In the comments on a recent thread, Russell suggested that he could be morally culpable because at the time of the invasion of Iraq, he believed that the United States was justified in doing so. He now thinks otherwise. He suggests that his previous beliefs may well have made him complicit in some moral evil. To put words in Russell’s mouth (one of my favorite pass times), he thinks that he was sinning a couple of months ago because of what he was thinking. It is an interesting question.
People, as Jim observed, tend to get really worked up about politics. Many people believe that their political convictions are very important. They think that one’s stance on this or that issue is of deep moral concern. Some believe, as Russell obliquely suggests, that one can sin in one’s political beliefs. I want to suggest that this is more than a little odd.
Despite what we were told in civics class, we don’t have very much power and our vote has very little impact on the outcome of anything. Even in razor tight elections such as that in Florida in 2000, the margin is still in the quadruple digit range. We did recently have a primary in a local sherriff’s election here in Arkansas (where the counties are roughly the size of large yards in Sandy, Utah) in which the outcome turned on a single vote. This situation, however, is so vanishingly rare that I don’t think one should really base one’s understanding of the importance of voting. Also, people tend to think that local sheriff’s elections are less morally important than national elections, not more. Hence, the importance of one’s political convictions cannot be based on the impact of one’s vote. The same can be said of our political arguments. Articulate as he is, I doubt that Russell’s opinions reached and persuaded enough people to have any appreciable impact on events or outcomes.
Hence, I would suggest that with a few rare exceptions, the moral importance of our political views cannot be founded on the real world impact of those views. A better line of reasoning is to suggest that political views are somehow constitutive. They define who we are in some morally significant way. Certainly, their is much in Christ’s ethical teachings that suggests the primacy of motive and intention over efficacy and impact. (Think the story of the Widow’s Mite.) In other words, there may be something about political beliefs that changes the soul in significant ways. One interesting implication of this approach, however, is that the general sorts of moral arguments that we employ about politics — e.g. it is moral to go to war to liberate oppressed nations — is not what accounts for the moral significance of our political beliefs. Hence, Russell’s immorality in holding his earlier pro-war beliefs flows not from the war itself and its consequences, but rather from the impact of the beliefs on Russell himself. For example, his soul may have been twisted by the Wilsonian thirst for blood. This is quite different than his stated reason for moral culpability, which is that the real world implimentation of the war in Iraq is the basis on which it should be judged and that by that criteria the war is immoral, even if Wilsonian wars are not in themselves immoral. Indeed, Russell’s moral concern seems to flow from a kind of born-again global consequentialism. Yet this is the least plausible basis for the importance of Russell’s personal beliefs.
Finally, I suppose that there is some lingering force in the idea of orthodoxy. By orthodoxy, I mean “right beliefs.” In other words, perhaps there is a special class of mental sins. We are immoral for holding particular political beliefs precisely because the beliefs themselves are mistaken. However, I take it that we are mistaken about any number of things. Do those false beliefs also constitute some mental immorality for which we should repent?
Just to be clear: I am not advocating political apathy per se, although I am skeptical that political activism is particularlly virtuous. Nor am I suggesting that political issues in and of themselves do not present important moral questions. The question of whether this or that war is sinful or not is clearly of great inherent moral importance. What I am puzzled by is the notion that our beliefs about these moral questions are of great moral importance.
I have had any number of shifting opinions and thoughts about the war in Iraq. It is a moral puzzle that concerns me, and which I think is important. However, in my mind it is the puzzle itself that is important. I am not convinced that my beliefs themselves are particularlly important at all, either for the world or for my soul. Of course I could be wrong. If I am sinning here, by all means, please call me to repentence.