Monday, July 2, 2012

SCOTUS, High School Debate, And Philosophy Without A License

I don't know enough about health care to comment on the larger issues in the recent Supreme Court Affordable Care Act ruling.  This Jan Crawford analysis troubles me, however.  Crawford reports:
Chief Justice John Roberts initially sided with the Supreme Court's four conservative justices to strike down the heart of President Obama's health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act, but later changed his position and formed an alliance with liberals to uphold the bulk of the law, according to two sources with specific knowledge of the deliberations.
Changing one's mind is not a bad thing unless one changes for the wrong reasons.  Crawford reports that Roberts may have changed his vote because of popular opinion, a wrong reason if ever there was one.
But Roberts pays attention to media coverage. As chief justice, he is keenly aware of his leadership role on the court, and he also is sensitive to how the court is perceived by the public.
There were countless news articles in May warning of damage to the court - and to Roberts' reputation - if the court were to strike down the mandate. Leading politicians, including the president himself, had expressed confidence the mandate would be upheld.
Some even suggested that if Roberts struck down the mandate, it would prove he had been deceitful during his confirmation hearings, when he explained a philosophy of judicial restraint.
It was around this time that it also became clear to the conservative justices that Roberts was, as one put it, "wobbly," the sources said.
It is not known why Roberts changed his view on the mandate and decided to uphold the law. At least one conservative justice tried to get him to explain it, but was unsatisfied with the response, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation.
On the other hand, the conservative dissent seems to indicate some unbecoming pique:
The conservatives refused to join any aspect of his opinion, including sections with which they agreed, such as his analysis imposing limits on Congress' power under the Commerce Clause, the sources said.
Instead, the four joined forces and crafted a highly unusual, unsigned joint dissent. They deliberately ignored Roberts' decision, the sources said, as if they were no longer even willing to engage with him in debate.
 Toward the article's end, Crawford writes:
The fact that the joint dissent doesn't mention Roberts' majority was not a sign of sloppiness, the sources said, but instead was a signal the conservatives no longer wished to engage in debate with him.
Perhaps it's the debate coach perspective, but the refusal to debate in person or in the opinions frustrates me.  As a coach, I tell my students that moral relativism is a discussion stopper.
…I can imagine someone shrugging, 'Well that's just your opinion.'  It is curious how popular this response is in moral discussions.  For notice that it is a conversation stopper rather than a move in the intended conversation.  It is not a reason for or against the proffered opinion, nor is it an invitation for the speaker's reasons, nor any kind of persuasion that it is better to think something else. –(Simon Blackburn, Being Good, 27-28)
At the governing level, the past two presidencies have both expanded the power of the office to the point that the person holding the office is closer to an emperor than a president.  One does not debate a monarch.  Congress has become more dysfunctional than it has been at any time in my memory.  What passes for debate on the floors of Congress is not worth the name.  Now, the third branch of government seems to be falling prey to a cult of personality and reputation, and the members refuse to engage in the conflict of ideas.

Apparently, I'm going to have to begin telling students that both moral relativism and absolute political certainty unnecessarily preclude debate.

Update:  The original post incorrectly identified Jan Crawford as Jan Brewer. I also apparently thought I was in England and used the British spelling of license in the original title. I was sloppy and apologize.


T. Lieberman said...

The phrase "That's just your opinion," used as a conversation stopper, isn't a good characterization of moral relativism. For if opinions are relative to something (feelings, purposes, etc.), then there is nothing mere about them, and they open the doors to further discussion.

D.E. Bishop said...

Supreme Court justices Must engage with one another. That is precisely their job! Does this mean that Scalia, Alito and Thomas want to just take their ball and go home?

I just checked the Jan Brewer link, because I thought it was the Arizona governor and she is certainly Not a credible source. FYI-The author of the piece is Jan CRAWFORD. Easy enough mistake to make.

LK said...

Thanks for stopping by, I'm a bit curious as to how you found this little blog. If you're checking out every mention of moral relativism, your RSS feed must be going nuts.

I don't have my copy of Blackburn's book at home, so I can't expand the context.

I think the second half of the quotation allows for your concerns. If the speaker who claims "that's just your opinion" offers facts and context, the debate can continue. I would say that my experience seems to support Blackburn's contention: the statement "That's just your opinion" is followed by I don't want to talk about it any more."

If you didn't like Blackburn's statement, you probably won't like this one either, but I'll offer it because it also resonates with my experience.

It matters, for one thing, because it belongs to our dignity as moderately rational creatures to know the truth. And that includes knowing the truth about truth. It is best not to be deceived if we can possibly help it. But it also matters because a ludicrous bugbear has been made of the word ‘absolute’ in this context; and because if the relativist is right, then truth is emptied of much of its value. As Bernard Williams points out, relativism is really a way of explaining away conflict.-Terry Eagleton, After Theory, 109

LK said...


I don't know what the dissenters are trying to do, but I thought that the purpose of written opinions was to engage the majority ruling. Refusing to do that act is curious.

You're too kind. I should have quadruple checked the author. I will make the corrections.