About a week ago, I asked readers whether “We’re better than this!,” at the time being wielded like a club by Democrats to counter various Republican proposals to control, limit or cease the immigration of Muslims into the U.S., was a true rationalization that deserved inclusion on The List. The response suggested that most of you felt it was, and upon reading the responses, I agree. A rationalization is an invalid and dishonest argument used to advocate or defend questionable conduct. “We’re better than this!” fits that description, and thus I officially dub it Ethics Alarms Rationalization Rationalization#55, “The Idealist’s Delusion,” or “We’re/ You’re Better Than This.”
Like the other rationalizations, “The Idealist’s Delusion” may sometimes be fair and true, but it is still an unethical argument if there is nothing more substantive to back it up. Think of it as the reverse of #14. Self-validating Virtue, in which unethical conduct supposedly becomes ethical because the person doing it is deemed—usually by himself— incapable of wrongdoing. Rationalization #55 uses presumed virtue to claim that a potential actor is too good to do something…without ever making the case that the considered conduct is really wrong or unwise. #55 is a pretty neat trick, when you think about it: it simultaneously appeals to an individual or organization’s self-esteem while unilaterally declaring an objective, motive or methods demeaning. This relieves the advocate for avoiding the conduct in question of the requirement to make the case with more than vague declarations of principle. If #55 is effective, it can only be because those persuaded never engaged in critical thinking, asking and answering such crucial questions as what are the benefits of this proposed action, who will it benefit, what ethical principles does it follow or violate, and are the intended results worth the cost? The Idealist’s Delusion is a cynical tool to bypass ethical decision-making by assuming the result, and using ego and guilt to stifle objective analysis. As I wrote in the earlier post.
When “We are better than this” is followed by “because..’ and more substantive points, I have no objection to it, although “we should be better than this” is fairer. It can begin an analysis, but is not an analysis itself. However, when it is used as a substitute for analysis, it is pure rationalization.
I am also finally adding “Think of the Children!” to the list, as Rationalization #56, The Universal Trump.
Like its immediate predecessor, #56 is designed to end arguments before they start, using a conversation-stopper, dripping with sentiment, that only heartless curs and brutes can ignore. The theme on Ethics Alarms is “Bias makes us stupid,” and since everyone is biased toward children, Rationalization #56 has the effect, and the intentional effect, of spraying Stupid Gas far and wide to ensure that reasoned analysis is impossible.
Politicians are the most prolific in their use of the Universal Trump, closely followed by social workers, charity workers, churches, and mothers. The U.S. shouldn’t enforce its immigration laws because children will be hurt, and what are such gray abstractions as national sovereignty and the rule of law to a beautiful, living, breathing, child? The U.S. shouldn’t imprison criminals because their children will be harmed, and who can willfully rob a child of a father’s love? The U.S. should never fight wars because children will be imperiled, and should not the pitiful cries of orphans lead civilized nations to stop the orgy of killing? Sure, it’s compassion porn, but it works.
“Think of the Children!” is virtually always used as a short-term argument, never expanding analysis into a more inclusive and responsible framework by considering, for example, all of the children who may be be harmed in the future because of necessary action not taken, out of concern for children now. The theory behind The Universal Trump is that children trump everything, and outbalance all other considerations. The use of #56 is akin to a human shield, employed to block incoming logic.