As I’ve been critical in the past of the New York Times’ Ethicist, Chuck Klosterman, when he sticks his nose into legal issues without having a clue about the law, it’s only fair I write something nice when he gets it right. Today, he got it right.
The question posed wasn’t an unusual one, at least for people who spend their days trying to help people who wouldn’t give them a glass of water if they were dying of thirst otherwise.
Recently, I needed critical legal advice to save a friend’s life. I was able to get the information, along with a generous offer to provide legal help, from a nonprofit organization. I am incredibly grateful for this advice, which indeed may have saved my friend’s life. But I believe that this organization causes harm to individuals and to society as a whole. In fact, I have vocally opposed them for decades. Was I wrong to seek help from them? NAME WITHHELD, NEW YORK
Sound familiar? These are our clients. Hate crime. Love cops. All criminals should rot in hell. Until they need a hand, when the world shifts on its axis because now it’s their turn. So far, nothing new.
Klosterman begins with a blanket query that would be worthy of some discussion in itself.
Why do people so often believe that being uncompromising about their ideological views somehow makes them more ethical?
If that’s not offered as a rhetorical question, and it shouldn’t be, then the answer is that principle is sometimes more important than self-interest, and that moral relativism isn’t really a good thing. Just sayin’. But that was just Chuck’s opening salvo, and he gets better when he digs in.
You needed help. The organization was in a position to help you. The exchange was not dependent on your suddenly agreeing to adopt its views or support its larger mission.
We don’t defend people because they deserve to be defended. We don’t defend people to pay them back for their devotion to the cause. We defend because that’s what we’ve sworn to do. We defend the good and bad, nice and nasty, likeable and despised. That they never loved us before plays no role in our defense. Hell, aside from the occasional quiet moment of Schadenfreude, we never think twice about it.
I can understand how you might feel hypocritical accepting assistance from a group you’ve spent decades opposing, but maybe that just means your opposition was a little shortsighted. Maybe in the future, you need to consider such organizations with more balance.
One of life’s truisms is that nothing matters until it happens to you. It’s easy to hate criminals. Who doesn’t? Well, us, maybe, but aside from us, most ordinary people have no tolerance for bad dudes. There is nothing remarkable about this. But the whole notion of due process, presumption of innocence, burden of proof, is way too ethereal for most people to embrace until it touches their lives.
Or perhaps this changes nothing about how you feel about this institution; perhaps you see this instance as an anomaly that has no impact on how you view anything else. That is also acceptable.
When it’s your butt on the line, it’s different. It’s you. You’re special. You aren’t one of them. You aren’t a bad dude. You’re a good dude under bad circumstances. You’re the one in a million mistake our heroes in blue make. It happens. But it changes nothing. Truth be told, we don’t care. We defend. You have to live with whatever ideological pillow you need to sleep at night. We will still do our job.
But the point is that ethical living is not dependent on accepting help from — or providing it to — only those whose ethics mirror your own.
The “ethics,” or more precisely, the ideology of those in need plays no role in the duty to provide aid when needed. We don’t have to agree with you, and you most assuredly don’t have to agree with us. There’s no litmus test for obtaining a defense.
Unswerving inflexibility is not proof of morality.
Again in his final sentence, Klosterman goes off the rails again, bringing morality into the picture. Sheesh.
Let’s take a huge leap of faith and assume that NAME WITHHELD is talking about a group like the ACLU, which is often on the downside of popular causes. Ironically, its virtue is derived from doing what Klosterman eschews in his response, “being uncompromising about their ideological views,” which is why they can stand up for the constitutional rights of Klansmen and neo-Nazis despite their despising their ideas. It’s not easy to do, and it’s not entirely clear that this level of dedication to core values remains in the upcoming ACLU leadership.
So lots of folks despise the ACLU because they stand up for vital rights on behalf of despicable parties. That’s the point. There is nothing hypocritical about it, and there is nothing hypocritical about someone who has spent their life hating the ACLU for its dedication to constitutional rights on behalf of society’s worst. This may be stupid, short-sighted and foolish, but they’re people. That’s how people are.
So the ACLU will be happy to stand up for them, because that’s what they do. And so will we, because that’s what we do. No need to feel badly about your hypocrisy. It’s nothing new.