Moral Equivalency and Stopping at Stop Signs

In my ethics class, I would ask, “Do you suppose that driving would be safe if no one stopped at stop signs?”  They would quickly answer that driving under such circumstances would not be safe.  I agreed.  However, living in a world where “X = not-X” is to live in such a world.  Meaning becomes something relative to the latest opinion and no one really knows if they are to stop or go.

When I was teaching philosophy and ethics, my students would sometimes respond to an idea they didn’t like with “Well, that’s just your opinion,” which wasn’t a very philosophical or ethical response.  Why?  Because in philosophy opinions are thoughts that lack necessary reasoning to demonstrate their truth.  So, if I say, “X is true,” is that my opinion or is there more to it?  If only my opinion, then its truth value is only accidental.  If, however, “X is true” is the conclusion of an argument I have constructed, then the argument provides a meaningful framework from which to determine the truth of the statement.  In other words, opinions are statements not backed by reason.  They are easy, but for the most part, meaningless.  Conclusions based upon reasoning are sometimes tedious but because they provide reasons that give us a way of determining their truth, are meaningful but sometimes difficult.

In our post-truth world, the acceptance of opinions is a way of life.  We are used to equivocation based upon the utterance of seemingly reasonable or ethical statements, which are statements without merit making statements like “X = not-X” seem reasonable.  People from all walks of life often embrace what is called “false equivalency,” which is also called “moral equivalence.”  In this essay, I wish to examine this phenomenon concluding that morally equivalent statements are akin to opinions that draw upon emotions rather than reason to convince others of their merit or truth.  As such, morally equivalent statements are as meaningless as the statement “X = not-X,” and should not be given credence.

The logical square was developed by Aristotle and is the inspiration of Boolean logic with which the modern computer was developed. It is the basis of logic and reason as utilized in philosophy.

Let’s begin by thinking about the nature of a conclusion.  Statements like “X is Y” can be a conclusion if and only if it is supported by reasons for why it is true.  Such conclusions, if based upon sound reasoning, are fairly devoid of emotions.  The person who holds the argument and is convinced of its truth may be passionate about it, but emotions are held to a minimum in the argument itself.  On the other hand, emotions become a way of convincing others that an opinion is true while hiding the fact that it is just an opinion.  If I simply state “X is true” without much expression, people may be inclined to dismiss it as simply my opinion.  However, if I yell “X is true!” following up the statement with other emotive statements, then people may be less likely to dismiss it thinking that “Hmm…maybe that is true.”

Now, let’s put this in the context of ethics.  I might state, “lying is bad,” which sounds like an ethical statement yet, lacks moral reasoning to support it.  At this point, the idea that “lying is bad” is simply an opinion.  If I wish to convince others that lying is bad, then I can be emotive or I can put forward an argument demonstrating that the statement is true.  The former is an opinion that clouds the truth, the latter is an ethical argument, the merit of which is based upon the strength of its premises.  If I were to say, “Lying is bad and all liars will rot in hell!” that might catch a person’s attention and make them think, “Wow, maybe I shouldn’t tell lies.”  At this point, a truth value has yet to be uttered so nothing ethical has been stated.  Only an opinion was given even though it may convince some that indeed lying is bad.

On the other hand, I can put together an argument giving reasons why lying is bad.  An example of such an argument might be the following:

  • A civil society is based upon trust.
  • A trustworthy society is one that is honest.
  • Honesty depends upon telling the truth.
  • Lying is a violation of honesty and truth undermining a civil society.
  • Therefore, lying is bad.

Here, the conclusion “lying is bad” is based upon four premises, or reasons why that is so.  Anyone who reads or hears this argument can assess the merit of the reasons given and based upon their assessment, determine the truth of the conclusion.  An ethical statement has been expressed. But here’s the fun part and the part that many people fail to appreciate.  The truth and/or strength of the argument is revealed only as people assess, question, and debate the merits of the argument itself.  Is a civil society based upon trust or are there ways of mitigating the lack of trust while at the same time maintaining civility?  If alternatives are given, they weaken the strength of the premise and in so doing, weaken the truth of the conclusion, lying is bad.  Likewise, one might question the wisdom of the categorical statements made in the argument, which are equivalent to “All X are Y.”  If it is demonstrated that this may not always be the case and “Some X are not Y,” then the statement “All X are Y” is false.  Are all civil societies based upon trust?  Are all trustworthy societies based upon honesty, etc.?  It is through the examination of the merit of its premises that the truth of “lying is bad” is assessed.  Such evaluations are the heart of critical thinking: they require a lot of thought, they require tolerance of disagreement, and they sometimes require that we admit we are wrong.  Oh yea, all of this also builds character.  Such discourse normally does not tolerate bullies nor “know-it-alls.” 

The fallacy of false equivalency is the favorite tool of a post-truth world because in that world “X = not-X,” which means if it sounds good, it must be true.

What does this have to do with moral equivalency?  Called the “fallacy of false equivalency,” the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers the following definition:

“The Fallacy of False Equivalence is committed when someone implies falsely (and usually indirectly) that the two sides on some issue have basically equivalent evidence, while knowingly covering up the fact that one side’s evidence is much weaker.”

If we apply this to our example, we need to imagine that someone disagrees with the statement “lying is bad” by suggesting that sometimes a lie is appropriate.  If the opponent commits a fallacy of false equivalence, they might say: “You have lied, and I have lied therefore we must not condemn lying.”  The problem is this decontextualizes lying.  The maxim “lying is bad” is the result of a reasoning process that contextualizes the act of lying.  But what of the false equivalency statement?  The decontextualization that takes place here is an act of equivocation meant to bypass the rational process ignoring what prompted the discussion in first place.  The context of the conclusion “lying is bad” is a civil society, not me or my opponent telling a lie.  The false equivalency statement ignores that and reduces the complexities of a civil society to me telling a lie.  The two are not the same.  But more than that, the moral equivalency statement is not an ethical statement for it is a statement that not only begs a context but lacks the reasons necessary to establish its truth. However, if I accept the fallacious statement, the debate ends with the ethically questionable assumption/opinion that sometimes lying is appropriate because I and my opponent sometimes lie, which sheds no light on the nature of a civil society.  That is kept in the dark, which may be the intent of the opponent in the first place.

Note what is going on here.  The fallacy of false equivalency is the favorite tool of a post-truth world because in that world “X = not-X,” which means if it sounds good, it must be true.  In this world of sophistry, reasonable thought processes are not the point.  The point is acquiescence based upon loyalty to one’s beliefs or ideology making a post-truth world the ground for totalizing discourse.  Totalizing discourse, in turn, makes ideological conformity as opposed to ethics/morality the issue.  One might wonder if a civil society will ever be the result of such conditions.  “X = not-X” is the world of opinions, a world where lying has no meaning.  It is neither good or bad, it just is.  In this world, the openness of rational debate vanishes and conformity and loyalty to opinions reigns supreme.

In my ethics class, I would ask, “Do you suppose that driving would be safe if no one stopped at stop signs?”  They would quickly answer that driving under such circumstances would not be safe.  I agreed.  However, living in a world where “X = not-X” is to live in such a world.  Meaning becomes something relative to the latest opinion and no one really knows if they are to stop or go.  Such a world is a world of moral equivalency.  It is not a world in which I wish to live and neither, apparently, would most of my students.  By thinking rationally about this, maybe we can begin to demand that people stop at stop signs so that we and our loved ones might be safe.  Ethics, reason and philosophy is more than just mind games.  It is way of identifying dangerous drivers that we might keep our social order safe.

Published by Harold W. Anderson

I am a retired United Methodist Minister working in private practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). I also work in addiction issues and am a Certified Addiction Counselor, level III (CAC III). I also supervise graduate students working on their Master Degrees and supervise Candidates in Training who are working towards licensure. My desire to provide a window of hope to those with whom I work that they live in a world of opportunity.

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