The extreme importance now given to opinion (by contrast with conduct) in the estimation of a person’s character has certain consequences. This is not to say that in the past a person’s opinions played no part in such an assessment, and no doubt there are some opinions so extreme or vicious, for example that some whole population should be mercilessly wiped out, that in any day and age one would hesitate to associate with someone who held them. But before, even when someone held an opinion that we considered very bad, we still also assessed the degree of seriousness with which he held it, the degree to which it was purely theoretical, the importance it played in his overall mental life. The holding of such an opinion would not redound to his credit, but if lightly held and with no likely effect on his actual behavior, it would detract only slightly from our view of him. He might still be a good man, albeit one with a quirk, a mental blind spot.
If we take as an example the question of capital punishment, it should be possible for people to disagree without concluding that those who take a different view from their own are morally deficient or defective. I am against the penalty on the grounds that even in the most scrupulous jurisdictions mistakes are made, and that for the state wrongly to execute one of its citizens is a heinous thing, moreover one which will bring the whole criminal justice system into disrepute. If it is argued that the state’s unwillingness occasionally to execute wrongfully will lead to more wrongful deaths by murder than would otherwise have occurred, I would reply that this is a price that must be paid (though I concede that there might in theory be a price too high to be paid, though I think this is unlikely in practice ever to eventuate). A person who declared himself in favor of summary execution without trial of all those with whom he disagreed or otherwise reprehended would probably be regarded as mad rather than bad, at least outside the purlieus of the Taliban.
The extreme importance now given to opinion (by contrast with conduct) in the estimation of a person’s character has certain consequences.
If someone were either for or against the penalty on more deontological grounds, that it was either just or barbaric in itself, I would recognize these as sensible arguments without necessarily subscribing to either, and without giving to them the weight that those who subscribe to them give them. Thus, it should be possible for us to have a discussion on the question, disagreeing but without casting aspersions on each other’s character. It seems to me, however (though I have no strict scientific evidence to prove it) that such reasonable discussions have become less and less frequent, precisely because opinion and not conduct has become the touchstone of virtue.
This naturally raises the temperature of any discussion and inclines participants to bad temper. But there are other consequences too.
For one thing, the elevation of the moral importance of opinion changes the locus of a person’s moral concern from that over which he has most control, namely how he behaves himself, to that over which he has almost no personal control. He becomes a Mrs. Jellyby who, it will be remembered, was extremely concerned about the fate of children thousands of miles away in Africa but completely neglected her own children right under her own eyes, in her house in London.
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