Rationalization: The Enemy of Integrity

by Jonah Goldberg
Jerry Falwell Jr.'s politics are simply a right-wing version of the original progressives' habit of tailoring their arguments to wherever the field was open.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (including those of you who feel unduly entitled to a fresh Dear Reader gag every week),

Because I am a human — no, really — I have a tendency to rationalize all sorts of bad decisions and habits.

“I couldn’t let the chicken wings go to waste.”

“Lite beer doesn’t count.”

I think, to one extent or another, everyone does this kind of thing. The trick is to keep it within healthy parameters. If you find yourself heading into Bad Idea Jeans territory — “Normally, I wear protection, but then I thought, ‘When am I going to make it back to Haiti?’” — it’s always best to take step back.

Usually, even when your decision tree goes awry, these kinds of rationalizations only penalize you. But, of course, rationalizations can hurt others, too. The road to adultery is mostly paved with rationalizations of one kind or another. Most bad parenting, likewise, is grounded in rationalizations of sloth, selfishness, and even cruelty. I sometimes tell myself it’s okay for my kid to watch more TV than she should because I watched a lot of TV and I turned out okay (“Debatable” — the Couch) or because I think she needs to be (pop) culturally fluent, when the truth is that I’m just too lazy or busy. Surely many abusive parents tell themselves self-serving lies about how whatever they’re doing is good for their kids.

While noodling this “news”letter, I googled around for essays on rationalization. I had the vague recollection that Friedrich Hayek had written something specific on the topic — and he probably did — but I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I did, however, find an enormous amount on the topic on websites dedicated to counseling and ethics, including some interesting lists of common rationalizations. I particularly liked this, from something called the Josephson Institute:

Rationalizations are the most potent enemy to integrity. They work like an anesthetic to our consciences allowing us to avoid the pain of guilt when we don’t live up to our values. We want to think well of ourselves so much that we develop strategies to convince ourselves that we are better than we actually are.

The Church of Wales

And that brings me to this:

Don’t worry, this isn’t some rant about selling out to Trump. Say that you voted for him or support him now because of his positions on taxes and regulation, you cared about judicial appointments more than anything, or you thought America would be “over” if Hillary Clinton won: Those aren’t necessarily rationalizations, they’re simply reasons — and they can be defended or debated on the merits.

As I wrote last week, I can understand why rank-and-file Evangelical Christians voted for Trump and celebrate his presidency despite his manifest transgressions against their theological, moral, or ethical principles. Citizens, devoutly religious or otherwise, are not required to vote their faith — or lack of it. Nor do they have to be binary about it. They can weigh competing factors and considerations as they see fit. I’m against monism in all things. Saying Christians must vote according to one specific criterion is just a theological version of the crude Marxist notion that people should only vote their economic or class interests, as defined by the Left.

But none of that applies to what Falwell and some of his fellow religious leaders have been doing.

I’ll leave it to David French to cover the broader theological problems with Falwell’s shtick. That’s not really my lane. But my objection to Falwell’s Ode to Caesar is more political — and psychological — than theological anyway. It is entirely true that Jesus never lectured Caesar on military, economic, or immigration policy, though it’s not like he kept his general views on how to approach some public questions a divine mystery either.

Even less mysterious: Jerry Falwell’s previous views on how religion, specifically Christianity, should influence public life. His dad, after all, was the founder of the “Moral Majority,” for a time the primary vehicle for introducing religion into American politics. Here’s Jr. explaining his endorsement of Mike Huckabee in 2007:

I am well aware that, if my endorsement is meaningful and helpful to Huckabee, it is because my father devoted so much of his life and ministry to cultural reform. Dad truly believed that Christians should be involved in the political process and should make their voices heard. . . . 

I think that Gov. Huckabee is one of us. I know that a lot of the other candidates try to talk like Evangelicals, but he’s actually one of us. He believes like we do on all the issues, which energizes me as a voter. . . . 

Believing that there are moral absolutes in this world is critical to the survival of this great republic — and not only believing in but doing something about it,” Huckabee said during his Liberty [University] address.”

A decade later, Falwell is a most faithful servant of a man who isn’t “one of us.” And Jimmy Crack Corn, Falwell just doesn’t care.

Again, I’ll leave it to David to parse the barmy theological arguments Falwell deploys to bend Christianity to Trumpism. Though I should say that even calling it “Trumpism is a misnomer. Falwell hasn’t signed on with an ideological cause; he’s essentially entered into a personal services contract with one man, regardless of the -ism.

But as a psychological matter, it is just stunning to me that a man who entered the political fray to defend “moral absolutes” is now embracing the rankest moral relativism, arguing on CNN that all sins are the same and we can’t judge because “we’re all sinners.”

In that tweet above, Falwell establishes a standard that — if taken seriously — gelds the stallion his father dedicated his life to. I think Augustine’s doctrine of the City of God and the City of Man is among the cornerstones of Western civilization, so I have no problem with serious arguments about separating the secular from the religious. I don’t agree with all of them, e.g., I think Jefferson’s “high wall” stuff has been taken to idiotic extremes — which is why I have defended and supported most of the arguments of religious conservatives for decades. But here’s Falwell with his gelding knife slashing away. Caesar can do whatever he wants!

Show of hands: Who thinks Falwell would even dream of making this argument about abortion or gay marriage under a Clinton presidency? And if your answer is, “Wait a second, those are grave sins” or some such, I refer you back to Mr. Falwell, who says all sins are more or less the same.

My point isn’t that Falwell doesn’t have a point; there are all sorts of serious theological arguments and traditions to support the idea that Christians should worry more about saving souls than scoring political wins. But Christianity also seeks a world in which people, or at the very least the faithful, strive to be “Christ-like.” And, it is the job of Christian leaders to uphold and defend the principles and teachings that enable people to do so — not to hand out mulligans when it is politically expedient.

Part of my mistake was thinking that Falwell, the president of Liberty University, was a pastor or some other kind of clergy. He’s not. Professor Wikipedia tells me he’s a functionary and a lawyer. And he’s decided that Donald Trump is his client, and so he’ll grab whatever rhetorical weapon is nearest to hand to defend him, even if he ends up castrating his own cause in the process. Rationalization is indeed the most potent enemy of integrity.

Right-wing Progressivism

One of my personal peeves is how too many restaurants use goat cheese (a.k.a. Satan’s foot fungus). But that’s not important right now. One of my intellectual peeves is the idea that 20th-century progressivism was primarily about a coherent set of principles. As I’ve written countless times, progressivism was primarily about power.

The original progressives tailored their arguments to wherever the field was open. When expanding the franchise would empower progressives, they were for it. When they held the executive branch, they argued all power should be vested there. When they held the legislative, ditto. The courts, ditto. Oliver Wendell Holmes is famous for advancing the doctrine of “judicial restraint,” but I’ve always believed he took this position in large part because he understood that progressives had the whip hand in Congress and the White House. When advancing progressive ends required judicial activism — as in Buck v. Bell — Holmes was more than happy to legislate from the bench, on the lofty constitutional principle that “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Judicial restraint was just a way of clearing the field for his team to move the ball downfield.

Judicial restraint was just a way of clearing the field for his team to move the ball downfield.

It seems to me that the religious politics of people like Falwell is simply a right-wing version of this approach — but instead of it being adorned with political and philosophical jargon, it’s full of religious bumper stickers. It’s just another variety of what was once called “priestcraft” by diverse thinkers such as James Harrington, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Paine. It’s the practice of using one’s religious authority to gain personal or political power.

Rationalizing Eugenics

Since we are on the subject of progressives and rationalization, let me switch to a different subject.

I’ve been seeing a lot of stuff about how aborting fetuses with Down syndrome constitutes a return to progressivism’s eugenic roots. On the question of whether such efforts constitute eugenics, I don’t really see how it can be denied: The desire to “improve” the genetic stock of the race or the nation is basically the plain meaning of eugenics. And I get why pro-lifers cry “eugenics!” It’s partly simply an aversion to, well, eugenics. But they also do it as a way to attack abortion generally. Eugenics is a potent scare word after all.

I’m just not sure it’s a return to eugenics. I think it’s a rationalization, the enemy of integrity.

There are any number of public policies that have outlived their original rationale. But because interests become invested in the policy, they become determined to craft new arguments to keep them in place. The original arguments for affirmative action were all about correcting for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. That’s gone by the wayside for the most part, replaced and expanded by arguments for “diversity” for its own sake.

More apt, American minimum-wage laws had a large eugenic component to them at the outset. The whole idea, according to progressive economists at the beginning of the 20th century, was that if you made it mandatory to pay a white man’s wage, employers wouldn’t hire workers from the “lesser” races. As E. A. Ross famously put it, “The coolie [i.e., Chinese laborers], though he cannot outdo the American, can underlive him.” From Thomas Leonard’s authoritative Illiberal Reformers:

The Coolie-standard indictment initially targeted the Chinese, but reformers readily applied it to other races and peoples. John R. Commons and John B. Andrews informed readers of their Principles of Labor Legislation that Chinese, Japanese, and Hindu immigrants willingly “accept wages which to a white man would mean starvation.”

The Davis-Bacon Act was initially passed in no small part to keep poor blacks and immigrants from stealing “white” jobs. But that doesn’t mean the modern AFL-CIO is motivated by racism when it spends millions to defend it.

There’s nothing inherent to the identity politics of the Left that requires its ghastly bigotry against people with Down syndrome. The bulk of the Left despises every argument about IQ differences among populations in part because leftists claim it denies the humanity of certain groups. Feminists leap to fainting couches when you float the idea that there are significant statistical differences between the sexes. On the most basic level, the argument for diversity as its own reward should celebrate people with Downs because they make a meaningful contribution to the rich diversity of humanity. The few people with Downs I’ve gotten to know even a little have been among the most joyful and courteous people I’ve ever met.

But here’s the problem. Some people don’t want to have kids with Down syndrome. And, I will admit, I think this is entirely understandable. But that’s not the relevant issue. Abortion advocates also believe that there should be no limitation on abortion rights for any reason — which is why we are joined by North Korea and China as one of only seven countries in the world that allows abortion past 20 weeks.

And that is the motivating passion here: maintaining a maximalist abortion regime. If, somehow, abortion and Downs never intersected, it would be easy to see people with Downs being celebrated as part of the rich rainbow of humanity. But they do intersect, and turning them into disposable humans — or what the Germans called “life unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben) is apparently a small price to pay in defense of abortion. I’m not saying there aren’t strains of eugenics in modern progressivism, I’m saying that the devotion to abortion can cause some people to rationalize almost anything.

Various & Sundry

This week’s Remnant podcast is out. We went guestless in order to respond to various and sundry questions from various and sundry listeners. We covered the waterfront, from that time Cosmo the Wonderdog peed on the floor of Christopher Hitchens’s apartment to the politics of Star Trek to, well, other various and sundry things. (By the way, if you like The Remnant, you increase your odds of getting a retweet from me if you say so on Twitter. Just FYI.)

My column today (linked below) offers a defense of free trade deeply inspired by my forthcoming book, The Suicide of the West. Which reminds me, readers should know that as we approach publication date (April 24), I will be discussing the book and its various themes quite a bit here and on The Remnant and — hopefully — on the road across the country. The best way to follow the conversation is to read — and, yes, buy! — the damn thing. I put an enormous amount of effort into it and part of the rationale (not rationalization) for this (ahem, free) “news”letter, not to mention the podcast, is to help me get the thing out there. If you think this “news”letter is worth, say, 25 cents a week, buying the book pays for a year and a half of G-Files.

Canine Update: This should really be called human update, because the beasts are driving me crazy. They miss the Fair Jessica terribly, and so they are incredibly needy these days. Of course, the only recourse is to exhaust them as much as possible. The problem is that the more you exercise them, the more exercise they need. Meanwhile, David French, envious of my doggos’ popularity, has attempted to join dog Twitter. He claims, ridiculously, that his shockingly froofy hypoallergenic doodle-dogs are better than the Dingo and the Spaniel, which everyone with eyes to see knows is ridiculous. Of course, they’re good dogs, but come on. I will say they are much more appealing than John Podhoretz’s pet, but that’s a pretty low bar.

Other pertinent links:

T. A. Frank has written a widely discussed and at times remarkably generous and comprehensive essay for the Washington Post called “Welcome to the Golden Age of Conservative Magazines.” Rich Lowry appears prominently, as does the King of Pet-Rock Twitter, John Podhoretz, and that Steve Hayes guy. I have a bit of a cameo as well. Maybe we’ll talk about it more next week.

Last week’s G-File

My thoughts on I, Tonya

Passing the talking stick on the latest Ricochet GLoP Culture podcast

Trump should trade the wall for more meaningful reforms.

On the FBI stuff, let’s wait and see.

The latest Remnant podcast

Trump’s tariffs are bad

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Thursday links

Debby’s Friday links

The boy who stayed awake for eleven days

What’s the deal with those alien alloys in the New York Times story?

If you find aliens, who you gonna call?

A new recipe for hunting alien life

Why is blue so rare in nature?

Cooking ancient recipes

Venomous centipedes eat animals up to 15 times their size

Spider wasp handily defeats Huntsman spider

Sushi addict pulls five-foot tapeworm from his body

Cowabunga

What happened to animals with tail weapons?

Dog plays in seafoam

Concrete mixed with fungi can repair itself

The cat of the Hagia Sophia

The police blotter at the end of history

Man smashes through icy river to rescue dog

Man sentenced for smuggling king cobras in potato-chip cans

The Prozac of the Middle Ages

Everything you never knew about the making of Conan the Barbarian

How captured Israeli commandos translated The Hobbit into Hebrew

Alabama reporter may have found the wreck of the last American slave ship

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg