We’ve come to a point in our history when almost any issue is political, and politics are deeply personal. Rather than the “point-counterpoint” exchange of ideas our disputes have devolved into “punch-counterpunch” attacks
Even winning has changed. Facts and arguments marshalled to support a case for “idea x” have been abandoned for the memorable sound bite.
The baton has passed from the Modernism of Star Trek’s “Spock” to the Postmodern Existentialism of his successor, “Data”. Our values have shifted, and with them, our means for defining Truth. We now rely on image, emotion and intuition. The suggestion that an idea can be universally true will spark fits of rage in some circles. Why?
Ultimately, most contentious issues are moral questions. These range from sweeping things like the National Debt, Health Care, and Jurisprudence to niggling things like light bulbs and soda pop restrictions. They invoke a conflict of both morality and authority.
The authority question asks whether government has the right to get involved. The morality question asks whether the government should get involved. Ethics (not empiricism) answers both questions, and since values are not in agreement, conflict ensues.
Where do we get our ethics? Materialism can’t help us; atoms, chemicals, or rocks, cannot fail ethically. Even at Chernobyl, nobody held the atoms responsible. Plants and animals are in the same category; even when they do harm, they need never “face justice”. Moral right and wrong requires a mind.
This yields two possible resolutions to the authority question. The possibility “A” is that absolute morality really does exist. Good and Evil are not abstractions, but statements of fact. Possibility “B” is that there is no absolute morality. Good and Evil are cultural constructs. Some groups will have flexible understandings of good and evil, and others will have rigid ones, with no basis for one to call the other “wrong”.
There is an intuitive resistance to “A” because of its moral restrictions on libertine “freedoms”. As a result, many will accept “B” by default.
Why is this a problem? Functional societies require a rule of law. That needs a group understanding of morality. That’s where things get tricky. Some cultures say “love your neighbor”. Others prefer to eat him. Who wins out?
The West might prefer a “democratic” model, and define morality by majority consensus. Some ethicists propose this today. But wasn’t the Slave Trade once considered “good”? And, since Nazi Germany supported Hitler, wouldn’t this argument justify, rather than condemn, his ethnic cleansing policies? Mob rule does not produce a just society.
If that model fails, why not a single leader, or a small group? That prompts the question: by what criterion will you judge an unjust lawgiver? If the guy writing your laws is another Caligula, he’ll give you Nixon’s famous line… “when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Ironically, since he’s written the rules himself — opposing him would be illegal.