The Bill Maher Ethics Conundrum is not what you probably think it is.
Maher, the alleged comic and anti-conservative scold who hosts an HBO program, was chosen by a student committee to be the commencement speaker for the University of California-Berkeley’s December graduation. This was a lazy, embarrassingly juvenile and politically-loaded selection, but Maher had also just recently used his show to join fellow atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris in a condemnation of Islam, calling it “the only religion that acts like the mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” Later on Maher nodded approvingly as Harris also called Islam”the mother lode of bad ideas.”
This caused Muslim students at Berkeley to prove Maher correct about their religion’s entrenched intolerance of opposition, and they have been joined by other political correctness censors in the student body—there are a lot of them—to demand that the university rescind Maher’s invitation because of his “hate speech.”A Change.org petition—-now THAT site is the real mother lode of bad ideas—now urges students to boycott the decision and asks the campus to stop him from speaking. It has gathered more than 1,400 signatures. The committee that chose Maher, naturally, backed down, but the University, so far at least, is sticking to its decision to invite him.
Yes, yes, universities ought to be marketplaces of ideas where all views are welcome, and yes, it is hypocritical and offends the traditions of liberal education to stop Maher from stating his views on Islam, or re-telling “The Aristocrats,” or making a fool of himself, or whatever he’s going to do because some students or all students disagree with him, just as it was for Rutgers students to force Condolezza Rice into withdrawing after she was invited to speak at Rutgers. The dilemma illustrated by this flap is a classic ethics problem, which I will henceforth call the Bill Maher Conundrum, which has been long debated and never decisively settled:
Is the ethical nature of an act defined by its intent, or by an objective assessment of the act alone without reference to motive?
Like so many problems in ethics, the best answer we have been able to agree on is “It depends.” In real life, as opposed to ethics hypotheticals in books or seminars, few acts have unmixed motives at their origin, and even the kindest, most altruistic conduct may have some selfish, non-ethical or even unethical motivations behind it. What proportion of pure motives compared to baser motives allows us to mark an action or a decision as ethical? 99%? Anything over 50%? Or is a single ethical motivation, among many unethical ones, enough to salvage an act’s ethical status, as long as that motivation is sufficiently virtuous? Does it matter if the ethical reason to do something is the decisive one? Can one unethical but catalyzing rationale single-handedly cancel the virtue of an otherwise ethical act?
The Maher controversy is a perfect example of this problem. For it is beyond reasonable debate that Bill Maher is about as unqualified to be a commencement speaker at any institution of higher learning as Kim Kardashian, a bad Elvis impersonator, Honey Boo Boo or a pet rock. If Berkeley students protested his invitation as an insult to them, Berkeley and their high-priced education, a source of embarrassment, and a waste of money, it would be an ethically unassailable protest. (I will stipulate that there is a valid, though not decisive, counter-argument that it would be unfair to Maher and thus unethical to withdraw an invitation once he accepts it without a legitimately disqualifying intervening event.)
In an unintentionally amusing defense of Maher’s invitation, Huffington Post writer Brian Levin actually wrote this howler:
“There has been a disturbing, often de facto, censorship of important, yet controversial speakers, by a community of progressives, to which I belong.”
Uh-huh. And what does that have to do with Bill Maher? The man is not articulate; he is not witty. He does not seek out the absurdities and hypocrisies of modern life and politics; he is not an accomplished author. Maher is an uncivil, completely predictable conservative and/or Republican-bashing hack, who has made his mean-spirited and unvarying views on them (they are all idiots and racists), religion (he hates all of them), drugs (he’s all for them), adultery and promiscuous sex (Go for it!) and marriage (he’s against it), without ever uttering a line or a phrase that wouldn’t turn up in the average late night bull session in a sophomore dorm. He calls women he disagrees with cunts, twats and twinks, regularly and without apology (and without serious criticism from Democratic “war on women” troops). This isn’t Will Rogers, Mark Twain, Mort Saul, Groucho, Dick Cavett or even Lenny Bruce we’re talking about here. This is a snide and arrogant vulgarian who has said trenchant, thought-provoking thing like these (to the cheers of his knee-jerk studio claque):
- “At least half of the [Ten] Commandments are stupid!”
- “You can’t be a rational person six days a week and on one day of the week, go to a building, and think you are drinking the blood of a two thousand year old space god. That doesn’t make you a person of faith…, that makes you a schizophrenic.”
- “But I’ve often said that if I had – I have two dogs – if I had two retarded children, I’d be a hero. And yet the dogs, which are pretty much the same thing. What? They’re sweet. They’re loving. They’re kind, but they don’t mentally advance at all. … Dogs are like retarded children.”
- “Again, (America is) a stupid country with stupid people who don’t pay attention.”
Forget about the content. Christopher Hutchins, Ambrose Beirce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Levant, Dorothy Parker, hell, even Joan Rivers, could utter such controversial sentiments in ways that prompt thought and debate as well as laughter and anger. Maher’s command of critical thought and rhetoric barely meet to the minimal levels Berkeley students should have to demonstrate to get a degree. He has no credentials, or experience. He’s built nothing, led nothing. The only reason Bill Maher has any name recognition is that he’s on cable TV—you know, like the Duck Dynasty— and calls public servants better than he is names sufficiently vile to attract publicity.
For students to protest Maher being invited to speak at commencement instead of the tens, hundreds of thousands of Americans who are better qualified would be responsible and ethical beyond question. He shouldn’t speak at commencement, not anywhere, at least nowhere that confers stature and prestige. Let people who think he’s clever go to his stand-up concerts, or clap like seals in his HBO studio audience. Maher adds nothing but ugliness and hate to public discourse.
Back to the Huffington Post “defense”: Levine engages in a classic “It’s not the worst thing” rationalization, noting that Berkeley has often invited even bigger fools.
Oh, well then, objection withdrawn!
The problem is that the current protesters at Berkeley aren’t trying to block Maher for the right reasons, but for a dangerous, censorious, intellectually stifling and crippling one. As Patrick from Popehat wrote in the surprising forum (for him) of The Federalist,
“As hard as it may be to believe, the phrase “Banned in Boston” was once used by book publishers as a badge of honor, to note a work of cultural, political (or erotic) significance too dangerous to be allowed in a town dominated by pious bluebloods. Today the phrase “Banned at Berkeley” could be used in much the same way…If the purpose of a liberal education is to make young men and women worldly, they’re going to have to roll up their sleeves and wrestle in the mud with unpleasant thoughts…A liberal curriculum that shields its students from opposing views serves them poorly indeed. Outside the groves of academe, in the real world of horrible jobs, the best and brightest of Berkeley won’t be protected from such heresy. They’ll have to engage with the Bill Mahers of this world as best they can, and they might as well learn to do so in college, by wallowing in such ideas.”*
So now, I guess, since those trying to oust Maher have announced an unethical motive—daring to utter politically incorrect opinions—for doing so, the fact that they would have an extremely responsible and ethical motive for making the same demand if they simply insisted that he wasn’t qualified for the honor is to no avail. The otherwise ethical act of trying to protect Berkeley’s academic integrity by not giving an unqualified pundit an honor he doesn’t deserve has been irreparably ruined by the wrong motivation.
Or has it?
Welcome to the Bill Maher Conundrum!
* Note: Patrick agrees that Maher’s comments on Islam constitute “hate speech.” Baloney. They were about the least hateful thing he has uttered, because for the most part, he and Harris were correct. It is a toxic religion that has nurtured repressive, backward cultures. Res ipsa loquitur.