Leiter on the Morally Reprehensible

Injustice is not primarily a property of systems, but a property of judgments and other actions. I think it is safe to say that willful injustice is morally reprehensible. And so Brian Leiter’s ridiculous package-dealing smear against “conservatives,” asserting that they invariably defend the morally reprehensible, is itself morally reprehensible.

In a baffling attempt to morally discredit conservatives who would praise the life and courage of Rosa Parks, a praiseworthy person if ever there was one, Leiter writes:

It is perhaps worth remembering that the “conservatives” of each prior era in America in the last century were, without an exception I can recall, on the morally reprehensible side of every major social and economic issue: the “conservatives” opposed the New Deal, opposed social security, supported segregation, opposed civil rights laws, and on and on.

This is simply ignorant, dishonest, and ugly. Leiter is attempting to persuasively define “conservative” as “morally reprehensible” where the criterion for inclusion in the category of “morally reprehensible” seems to be something like “whatever Brian Leiter vehemently disapproves of.” I’m eager to see Leiter’s defense of the theory of egocentric nominalism.

Opposing the aggrandizement of the coercive political class, and the trashing of republican ideals of self-government, through the New Deal is hardly equivalent to defending the state-sanctioned apartheid of Jim Crow. Indeed, they’re not even in the same conceptual universe. Further, as Will Baude mentions, opposition to state communism, an ideology that led to the murder of tens of millions of innocent human beings, was de rigueur among conservatives, as well as among humane, clear-headed liberals. Need it be pointed out that this was not the morally resprehensible side? Indeed, much of the recent history of the left involves the attempt to whitewash much of the left’s deep complicity in the crimes of totalitarian socialist regimes. Anyway, if the struggle against worldwide totalitarian socialism is not a “major social and economic issue” than nothing is. So there is Leiter’s neglected “exception.”

Additionally, I invite Brian Leiter to read and criticize my Cato paper arguing that Social Security, as set up by FDR and as currently constituted, violates core liberal requirements of moral and political legitimacy. I argue that opposition to the Social Security status quo is mandatory for liberals in the Rawlsian and deliberative democratic vein. So, where did I go wrong, and slip over to the morally reprehensible side? Now, having staked out the position that opposition to Social Security as we know it is somehow beyond the pale, like Jim Crow, one can hardly expect Leiter to honestly and openly debate the matter as if the conclusion has not been pre-certified. Though he has taught us to expect the worst, we can always hope for the best from Leiter.

But, really, what could motivate a sectarian attack on the intellectual and moral integrity of someone like LaShawn Barber, a conservative black woman (mentioned in the post Leiter approvingly quotes) who surely fully and genuinely understands the importance of the life of Rosa Parks? Does Leiter suppose that if he allows himself to approach conservatives as fully fledged moral beings, with sound moral emotions (such as gratitude and respect toward Parks), then he would have to recognize that other “conservative” positions (i.e., positions, Leiter dislikes) may not be fliply dismissed as the result of a retarded or distorted moral sensibility?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center