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Morality and Spitzer

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Morality and Spitzer

The governor’s fall is not an argument for de-moralizing social policy. March 14, 2008

Elizabeth Pisani, an epidemiologist and blogger (at The Wisdom of Whores), has just published an article in the Guardian entitled “Spitzer’s true folly: A governor who pays for sex should know to mould social policies on reality, not morality.”

Noting that the departing New York governor had championed a tough anti-prostitution law, Pisani writes that “the collective gloating [over his embarrassment] obscures an important truth: policies based on morality, not reality, don’t work.” Further on, she claims: “Morality, which is hard to define let alone to measure, is not a good basis for public policy. Science is a good basis for public policy.” And finally, she informs us that “morality demonstrably collapses in the face of reality.”

That certainly puts paid to morality, at least as far as Pisani is concerned. She appears to be arguing that, henceforth, we needn’t bother ourselves any further about moral problems, and should just charge ahead with scientifically consecrated political leadership. The author’s scientistic desire to do away with questions of ends, and concern herself only with means, is of course an old one. She presents herself as a latter-day version of Dickens’s Gradgrind, who insists that facts alone are all that is needed in life.

But, unfortunately, man is a creature so constituted that he cannot live in a world of facts alone: he has no choice but to live in a world of values as well. One cannot think about means without thinking about ends, as Pisani herself demonstrates when she argues that “if Spitzer wanted to dedicate some of his apparently endless stock of moral outrage to prostitution, he would have done better to crusade for health and safety regulations in the sex trade than for abolition.” Pisani’s moral judgments are different from Spitzer’s, but they are moral judgments nonetheless. She forgets the famous dictum of a man most revered in the world of science, Albert Einstein: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

It’s possible that Pisani’s confusion arises because of her rather poor command of the English language, and her inability or unwillingness to make proper verbal distinctions. By morality, what she actually means is puritanical moralizing, against which there are indeed many and powerful arguments. But puritanical moralizing is only one possible form of morality, and not even an important one. By mistaking puritanical moralizing for morality in its entirety, Pisani obscures the moral judgments that are the basis for her own opinions—and which, like all moral judgments, are disputable. Instead, she wants us to believe that they are scientific facts beyond question, such as that the earth goes around the sun. There is a totalitarian quality to her approach.

Spitzer’s true folly is not that he let morality mold the social policies he advocated; all social policies are molded by morality. But Pisani’s article illustrates—not intentionally—the wisdom of Confucius’s desire that above all, things should first be called by their proper names, and of his perception of the dangers that lurk when they are not.

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