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Bad Public Morals

June 18, 2015

There is a general evangelical and fundamentalist sentiment that public morals have collapsed. I do not share this sentiment for a variety of reasons but I believe both generally and theologically that public morals are terrible. It’s merely that they always have been, which is what we should expect since humans are drawn towards evil and oppression like a dying star to a black hole (with similar end results). However, since I last wrote here (shortly after Easter – perhaps my own morals concerning the prompt updating of blogs have collapsed) several major public incidents involving morality have become hot news items. Ironically, one of them was the fall from grace of a family who was quite convinced that everyone else’s morality was faulty. However, one of the more recent incidents, now imaginatively termed the “McKinney Pool Incident” (at least it’s not McKinney-Poolgate) continues a fairly long-running discourse in recent American social consciousness about policing, especially the way in which black people seem to be the targets of unusual levels of police violence. If this issue is foreign to you (perhaps because you don’t live in the US) or not of interest to you there’s no need to read further.

Why would I, on a Christian blog, discuss policing? One of the issues that should interest Christians is how we make moral decisions as a society. The discussion about policing is full of fallacies and bad moral reasoning. Moreover, while I will be treating relatively specific claims in this article these sorts of failures of reasoning are common to all sorts of claims about public morals.

I will assume that if you’re at all interested in this article you are already familiar with the basics of this public discussion. If you aren’t go read up on it elsewhere – I will be jumping right into analysis. Specifically, I will start with a list of terrible justifications I have heard from people who support the police actions that have been called into question. This is largely because I will stick to real arguments I have actually heard and while I gather that there are some crazy people suggesting (and enacting) violent retaliation against the police for these actions I don’t know any. I will, however, deal with them briefly when I discuss the main reasons that people make bad moral decisions in these cases. Without further ado, here’s a short list of bad arguments:

Bad argument #1) Some people are violent towards the police. They should stop and then the police can afford to be nicer.

Reason why it’s a bad argument: “Some people”. Violent police responses to actual violence don’t draw public outcry. What draws public outcry is when the police response is out of proportion to the violence the officer faces. You don’t get to shoot me because Bob once shot at you.

Bad argument #2) Some (perhaps many) of the people who are subject to police violence in these incidents have police records or were caught committing minor crimes, or sometimes just being stupid. If they had not committed crimes/acted in a smarter manner nothing bad would have happened to them.

Reason why it’s a bad argument: We could play this argument for anything bad. If you hadn’t built your house in Kansas you probably wouldn’t have been killed by a tornado. If you hadn’t walked down that street you wouldn’t have gotten mugged. In fact, people use these arguments a lot when the crime is rape and are (quite justifiably) condemned for doing so. The question isn’t whether the person who gets hurt could have changed their behavior in any way to avoid it (because they almost always could have in almost every circumstance, at least if you granted them the ability to see the future) but whether what happened to them is a just result given their crime or mistake.

Bad argument #3) The police do hard, dangerous jobs and we have to give them the latitude needed to protect themselves.

Reason why it’s a bad argument: The hard, dangerous job the police do is protect us. When the police need “latitude” to hurt us to protect themselves this is actually a request to turn police into criminals.

Bad argument #4) You wouldn’t want to live in a world without police.

Reason why it’s a bad argument: True, and irrelevant. I also wouldn’t want to live in a police state. Neither would you. We all want a middle ground between anarchy and brutal control.

Bad argument #5) Black people are far, far more likely to be killed by other black people than by the police so why aren’t we focusing on that?

Reason why it’s a bad argument: We’ve already decided that the problem of people being killed by criminals is so serious that we’ve set up a force of people paid for by taxes to stop criminals. We call this force the police force. If that force becomes a problem in its own right who do we call? (Additionally, this argument often focuses on race but every race is most likely to be killed by their own race because you’re most likely to be killed by someone you know or live by, and that ends up meaning “people of the same race and socio-economic status as you” in most American cities.)

These five arguments fall into four major categories of larger failures to do good moral reasoning. All five arguments fall into the trap of tribalism. #2 overestimates our control of the world. #3 fails to consider the nature of heroism. #3 and #5 fail to understand responsibility.

Let’s start with tribalism, which also provides the background for the crazy people who now hate all police because some police are demonstrably bad. (I’ve seen some police brutality statistics and they vary quite a bit from place to place – any argument that assumes all police are good or all police are bad contradicts the data.) Tribalism seeks to identify bad guys and good guys by simple markers. The first four arguments all treat the police as a monolithic tribe who we as the tribe “non-criminals” (and normally “white non-criminals”) want to see win against some equally-monolithic opposing tribe. Argument #1 treats everyone else in the world who in any way opposes the police as that monolithic tribe whose members are all as guilty as the worst members. #2 treats everyone who has committed any sort of crime as the same (and, again, assigns a high level of guilt not a low one). #3 only makes sense if the police are expected to lump everyone they deal with together. #5 lumps black people together into a tribe and insists that within-tribal violence is more serious than out-of-tribe violence. The problem is that tribalism just doesn’t reflect the real world. Every police officer has their own record and behavior and so does every person they run into. However, tribalism is an easy trap that runs a huge amount of our public dialog. It’s much easier to treat everyone in the public space by assigning them to a few dozen groups than it is to learn about them specifically. I’ve treated tribalism in more detail elsewhere so I will wrap what could be a much longer set of thoughts up by noting that it doesn’t work any better here than it does in any of the other situations where I’ve criticized it.

I also claimed that argument #2 overestimates our control of the world. One reason we love to make up explanations in which people have bad things happen to them because of their own actions is because this is a narrative in which we can prevent bad things by acting correctly. If someone dies of a heart attack because they ate too much fast food (and not because they were dealt bad genes) then heart attacks are safe – we know how to keep them at bay. If we admit that bad policing could strike us that’s scary. It’s easier to make up a scenario in which we are in control even though the real scenarios that we are looking at are ones in which someone is hurt because they have so little control. In essence, we can end up blaming other people because it makes us feel safer.

Argument #3 fails to understand heroism. One of the worst counters I’ve seen to the claims about police brutality is the “Police lives matter” campaign which is (extremely tribally) meant to counter the “Black lives matter” campaign. The problem is that our society is in general agreement that police (and firefighters, and EMTs, etc) are heroes and that their lives matter. There are roads and bridges named after police officers killed in the line of duty. There’s no audience (beyond criminals who care about the lives of almost no one else) who need to be convinced that police lives matter. We all seem to be clear on the idea that police work is dangerous but good and therefore heroic. The problem is that there are two models of heroism we could draw on. One is essentially tribal – heroes fight for us and as long as they are doing that what really matters is that they win, the more decisively the better. The more danger, and the more opponents the hero beats, the more heroism (perfectly in line with argument #3 – the hero needs latitude to win even more decisively and therefore heroically). The other version (what I will call the correct version in an attempt not to bias anyone) is that heroism involves facing danger on someone else’s behalf. In this version putting others in danger to increase one’s own dangerousness is anti-heroic and so arguments about the police needing to be allowed to be occasionally excessive with force in order to protect themselves are arguments that the heroes should sometimes get to be villains in order to keep being heroic. This version simply doesn’t allow argument #3 to make any sense.

Arguments #3 and #5 also fail to understand the nature of responsibility. By focusing on the role of the police as the people who get the bad guys we can lose sight of the actual job of the police – to protect us. That’s the primary responsibility of the police. Imagine the following insane scenario: there’s a town with a one-way portal to a vast uninhabited land. A criminal kills someone and makes a run for the portal. The police chasing the criminal come across a terrible accident where many people’s lives are at risk. If they stop and help the accident victims the criminal will escape through the portal and be gone forever. If they chase the criminal some of the accident victims will die. Under the “get the bad guy” model of responsibility the police should chase the criminal. Under the “protect the people” model of responsibility they should help the accident victims – the portal is one-way and no one lives beyond it so the criminal’s escape threatens no one. It’s also only under the “get the bad guy” model of responsibility that argument #3 or #5 make sense. If the police are there to protect the people it’s a very serious issue if they become a threat to the people. Criminals are always a threat and that’s why we have police but if the police are a threat what do we do? (Who guards the guardians, to ask the question in a much older form.) Police brutality becomes the opposite of policing.

I started this article by promising to examine the way public moral decisions are being made and that the answer would be “badly”. These examples are, of course, just one debate. However, the public moral reasoning on offer includes tribalism (on both sides), a desire to control the world that is so strong that we blame the victims rather than admit that we don’t control the world, an idea of heroism derived from action movies, and an idea of responsibility with similar origins. Needless to say, I think Christian moral thought can (and should) do better than this. Christianity insists that Christ sees through all sorts of tribal barriers that we erect. It insists that God, not us, controls the world and that attempting to control the world can be fundamentally idolatrous. The model we see in Christ is of self-sacrificing heroism aimed at lifting up the broken, something vastly different than notching up wins in fights.

Unfortunately, Christians haven’t done a great job with this particular moral issue. I heard arguments #2-#5 from other Christians (and I don’t know the religious affiliation of the people I heard make argument #1). White Christians don’t tend to do a great job with any issue that deals with race. I hope that one day this will change. I hope that one day Christians can be a voice for better public moral discourse.


This is really almost a separate sub-article. However, I write these articles well in advance. This one has been cooking along for about a week with me making tweaks, adjusting arguments, and generally editing things until I liked it enough to post it. And, as it happens, I’m posting it on a day when we’re hearing about how a suspected white supremacist sympathizer shot up a black church killing multiple people. I simply can’t not add a comment or two about this.

Racism is a terrible and pervasive form of tribalism. For the shooter in the incident I just mentioned “white” became a tribal affiliation at war with every other tribe. Racism is so pervasive and hard to get rid of because tribalism is so natural to humans (even though it’s morally terrible). It’s just so easy for our brains to find patterns that don’t really exist that categorize humans into simple groups based on easily-seen characteristics. It’s part of human nature to find a group that we fit in and attempt to make it “win” against other groups. It is insufficient to sit by and passively do good by avoiding direct evil. Those of us who are white must identify with our brothers and sisters who are black and see their problems the way we see those of our white friends and neighbors. If we accept a society where white people look out for white people and black people look out for black people with very occasional and passive help from white people we are accepting a society in which the problems of race won’t be solved anytime soon. Paul did not consider it enough that Christians from a Jewish background might generally agree that Gentiles could become Christians too. He said they must eat together, fellowship together, pray together, and care for one another. I suspect Paul would look at our functionally-segregated American churches and proclaim us a failure.

I will add that if your reaction to this incident was, “How could this happen in 2015?” you need to re-read that last paragraph. I’m not surprised this happened. I’m horrified, but I hear enough about pervasive, low-level racism from the African-Americans I know that I’m simply not surprised to see evidence that the extreme ends of the American distribution of racist ideas includes people who would shoot up a black church. Frankly, I think you have to live in a pretty white (or highly sanitized) world to be truly surprised by this.

I may comment more about this in another article. For now, let us pray for those who lost friends and family, for those so consumed by hate that they would kill other people because of the color of their skin, and for the blindness that prevents our society from facing this issue and dealing with it properly.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2015 8:35 am

    This comprehensively sums up most arguments I’ve seen. I really wish I could make those people sit down and read through it.

    Really, though, I’ve seen most of these counterarguments made, at least in small ways. The problem isn’t getting one to stick; it’s that we naturally jump to another bad argument rather than change our minds. And even if we do, the bigger, abstract ideas behind each counterargument are lost when the topic changes. People are good at dodging the responsibility of our own patterns of thought, especially where supported by emotion or “common sense.”

    • Eric permalink
      June 19, 2015 12:41 pm

      I think that’s because of that tribalistic error: I know these people are the good guys and those ones are the bad guys, I just need to figure out why that is.

      • June 19, 2015 1:24 pm

        True; if your tribe(s) provide you with the “right” answers, then you go looking for the questions. (Ironically, it’s easy to assume this sort of thinking is forced downward from an Orwellian organization, when the reality is more grassroots and upward.)

        That also explains why, in the case of police brutality, often (not always, though) “from my cold dead hands!”-types use these arguments, even though it’s not fundamentally different from their hero-fantasy/nightmare scenario. There’s a lot to unpack there, but it seems to revolve around which tribal lens they’re viewing law enforcement through.

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