I'm putting this under Current Events because it is highly pertinent to what is going on in American society right now.
Here are some common fallacies or errors I see people committing in assessing the right or wrong in various situations. This is not some theoretical philosophical discussion but I see them has having the potential to lead to real evil and disorder in society.1) That moral responsibility is a zero sum game.
There is a tendency to interpret the criticism of one aspect of a position or action or event as a corresponding support for or justification for the other side. We see this repeated over and over in the near universal criticism of Trump's statements on Charlottesville. I myself just got my feathers singed on FB in trying to make what some others deemed to be inappropriate moral distinctions. But God judged Adam and Eve and the serpent separately for their respective sins without assigning any one credit for the contribution of others, and so He will each of us.
People who rely on the zero sum concept for self-justification are less likely to examine themselves for wrong actions and attitudes and are more likely to judge others harshly.2) That passion is an index of virtue.
That your commitment to a value and therefore your virtue is measured by how vociferously and how intemperately you advocate for it. But I believe that moral reason is like a computer: it doesn't work properly over a certain temperature. In watching the storms of emotion rage through the body public today I am reminded of W.B. Yeats' words:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Movements which elevate passion in moral, religious or political questions are more likely to be complacent about extreme actions by their members and even though the majority may be otherwise reasonable people, the more extreme members tend to set the direction for the rest because they are assigned the moral high ground within the movement and are thus given the capacity to shame the more moderate members into following them or at least not opposing them. 3) A failure to balance values - the idea that one value should be supreme over others.
I think of justice and mercy as values which are conceptually opposed. Justice means to give to someone what is due them for their wrong actions. Mercy means to refrain from doing so. Yet both are necessary and the moral task of humanity under God is to balance the two. An exclusive focus on one over the other leads to objectively evil outcomes.
The same thing applies to human rights codes. A code contains a laundry list of rights and they are all listed co-equally, but there are various situations where different rights come into conflict. It is the job of courts to balance them in an equitable way. If the court were to privilege one right absolutely over another, the second right would be on its way to being nullified or marginalized.4) ...and that therefore the end justifies the means.
If one value or cause reigns supreme in the moral universe, then petty considerations of reason, truth, integrity, fairness, compassion or legality may be subordinated to that pursuit. Stalin or Lenin are variously reported to have said "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs". The irony in their case is that though millions of eggs were broken, the omelette never arrived.
The problem with this thinking occurs on several levels:
a) The supreme Good that is pursued in the case of a utopian or millenarian or morally perfectionistic movement never arrives. It is either unattainable or the movement moves on in pursuit of ever higher levels of purity. In the end the movement breaks down and its adherents find that they have committed real evil in exchange for an illusionary good.
b) It degrades the person morally. He may persuade himself that these tactics are necessary to achieve his Good, but in the end he becomes his tactics or he becomes what he habitually does.
c) It is immoral (I would say wicked) because the practitioner of these tactics in effect is penalizing his opponents for their virtues. The pushing aside of certain values may give the activist a momentary advantage over his opponents - but only because they are not doing the same themselves. So someone who is committed to telling only the truth is punished for that because no matter what the truth is, the liar can tell a better story.
d) Which leads to the moral degradation of society as those depreciated values go out the window on all sides. Some may think of this as a temporary price to pay on the way to victory, but a society which loses the values of truth, integrity, fairness, civility, social peace and tolerance will not quickly recover them. A generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia still struggles to recover the freedoms and rule of law which were denied to it by the Bolsheviks.5) Moral supremacism - the temptation to think that there is no wisdom or virtue or good faith on the other side of an issue.
Another word for it might be moral narcissism, only this is a narcissism which takes place on a collective level rather than just on an individual level.
This attitude makes its holders correction proof. It impedes their goals by creating unnecessary conflict and resistance to their ideas. Any movement which runs on this basis finds itself splitting into factions over time because its adherents will apply the same intolerance for dissent toward each other as they do toward people outside the movement.
I wrote in another post about "gratuitous hatred" which according to the Talmud was the cause for the destruction of the Jewish nation. The rabbis go on to say that this mutual hatred between Jews took the form of various faction disputing, then fighting, then hunting each others' members down over the question of who was the better Jew. Isn't this what is happening today? That Americans are starting look at each other with fear and loathing over the matter of who is the "better Jew". Or more accurately, who is the better white American.6) Language abuse to muddy the water. Strictly speaking these are not usually errors but deliberate strategy. But for those who are taken in by them it does lead to errors in moral reasoning.
One is the use of constructive language to describe values, so that terms like "love", "Justice" and "tolerance" are used with special ideologically constructed meanings which are different from, and in some cases opposed to their common everyday meaning. This is wrong because unless those special definitions are made explicit they are deceiving to ordinary folk. They are often used manipulatively to put opponents into a false position where because they oppose the specific application which is being advocated, they are portrayed as being against the value altogether.
Related to that is the use of baggage filled cant phrases to express a position without actually reasoning it out or fitting it to the circumstances. "Person of color" is one such. It immediately invokes a narrative of oppressor and oppressed which is intended to produce a certain reflexive response to any situation where it is applied.
Both of these practices are described in detail by George Orwell under the heading of "Newspeak". 7) Outsourcing moral reasoning to others.
The idea than a group as a whole has a truer moral instinct than any individual in it is based in part on the idea of the wisdom of crowds. However studies where this has been tested for quantifiable matters (the only way this theory can really be tested) have shown that the principle only works when people reach their own conclusions individually without referring to others. So I suggest that the path to collective moral wisdom always runs through each individual's own moral compass.
When people look to the group itself as the ultimate moral arbiter, then its "wisdom" becomes an artifact of the views of its more dominant or vocal members and the benefit of collective wisdom is lost. In some cases, a relatively small but cohesive and coordinated vocal faction can create an apparent consensus where there is none and lead the group in a direction where most of its members in fact do not want to go.
Part of this view is rooted in my personal experience. As someone who was a socially awkward outsider, I learned in middle school that the group was not to be trusted; that individuals who were quite civil one on one could become publicly cruel while in the group setting. If the people I knew while growing up were at their worst in the group, why should I look to the group for my moral cues?
And looking at recent history: those who stood against Hitler (since everyone is talking about Hitler nowadays) did so in spite of, not because of the apparent social consensus around them. Those who went along did so because they did not trust their own moral instincts over the apparent values of their neighbours.