The problem with ideology

In reading Steven Pinker’s masterful The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, one of the significant insights I gleaned was that the lion’s share of human violence is carried out by those who believe they are morally or ideologically justified in their actions. More homicides are committed out of a sense of vigilante justice and offended moral sensibilities (e.g., retribution for adultery committed with one’s spouse) than for personal gain (e.g., burglary). Large-scale genocides are typically committed by those who believe in the Utopian righteousness of their cause, whether the cause is communism, Nazism, or religion. Fully a third of the population of Germany was destroyed in the Catholic-Protestant Thirty Years War. As a proportion of the current population of Germany (82 million), that would have corresponded to 27 million deaths in today’s Germany alone. And that was before the advent of military aircraft, automatic weapons, or gas chambers! Closer to (my American) home, we could add to the list the American settlers’ notion of Manifest Destiny that led to the displacement and slaughter of countless Native Americans or the Southern churches’ appeal to scripture to justify slavery, segregation, and the prohibition of mixed-race marriage.

The rub is that we all hold to one or more ideologies, and we all believe in the rightness of our ideology, but we almost never recognize the potential or real harm our beliefs entail. It’s easy to spot the harm in others’ ideologies while not even realizing we are beholden to our own harmful (but in our minds, righteous) stances: ”Ideology, like halitosis … is what the other person has” (Eagleton, Terry. 1991. Ideology: An Introduction. New York: Verso, p. 2).

Ideologically-based harm arises when adherence to the ideology is given priority over the happiness and well being of sentient beings in this world. Thus the Inquisition was more concerned with the upholding of correct doctrine (and the drive to avert the eternal damnation of souls in the hereafter) than it was with the temporal suffering of those who were punished for their heresies. Another example of religious ideology trumping the well being of others can be found in Deuteronomy 13:6-11:

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

Now, perhaps the Catholic Inquisition (and its Protestant counterparts) had a good point: maybe the torturing or execution of a few poor heretical souls would result in a net reduction of suffering by setting an example to prevent a greater number of individuals from falling into heresy and subjecting themselves to eternal torment. Under this logic, any suffering in this life, no matter how intense or how widespread, can compare to the suffering of even a single eternally damned soul, so anything on earth can be justified in an effort to save at least one soul. But if any of the assumptions (e.g., the reality of eternal damnation or the effectiveness of torture in averting it) that were used to justify the practices of the Inquisition were mistaken, then the torture of heretics stands as a prime example of net harm driven by a well-meaning, righteous ideology.

Fast forward to this week in American politics and culture. Four hot-button topics are once again in the fore of our national dialogue: homosexuality, abortion, immigration, and voting rights. With plenty of ideology on all sides, principles often trump the well being of sentient beings in discussions surrounding these issues. Given that we are all ideologically motivated and we don’t often recognize our ideologies or the potential harm they can incur, it is in the interest of society for us all to examine critically the potential and real effects of what we believe and promote. Unfortunately it’s not easy for us who are already to committed do an ideology to recognize its harmful aspects.

If there is solid evidence that the widespread termination of a day-old fertilized zygote (e.g., through the drug Plan B) is likely to lead society down the slippery slope toward killing or harming of sentient beings that form a part of society, then the pro-choice crowd is guilty of contributing to the net suffering of sentient beings, and the pro-life crowd has reason to oppose such abortions. However, I am not aware of any evidence pointing in that direction; in fact homicide rates have declined significantly in America in recent decades, despite the Roe v. Wade decision.

If there is solid evidence that the abortion of a 28-week unborn baby incurs considerable conscious suffering on the part of the baby (see this article) , and if the pro-choice crowd presses to allow babies at that stage to be aborted, then the pro-choice crowd could be guilty of allowing its ideology (under the guise of women’s choice) to add to the net suffering of sentient beings. That said, if the pro-life crowd objects to 28-week (or even 20-week) abortions on the grounds that they incur fetal pain, but if they don’t show any concern for the suffering of adult cattle or poultry raised and slaughtered for their own gustatory pleasure, then the appeal to fetal pain is disingenuous, a smoke screen. An adult cow is far more social, more conscious of its living conditions and capable of experiencing pain than a 28-week-old human fetus.

I am tired of how the abortion debate is normally framed. Pro-choicers so often appeal to terms like “the right to privacy,” “the fourteenth amendment, ” “the right for a woman not to be told what to do with her own body,” etc. Sorry, pro-choicers, these terms and arguments based on them are worse than useless: they only serve to underscore what a tin ear you have in the face of the single most powerful argument of the pro-lifers, namely, that a fertilized egg is a human, and the taking of human life (especially for the sake of convenience) is murder. The fact is that, for pro-lifers, innocent human life is sacred, and there can be no justification for taking it. And pro-lifers are correct in asserting that a fertilized egg is at least in some sense human, independently bearing 46 chromosomes with the same complement of DNA shared by every member of our species, whether born an unborn. Saying that a woman has a right to do as she pleases “with her own body” is risible when she’s bearing a late-term fetus; if the fetus has a head, brain, arms, legs, heart, blood, etc., and can feel pain or pleasure, then there’s a baby in there, and it’s not just the mother’s body!

Conversely, it’s risible for pro-lifers to assert that a day-old zygote is a “person.” How is a single cell or a 16-cell blastocyst a person in any recognizable sense of the word? It’s no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree, even if the incipient form shares the same DNA as the adult form. It seems to me that pro-lifers in general recognize this, even if they will not admit it. As evidence of this, an estimated two thirds of all fertilized eggs are spontaneously aborted, yet I am not aware of any concerted, serious effort on the part of pro-lifers to stem the tragedy of spontaneous abortions that kill more humans than all other causes combined–including intentional abortions. By their lack of concern for these two thirds of humans that die in the womb, and by their greater concern for children and adults suffering from a variety of diseases, pro-lifers demonstrate that they really do place more value on the life of a born human than on the life of a day-old zygote.

I’m asking proponents of both sides of the abortion debate to consider dropping their ideological presuppositions. I want pro-choicers to be certain that abortion will not lead to a net increase in suffering, and I want pro-lifers to do the same. Will abortions lead to the cheapening and killing of sentient human life? Will allowing abortions deprive childless couples of the joy of child rearing? Will preventing abortions lead to emotional and economic suffering on the part of mothers who are forced to bring their babies to term? What if the baby is severely deformed? How will this affect the entire lives of the child and her parents? Even if the baby is not deformed, is it destined to live a life of neglect and poverty if the mother can’t bring herself to give it up for adoption? If the baby is given up for adoption with the result that more babies are brought into the world, how does that affect society and the environment and our planet, which has seen the human population explode in geometrical progression in recent centuries? Is there a limit to the carrying capacity of our planet while retaining a reasonable amount of biodiversity, or can we continue to double, quadruple, and multiply by 8, 16, 32, 64, or 128 times the current population for generations to come?

When it comes to homosexuality, my concern isn’t my admitted distaste for the idea of a man inserting his penis into the anus of another man. My concern is whether the views I hold and the policies I promote lead to greater or lesser pain on the part of sentient beings. If children reared in homosexual unions are significantly worse off than those reared in heterosexual (or single-parent) unions, then that would come into play in deciding whether endorsing child rearing in a homosexual environment is in the best interest of society. If studies show that children reared in a homosexual marriage are better off than those reared in a mere homosexual union, then that serves as a argument for advocating gay marriage. If the practice of homosexuality (using responsible protections) has no demonstrable ill effects on society at large, then that serves as an argument against proscribing it. Conversely, if proscribing homosexuality leads to greater a greater rate of bullying, depression, or suicide for those who are gay (whether by nature or by choice, it matters not at all), then those who would proscribe it (out of a sense of religious or personal conviction) are contributing to the net pain and suffering of humanity. In other words, their ideology is the opposite of righteousness.

Am I driven by ideology? Certainly so: for one, I want to see a reduction in the net amount of suffering on the part of sentient beings. I do have other beliefs beyond that, but it seems like a good starting point for us all.


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37 responses to “The problem with ideology

  1. The prime example for this sort of behavior is the activity of revolutionary socialist governments in the last century. In the name of trying to realize humanity’s ultimate (political) destiny by creating a worker’s paradise on earth, more than a hundred million people were killed and over a billion people lived their lives in fear. The perpetrators of these horrendous acts typically justified their behavior in terms of the marvelous world they were trying to create. By their lights, the destruction of those who resisted would be worth it in the end (so the old quip that in order to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs). Needless to say, political millennialism has a perfect track record of failing to deliver on its promises while wreaking havoc on human society.

    On the other hand, the wonderful thing about Christianity is that no one can stand in the way of humanity realizing its ultimate destiny, as this is something that will be brought about by God and not human beings (see Rev. 21.2-4). Nor is it something Christians will bring about by their own efforts. The new earth is something God will create and bring people to on his holy mountain, end of story.

    “If children reared in homosexual unions are significantly worse off than those reared in heterosexual (or single-parent) unions, then that would come into play in deciding whether endorsing child rearing in a homosexual environment is in the best interest of society. ”

    That suspicion turned out to be true. See the following:

  2. RT, thanks for the link to the interesting and compelling parenting study. I’m sure there will be more studies in the future that drill into the “gay parent” sub-group, distinguishing between those that may have simply had a “gay fling” versus those that are monogamous. A helpful analysis of this study can be found at As gay marriage gains ground, this will afford a better opportunity to compare those who grew up in a monogamous gay marriage with those who grew up in a less stable environment. I’m all in favor of giving children the best possible opportunities to succeed in life.

    I agree with you about the failures of failed, tragic 20th century Utiopian experiments, and so is Steven Pinker in his book.

    BTW, I hope you won’t take offense if I don’t engage with you on all or even most of your responses going forward. From my previous experience, I simply can’t keep up with your volume of writing. I don’t want to get into a rut of back-and-forth rabbit trailing where we’re always bringing up new and tangential points that don’t lead us to any real conclusion. It’s one of the reasons I put my blog on hold last year. After all our discussions over partial Preterism, for example, I still see it it as special pleading (when looking at the big picture), and you see it as eminently supported by Scripture. We just see things completely differently and there’s no point in going on with the discussion.

    • Ken,

      No worries, I am not offended in the least. On the contrary, I understand completely.

      “After all our discussions over partial Preterism, for example, I still see it it as special pleading (when looking at the big picture), and you see it as eminently supported by Scripture.”

      Well, although I have the utmost confidence in my own position, I would also be the first to admit that the eschatology of NT (much less the Hebrew Bible) is far from clear.

      • Thanks, RT–that was a gracious response. I’ll read and consider your input even if I don’t respond a whole lot on the future. Perhaps some of my readers could engage with you when they feel led 🙂

  3. Excellent article, Ken. I have to admit that I’m pessimistic about how likely we are to significantly overcome ideological (black and white) thinking in the near future; it seems to be getting worse rather than better. In fact, it is an interesting exercise to try to find any major social issue that is not ideologically determined in America. Health care, climate change, immigration, national security, education … all seem to be decided not by give and take but on a winner-take-all basis. Ideology cannot accept less than 100% purity, in contrast with the idea of democratic governance which tries for an optimum solution for all, with everyone accepting some level of compromise.

  4. Dave

    Ken I enjoyed your post reminds me if this gem from Carlin
    George Carlin: [about Catholics] They’re against abortion and they’re against homosexuals. Well who has less abortions than homosexuals? Leave these fckn’ people alone for christ sakes. Here is a entire group of people guaranteed never to have an abortion.

  5. Caleb

    Ken, I love, as always, your objective, non-partisan explanation of the issues. The world needs more people who can step away from emotions and foundations to view the impact of each action as it weighs positively or negatively for the net value of human society. I love in your book when you describe yourself as a “naturalist” or “humanist,” and how you weigh in on those descriptors. I have very close to adopting much of your ever-growing philosophy, and I greatly appreciate your intellect. Keep it coming!

  6. holly

    Hi Ken!
    Happy to see your wrote a blog. I used to look forward to the weekly blogs. Regarding child rearing in a homosexual environment and whether to advocate it (or vote to allow or disallow homosexual marriage based on those results), I don’t think should be part of our decision in voting. I don’t think we can judge and limit individuals based on what statistics point to with their “kind.” Even if statistics showed that children do better raised in a heterosexual environment, I think America is about each individual having freedom and not being penalized based on a stereotype or even what statistics show. If that were the case, then everybody should be subject to such discrimination based on what statistics show or which ideologies dominate. You want to marry someone 30 years older than you and have a child? No, that doesn’t seem good for child rearing. Interracial marriage? no, the child may feel confused or be bullied. Your pre-marriage compatibility test didn’t go so well? No marriage for you. You come from a broken home? Statistically your marriage is more likely to end. Divorce is bad for kids. No marriage for you. You were abused as a child? You are likely to repeat the behavior. No marriage for you. You were married before and want to have a child with your second spouse and bring your kids from your previous marriage into the picture? No, statistically your second marriage is likely to fail too and blended families don’t do as well, so no marriage for you. You had a baby at 15 and now want to get married at 18? Your marriage is more than likely doomed. No marriage for you. We don’t do that with other groups of people so as much as I want the best possible situation for children, I don’t think we can prohibit a group of people based on their sexual preference from raising a child or getting married based on statistics.

    • Holly,

      Very insightful observations! Some similar thoughts began occurring to me after I posted this blog entry the other day, and I’m still working through my own position on this. Here’s the thought that had occurred to me: What if studies showed that children of one racial group grew up on average to be disadvantaged by certain outcome measures relative to other racial groups? Should we then discourage the members of that racial group from marrying? We don’t even need to answer the question.

      Here’s my dilemma: I claim to advocate an ideology of minimizing harm, pain, and suffering, an ideology that uses empirical data to look at outcomes and to go with the options that maximize well being and minimize suffering. I promote this ideology because I see the harm incurred by proponents of other ideologies that don’t place the minimizing of harm as a top priority. But then a study comes out showing that a particular arrangement (i.e., homosexual parenting) tends to correlate with some negative outcomes. Then if I say, “well, I didn’t really mean what I said about minimizing pain and negative outcomes, because my ideology of equality trumps these studies,” then it appears I’m not really driven by the ideology of minimizing harm after all.

      It may be that the studies that show negative outcomes for children of homosexual parents are at least in part a reflection of the discrimination experienced by those in such arrangements. And it could be that encouraging homosexual marriage and stable, long-term monogamous partnerships would bring the outcomes more in line with those of heterosexual marriages. I suspect this will be the case. In any case, there are plenty of well-adjusted children of homosexual parents.

      • Ken,

        This is interesting. You thought you were a utilitarian but when push comes to shove you’re an egalitarian. Serious question: Are you an egalitarian because that’s what you really think is best for society or are you an egalitarian because that’s what the great and good of American society thinks is best for society? To what extent do your positions track your own beliefs rather than the beliefs you perceive to be the most socially acceptable?

  7. Terry Middlebrook

    Hi Ken As I’ve said before I really enjoyed reading your book. It has been fundamental in helping me sort out my own thoughts on faith. I am reading a book recommended to me by an old friend and have found it to be very interesting. It has challenged my thinking more then any other so far since walking away from my faith (apart from yours I’d have to say). If you or any one else that might see this post have read the book I would be very interested in their opinion. Honestly I’m not sure what I think of it just yet. I admit that I would choose Christianity if it were something I felt I had a choice in and perhaps that influences my opinion of this book. It is the first thing I have read that raised any kind of hope in me that Christianity may be true. It is a dim hope to say the least. I would be interested in your opinion if you ever have opportunity to read it. “What We Can’t Not Know” by J. Budziszewski

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