Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Would Jesus be a Liberal Democrat?

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat
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There is an issue here that even non-Christians like me and Bernie Goldberg can find interesting. The immediate issue is: Are people who vote for the government to give resources to people who need them practicing Christian charity? Behind this is a deeper issue, which does not presuppose Christian ethics: Are they practicing some virtue of benevolence or other -- perhaps generosity?

Colbert thinks the answer to both questions is obviously yes. I think the correct answer is no, for two reasons.

(Both are different from the reason O'Reilly gives, which is that , as he sees it, Christian charity and liberal charity are different traits, as the former is qualified by ideas, such as individual responsibility, which are absent from the latter. This is the idea that Colbert is ignorantly ridiculing in the above video.)

First: If you are really generous, charitable, etc., you have already given to the needy. The only thing your vote can add, at most, is to force others to give. Now, if I give you my coat, that may be generous, but if I give you someone else's coat, it cannot be. You can only be generous, etc., with your own property. If Al Capone tips a shoeshine boy with a stolen $100 bill, he is not being generous. His subjective affect at that moment may be identical to what a generous person might feel, but generosity is a moral concept, not a psychological one. A mere feeling is never sufficient to make an act virtuous.

Second: Further, by voting, you are not even forcing others to give. When you vote, you are never doing anything but voting. Unless the tally, minus you, turns out to be 1,395,735 to 1,395,735, with yours being the tie-breaking vote, your vote has no effect on the outcome of the election whatsoever. As Thoreau put it: "Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it." Voting is thus a great corrupter of morals, a smugifier, a hypocriter. Well, at least I've done something about the problem now! No, you haven't. Now get off your fat ass and really do something.

I think there are a significant number of liberals who believe the Colbert thesis: that simply voting a certain way and having certain opinions makes them more virtuous than people who do otherwise. It would explain the moral contempt some of them seem to show toward people who are to the right of them. It would also explain why they are often so easy on people who are to the left of them. Stalin may have murdered millions, but at least he presided over a state that gave free medical care to those it did not kill. (The same thing is true of Hitler, but nevermind that.)

The intuitive idea behind this is obvious: the liberal voter, the charitable Christian, and the Communist dictator do have something in common: all care about the needy. That may be true. But it does not show that liberals and socialists are more virtuous than others. Aside from the empirical fact that there are plenty of people who care and yet do not fit this political profile, there are reasons #1 and #2, above.
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