Some Things Are Worse Than Other Things: the Philosophy of False Equivalence

Imagine, if you will, six scenarios:

  • A Nazi punches a man walking down the street because he is a Jew; a Jew punches a man walking down the street because he is a Nazi.
  • A woman says to another “You’re the problem with America. Get out of this country, fucking bitch” because she is Hispanic; a woman says to another “You’re the problem with America. Get out of this country, fucking bitch” because she is unabashedly racist.
  • A restaurant owner refuses to serve a man because he is gay; a restaurant owner refuses to serve a man because he despises gay people.

The mind’s first temptation may be to construct creative contexts, but there are no ambiguities here. The Nazi is not just an ultraconservative; he believes in Nazism and wears the swastika. The Hispanic woman is a citizen born in Idaho and the racist woman knows it; the racist woman is not merely concerned with how unfair illegal entry is to those waiting their turn or that illegal immigrants are “stealing jobs,” but rather she does not like Hispanics — living in the same neighborhood as they, working with them, hearing Spanish, and so forth. The first restaurant owner and the second man denied service both go way beyond trust in biblical teachings about how homosexuality is an abominable sin — it disgusts them beyond words, they believe it should be a crime as it once was, they don’t value the life of a gay person equal to that of “normal” straight person. These being hypothetical scenarios of my own creation, there are no excuses nor saving grace available.

The question explored here isn’t which of these things are wrong and which are right. People have different ideas concerning when violence, extreme disrespect, or denial of service is acceptable, if ever. Sorting through all that, making a case one way or another, is not the point. Let’s proceed from the standpoint that all of these things are morally wrong. That is, after all, the typical premise of someone presenting a moral equivalence relevant to this discussion. The premise is: a racist attack is morally wrong and an attack against a racist is morally wrong. The moral equivalence is: an attack against a racist is as morally wrong as a racist attack.

Is it?

Are the scenarios above and their inverses truly equal in their “wrongness”? Or can two things be wrong, but one slightly less wrong?

Today, this debate arises constantly. We have open Nazis walking around the mall and white supremacists attacking or murdering people of color, unhinged riders unleashing racist rants on the bus, with medical institutions refusing to treat LGBT Americans and pastors wishing more gay people had died in the Orlando massacre. We also have Antifa and others sucker-punching Nazis and advocating we “Kill Nazis,” a gunman killing Republicans, business owners kicking out Trump supporters — and people attacking them physically or verbally. Opposing protesters brawl in the streets.

To reiterate, all of these things could be called morally wrong. After all, they do harm to others. But here we need to add an important point: to say a scenario is more morally wrong than its inverse is not to advocate for either. To conclude, for instance, that denying service to a bigot is less morally egregious than denying service to a gay person isn’t to automatically or necessarily advocate for denying service to bigots. One can still oppose both because he or she has determined they are both on the spectrum of immorality, even if at different points. Likewise, to say that some things are worse than other things, to believe a scenario worse than its inverse, is not to say this is always true for any other scenario and its inverse. As we will see, where motives are more equal the immorality of actions are more equal.

Turning back to our hypothetical situations and whether they involve false equivalences, we first have to agree upon the principle that some actions can indeed be morally worse than others — that a spectrum of morality makes sense. This shouldn’t even have to be argued, but there may be some religious fundamentalists or others who posit all “sin” is equally wrong. So lying about your age is just as wrong as rape. This sort of black-and-white thinking isn’t something most people, including people of faith, take seriously, so we won’t spend much time on it. (And we’ve already seen how morality is opinion-based even if God exists; see Where Does Morality Come From?The Philosophy of MoralityYes, Liberals and Atheists Believe in Absolute TruthIs Relative Morality More Dangerous Than Objective Morality?) Most people would conclude stealing money from a man’s wallet is not as wrong as killing him, and so forth. So some wrongs are more wrong than other wrongs.

Then we need to recognize that the same action, doing the same harm, can be less wrong — even morally right — if done for certain reasons. Ethics are situational. Motives matter. Again, most everyone accepts this. Take an action like killing. Killing a man because you want his wife or because he looked at you the wrong way is a bit different than killing in self-defense or in war. Those last two situations are often regarded as morally right, though there’s plenty of debate about it. That doesn’t matter — what matters is that the underlying principle is agreed upon: the same act will have a different moral status depending on why someone does it. A spectrum is easy enough to envision. Perhaps killing someone in self-defense is less wrong than killing someone in war, which is perhaps less wrong than killing someone because he or she used the “white” restroom, etc. Use your imagination.

If motives matter regarding the morality of some actions, might they for others?

The actions of our scenarios are the same, but the motives are not — which may alter the morality of the action.

Think of the possible motives, the driving forces, of the Nazi, the racist woman, the bigoted owner. What comes to mind? Conspiracy theories about the inferior Jews ruling and ruining the nation, discomfort with a country growing less white, preferring gays scared back into the closet — out of sight, out of mind. Whatever you envision, it likely isn’t good. It isn’t something you find morally right. And what of the possible motives of the Jew, the Hispanic woman, the gay man? Opposition to Nazi ideology, racism, and discrimination come to mind. These are likely stances you agree with and find morally right, even if you don’t approve of the action that followed.

How is it, then, that anyone can say these scenarios and their inverses are equally immoral? How are two identical actions equally wrong despite one having more moral motives and the other more immoral motives? This is like saying that killing in self-defense is just as bad as killing someone for looking at you the wrong way. It is saying that motives do not matter.

But most people believe they do. Why the double standard? Does it involve the severity of the action? Why do motives affect the morality of a more serious action like killing but not a less serious one like a punch, name-call, or refusal to serve? There is no logical reason that I can see. Lying is a less serious action, but we all understand that lying about someone raping you would be worse than lying about how late you were past curfew.

Again, there may be situations where X is as equally wrong as Y, but it seems like that would require motives that are more equally wrong. Lying to your spouse about losing the dog is roughly as wrong as lying to your spouse about spending vacation money on a new television. Killing over jealousy is about as wrong as killing over insults. But the motives of our situational pairs are much farther apart, polar opposites in fact. (One may insist they are the same because each attacker wants to exert power over the other, put him in his place, seize control, do what’s best for herself, express hate, intimidate, hurt, and so on, but that only takes one temporary step backward. Why are they doing those things? What are the motives behind those motives? Can all hatred be equally wrong — say, racist hatred versus hatred of a racist — if the motives are ethical polar opposites? Aren’t the motives morally different, even if you frown upon where they lead? Of course they are, as we saw above.)

(Now, folks will disagree over what motives are moral, but for each person there will always be an array of motives that include some more moral and some less. If you’re a Nazi sympathizer, you’ll think racist motives more right and opposition motives more wrong, and apply the same to the actions — but no one in his or her right mind can hold both racism and anti-racism as equally moral or immoral! Therefore the logical argument in this piece, finalized below, applies to everyone who accepts the premises with which we began, that not all sins are equally wrong and that the same action can have a different moral flavor dependent upon motives.)

Is the double standard topic-based? If our near-universal way of thinking about ethics involves an action having a changed moral character following a changed motive, there has to be some kind of justification for not applying this to matters of bigotry. I cannot think of any such justification. What possible reason could there be to exclude this topic, to create a new, special standard that doesn’t apply to anything else? None exists. (Imagine excluding matters of war — what could possibly justify doing that?) A racist attack therefore must be morally worse than an attack against a racist. (Or, if you’re a racist or one of their sympathizers with different views on the motives, as discussed above, it must be morally better! They cannot be equal.) Some may say it’s radically worse, others just slightly, but based on our premise of ethics it must be worse (or better, for you Nazis) to some degree — it’s a logical necessity. If they were equally wrong, we’d have to throw motives out the window, and there would be no reason to stop at matters of bigotry (just as there’s no reason to exclude it). Self-defense would be just as wrong as cold-blooded murder based on that new premise. Lying to save an innocent life would be just as wrong as lying to end one. And so on. With no justification existing to exclude actions related to a certain topic, one must hold all actions to the same standard — either motives matter or they do not. (Same for hatred and so forth.) Again, that’s what’s logically sound for each person regardless of his or her unique views on what’s ethical: you can’t logically think two identical actions equally wrong if you also think one motive is more moral than the other (which you will if in your right mind). If you think motives matter for other moral questions, that’s simply what makes logical sense.

If it’s still difficult to see our scenarios as false equivalences, it may help to consider others, perhaps from other time periods, where gaps between “wrongness” seem bigger, more obvious. The way humans observe history is always less morally confused than the way we observe the present. Hindsight and all. Note these also could unwisely be labeled identical attempts to exert power over someone, hurt someone, lash out in hate, and so on:

  • Would a slave killing his master be as wrong as a master killing his slave? Isn’t one about liberation, the other subjugation?
  • Would a rich woman stealing from a poor woman be just as wrong as the reverse? Might one motive be greed, the other need?
  • Were the Allies just as wrong to invade France in 1944 as Germany was a few years earlier? Is there any side in any war less wrong than another?

Motives matter, always. That is why some things are worse than other things.

As a last word, while I don’t believe this fact affects the logic, it’s important to note that in our scenarios, and real-world ones that spark the equivalence debate, attacks against bigotry are a reaction to bigotry. Bigotry comes first; the only “reaction” it entails is one against who people are: their ethnicity, sexuality, gender, etc. Reduce bigotry and there will be fewer reactions; but reduce reactions and bigotry will crush people per usual. Again, this isn’t to necessarily advocate for violent or hurtful reactions. It’s simply to recognize the worse problem, the root problem — and focus our energies on obliterating it in ways ethically acceptable to each of us personally.