Moral Exceptionalism: 'We seem unable to extend the rules we live by to others.'

Where is Kant when we need him? In a culture that seems to have a watered-down version of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism as its default position, personal liberty and happiness are the moral mantras.

Kant would say that happiness and utility have nothing to do with moral worth. Duty does. Kant does give high priority to liberty or personal autonomy (self-rule); but by his account such freedom may never be used to violate our fundamental duties, expressed in his great categorical imperatives. Such imperatives oblige us never to treat persons as mere means or things and always to act in such a way that our maxim could be a universal law. If it is permissible for me, it must be permissible for all.


It is this principle of universalizability that seems lost in contemporary discourse. About the only place it is practiced, at least ideally, is in sport contests—perhaps because it is only sport that we really take seriously. But in matters of the nation, the church, the economy and the world, moral exceptionalism holds sway. We seem unable to extend the rules we live by to others.

Imagine yourself a university student in Tehran. You hear from U.S. leaders that Iran must never be allowed to have nuclear weapons. This principle is posed by a country that has more nuclear weapons than the rest of the world combined and is allied with the states of Israel, India and Pakistan, all of which hold nuclear weapons. Does that compute? Might you come to distrust, even hate anyone who would hold such a personal “exception” for oneself and one’s friends? The same self-exemption applies to other countries. Is it permissible for the leaders of Gaza to operate under Israel’s principle of “overwhelming force” wherein half of the 1,300 Palestinians killed were women and children? Is it permissible for Israel to use the tactics of directly targeting civilians in the same way that Hamas has done?

Or imagine yourself someone who supports women’s ordination in the Catholic Church. You have seen a prominent priest excommunicated for supporting women’s ordination and a religious sister, noted for her service, generosity and love for the church, similarly excommunicated with a full page of condemnation in her diocesan newspaper. Then you read that the Holy Father has lifted the excommunication of illicitly ordained bishops in the Society of Saint Pius X. This is a group in formal schism, insisting that Vatican II was a handmaid to heresy and false religion. The canon law spin is that those who support women’s ordination do not admit that they are wrong. But look at the letter that the superior general of the Pius X Society wrote. There is not one admission that they were wrong. In fact, it is an assertion that the church was wrong: “Catholic tradition is no longer excommunicated.” This incident triggered outrage because one of the bishops denies the Holocaust. One might also be troubled by the Vatican’s selectivity in the use of excommunication and reconciliation.

Our politics is a parade of exceptionalism. The Republicans are staunch in their resistance to the near trillion dollar package requested by President Obama. Is that based on principle? Then where were their principles when so many of them joined President Bush and the Democrats in giving $700 billion to the banking and Wall Street moguls, all without oversight or transparency? The money seems to have disappeared into thin air.

Former Senator Tom Daschle, a man to be admired in many ways, has wisely stepped away from the Health and Human Services nomination. He said he was “embarrassed and disappointed” that he failed to pay $128,000 in taxes. Perhaps he thought that would work for him. Does it work for you when you fail to pay taxes? What is more troubling, Daschle made $5 million in the last two years, some of it from the health care industry that he would have been overseeing.

“We will have no lobbyists,” President Obama has said. But now we know there are “waivers.” Daschle was only one. William Lynn, named to serve as deputy secretary of defense, was the top lobbyist for Raytheon, which made a nice $10 billion from armament sales last year. And Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner not only failed to pay income taxes for five years; as the head of the New York region of the Federal Reserve, he was also one of those in charge of the banking crisis in which we now find ourselves mired.

“Waiver,” of course, is another word for exception to the principle of “no lobbyists.” Immanuel Kant would say that if you are going to announce a principle, you should follow it; and if you do not follow your principles, do not expect others to follow theirs.

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John Walton
10 years 1 month ago
Must've been the happiest day in Daschle's life, at least here on earth, to get the big "wave-off" on the HHS job. Yes, there are guardian angels. Had he been engaged in this position he would undoubtedly been forced to take the "un-Thomas More-like" position of championing OBama's "Freedom of Choice Act". Let's hope that this was Daschle's trip to Damascus.
10 years 1 month ago
Rev. Cavanaugh says "if you do not follow your principles, do not expect others to follow theirs." I expect that the USA will follow its principle not to nuke Tehran, and I expect that Tehran will follow its principle to nuke Tel Aviv.
Lori Amann-Chetcuti
10 years 1 month ago
Well said!!
10 years 1 month ago
There are two principles those in government work by: 1, One rule for the princes and one for the peons; 2, the Golden Rule: those with the gold make the rules. Cynical? perhaps; Realistic? definitely.
Marie Rehbein
10 years 1 month ago
Let's see, after reading this a few times, I have to conclude that "extending the rules we live by" means allowing others the same exceptions we give ourselves. This is not how I interpreted that line before I read the article. I assumed this was an article about how to impose our higher (exceptional) morality upon those who lie, cheat, steal, kill, smoke, drink too much, swear, etc. However, it is about people who set standards but then fail to abide by them while still holding others to those standards. It is hard to know who "we" is in this article, since we are asked to imagine ourselves as the ones who are called to task while also supposedly being the ones whose rules we are unable to extend to others. There are so many unconnnected scenarios here. In the end, I have to ask why we should be so exacting. Are the rules the most important thing or is getting the best result the most important thing? The pope probably does have to unexcommunicate those in formal schism before any of us can argue that further changes need to be made, such as allowing women priests or married priests or open communion. However, this does not mean that Israelis should feel free to oppress Palestinians or that mistakes on people's tax returns are more significant than their work experience.
Liliana McCullough
10 years 1 month ago
Great article. This is an example of taking leadership in raising some key issues - hopefully igniting needed debate. A point of order. You state "You hear from U.S. leaders that Iran must never be allowed to have nuclear weapons. This principle is posed by a country that has more nuclear weapons than the rest of the world combined". This is simply not true. Russia alone has more nuclear weapons than the U.S. Why is this important? Because those who want to avoid the issues you raise, or who are seeking an opening to brand your comments as irrelevant, will latch on to any loopholes they can find. By all means illustrate your arguments. But understand this - those who stand up to argue the case for reason, especially Christian reason, will be ridiculed. Don't give the enemy an opening.
virginia parker
10 years 1 month ago
Dear Fr. Kavanaugh, What a perspicacious post this is with the pointed examples you provide of the exemptions Moral Exceptionalism complacently accepts. A very interesting follow-up to your fine writing might concern why, for example, the United States or Israel thinks it fair and right to assume a mode of conduct in variance with what it doesn't find fair or right on the part of other powers. And in terms of ecclesiastical matters, what underlying assumptions does the Church hold that apparently makes support for the unauthorized ordination of women to the priesthood more objectionable and less forgiveable than the ilicit ordination of bishops (in deliberate defiance to Roman Catholicism, Vatican II)? P.S. I'm still trying to get my tongue around that so hard -to- say mouthful, "universalizability"!!!! Why does it make me think of lizards? God bless. Gini Parker
10 years 1 month ago
I'm guessing that most freshmen entering Saint Louis University intuitively know why it is a good thing for the world that America maintains a nuclear arsenal and why it would be a very bad thing for Iran to acquire one; why there is a significant difference between the incidental killing of civilians who are used as human shields by terrorists in Gaza, and the indiscriminate bombing of Israeli towns; why dissident priests who make a public spectacle of themselves are less worthy objects of sympathy than quietly devout traditionalists; and why a politician might approve spending $700 billion to save our banking system from collapse but would object to a pork-laden trillion dollar "stimulus bill". Unfortunately, it appears that these simple truths have eluded Father Kavanaugh's grasp.
leonard Nugent
10 years 1 month ago
There are now two misinterpretations of Vatican 2, one believes the council says too much and the other believes the council said too little. Both are ugly but I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Which one is worse and deserves excommunication? As our president once observed, "it's above my paygrade"
10 years 1 month ago
The Catholic Church already opened communion, all are welcome. You don't have to be rich to take communion. As a non-practicing Catholic (I've heard that term before I don't know if it's appropriate) I've recently discovered that God loves everyone. He loves the poor, women, gays, other religions, everyone. I guess we're still the smartest church in the world. Now if we could only admit these facts and say it's ok if you're different, you're still loved. Then, maybe the murderers, beaters, cheaters, drug users, liers and smokers would feel so good about themselves they wouldn't have to do evil things.
lLetha Chamberlain
10 years ago
Thank you, Father, and thank everyone for these comments. They added much to my enjoyment of this article, and my pondering on the viscissitudes of "Church hierarchy"--the results of which have slowed down the progress of a ministry (and perhaps this was well, I do not know for certain)I have felt was good for people, by their own admission. Administration of government, whether it be of Church or the nation--is such that we cannot see all the "in-and-out's" that go into decisions, but there is certainly a good deal of "back seat driving" that goes on, both for good and ill.
10 years ago
Kant,schmant! You know you're in trouble when a priest starts an article with a reference to a philosopher who had a "problem" with God. You know, the Christian God, the one in the Nicene Creed. Thank the Lord and our Holy Father that our new priests are faithful to the Magisterium to the Church. Bless Franciscan, Christendom, Ave Maria, Mount St. Mary et al for educating young Catholics. Pray to St. Ignatius and all Jesuits martyred for the True Faith that Father Kavannaugh and other Jesuits recognize and teach that Faith! God bless you; I will pray for you daily.


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