Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Poverty of Public Moral Discourse

James Skillen


June 18, 2001

Politics is about more than rational problem-solving, brokering interest groups, and promoting economic growth. Last week's news reports and public commentary highlighted the inescapable fact that politics is moral struggle, moral argument, and the arena of moral obligations.

The execution of Timothy McVeigh intensified the ongoing debates over the moral legitimacy of the death penalty. President Bush's trip to Europe brought judgments about the morality or immorality of his stance on environmental protection and missile defense. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of allowing a voluntary children's Bible study club to use public school facilities after hours if other groups are also allowed to use the facilities. These are in addition to the continuing debates over what ought to be done about stem-cell research and abortion, about the Balkans, the Middle East, and Sudan.

Yet, oh how tired and poverty stricken are the moral arguments. On one side of the McVeigh execution were those who wished he had suffered more for what he did. On the other side, opponents of the death penalty pointed to Europe's example where capital punishment has been almost universally outlawed. The moral criteria seem to be "vengeful feelings" or "majority makes right."

On the environment, one set of voices points to evidence of a future global catastrophe and appeals to what Thomas Hobbes considered the self-evident basis for common moral action, namely, the "fear of death." Those of a contrary voice seem to say that a far-off potential catastrophe can't carry the same moral weight as the immediate need for more jobs, more homes, and more goods and services for today's consumers. "Needs and wants make right."

A new missile defense system must be pursued, say proponents, because only the U.S. can look after itself and it ought to do everything within its technical and financial means to do so. National defense trumps all other principles. Opponents worry about the reactions of Russia, China, and the Europeans. The moral principle seems to be, "Don't get too far ahead of majority world opinion."

Reading between the lines of countless editorials, news reports, and expressions of public opinion I found statement after statement that simply took for granted utilitarianism (greatest good for the greatest number), pragmatism (what works is true), fear of death (Hobbes' ultimate moral motivator), or majority makes right (assurance in numbers).

This is not to say that all Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim voices were silent last week. A few people can make thorough moral arguments for and against the death penalty, the just war doctrine, pro-development environmental stewardship, and religious freedom on government-owned property. However, most Christians, for example, do not grasp or carry forward a public moral argument that sets Christian principles of justice against utilitarian or pragmatic principles. They simply express their opinion that capital punishment is right or wrong, that environmental protection is a high or low priority.

Speaking, for the moment, only to Christians (but something similar should be said to Americans of other faiths), one of the greatest challenges we face in the political arena today, both as citizens and as public officials, is to develop and to be able to use sound, comprehensive public-moral reasoning. More often than not, we simply pick up convenient Hobbesian or majoritarian arguments to justify our "Christian" convictions, the grounds of which remain unknown. Political outcomes dependent on opinionated masses alone increasingly amount to little more than the con-sequence of power plays—games of chance. In our public-moral discourse and decision making we owe God and our neighbors much more than that.

—James W. Skillen, President
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”