no role to play in government.

Regardless of how safe her comments may be, they are still wrong, and the proportional response to the magnitude of her disregard for the principles of representative government is to see her resign or otherwise (peacefully) removed from office.

The fact that she may not be held as accountable for her wrongs as she should be is no argument against the severity of those wrongs or the appropriateness of calling for her resignation. In this blog, I routinely argue for moral marks that I can reasonably expect will not be met.

In December, I criticized the Connecticut Valley Atheists for a sign that linked all of religion to the destruction of the World Trade Center. I called this bigotry, because I held that it is a gross overgeneralization, blaming people for something that they were not the least bit responsible for and never would have condoned because they share a characteristic that the speaker/writer wants everybody else to hate.

I knew at the time that it was unlikely that my moral demands would be met. However, I still hold that I made the right call, and the failure of others to live up to that standard was their fault, not a fault of the standard.

There is no sense in weakening a moral standard simply because the accused will not meet it. Imagine telling a jurist that he has an obligation to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; however, if he is bent on lying, then we will weaken the standard so that he is permitted to lie to some extent. That is, if we really do not expect him to tell the truth, we tell him that it is okay to tell the truth, and that the obligation to tell the truth simply does not apply to somebody who is bent on lying.

Or imagine telling a doctor that she has an obligation to provide her patients with competent medical advice. However, insofar as we deem that she is unwilling to do so (because she does not care enough about the welfare of her patients to go through the effort), that we will weaken the standard in her case. Instead, we will only demand medical care that is as competent as that which she is willing to provide.

In general, this says that we should move the moral marker to the point that indicates what we can reasonably expect a person to do, without regard to what we have a right to demand of the accused. That is not a moral standard at all. It is a moral license to do as one pleases.

A second and related problem brings in the moral principle of universalization. A moral principle is supposed to be universal. As a result, if A says that B may do X to C, then A is also taken to be saying that C may do X to B under similar circumstances.

So, if we say that there is nothing about holding the attitude that a group of law-abiding citizens has no right to representation that is morally objectionable, then we are effectively saying that the following is also morally permissible:

Imagine a Christian representative saying of a Jewish witness:

“We are a Christian nation. Our nation serves Jesus Christ. Your people are agents of destruction. Your philosophy should not even be allowed to exist. Get out of that seat. You have no right to be here.”

We hear these types of objections raised against those who make claims against atheists all the time. But we usually see these as arguments that display hypocrisy. We tend not to look at their further meaning.

The further meaning is that if we, as atheists, say that the only appropriate response to this type of claim is to politely criticize the individual, then we are at the same time telling the Jews that they should also respond to these types of comments with a mild rebuke. We are telling the Muslims and Wiccans and Buddhists that, wherever they suffer the same sort of treatment at the hands of a Christian legislator, that they should be like us and passively request better treatment in the future. And we are telling our fellow Christian citizens that if anybody should make similar claims against them, that they are to restrain themselves from offering anything more than a mild rebuke.

This is the moral standard we establish – this is the moral principle we advocate – when we say that we should not do anything more than rebuke Ms. Davis for her remarks.

Or, conversely, if we hold that the Jew, the Muslim, the Wiccan, the Buddhist, and the Christian all have the right to demand the resignation of a legislator that insists that they have no right to offer testimony to a government off the people, then, it follows that we, too, have that right.

And the Christian who claims that if she were spoken to in a similar manner by an atheist legislator would see this as just cause to demand and expect the resignation of that legislator, must also demand and expect the resignation of a Christian legislator making those comments about atheists.

When we demand the resignation of somebody like Monique Davis, we offer the Jew, the Muslim, the Hindu, the Wiccan, and even the Christian the moral right to do the same thing, if they should ever find themselves in the same situation. We create a moral standard whereby the legislator that denies the critic’s right to speak will be removed and replaced with somebody with a better sense of her own duties as a representative of all the people.

Perhaps it is true that we cannot expect the Illinois legislature to do what it should in this case. Perhaps we can expect that the people of Illinois will fall short of their obligation to uphold and defend government of, for, and by the people. However, if we take this as a reason to move the moral goal post, then we are making it easy for them to fall short of that goal as well.

If we demand resignation, it may be the case that Davis is merely censured. But, if we demand censure, we should not be surprised to discover that she was only rebuked. If we demand that she be rebuked, we can expect those who fall short of this moral goal to simply ignore her remarks, And if we allow people to get away with ignoring her remarks then we can expect that they will fall short of that goal by actively praising and supporting her.

The right thing to do is to demand Davis’ resignation. Even if the odds of people doing the right thing are low, if we move the moral flag, then we reduce the odds of them doing the right thing from a probability to a certainty. If we move the moral flag, then we are in effect granting moral permission to legislatures across the whole country to say that some group of law-abiding citizens ought to be silenced and ought not to exist.

That is a permission that we have no right to grant.


Michael Parker said...

I may not be as eloquent in my writing as you...but I just thought I would share my indignant email to Ms. Davis:

Ms. Davis,

You are absolutely the most contemptible public servant in the state of Illinois. You are supposed to serve the public...the entirety of the public. In case you have not heard, atheists are part of that public. Your ignorant and offensive tirade on Mr. Sherman was inexcusable. Had you spewed that filth from your mouth to any other person of any other faith, you would be out of a job for the rest of your life. It seems luckily for you that your diatribe has been flying under the radar of the mainstream media for the past few days. Keep in mind that things like this do not stay hidden forever. You can count on atheists, freethinkers and those who live by the First Amendment of the US Constitution will do everything in their power to paint you as the bigoted ultra-conservative sycophant that you are. Hiding behind your "D" label is sickening. Portraying yourself as an educator and acting in the way you did is nothing short of disgusting. You are a bad person and a bad representative of the American people. I hope that the rest of your term is as uncomfortable and biased as your tongue lashing of Mr. Sherman was.

Apologize to Mr. Sherman and all atheists or resign...Those seem to be your only two choices.

Because you may have forgotten: First Amendment to the US Constitution

End your silence and explain yourself.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo: I agree with you 100% on this one. The fact that atheists aren't demanding her resignation en masse is sad proof that we ourselves have come to believe that such bigotry is natural, that it's excusable. If she had said the same thing about any religion or skin color, the news wouldn't be talking about anything else, and she would already have been kicked out of her job. Not resigned. Kicked.

Parker: your letter is very well written, and actually one of the best I've seen (there were a lot on Pharyngula, for instance). But I don't think telling her how wrong she was will have any effect. As I said on Daylight Atheism, in Davis' eyes, she did the most moral thing one could have done, and criticizing her is hopeless; indeed, it may even, in her mind, confirm that Christians are being persecuted by evil atheists who want to damn innocent souls to hell. To someone like her, it's not a question of whether atheists themselves are moral or not, but whether they are -- sometimes just by existing and being seen or heard -- condemning people to eternal torture by being non-believers due to their example.

Anonymous said...

Saying she's awful will just fuel her persecution complex. One expressed in this chart:

Do we know who would stand in her place and if they're any better?

Unknown said...

Interesting... apparently, she has apologized to Sherman.

I still think she's awful, but at least she said she's sorry.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

It is not much of an apology, actually.

I have covered it my next post