A student asks Professor Budziszewski to explain a statement, from one of his books, about logical fallacies: “Unfortunately, entire political and ethical philosophies are based on the illusion that one never really has to take sides.”
A wide variety of ideologies hold that one never has to take sides – in effect, that one can make a decision without making a decision. This is always fallacious, and usually a fraud.
The most famous examples of a public official pretending that he could make a decision without making a decision was Pontius Pilate, who said to the mob that wanted to crucify Jesus Christ, “I am innocent of this righteous man's blood; see to it yourselves.” In other words, he was claiming that even though he had authorized the execution, he was not taking sides as to whether it should be done.
In the nineteenth century, many people said that they took no position on whether slavery was right, but they did not want to pass a law against it. To say that masters should be allowed to keep their slaves is, of course, taking a position in favor of the masters.
Since Roe v. Wade, many people say that they are not in favor of abortion, but only in favor of choice. But of course to be in favor of the choice to commit an abortion is to take a side against those who think it should be illegal and in favor of those who think it should be legal.
Some people say that they have no opinion about whether the law should reflect monogamous or polygamous legal arrangements; they say the law should be neutral between them. But what they mean by being neutral is to permit a person to have more than one wife if he wants to, and that is the polygamous legal arrangement.
Libertarians, and also relativists, often claim that they take no ethical position about what to do, but want people to make their own choices. But of course they do not think people should have the right to make every sort of choice; for example, I don’t know any libertarians or relativists who think people should have the right to shoot convenience store clerks. Usually, though, they do think people should have the right to enter any sort of sexual arrangement they wish. Obviously, then, they are making a moral distinction between shooting people and sleeping with them, but the language of liberty obscures this decision. Notice that I am not saying that people do not have any rights. However, to recognize which rights are real and which rights are not, one needs a moral philosophy. There is no way to make this decision neutrally or relativistically.
Not just libertarians, but many political theorists, mostly liberals, sometimes conservatives, say that the law should be neutral among different “conceptions of the good.” This is absurd. To pass a law is to hold that the law is good. To hold that the law is good, one must hold a view of what is good and what is not. So the law is never neutral among different conceptions of the good.
Whenever someone touts neutrality, what is usually happening is that he is condemning the other fellow’s moral opinion by pointing out that it is a moral opinion, and smuggling his own moral opinion into law by pretending that it is not a moral opinion. This is why I call neutrality a fraud.
Of course, it is not a fallacy to choose a third alternative if there really is a third alternative. For example, one may choose to vote for candidate A, choose to vote for candidate B, or choose not to vote as a protest. But if the alternatives are logical contraries, such as “permit” and “don’t permit,” there is no third alternative, and pretending that there is one is evasive.
Some people mistakenly think that if they admit that the law inevitably involves moral judgments, then everything we judge wrong or untrue will have to be illegal. Surprisingly, this is not the case. However, the good reasons for not prohibiting everything wrong or untrue are not neutralist; they are themselves moral in nature.
To mention just one: Truth is good, and promoting truth is right. However, even when we think we know something true, the best way to promote it, to clarify it, and to discover whether we have made a mistake about it is often to debate, and obviously, one cannot have a debate if the very act of expressing the other opinion is illegal. In such a case, prohibiting the expression of the opinion we believe to be false would injure the noble cause of truth itself.
J. Budziszewski is a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. This article has been republished with permission from his blog, The Underground Thomist. See also his new book on virtue ethics, and new video of a lecture, The Problem with Liberalism – and Conservatism.