In the realm of logic there is a principle known as the fallacy of the false dilemma. The rules of logic are violated when a complex question is restricted to an arbitrary number of answers, typically just two.
This occurs regularly in the public discourse and is a major contributor to polarization. Either global warming is a hoax, or global warming is the gravest threat to human existence. Either the complete neo-Darwinian paradigm is a fact or a total fabrication. With both issues, there is a broad continuum of enlightened opinion that attracts little notice – because moderate people are boring. Recent insights from social psychology account for why we tend to gravitate toward extreme positions. It requires greater mental effort to parse complex issues, and we are naturally lazy. It enhances our ego when we can claim the mantle of moral superiority and vilify our opponents. That’s a lot less satisfying if your opponent might be even partially correct.
A recent columnist asserted that liberals think Wall Street is the source of moral decay, and conservatives believe the decay stems from Washington. Are we facing a false dilemma?
Let’s look a little closer. Taken at face value, the premise immediately leads to contradictions. The upper echelons of our federal government have been dominated by wealthy business types under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and for many a short career in government has been a Launchpad to success in business. Wall Street and Washington are more symbiotic than antagonistic.
If we pause to think but a second, both right and left harbor a list of villains that extends far beyond Wall Street and Washington. Liberal villains include pro-lifers, most Christians, white males, married white females, the military, Republicans, and pretty much anyone who hasn’t drunk the newest flavor of Kool-Aid. Conservative villains include Socialists, Communists, most of the media, sexual revisionists, Democrats, climate alarmists, and any liberals not otherwise listed. Clearly it is false that either side sees the “rot” as confined to a particular group.
Everyone with a pulse knows about the Holocaust. But the Holocaust was not the first genocide of the 20th century. That dishonor falls to the Turks, for their slaughter of over a million Armenian Christians starting in 1915. Nor was the Holocaust the largest mass slaughter. At least 20 million human souls perished at the hands of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin between 1917 and 1953.
In the wake of the Holocaust, Western society was gripped with the question “what could drive normal people to such evil?” That concern prompted the famous Milgram experiments of the early 1960’s. In the initial experiment, 65% of participants willingly inflicted a fatal electric shock (fake, but they didn’t know) on a pretend “student” when instructed to do so by a man in a white coat. Shocking, indeed.
If you seek comfort in the belief that violence is mostly caused by radical ideologies or authoritarian regimes, forget it. Between 2001 and 2016, more Americans were killed in Chicago than the Middle East. Anthropologists have come to accept that murder has been a common cause of death throughout history and even prehistory. If anything, it has declined with more powerful states.
Psychologist David Buss of the University of Texas at Austin reported in 2005 – based on a survey of over 5000 people – that 91% of men and 84% of women have entertained at least one fantasy of committing murder. That most haven’t followed through has more to do with our personal comfort and fear of consequences than the strength of our character.
Of course, murder is merely the most dramatic manifestation of “rot”. Lesser manifestations – greed, deceit, infidelity, lust – permeate all of human society. All of history, science, reason, and experience lead to the inevitable conclusion that deep within every human spirit lies an inclination toward evil.
Few could have spoken with greater authority – or greater eloquence – than Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, survivor of the Soviet Gulag, who wrote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” For two thousand years this principle has been known by a particular name. The theologically inclined may still recognize it as the doctrine of original sin.
This reality lead 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbs to argue for strong authoritarian central governments to keep the darker human impulses in check. Others saw a different path – if the population was religiously observant. (The founder of modern political science, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote“Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”)
A century ago the London Times inquired“What’s wrong with the world today?” Noted Catholic writer and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton responded:
Yours, G. K. Chesterton.”