Thursday, 28 June 2018

Why Hypocrisy Matters

It's become a veritable international past time to point out the manifest contradictions in the political positions adopted by other groups. One of my favourites consists of people who loudly proclaim that since the unborn are human beings we must take steps to ensure that they are born, yet actively place barriers in the way of women seeking adequate prenatal care. There can be no cogent defense of such a position. Denial of such prenatal care increases the probability of fetal death, precisely what the opposition to abortion claims to find so repugnant. A coherent pro-life position must also seek and support policies that will increase access to adequate prenatal care, although exactly what those policies might be will no doubt be a matter of legitimate debate. When a self-proclaimed pro-life position lacks such coherence, we can rightly describe it as hypocrisy. But I think it is something deeper. It is a contradiction, and it communicates some very important data.

Here we can learn much from the Marxist and Freudian traditions. Both put contradiction--whether economic or social or cultural or personal--at the centre of analysis. What we learn from these traditions is that it is insufficient albeit potentially accurate to pass a moral judgment on the contradiction before us, which of course is precisely what we do whenever we diagnose it as hypocrisy. Rather, we must ask why this contradiction exists. Marxist thought will tend to see contradiction as generated by and evidence of class conflicts, while Freudian thought will tend to see contradiction as generated by and evidence of repressed desires. A Marxist account might observe that both the prohibition of abortion and the barriers to adequate prenatal care will tend to be implemented by upper-class persons and disproportionately affect lower-class persons, and thus conclude that both are elements in a more generalized class struggle. A Freudian account might observe that both the prohibition and the barriers are typically implemented by male persons while female persons are the most immediately affected, and thus conclude that both represent male fantasies about dominating and controlling women. Both will likely conclude that the arguments from morality ("protect the unborn," "universal healthcare obviates our freedom to choose") seek to obfuscate the actual motivations from self or others: a Marxist might suggest that these arguments are ideological attempts to disguise class struggle, while the Freudian might suggest that these are psychological defense mechanisms intended to avoid acknowledging the pathological drive for control. Both accounts argue that in fact the apparent contradiction has what we might call a higher-level unity, whether rooted in class conflict or in psychological repression.

It must be emphasized that in this sort of analysis what matters is not whether either of the two positions that stand in contradiction are well and good. Rather, what matters is that they cannot both be coherently affirmed by the same person at the same time. By contrast, one can coherently hold that we must protect the unborn, and from this position argue both for a prohibition against abortion and efforts to increase access to adequate prenatal care. Alternatively, one can coherently hold that both abortion and access to adequate prenatal care are necessary components of women's rights. Neither position is immune to moral critique, but the critique operates on a different level than is involved with the analysis of contradiction. Precisely the absence of contradiction allows us to more fully accept that the reason the person gives for her or his position is in fact the primary reason. This is where the Lonerganian tradition will tend to differ from the Marxist or the Freudian: whereas the latter tend to suppose that everything (except strangely not frequently their own operations: itself a not uninteresting tendency for contradiction) is suspect, the Lonerganian tradition recognizes that there must be cogent empirical reasons to suspect ill-will.

(Nota bene: I recently stumbled upon a fascinating excursus in Ben Meyer's unpublished material that aims to take fuller account of the insights provided by the Marxist and the Freudian traditions and their mastery of suspicion).

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