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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D
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Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession
"

 

 

 

A PECULIAR PEOPLE

February 11, 1979
 


In late December, 1978, I wrote a letter to a philosophy professor in the east, during the course of which I remarked: "I fear that you will find (Utah) to be something of a moral backwater.  The prevailing sentiments are strongly anti-feminist, anti-abortion, politically reactionary and racist.  There is a great deal of concern about personal 'sin' and a profound indifference toward social and institutional evil." This was an off-hand comment in a letter that was devoted to other matters.  Thus I believed that this would be the end of it.  Not so.  That correspondence found its way to the desk of a professor in Utah, who promptly sent me a letter (with a copy to my philosopher-friend) expressing "disappointment" in my view of Utah as a "moral backwater." Indeed, he protested, he "couldn't disagree with you more!"

The following is my reply to the local professor, with all identifying references edited out.

Ernest Partridge
Ogden, Utah
April 11, 1979



Concerning my charge that "Utah is racist" (I prefer my original, qualified, formulation: "the prevailing sentiments are .  .racist .  .  [etc.], I will let it suffice to have you talk with some people I know at the local NAACP office, the Black Students Union, or the University Law School.  I will concede that if the local culture is more than a bit racist, I seem not to notice it directly and personally -- that is to say, I haven't been racially discriminated against -- so maybe I shouldn't be concerned.  But somehow I am.  Concerning my charge of "political reaction," I refer you to local public opinion polls, the ACLU (if you can find any members here!), the voting records in Congress, the docket at the Utah Legislature, and (again) the Law School.  About "anti-feminism," I assure you that my wife could bend your ear a bit.  But maybe a reading of Marilyn Warenski's book Patriarchs and Politics will suffice.

While I do not wish to trade statistics with you, I might at least offer a correction.  Utah's homicide rate is not low -- actually, it ranks thirteenth among the states.  As the enclosed Utah Holiday article will indicate, the statistics are a mixed bag.  Selectively used, they are supportive of all sides of the "quality of life" debate.  For instance, Utah is low in abortion and illegitimacy rates (hooray!).   But Utah has its own way of treating these problems.  Thus, "about 60 percent of all teenage births in Utah are conceived pre-maritally." (UH, p.  18).  With such an abundance of shotguns in the wedding parties, it is perhaps not surprising that the duration of marriage in Utah (4.9 years) is the fourth lowest in the nation.  But now I am moving toward that point-by-point rebuttal that I had hoped to avoid.  Instead, I would rather place my major attention on two points on the first page of your letter.  Other remarks in your note, eminently suitable for comment and refutation, will be reluctantly bypassed.

Let us turn first to this matter of abortion.  It is most instructive of the sort of thing that I have in mind.  To begin, let me report that I have never met or read from anyone who is, strictly speaking, "pro abortion" -- not Garrett Hardin, not Judith Thompson, not even Michael Tooley, and, I assure you, not me.  No one I know of thinks that abortion is, prima facie a nice thing -- thinks, that is that the world would not be a better place if, all other things equal, there were no abortions.  But all other things are manifestly not "equal," and in this morally imperfect world, the price of attempting to abolish all abortions may simply be exorbitant -- morally exorbitant.  Indeed, the price of certain steps to reduce abortions may be too high (while other steps to reduce their number, e.g.  contraception and sex education, might be quite acceptable).  You see, some "anti abortionists" (e.g.  myself) believe that while abortion is "bad," there are worse things than abortion; such things as forced marriages, etc.  The whole question is enormously complex and subtle, as you well know.  My complaint is this: precious few so-called "right to life" advocates "know this very well." I grieve for the aborted fetuses (not "persons," not "children," not "babies," but fetuses"), but I grieve still more for the "abortion" of language, moral circumspection, and simple common sense that has attended this "debate."

As a youngster I was taught, and believed, that morality consists in the triumph of good (or "virtue") over evil.  I have since learned that it is much more than this.  Perhaps the more significant arenas of moral conflict and choice are between, not good and evil, but "good" and "better," or among a selection of evils of which at least one must be endured.  In other words, some of our most agonizing moral decisions involve options which, of necessity, require us to sacrifice some "goods" in favor of higher moral payoffs, and which force us to accept at least one of a menu of options, any and all of which might have regrettable consequences.  In such cases (possibly most cases of moral choice) what is required is sobriety, intelligence, an available fund of practical (i.e., "worldly") knowledge, in addition to a kit of applicable moral principles and concepts.  Unfortunately, into this world of moral complexity and compromise, a world where wise men tread with care and sobriety, the fools rush in.  And God only knows what damage has been done by well-intentioned, highly motivated, moral simpletons! Faithful to their few (or single) maxims, maxims bestowed on them by their "inspired leaders" they "do what is right and let the consequences follow." Believing "virtue" to be the "triumph of good over evil" they are content to identify an evil on one side or another of a social issue, and that nicely and neatly settles the issue.  For example: "Martin Luther King? We can't support him, he's a lawbreaker!" Or "Oppose the Viet Nam War? Why, that's treason!" Or, "environmental protection? But that's Socialism!" Or "ERA? But they are for abortion!" Or, "Abortion? Never! There is no excuse whatever for killing babies!" Thus are the evils of racial discrimination, foreign aggression, pollution and disease, sex discrimination, and illegitimacy and child abuse perpetuated.  These evils, and many more, are tolerated and perpetuated through willful ignorance coupled with moral fervor and the "best" of intentions.  And add to all this a rhetoric of moral indignation and incitement that is utterly heedless of the facts, logic, complexities and particularities of the cases.  (See my 2003 essay, The Paradoxical "Right to Life."  EP)

As an example of such irresponsible rhetoric, consider once again the abortion case (albeit capital punishment, gun control, and a number of other issues could serve quite as well).  Surely, as a student of moral philosophy you are well aware that the concept of a "person" entails, minimally: (a) consciousness of oneself as a continuing intentional being, (b) deliberative rationality, and (c) an ability to act on principle (or "second order volitions," as Harry Frankfort calls them).1  Because of these capacities, persons have rights, dignity, assume duties, and are due moral solicitude.  Should I encounter a cockroach that displays these capacities, I shall conclude that he (it?) is a "person" (but I doubt that I shall).  Should I encounter a fetus that has these qualities, I shall agree that it is a "person," and my moral posture concerning abortion will be radically revised.  But I doubt that I shall ever encounter a pre-natal person because I have found no infants that have such qualities.  Now don't get me wrong.  There are many good reasons to preserve the lives of fetuses, and much better reasons to cherish the lives of infants.  But present and actual "personhood" is not one of those reasons.  Yet there is now before the various state legislatures a constitutional amendment which, if added to the Constitution, will stipulate that, by law, the fetus is a human "person," due all the protection accorded adult citizens.  (I believe that Utah has enthusiastically ratified this amendment).  But let all the fifty states ratify this amendment and I assure you that not one fetus will gain one iota of deliberative rationality as a result.  (We might as well pass an amendment abolishing cancer).  And this is only a sample of the unthinking emotion, the conceptual folly, the moral myopia, that attends this so-called "debate." Show me a community that responds to the word "abortion" with cries of "murdered babies," with no thought as to the enormous human cost of categorical legal prohibition, and no active concern about diminishing the demand for abortion through sex education and available contraception, and I will show you a community that has a minuscule claim to moral sensitivity and sophistication.  Charles Frankel put it well: a man who is devoted to a single principle is not a moralist, he is a fanatic.  (A paraphrase -- I forgot the source).  The simplistic, uncritical, uncompromising, fervent attitude toward abortion that I find here does not, as you phrase it, "redound to Utah's good judgment." Rather, it testifies to a response that I will not hesitate to call "fanatical."

Again, I have chosen above to examine the local attitude toward abortion, not so much to dispute the content of these attitudes as to examine the manner of moral thinking (or lack of thinking) that these attitudes display.  I could have done as much with local attitudes toward civil liberties, economic justice, capital punishment, gun control, etc.  However, since you seemed especially interested in the abortion issue, I chose to examine that issue as an exemplar of the local level of moral thinking.  Having done so, I should like now to reflect more directly upon this question of the quality of moral judgment evident in the local community.

In your letter you write: "It is true, of course, that Utah is opposed to the ERA amendment.  What I think has happened here is that the amendment has become confused with issues like abortion, lesbianism and feminist talk about renouncing marriage and men." Here you testify eloquently in my behalf.  Why has the amendment become thus "confused?"  Because, I contend, we reside in a community that it prone to such confusion -- a community of individuals ill-prepared and disinclined to think clearly, consistently, coherently, inclusively, and autonomously about moral issues.  And here we arrive at my central point of dissatisfaction with the prevailing approach in Utah to moral questions: less the content of the local moral principles and less the balance thereof (albeit my complaints concerning these aspects of the local ethos are now manifest), but more the manner of moral judgment, or better, the level of moral development that is evident here.  As I read John Wilson, John Rawls and Lawrence Kohlberg, and then contemplate my neighbors and students and their moral deliberations (as manifest in "talk shows," letters to the editors, the Utah Poll, the state legislature, and, of course, in my classrooms), or the moral pronouncements of their moral and religious leaders, quite frankly, I blush.  Here we find what Rawls would call a "morality of authority" and a "morality of association" rarely rising to the high level of a "morality of principles" (see A Theory of Justice, Chapter VIII).  As I contemplate the evidence of local moral sophistication and development, I am hard-pressed to place it above level IV of Kohlberg's scale (i.e., "law and order" and "obedience to authority").  Even worse, the high stages ("post-conventional" autonomy, rationality, and obedience to abstract principles) are highly suspect in the local culture, and those who march to these moral drummers are outcast (they don't conform).

These are grave charges.  Let me attempt a defense thereof.  Consider Rawl's hierarchy (close enough to Kohlberg's so as not to require separate application).  Now apply it to Watergate.  A morality of authority mandates allegiance to the man (Nixon) or perhaps the "office" of the presidency.  A morality of association calls for loyalty to the party or to "the president's team." A morality of principle requires adherence to the Constitution and "the rule of law" (i.e., to the courts and to Congress).  Interesting applications can likewise be made to other social issues.

Now what were the great social and moral issues of the past decade?  Did they concern beds and bottles?  I think not.2 Instead, these issues come immediately to mind: racial injustice, war and peace, political corruption ("Watergate"), poverty and economic injustice, environmental deterioration.  When the Kings, Spocks, Coffins, Ellsbergs, Siricas, Jowarskis, Naders and Commoners, etc., spoke and acted against these manifest social evils, where, among these leaders, or even among their cadres, were the Utahns or the Mormons?  I will grant that they were not totally absent.  (Jack Anderson and Wayne Owens come to mind -- and whatever became of Wayne Owens?).   I do maintain that their numbers and voices were disproportionately small.  How small?  How many Utahns rode in the "freedom rides" and helped to integrate the lunch counters?  How many protested against the Viet Nam War? Conversely, how many maintained, to the bitter end, their allegiance to Mr. Nixon as he resolutely defied the "divinely inspired" Constitution, and dishonored his oath to uphold same.  How many Utahns today really care about preserving the incomparable splendor of Utah's natural environment for the enjoyment of their super-abundant posterity?  (Hint: only one out of ten Utahns who wrote to the Department of Agriculture regarding the RARE II survey, wrote in defense of wilderness in Utah).  The record, I submit, gives me little inclination to place "prevailing Utah attitudes" in the "moral mainstream."

Very well, if the talented, educated and dedicated Utahns are (or were) not proportionately represented in the freedom rides, the Peace Corps, Vista, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and so forth, then where are they?  They are in the FBI, the CIA, ITT, the Howard Hughes organization and other such places and institutions that prize unquestioning loyalty and obedience, unfettered by abstract moral scruples or rendered undependable by an unrelinquished moral autonomy.

I believe that I can claim some relevant personal perspective on these matters.  I was born and raised in the LDS Church and began my college education at Brigham Young University.  A great-great-grandfather, Edward Partridge, was the first bishop of the Mormon Church, and he died in Missouri before his fortieth year, his health broken in his steadfast defense of his church.  Another forbearer, William Clayton, stood at the side of Brigham Young at Emigration Canyon, that summer of 1847.  And there were many others.  In short I have an insider's view.  But I have another view as well.  I was brought up in New York and New Jersey and have lived in Florida, New York City and Wisconsin.  Because I have found my native creed to be scientifically, intellectually and morally inadequate, I have chosen to disassociate myself (though my name is still "on the books").  Thus I am, by choice, an "outsider." But I maintain a continuing interest in the attitudes and mores of the Utahns and the Mormons.  I have lived intermittently in Utah for over thirteen years, seven as a student, four as a philosophy teacher, and additionally as a radio "communicaster" and performing musician.  Thus I believe I am a moderately competent judge of local attitudes.  It happens that I do not find the people here to be more "neighborly" or "cooperative" than, say in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  But then, when my wife and I returned to Utah we did not successfully pass the first test when we were asked (almost inevitably and early-on) "Are you a member of THE CHURCH?"  (Such a question never arose in Wisconsin).  We are cordial and cheerful with our "home teachers," though we avoid discussing our beliefs with them and routinely but politely decline their invitations to "come to church sometime." We do have some close and enduring friendships here, but find that we have to search them out.  In short, I can well understand your contentment and pleasure with the "neighborliness" of the Utahns.  But then, you are on the inside.  You don't quite see it our way.  We are not, in the sense deemed most important here, really "neighbors."

I could go on -- and on.  But you have before you a sketch at least of what I mean when I say the Utah is "something" (note, please, the qualifier) "of a moral backwater." I did not say, nor do I believe, that Utahns and Mormons are without many morally redeeming features.  The "great deal of concern about personal "sin", of which I wrote, has many positive consequences.  For example, I like to jog a mile or so each night at about ten PM and sometimes later.  I would not do this in the back streets of Manhattan, where I lived for several years.  The "profound emphasis on the family" is a marvelous feature of the local culture, albeit, like any virtue, it can become a vice in excess (cf.  the Emmanuel David family and the John Singer family).  And while I applaud the emphasis on the quality of family life, I have deep misgivings about the emphasis on the quantity thereof -- and the attendant indifference to the serious problem of overpopulation.  But now I am beginning to carp again.  Suffice it to say that if I were to become snowbound on an automobile trip, I could think of few safer and more hospitable places than in the middle of a small town in Mormon Country -- provided, that is, I didn't have a Sierra Club decal in the window.  (I don't and we are members.  We took the decal off after some friends had their car windows smashed while on a backpacking trip in Southern Utah).

I love this state.  I only wish that most of the inhabitants thereof deserved it.  (They deserve, say, North Dakota instead).  I admire the moral virtues of many of my neighbors and students, but I cannot admire their moral callousness.  It is all such a waste! Such a high level of formal education, such native intelligence, such industry!  But to what ends?  Many of my students will become lawyers, but how many will go on to work for Ralph Nader, the ACLU or the Sierra Club?  Many will become physicians, but how many will serve the developing nations, or even in the rural United States (outside of Utah)? Some will earn MBA's but then they will go on to Exxon or GM, rather than joining government service to help devise ways of making the bureaucracy more manageable and more responsive to social needs.  They are so damned comfortable!  No need to write great novels or essays, or to create lasting works or art (but fine performing artists -- that obedience to discipline and authority again!).  No call for new philosophies, just apologetics.  ("When the prophet has spoken, brethren, the thinking has been done!")  Some will become teachers, but our School of Education refuses to list courses in the Philosophy and Sociology of Education, so they will continue to fall victim to educational hucksters and to the latest educational fads.  Habits of critical thought are suspect, as is an acquaintance with the works and ideas of the great philosophers.  Thus it is that our College of over eight thousand students cannot sustain even three full-time philosophy teachers.  What a damnable waste! Hundreds of thousands of industrious, resourceful and dedicated souls, "dedicated," first and foremost, to producing ever more of the same, through proselytization and procreation, and so engrossed in the pursuit of their individual salvation, and the salvation of their ancestors, that they will not devote their considerable talents to the service of a world and a species the salvation of which is desperately uncertain.

A deplorable waste!  A community of voluntary dropouts from the profound and prevailing moral issues of our age.  "A moral backwater!" I do not repent of that phrase. 

If you wish to "discuss these matters further" with me, go ahead.  But I confess that I haven't much taste for such a discussion.  I have spent too much time on your letter already (much more than I intended), and quite frankly I mustn't devote additional time and energy in argument and outrage against local cultural idiosyncrasies.  To do so would be to narrow my concerns and thus to commit the very offense that I have complained of in the previous paragraphs.  No, my task now, and for the foreseeable future, is to formulate and articulate a principle of moral duty to future generations (a duty ill-served locally), and, additionally, a coherent code of environmental ethics.  There is nothing that I can do to improve the lot of my ancestors -- least of all, collect their names for microfilming and subsequent re-internment.  I will leave the dead to the Almighty, secure in the conviction that He does not require my assistance.  On the other hand, the future remains very much our responsibility.  "We cannot escape history" -- our moral responsibilities to our successors on this despoiled and endangered planet. 


Ernest Partridge
 


1    "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person," Journal of Philosophy, 1/14/71.  (See also Mary Ann Warren, "One the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion," The Monist, January, 1973).  This analysis is considerably extended in Chapter 12, How is Morality Possible?, of my book in progress, Conscience of a Progressive, this site.

2 Occasionally I must point out to my Weber State philosophy students that when Plato and Aristotle and others write about "virtue," they just might mean something besides "chastity".

 


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .