Brother, Can You Spare a Maxim?

The story’s told of a young fella down in Alabama who, riding out of the woods, happened upon an Alabama football practice. Mystified, he asked Coach Bryant what was going on, and the Bear said the point was to take the ball and run through the opposition toward the line at the other end of the field. The kid said he like to give it a shot, so they tossed him the ball, and he took off. Sure enough, he made it all the way, with first one player and then another bouncing off or diving at him in vain. And then he turned around and did the same thing coming back, arriving virtually untouched. The Bear walked up to him and remarked, “That’s pretty good. Now get down off that horse and try it again.”

It strikes me that much of our political discourse is done on horseback when the standards of responsible ethical discourse require us to dismount. It’s hard to strike a serious Heisman pose when you’re in the saddle. And by that, I mean we need to go beyond grand gestures of shaming and sophistricizing to undertake the harder work of discovering and refining workable rules for conduct. Kant gave us the template in his prime version of the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” In other words, ethical rules have to be rules for everybody — whenever or wherever — or they’re bogus. (We can wrestle with Euthyphro and Jericho meta-ethical issues another day.)

The other day, I heard a pastor call Trump a demagogue and speak warmly of Obama in connection with Syrian refugees. He reported on his church’s kind reception for these beleaguered folks and took a shot at the Republican governor for his hard line policy. Well, yes, we applaud graciousness toward those who appear on our doorsteps. And he was right; the infant Jesus was a refugee in Egypt. But did it follow that we should embrace Angela Merkel’s the-more-the-merrier approach?

So I plead, “Brother, can you spare a maxim? Can you give us something we can work with to separate transgression from permission?” That’s how you do normative ethics.

For instance, as much as I like the question, “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD?), we need more (or less) than that if we’re selecting maxims for human use. Taken alone, the implied rule, “Do only what Jesus would do,” would bar us from marriage. But that doesn’t make biblical sense, for Genesis 1:28 tells humanity to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Then there are those trying to derive a decree (“You mustn’t vote for so and so”) from biography (“I can’t bring myself to vote for so and so”). But that would be like saying “I can’t eat peanuts, so you shouldn’t eat peanuts.” You can’t universalize that.

Others insist that we need to be true to our earlier commitments (e.g., in urging the expulsion of an unholy politician). Well, of course, behavioral consistency is valuable if your original position was sound. But you probably don’t want to say, “Because I supported the internment of ex-pat Japanese in WWII, I’m honor bound today to support the internment of expat immigrants from hostile Muslim regions.” In other words, there may well be a time to say, “I think I was wrong back then, so I’m going to take a different tack today.”

To clarify, while a change of mind and behavior may be admirable, logical consistency is non-negotiable if you aspire to rational and moral discourse. Indeed, it’s the basis for judging the worthiness of maxims: Will they hold up when applied across the board, or will they be reduced to absurdity as we track their logical implications?

So let’s do some more tracking. If the promiscuous Bill Clinton had been removed from office, then we would have had the non-promiscuous (and the politically similar) Al Gore as president. So “Throw the rascal out,” sounds pretty good. No big loss; maybe some gain. But today’s binary choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton involves much greater public policy contrast. Maybe our hard and fast rule needs a tweak or two. (A thought experiment for us evangelicals: What if Barney Frank had been Clinton’s vice president, in line to be the first openly-gay president? Would we have been so zealous to press the case for removal?)

In saying all this, I’m still a “non-conflicting absolutist,” not a “hierarchicalist” or lesser-of-two-evils utilitarian. For example, by my lights, you never use garden shears to cut off the little finger of a terrorist’s four-year-old son to try to force him to say where the dirty bomb is hidden in Manhattan. You don’t rob an armored car to appropriate the money for hunger relief. Rather, I work with the maxim, “Don’t intentionally harm innocents to achieve desirable ends.” (Yes, that’s a feature of just war theory; and no, it doesn’t rule out lying to Nazis on the hunt for Jews, for Hitler’s minions were neither innocent nor deserving of candor.)

Please don’t presume on my “absolutist” stance by trying to impose a specious absolute on me. I loved Eric Liddell’s Lord’s-Day stand in Chariots of Fire, but I wasn’t ready to throw Tim Tebow under the bus for playing on Sunday. And if you insist that we never vote for arguably deplorable or scary candidates, how shall we export our moral standard to people of conscience in countries where both of the electable candidates are fairly deplorable and scary, but where thoughtful people see greater promise, however small, in one over the other, with serious consequences at stake? Well, we simply cannot, for the never-never rule falls short of universal validity.

Look, there’s a time to ride up and down the field shouting “Character Matters” and such. But after you do this, please get down off your horse and try to gain some yardage within the constraints of dialogical rigor and precision, toe to toe with serious critics on the gridiron.

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