Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bill O'Reilly, the Bishops, and Virtue Ethics: The Failure of "Pro-Life" Politics to Convince

I’ve maintained in previous postings (e.g. here) that the leaders of the Catholic church will not convince either their own flocks or the public at large of their claims about our need to respect life until they themselves (and all believers, including me) begin living different lives. I’ve talked about how the leaders of the Catholic church often conspicuously fail (in my view) to model the maternal virtues that are foundational to a strong, consistent ethic of life.

Today, I’d like to look at one outspoken anti-abortion Catholic whose involvement in the pro-life movement is now receiving scrutiny, as people ask whether his hate-laced, violence-spurring statements about Dr. George Tiller could form the backdrop to Scott Roeder’s murder of Tiller. I’m speaking of Bill O’Reilly.

For some time now, ethicists have focused on a tradition called “virtue ethics,” as they seek to provide a philosophical and theological foundation for ethical analysis at this point in history. Virtue ethics insists that the primary obligation of the moral life is to become the kind of people who tend to do what is right and avoid what is wrong.

Unlike some of the ethical traditions that dominated ethical analysis prior to the retrieval of virtue ethics in the latter part of the 20th century, virtue ethics focuses more on character and less on moral problems or moral issues as the central concern of ethical analysis. The traditions that virtue ethics seeks to correct ask how one may know what is the right or wrong thing to do in this particular situation, or what is the right or wrong act to do in situations such as this or that.

Virtue ethics, by contrast, asks what kind of characters we ought to form in ourselves and others, to assure that people make good moral choices and avoid bad ones. This is actually a venerable way of thinking about ethics (hence my word “retrieval” above), one established by Aristotle, but one that tended to fall by the wayside as various religious traditions created manuals classifying acts as moral and immoral, and providing information about how to weigh acts within the circumstances in which they occur.

Virtue ethics focuses on character. This ethical tradition implies that, if we seek to convince others of the moral seriousness of our positions, our character should match that moral seriousness. People come to the moral life through others who set moral examples. We learn how to determine right from wrong, how to recognize situations in which values are at stake, by forming our characters within communities of discourse and practice (like families and churches) in which exemplars of virtue demonstrate to us, by how they live and how they approach others, what it means to be a person of virtue.

I’d like to apply this ethical analysis to the pro-life movement. I think it is possible to maintain that the primary reason the pro-life movement has failed to convince many of us of the merit of its moral claims is that its chief spokespersons do not exemplify what it means to be virtuous—what many of us already know about the meaning of virtue from the communities of discourse and practice that have shaped our characters.

Hence the focus on Bill O’Reilly: in my view, it is not unjust to ask if Bill O’Reilly provides a compelling, morally adequate demonstration of what it means to be pro-life, because he has set himself up as an outspoken public spokesman for the pro-life movement. He is a man whose words are immensely powerful in a certain subset of American culture.

By questioning the motives and character—the virtue—of those who do not hold to his moral lines (on abortion, gender roles, sexual orientation issues, etc.), Bill O’Reilly sets himself up as a moral exemplar. And so it is fair—indeed, it is necessary—to ask how and whether Bill O’Reilly exemplifies a pro-life moral stance, in light of Dr. Tiller’s murder.

I could talk at length about my reasons for reaching the following conclusion. I don’t intend to do so, however, because I believe I have sketched those reasons carefully in posting after posting on this thread. In my view, if my decision whether or not to endorse the pro-life stance depended on observing the behavior of Bill O’Reilly, I would choose the opposite of the pro-life stance after listening to and watching Mr. O’Reilly on television.

I would feel compelled to choose an alternative moral stance primarily because a great deal that I understand about the life of virtue from the formative communities that have shaped my character is belied by everything Bill O’Reilly says and does. Early in life, I began to question the correlation between bullies and virtue. From a very early point in my life—and I assume this has to do with parental teaching, familial role models, what I heard at church, and what I learned in school and from books that shaped my moral life—I recognized that the person seeking to drown everyone else out by his loud voice, and to force everyone else to do his bidding, was less likely and not more likely to be a person of strong moral character.

And everything I have learned throughout the rest of my life has confirmed those early formative insights in my character education. When I hear Bill O’Reilly fulminating, threatening, bullying, screaming profanities if things go wrong on his set; when I hear him assassinating the character of gays and lesbians, bashing uppity women, impugning the integrity of those who do not share his hard-line stance on abortion, I doubt—I seriously doubt—his commitment to values I recognize as pro-life values.

And I question his viability as a spokesman for Catholic values. So that, in turn, I question the credibility of the many Catholic bishops and other pastoral leaders who seem not to see what I see when I watch Mr. O’Reilly on television, but who clearly see a shining exemplar of virtue and of Catholic values.

Why is the Catholic church failing to convince many of us when it tells us that everything hinges on its interpretation of life? Because too few of its leaders live in ways that make that message clear and convincing. And because too many are far too much like Bill O’Reilly, even, God help us, now that we know what we know about the seamy underside of the clerical culture that runs the church, following all the revelations about clerical sexual abuse of minors.