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« Bill Maher, Jay Leno, and the State of Moral Reasoning in America, Part 2 | Home | Snow in Boerne »

Bill Maher, Jay Leno, and the State of Moral Reasoning in America, Part 3

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, December 12, 2008

In my last two posts I’ve been examining some recent statements by Bill Maher on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. His comments about the estate tax, though admittedly laced with humor, reflect a distressing though relatively common shallowness in moral discourse in America. Maher’s best argument for the estate tax is that it doesn’t impact you or me, unless we’re rich. In other words, it’s a shameless appeal to self-interest. As long as something doesn’t hurt me, it’s just fine.

Jay Leno demonstrated a similar kind of logic when talking about the recent defeat of Proposition 8 in California, which made limited marriage to a man and a woman, thus making same-sex marriage unrecognized by the state. Leno, who obviously opposed Prop 8, had this to say on the issue of same-sex marriage:

“I’ve been married 28 years. I don’t know how two people getting married will suddenly ruin my marriage. I was told this will ruin my marriage. How? What does it matter to me?”

I’ve heard this sort of argument all the time from married heterosexuals who support same-sex marriage: It won’t hurt my marriage, so it’s just fine. Here, once again, is a moral argument that says “As long as something doesn’t hurt me, it’s just fine.”

Ironically, many of those who made this argument with respect to Proposition 8 in California were supporters of Proposition 2, the so-called the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. Prop 2 would have made illegal farm raising animals in a way that confined them. Though some arguments in favor of this proposition claimed health benefits for humans, my informal survey of Prop 2 supports found that the vast majority were concerned about the well-being of the animals. They voted for this proposition even though would in all likelihood lead to higher prices and layoffs in the egg-producing business of California. So, it appears that millions of Californians were persuaded to vote against Prop 8 because of the “it doesn’t hurt me” argument, but voted for Prop 2, even though the caging of animals doesn’t hurt them, and the passage of Prop 2 might even hurt them in their pocketbooks. (I suppose Prop 2 supporters might answer, “Yes, the caging of animals does hurt me. It makes me feel sad for the animals.”)

Putting aside the question of whether one should have voted for or against Prop 2 and Prop 8, I want simply to note the simple selfishness of Jay Leno’s argument. Would Leno vote for a proposition that made slavery legal on the grounds that “it doesn’t hurt me”? I doubt it. He’s more compassionate and reasonable than this. In fact, I expect that Jay Leno has certain beliefs about homosexuality, marriage, government, and the social good that informed his position on Prop 8 . . . at least I hope so.

Now I’m sure there were some supporters of Prop 8 who believed that allowing same-sex marriage would in some way hurt their marriages. But, on the basis of my informal observation of California voters, supporters of Prop 8 were concerned about the impact of same-sex marriage on the wider culture, and especially on children. They believed, right or wrong, that making same-sex marriage legal threatened society and would harm children. They might be wrong about these things, of course. But my point is that their moral arguments in favor of Prop 8 didn’t have to do with themselves, but with others, and especially with the larger social good.

You can see egocentric moral reasoning throughout our society today. Presidential candidates of both parties use it and pander to it by promising tax cuts to people, who, presumably are going to vote their own self-interest. Period. How sad!

What we need in our country today is a new model of moral reasoning, one that appeals to foundational principles and that advances a compelling vision for our nation and, indeed, the whole world. So, one might oppose estate taxes on the grounds that it is legalized stealing, and stealing is wrong. Or one could support estate taxes on the ground that shifting money from the wealthy to the poor is a good thing. I could see Bono, for example, arguing that estate taxes should be used to help feed the hungry. No matter who is right in this argument, at least it appeals to something more than raw self-interest.

The moral of the story? Don’t base your moral judgments on the things you hear on late night television. The other moral? Learn to consider your choices in light of something more than self-interest. Seek transcendent principles. Think in terms of a broad vision for society. And, whatever you do, think about others, and not just yourself.

Topics: Moral Reasoning |

12 Responses to “Bill Maher, Jay Leno, and the State of Moral Reasoning in America, Part 3”

  1. Evan Says:
    December 12th, 2008 at 10:16 am

    I think what you have noticed is that many on the Left have no basis on which to appeal to a standard of Right or Wrong.

    In your discussion with Christopher Hitchens, he said, “I appeal to conscience” as his standard without defining it. I don’t think he could without noticing he was bumping up against “arbitrary” standards about the value of human life. Nietzsche, of course, would have ruthlessly exposed him. If you claim no eternal, unchanging standard, then in the end, all is arbitrary.

    In the discussion of Prop 8, one could easily point out to Jay Leno that his marriage did not get ruined because it was defeated, either, and it becomes apparent what a silly standard that is for making a moral choice. I doubt that bank robberies, famine or wars have “ruined” his marriage either. As you say, he likely had political and moral opinions, but against what standard is he basing his judgment? The Christian says, in essence, the Living God who has always existed sets the standards of Right and Wrong and has revealed them to us. We can disagree as to exactly how to implement them, but we are pointing to the same standards. So as you noted, while some Christians took the opinion that Paul’s instruction to slaves to serve faithfully meant that slavery was fine, Wilberforce and other Christians looked to Paul’s letter to Philemon and the overall context of the New Testament to make the case that slavery was evil. But at least there was a common standard to appeal to, ie, the Word of God.

    So Bill and Jay pronounce moral judgments, but to what standard do they appeal?

    Jesus said adultery is wrong. I know many instances of adultery among couples I know, and my marriage has not been ruined. But I still say adultery is wrong. It is usually quite harmful to the couple involved, but it is wrong even when “no harm” can be demonstrated. Why? Because the Living God who created the universe gave us safety rules and said not to engage in adultery. It is therefore wrong to do so, period. If Jay or Bill were to condemn adultery, on what basis would they do so? If they were to say it does not matter, on what basis would they do so? They do not seem to ever explain it. In my view, they appeal to a standard (Right and Wrong) whose very underpinnings they reject.

    At least Nietzsche was honest. He said there was no standard and therefore no Right or Wrong and whoever had the power could do what they wanted. Which is basically, self-interest, which is what you attribute to Bill.

    Sorry for the longwindedness, but it seems to me that this is the basis of your observation here.

  2. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    December 12th, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Two quick comments:

    Evan, Prop 8 wasn’t defeated. It passed. (Which means that gay marriage is once again illegal in CA)

    Mark, I’m not sure your analysis of Leno’s remarks is fair in this case. Although his words are indeed about “his” (i.e., one) marriage, they were clearly intended as a refutation of the common argument (which you convey nicely here) that gay marriage would be detrimental to society as a whole. Leno could just as easily (and I’m reasonably confident probably did at some point) say that gay marriage wouldn’t affect society, either, but the point is that he’s not really arguing from selfishness here, the exact words of his statement notwithstanding.

  3. Mark Roberts Says:
    December 12th, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    Mark Baker-Wright: I think you give Jay Leno too much credit here. I’ve heard lots of people make the argument in terms of their own personal marriage, just like he did.

  4. Evan Says:
    December 12th, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Mark Baker-Wright: It did indeed pass. I knew that. Who knows why my wires got crossed on that fact?

    So my prosaic point would actually be that Jay Leno’s marriage has not been ruined because it passed, either.

    Mark Roberts: The “my marriage won’t be ruined” argument was indeed used a great deal. But it also was a knock on a straw man; I did not hear anyone say that “marriages across the country are being ruined due to gay marriage” or the like (not to say I might not have missed someone, but I never heard it.) It was typically raised to counter the notion that changing the definition of marriage would be a negative thing, ie, “How? It wouldn’t affect MY marriage!”, which does not address the concerns being addressed, much as it would not address the notion that adultery is a bad thing, either.

  5. Paul Says:
    December 12th, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Dr. Roberts wrote:
    What we need in our country today is a new model of moral reasoning, one that appeals to foundational principles and that advances a compelling vision for our nation and, indeed, the whole world.

    That surprises me because it seems as though a “new model of moral reasoning” is what got us in this mess to begin with. As one example, we took prayer out of our schools in 1963 and the rest, as they say, is history. That’s the environment in which Maher was raised! So what we really need is an “old” model of moral reasoning! “…so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Cor. 2:5) Maher (and Leno) just exemplifies(y) the Apostle Paul’s astonishment when he remarked, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1:20) We really need the old standard to be able to see this for what it is and call it by its name- just foolishness.

  6. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    December 12th, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    I’ve heard lots of people make the argument in terms of their own personal marriage, just like he did.

    You miss my point. I’m saying that, despite appearances, that’s not really a personal appeal to self-interest, but an attempt (if an inelegant one) to refute the common argument that allowing gay marriage (in secular law) would be so detrimental to “the institution of marriage” as religious believers have argued.

    Whether or not they were right about this argument is beside the point. The point is that it is not simply an argument for self-interest.

  7. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    December 12th, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Perhaps I should try this another way. To say “it didn’t hurt ME”, while being a personal example, if used as an example to refute are larger ideal (which would include that personal example within it), is not necessarily “selfish.” It is to say “how can it ‘destroy marriage’ as an institution if my own marriage remains untouched?”

    Again, the argument may not be a correct one (indeed, I wouldn’t argue that it is), but it’s definitely not one motivated by self-interest.

  8. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    December 12th, 2008 at 1:14 pm


    So my prosaic point would actually be that Jay Leno’s marriage has not been ruined because it passed, either.

    I’m not sure why this is relevant. Very few people (certainly not Leno) were arguing that gay marriage must exist for their own marriage to be meaningful…

  9. Evan Says:
    December 12th, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    That is the point: it is not relevant either way. His own marriage would not be “ruined” if there were gay marriage, or if there were not.

    If, as you have noted, he was meaning that there would be no harm to society, he ought to have engaged the debate in those terms. The point about his personal marriage sounds very snappy, but is really of no relevance to the discussion.

  10. Neil Says:
    December 12th, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Good points in the post. The anti-8 arguments are basically a logical fallacy-fest - ad hominem attacks, straw man, red herrings, you name it.

  11. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    December 12th, 2008 at 11:27 pm

    Mark B-W: You may be right that some folks use the personal to illustrate the general. But I still think the predominant ethical position of many, many people is pure self-interest.

    Paul: You’re right, of course, that we don’t need a new way of moral reasoning so much as a return to the right ways of the past (though not the wrong ways of the past). There isn’t anything new about basing moral decisions upon principles and vision. That’s exactly what Jesus did, of course.

    All: Thanks for the thoughtful comments (as usual).

  12. theotherside Says:
    February 10th, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    I think you’re confused. Leno said it wouldn’t hurt himself personally, but it wouldn’t hurt anybody else either. The chickens and slavery examples you gave would hurt other people and animals.

    I would say you are the one that is voting on “self interest” because YOU are not in a same sex relationship.


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