Should anyone accused of sexual harassment be allowed to hold public office? This is a question Americans are addressing in, what I hope, will be a meaningful way. The downfall of the powerful Hollywood figure, Harvey Weinstein, has unleashed an avalanche of accusations from women who claim abuse by men in power (not to forget the men who have come forward claiming abuse by both women and gay men). Our once hidden views of sexual harassment are being exposed as we see how different Americans respond to accusations against their favorite politicians. Sadly, many people are willing to attack, or support, the accused based upon their perceived political advantage more than they are willing to support the women out of genuine compassion or concern for justice.
Most Americans are familiar with the recent charges against Republican politicians like Roy Moore alongside charges against Democratic leaders like John Conyers and Al Franken. Looking back to the 2016 election, Americans were given the terrible choice between Donald Trump, who had groped women, and Hilary Clinton who vilified the women who had accused her husband President Bill Clinton of rape.. Another case that did not receive much national attention was when the Democratic Mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner stepped down in 2013 amidst admitted charges of sexual assault. Most disturbing to me was that several local political groups defended Filner saying, “even if he assaulted these women, I’ll support him because he has always been a supporter of our cause.” This is my paraphrase of what I heard here locally at the time, but it illustrates a much bigger problem. According to reports, Democrats knew of Filner’s abusive behaviors for decades, but kept silent because they shared his political ideology. This brings up the serious question for both Democrats and Republicans, “Do we really care about the women who are sexually harassed and assaulted, or do we only care about how we can use their pain to gain more power?”
How then should we answers these questions of ethics? Looking back to my recent post, “Is,” “Ought,” and “Will be”… in search of meaning, I want to frame the original question using the following image:
The primary question being asked in our newspapers and around the office cooler is:
#1. Should anyone accused of sexual harassment be allowed to hold public office?
This is a question of applied ethics. However, we cannot answer this question without first asking a question pertaining to our normative ethics:
#2. Is it right to impose my own ethical standard on others through politics?
Both questions #1 & #2 lie within the “ought” (a description of what we would like to world to look like). We, as a nation, are trying to decide what is acceptable behavior and what behaviors disqualify someone from holding political office. To properly address these “ought” questions, we first need to move into the realm of “is.” Is there a truth that is universal that can guide our decisions? Is there any way we can know this truth? Question #1 is really a question of ethical meaning and that leads us into the realm of epistemological meaning through metaethics (epistemological ethics) where we must ask ourselves the following:
#3. How is sexual harassment defined?
Does the Bible give moral knowledge that applies?
The challenge as I see it is that the general discourse has yet to leave the arena of politics (applied ethics) and move into the arena of metaethics where we take the time to define our terms. How can we ever hope to have a meaningful dialogue when we are unwilling to even define our terms? But the challenge gets bigger. We cannot answer question #3 until we address the question of metaphysics which undergirds our epistemology. This brings us to the most fundamental question:
#4. Are men and women ontologically equal? On what basis is value ascribed?
Here is the key question of origin that everyone must answer before they can consistently answer the questions of meaning. If I were to craft my own answer to this set of questions, it would go something like this:
Sexual assault is morally wrong. Women are not helped by politicians or pundits or entertainers who use victims as tools to gain political power. Women are not toys. Any politician guilty of sexual harassment or assault while in office should not be allowed to keep their position of power. Any politician who defends the guilty party is devaluing the victim to keep their power and should not be trusted to hold political office. I make this conclusion because I believe that women are humans of supreme value, equal to men, made in the image of God, and therefore should always be treated with respect.
The use of the image above makes it clear that no one can have a consistent answer to questions #1 and #2 unless they have solid answers to questions #3 and #4. My answer is rooted in a Christian worldview, but how will other Christians answer the question? How will atheists answer the question in a way that makes their answer consistent and universal?
The questions presented in the image above are a work in progress so feel free to share your own answers or revised version of the questions. I would love to hear from you as we, as a nation, seek to address the problems of sexual harassment and sexual abuse and answer the question, Should anyone accused of sexual harassment be allowed to hold public office?
THANKSGIVING DAY 1814 BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – A PROCLAMATION The two Houses of the National Legislature having by a joint resolution expressed their desire that in the present time of public calamity and war a day may be recommended to be observed by the people of the United States as a day of public humiliation and fasting and of prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessing on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace, I have deemed it pr oper by this proclamation to recommend that Thursday, the 12th of January next, be set apart as a day on which all may have an opportunity of voluntarily offering at the same time in their respective religious assemblies their humble adoration to the Great Sovereign of the Universe, of confessing their sins and transgressions, and of strengthening their vows of repentance and amendment. They will be invited by the same solemn occasion to call to mind the distinguished favors conferred on the American people in the general health which has been enjoyed, in the abundant fruits of the season, in the progress of the arts instrumental to their comfort, their prosperity, and their security, and in the victories which have so powerfully contributed to the defense a nd protection of our country, a devout thankfulness for all which ought to be mingled with their supplications to the Beneficent Parent of the Human Race that He would be graciously pleased to pardon all their offenses against Him; to support and animate t hem in the discharge of their respective duties; to continue to them the precious advantages flowing from political institutions so auspicious to their safety against dangers from abroad, to their tranquillity at home, and to their liberties, civil and rel igious; and that He would in a special manner preside over the nation in its public councils and constituted authorities, giving wisdom to its measures and success to its arms in maintaining its rights and in overcoming all hostile designs and attempts aga inst it; and, finally, that by inspiring the enemy with dispositions favorable to a just and reasonable peace its blessings may be speedily and happily restores. Given at the city of Washington, the 16th day of November, 1814, and of the Independence of th e United States the thirty – eighth. JAMES MADISON
As our culture continues to fracture, we find fewer and fewer significant answers to the questions that matter most. One of the formative thinkers in my life is Ravi Zacharias who says there are four main questions of life.
Origin—Where did I come from?
Meaning—Why am I here?
Morality—How should I live?
Destiny—Where am I headed?
Beyond these questions, I have often wondered, how do they connect? In my conversations with people over the decades, I have come to believe that you cannot answer one of these without trying to answer all of them. In my study of epistemology, my colleague Ward Crocker (founder of Family Apologia), has inspired me to think more deeply about this topic. In our numerous discussions, he brought to my attention some writings by my former colleague, Christopher Cone who has written extensively on the topic of epistemology and metaphysics..The graphic below is Cone’s effort (as a presuppositionalist) to connect these basic questions. Cone writes:
© 2011-2017 Christopher Cone
There are four major areas of philosophical inquiry that make up the basic components of worldview: epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and socio-political philosophy. Epistemology (the study of knowledge) addresses the question of how can know what is true and what is not. Metaphysics (the study of reality) addresses the question of what exists. Ethics (the study of what should be done) addresses the question of what we should do in light of what reality is. Socio-political philosophy (the study of ethics on a societal scale) addresses the question of how communities and society should behave.
The Components of Worldview Chart illustrates a logical ordering of these topics of inquiry. The arrow on the far right indicates that we begin at the bottom and move toward the top. We can’t address socio-political issues until we deal with ethics, we can’t handle ethics until we answer questions of metaphysics, and we can’t answer the metaphysics questions until we address the epistemological ones.
I appreciate Cone’s approach, but am unconvinced that we must begin with epistemology. I think there is another approach to Hume’s IS/OUGHT problem (a.k.a., the naturalistic falacy). I think most people begin with Ravi Zacharias’ basic questions of Origin, Meaning, Morality and Destiny which don’t always begin with epistemology. Science itself begins this search with sense-experience. In teaching my graduate students, I developed the following graphic that integrates all of the concepts above with some of my own ideas.
This is a work in progress, and I am sharing it today looking for your insights and ideas. The key aspects to my illustration are that we approach the “Is“, “Ought“, and “Will be” in four main categories:
These categories bridge the gap between Metaphysics, Epistemology and Ethics and treat them more as a web of integrated thought rather than a liner progression. Within these four categories I see six basic questions of life which help us connect our thoughts with this broader philosophical concepts:
- How did I come into being?
- What is purpose in life?
- What is the right thing to do?
- How can I fulfill my purpose?
- How ill my legacy be judged?
- What happens when I die?
In teaching my graduate course in Ethics, I refocus the above illustration as follows:
Here the emphasis is on Metaethics, Normative and Applied ethics. With this shift in focus, the six basic questions get a bit of a rewrite as well.
- How do we/I come into being?
- How can we/I know what is right?
- What is the right thing for me/us to do?
- What must we/I do now?
- How will our/my legacy be judged?
- What happens when we/I die?
Notice here that the questions bring into the discussion answers that are targeted at both the individual and the larger society. How many of these questions can be answered purely on the individual level and how many can be answered universally?
So again, this post is just a rough sketch of the ideas I unpack over many hours of lecture, but enough content, I hope, to give an idea of where I am taking these concepts so that you can give some feedback.
- What are the strengths of this illustration?
- What are some weaknesses?
- What ideas have I missed?
All ideas are welcome as I refine my thinking.