When Virtue Requires Discrimination

Webster’s New Dictionary and Thesaurus (1990) defines discriminate as “to make a difference or distinction; (with in favor of or against) to treat favorably or unfavorably in comparison with others.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary’s (1990) first definition is “unfavourable treatment based on prejudice, esp. regarding race, colour, or sex.” But this British dictionary’s third definition, like Webster’s, is a more traditional (and neutral) one, “the power of discriminating or observing differences.” To discriminate is most basically to make or see a distinction—it is thus essential for making any wise choice among competing alternatives. And drawing from Aristotle, a virtuous person makes informed distinctions, seeking justice and truth through application of practical wisdom, a sophisticated form of common sense.

Discrimination with informed discernment is essential for practical wisdom (Aristotle’s phronesis or Aquinas’s prudentia) which depends upon one’s ability to perceive the particular situation accurately in its context, to have the appropriate feelings or desires about it, to deliberate as to the proper action in the situation, and to act accordingly. Practical wisdom is the virtue that disposes a person to make decisions and act in a virtuous manner, with serious thought as to the right way to do the right thing in the particular circumstance at the right time. The virtuous person acts, not because of financial rewards or threats of punishment, but because it is right. Practical wisdom is not inbred but must be learned. People can learn to make good judgments in difficult situations as the gain over time experienced judgment.

As an intellectual virtue, practical wisdom cannot be exercised without discrimination based on an awareness and analysis of the facts regarding the choice one makes. Discrimination should not be considered a vice; properly applied, it promotes virtue. A virtuous person is thus a discriminating person, although not prejudiced based only on race, color, or sex—or only based on an ideology. Indeed, exercising virtue requires balance, finding the appropriate mean between extremes of personal qualities—which tend to be vicious.

Those so myopic as to base decisions on a single ideological premise, those who narrowly follow a strict ideology, are essentially no different from those whom the Anti-Nazi Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled stupid, people deficient or dull in understanding, those who act without reason or judgment (Webster, 1990).

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice….Neither protests nor the use of force  accomplish anything here (re the stupid); reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed—in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical—and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, and incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack….Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “On Stupidity,” Letters and Papers from Prison)

Bonhoeffer does not speak merely against National Socialists; his assessment applies universally, to any person who adheres rigidly to an ideology—that person, however well educated, is acting stupidly. Such a person behaves in opposition to those who seek to apply the virtue of phronesis or practical wisdom. The ideology rigidly applied might be National Socialist or a racist or sexist one, or it might be another form of politically-demanded correctness. Instead of seeking true justice for all parties affected by a decision and carefully considering the unique aspects of the situation as it affects various people in its multi-faceted context, the ideologue is vicious. Claiming moral purity, he ignores the collective good of the people and uncompromisingly imposes his extreme position. He or she is dangerous and likely an oppressor.

Since the founding of our great country, Americans have sought to be a virtuous people where freedom is defended and nurtured. Despite our many shortcomings, we have been a moral exemplar to the world. Surely, we generally have not been guilty of behaviors that could be labeled as stupid. But social changes are occurring at a rapid pace—and some are being imposed, without widespread deliberation, based on extreme ideological positions. The charge of stupidity is unsettling; but is a tree not known by its fruit?

Consider the recent statements and actions taken by the Obama Administration in attacking the laws of certain states and threatening public school officials throughout the nation. This Administration is relying solely on an ill-considered social ideology rather than the will of the people affected. The Department of Justice seeks to overturn the long-held moral value that people should use only those public facilities designated for their biological genders. The new ideology insists, instead, that because a relatively few individuals consider themselves as transgender and thus express more comfort in using the toilet facilities of their desired gender, the Federal Government must ensure that they are allowed to do so, no matter what. Washington elites have issued threatening ultimatums that sovereign states and free citizens understand as not only violations of traditional moral standards regarding privacy but also as potentially dangerous, especially for young people. Indeed, the ideologue-based pressure being applied is opposed to traditional common sense. It is contrary to a practical wisdom based on the facts of the situation at hand, the traditional morality of the American people, and the overall legal process and welfare of the Constitutional Republic.

In claiming to oppose discrimination against the transgendered, the Administration abuses and oversteps its power without regard to important practical and relevant considerations. It claims to establish—and impose—a new “right” that is in no way part of traditional moral law. Such an abuse is unwise. It ignores the need for practical wisdom that points to the need for continued discrimination based on biological reality. It must be categorized for what it is—stupid.

Copyright: J. Thomas Whetstone, D.Phil., 16 May 2016