The Moral Equivalence Fallacy

I was introduced to the concept of moral equivalence when I was working on my doctorate in history. It came up in explanations of the Cold War. Moral equivalence, in that context, meant that the Cold War was the result, not of Soviet aggression, but of a mutual misunderstanding of one another. Further, it posited that there was no real difference morally between the Soviets and America; both were equally to blame for the Cold War.

As an explanation for the Cold War, I found it very dissatisfying. I knew about the horrific system set up in the Soviet Union, and it in no way compared to the American system of government. I also knew of the systematic repression and genocide that occurred under Stalin’s reign, and which continued after his death. Then there were the broken promises and the takeover of occupied countries, thereby setting up satellite regimes totally subservient to The Soviets. Therefore, I rejected that explanation of the Cold War because it overlooked the obvious brutality that existed in the USSR.

Why does this come to mind now? The moral equivalence idea continues to pop up in other contexts. It has come to the forefront in the current debt crisis debate. We are told over and over that Congress can’t get its act together, thereby making no distinction between the actions of the two political parties. In the public mind, they are both to blame for the mess. Never mind that the Republicans have offered solutions, only to have them shot down by Senate Democrats and President Obama. Don’t acknowledge that the Democrat-led Senate hasn’t offered a budget for over 800 days. Just keep chanting the mantra of moral equivalence.

What’s even more disturbing is how this view has come to dominate the political cartoons, even from conservative cartoonists. Here are some examples:

Notice that this cartoon makes no distinction between Boehner and Obama; both are depicted as little children arguing over how to steer the car.

How about this one?

Again, there is no moral difference in this image: Boehner and Obama both doing the same thing. Another one:

You see, if the NFL can come to a solution for its disagreements, why can’t Washington? Well, how about showing who is blocking the ball? Not in this case. I’ll give you two more examples:

In the first one, voters are angry at both parties, blaming both for the debt impasse; in the second, both parties are playing chicken with the looming default [which is not really going to occur anyway, since the interest on the debt will be paid regardless what happens]. This type of unthinking, undiscriminating moral equivalence gives a false impression of what’s really taking place in the Congress.

One cartoonist got it right, though:

It’s nice to witness at least one example of clear thinking.