Moral Absolutes Are So Cute!

Eddie Izzard has, as part of his stand-up routine, a musing on the subject of lying. He essentially says that we should divide lies much like we divide felonies, we have Murder in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree, Manslaughter, etc. So it should be with lying, we should have 1st Degree Lies like, “I took out the trash”, all the way up to 4th Degree Lies, “No, I did not gas several million Jews”. Hold on to that idea for a moment.
On an episode of “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” several years ago, Izzard repeated it in response to Christine O’Donnell stating all lies are a moral wrong regardless of context. From stealing candy to hiding a murder, a lie is a lie.
To be fair, she had started the conversation with the suggestion that compliments should never be a lie. Even if you don’t like someone, you should still be able to find something to say about them that is ingratiating or at the very least non-confrontational. Just as a form of respect.
But Izzard, as well as Maher were quick to say that there is a vast difference between being deferential at a dinner party and being outright fawning in some vain pursuit of this nebulous idea of ‘truth’. O’Donnell was insistent that any lie is disrespect. Maher and panelist Jasmine Guy both replied that sometimes lies can be a form of respect, even protection. Drawing on his example, Izzard took Guy’s and Maher’s point and asked “So if Hitler were at your door and you knew the Jews you were hiding were going to die if you admitted it, you would tell the truth?!”

O’Donnell was both unhesitating and unwavering, “God would provide a way for me to not have to lie.” Cue collective noises of exasperation, disbelief, and outright anger from the audience as well Maher, Izzard, Guy, and Martin Mull. Maher replied without even thinking, “Oh shut up. You can’t possibly believe that.” But there is a very important idea floating in the back of what O’Donnell is saying, because I think she does believe it. And It’s extremely important that she does.
Permit a moment’s delay to travel way back to the dark ages of the 1930s. Where developmental psychologist Jean Piaget proposed the idea of human behavior having discrete developmental stages in children. Specifically four, sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Or, want to stick it in your mouth, try to stick it in your mouth, stick it in your mouth, and decide it isn’t food.
Building on Piaget’s work in the 1950s Lawrence Kohlberg added development of morality. He argued that children first learn that there are morals, then what those morals are and then that those morals have nuances. He also argued that these ‘moral discoveries’ could be located at specific points in a child’s growth, just like height or teeth. He formalized his argument with what is now called “The Heinz Dilemma”.
Kohlberg gave several children the following narrative: Heinz is a guy who steals something (loaf of bread, pills, something important). His wife is sick / dying. And he is broke / disabled, and can’t afford it otherwise. Is Heinz a bad man?
Kohlberg then asked the children why Heinz was or was not a bad man. It was the reasoning that mattered. There have been criticisms of Kohlberg, specifically that his theory and method are extremely Eurocentric, which is true. A more egalitarian society could easily put the emphasis on whether or not the druggist who refused to help Heinz’s sick wife was the true criminal. But the fact is, as he tested each child Kohlberg did find a fairly consistent curve.
Meaning even if his theory is exclusive to Western culture, it’s a consistent theme within that Western individualistic mindset and ethos. So much so that children as young as 4 and 5 are already able to articulate very precise reasons why Heinz is or is not accountable for his ‘crime’.
Which brings us back to Izzard and O’Donnell. In Kohlberg’s work the stage where everything is in positive and negative terms, where every drop of nuance is completely non-existent, is Stage One.
O’Donnell’s absolutes, where a lie, whether you’re complimenting someone on a dress you don’t actually like or telling Hitler that you agree with everything he says, are the very first stage that children in the West have. It is the stage they complete before they’ve even stopped occasionally chewing on the cat. It is an intensely selfish stage, where everything is easily coded and everything can be readily accepted or rejected.
It is not surprising that Kohlberg found this stage reliably present in very young children, they’re still learning that mommy’s lipstick is mommy’s and not an extremely colorful multi-surface writing utensil. This is right around the same time children say “No” constantly and cry uncontrollably when they’re denied.
Which is key to understanding O’Donnell’s statement, a three year old’s sense of immediacy dovetails nicely with a need to categorize people instantly. Very little thought is necessary. Heinz stole so he’s bad, no more thought necessary. But a child’s immediacy is directly related to their knowledge of the world and ability to care for themselves. When they cry, someone feeds; when they pee, someone cleans. Human young would not be able to survive if not for these expectations. In fact we do not survive if the care-giver falters. The medical condition “Failure to Thrive” has a specific ‘attention’ component. Babies in orphanages that are not well tended routinely die, quite literally, from a lack of love.
But humans grow. We learn to bathe, feed ourselves, get jobs, and run for the Senate (O’Donnell was considered for a Congressional seat shortly after she was arguing with Izzard). While what she says may, at first glance, sound absurdly naive, it is actually incredibly entitled. It is O’Donnell saying ‘I refuse to have to think about this, even with an eye to reciprocity slanted in my favor (Kohlberg’s Stage Two), because I don’t want the world to work that way’. She is saying ‘God will think it through for me.’
O’Donnell infantilizes herself in front of a studio audience, who are all so aghast at her seeming obliviousness that they fail themselves to notice she’s reduced the full gamete of human experience to a Spaghetti Western where the man in the white hat comes to save the day. What is worse by far though is O’Donnell isn’t alone. Pure capitalists frequently argue that market forces compel people to ‘be honest’.
Racism in its raw form suggests that people are fundamentally different on a genetic level. Sexists state emphatically that men and women are just different, with no possibility of common experience even within the same culture. Religious Fundamentalists (those who believe whatever dogma they follow is the direct word of the creator to be followed precisely without interpretation) state emphatically and repeatedly, as O’Donnell did, that morals and laws are not only synonyms but are absolute. So much so that even the Creator cannot violate them.
It is the last part of the argument that really is troublesome. If true, even the Creator cannot violate the law. O’Donnell would not be able to argue that ‘God would provide an exit’ if laws were not absolute. She could break the law and not be punished or God could be a jerk and make it work out in the villain’s favor. But for O’Donnell’s statement to work both she and God are locked, she cannot break the law of deceit and God cannot allow her to be punished for her honesty. But that does suggest the question, ‘Who originated the law?’
This sort of circular justification is present in many spheres, even every-day conversation. From social science dilettantes suggesting that people behave correctly because of law, to the hyper-masculine or feminine explaining their behavior in terms of how ‘real’ men or women behave. The trouble is there has to be an origin. If God made the law, he can unmake the law, if women are like that a woman can be unlike that, people follow laws because they choose to follow law. A simple proof of this is, if laws are truly absolute then no crime would exist. Essentially, we follow laws by and large because by and large we choose to be law-followers.
O’Donnell cannot live with that uncertainty, not pure Capitalists, racists, or Fundamentalist Muslim Clerics and Roman Catholics. The uncertainty of having to trust another person to be nice, and fleshing them out if they’re not, and occasionally getting betrayed, is a level of unpredictability that O’Donnell simply will not allow in her universe. Except she’s stagnated at Stage One, her universe is roughly the same size and shape as a four year old’s. Christine O’Donnell’s universe is her childhood home.
That is why in O’Donnell’s universe homosexuality isn’t real. It was not in her mother’s livingroom. Neither was Allah, the genuinely poor, or women who preferred to cut their hair short. When confronted with them O’Donnell must retreat into the only answer she has, “Then it must be ‘bad’.”
Izzard somewhat addressed this when he replied to her nonsensical suggestion of divine intervention with the statement “Then you could just take out a gun and shoot Hitler. You wouldn’t have to lie and you’d get rid of the problem.” And that is where O’Donnell’s awkward reasoning takes a dangerous and precipitous fall. She replies by saying “We cannot limit God [that way]“.
This is where the line is so frequently crossed. When a woman is no longer a woman because she does not act ‘right’. When a man isn’t manly because he doesn’t have a beard. When we must defer to displays of bravado because one person chooses to filter all of their conversations in competitive terms. That is when the law becomes absolute, and the these self-appointed ‘enforcers’ become all too often mindless thugs.
O’Donnell’s deferring to a higher moral authority as a source of guidance may or may not be simplistic, but that last sentence is where she transitions from seeking guidance to positing a deux ex machina. She is not merely suggesting, she is outright stating that the good and fluffy Lord himself will extricate her from the situation if she is intractably painted into the metaphorical corner of having to truly consider her options and determine the lesser of two evils for herself. Weighing relative value isn’t just the last option, it’s not an option at all. Much like a baby who has been denied a cookie, she cries foul.
That is the center to this type of thinking. It limits us all. No one can be selective, ever. O’Donnell is ultimately an easy target, she is not bright (which is not to say she is worth less than a smarter person, only that she is not very intelligent). But she is not alone in her convictions. It is a mindset to be wary of, that somehow these ‘laws’ are above consideration. Much like those who believe that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution is sacrosanct, or that marijuana laws are moral rather than legal, zealots of O’Donnell’s ilk are genuinely dangerous.
It starts with a simple enough phrase: “You’re either this, or that.” It can be something very small. Either you have long hair or you’re a man. But we should all be extremely cautious at the second half of the comparison. Because if the ‘that’ of the equation is implicitly diminished, and it’s another person, another human being, then you’re not very far at all from it being a justification to simply remove them. After all, do we really want to have the same basic mental frames as a three year old whose still sticking carpet fluff in their mouth?
We have to call it out, all of us. Children learn by example.

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The Piebald One

The Dark Fool dances like a harlequin, like a rabbit in a field when no one is watching. His diamonds are so deep they’re embedded in his very skin. He spirals and hops and he makes jokes that hide and reveal more and less than he knows. Here he records some of what plays in his mind, his own little mark upon the stones, like those who came before and have left us with as many questions as answers. Oh, and there’s gonna be a lot of sarcasm, some irony, and way more than enough absurdity to go around.

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