Who Deserves the Benefit of the Doubt?

What do you make of it when someone publicly advocates ideas that are false (even unjust or evil)?

Can such a person be morally innocent?

Not usually.

You might object: “But they don’t know they are making an error.”

Most of the time, that’s true. They don’t know. Folks actually believe their unjust ideas are just.

Of course they do. But even if the error comes from ignorance, that doesn’t mean we should not pronounce moral judgment.

People can be ignorant for various reasons.

The most common kind of ignorance is self-imposed. When a person habitually turns away from thinking about facts that challenge their beliefs, that is called evasion, and it leads to any number of errors. Granted, they really do believe those errors. But errors that come from evasion are not innocent.

Should we grant the “benefit of the doubt” to advocates of injustice and social evils?

I say no.

I mean it in this sense: We may grant that this kind of person is ignorant. But that should not absolve them of the moral responsibility for having placed themselves in the condition of ignorance. Nor does their ignorance absolve them from responsibility for the consequences should others hear their bad ideas and take them seriously.

I would generalize as follows:

(Usually) people pushing wicked ideas do not deserve the “benefit of the doubt.” (Usually) they are not innocent.

That’s quite a thing to assert. So let me elaborate.

What I don’t mean:

  • I don’t mean we should never be friends with such people.
  • I don’t mean we should never work with (or be co-belligerents with) such people.
  • I don’t mean we should never study their ideas to find the valuable parts.

What I do mean:

  • False ideas do have real-world effects.
  • Those who work to promote false ideas are morally responsible for the effects.
  • To defend a lie, is to lie.
  • To defend sin, is to sin.

There is a moral responsibility to know what one is talking about.

Before a person decides to publicly advocate an idea, it is his moral responsibility to do his due diligence.

Those who push lies (especially dangerous ones) are acting immorally when they do so.

Two errors to avoid

Those who enter the public discourse often fall into one of two errors:

  1. To get into a shouting match, only moralizing and condemning, while failing to represent the opposition fairly (and often while failing to offer any robust arguments for their own side).
  2. To avoid pronouncing the level of moral judgment appropriate to the facts. This kind typically prides himself in civilly debating ideas while offering almost no moral judgments. He draws almost no lines on what kind of notions he will entertain or discuss.

But what if someone is simply ignorant? Do you really judge them for that?

Yes — in at least the following sense:

If an ignorant person waves a gun and accidentally shoots someone, he is still at fault. He ought to have become wise enough to know better. His wrongdoing was that he failed to become wise enough for the dangerous situation in which he put himself.

The same applies to those who advocate social evils.

When it comes to issues of morality or justice, even to quietly accept a lie as “true” is to make some kind of moral error. But how much worse is it to propagate a lie? It is to assume a leadership position that one is not fit for. Others will suffer through this negligence.

Let’s put some skin on this concept.

Church leaders who misrepresent the Bible? 
This is a moral wrongdoing, even if accidental.

Philosophers who claim we cannot use our minds to discover truth? 
This is a moral wrongdoing, even if they have been mis-taught.

Socialists who attack individual property rights? 
This is a moral wrongdoing, even if they think they are making the world better.

Leftist Christians who misread Scripture and push for policies and ideas consistent with the Democratic Party? 
This is a moral wrongdoing, even if they have tried to read the Bible honestly (which is a generous “if”).

All have this in common: They are like the man who waves a gun around for fun.

For the sake of clarity in confusing times:

I am not here making a claim about:

1) Whose work it may be profitable to read.

2) Who one might work in the same organization with.

3) Who one might be a friend with.

Instead, I am making a claim about the necessity of moral judgment and about the necessity of identifying immoral actions for what they are.

Moral judgment does not necessarily mean rejecting the person.

It means accepting the truth about the quality of the person’s action.

By all means, love the sinner. Love him enough to call him a sinner and call him to repentance.

Also, by all means, do give the benefit of the doubt to those whose words or actions you don’t yet have enough information to evaluate. Be objective.

But do not grant the benefit of the doubt to the one who makes a pattern of advocating social evils. That person has already given you sufficient information to make a moral judgment.

When the facts are apparent, it is immoral to say, “Who am I to judge?” or “Who are you to judge?”

To be a moral and rational person, you must be ready to judge when needed. And, by the way, you must also be ready to be judged by others, as is their right and responsibility.