Wednesday

September 22nd, 2021

Insight

No Controlling Moral Authority: 'There is no law against it' doesn't tell us all we need to know

Theodore Dalrymple

By Theodore Dalrymple City Journal

Published June 7, 2021

When a reporter from National Public Radio, Asma Khalid, asked the White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, whether it was out of the ordinary for a president to ask for the resignation of members of the United States Fine Arts Commission, as President Biden had just done in the case of Justin Shubow and three others, she replied that presidents have "the right to nominate their own people to serve on a commission or serve in any positions in their own administration."

When I read this, the question that came to my mind was whether it was worse if Psaki did or did not realize that this was not an answer to the question that she had been asked.

If she didn't realize it, it was evidence of incapacity; if she did, it was evidence of bad faith. Which is worse in a senior government official, incapacity or bad faith?

She was not asked whether the president had the legal power to do what he did; she was asked whether it was customary for him to do what he did. The answer might be yes or no, but she appeared not to make the distinction between what was legal and what was customary, either because she didn't see it and therefore couldn't make it, or because she felt that it was unworthy of consideration.

If the latter were the case, perhaps, it was the more sinister. It suggests that the only restraint on the exercise of power of an elected head of government is and ought to be the law. If the law permits something, it is permitted in all other senses, and custom and practice have no say in the matter.

It is not only politicians, however, who think like this: it is far from uncommon to hear people upbraided by others for behaving in a doubtful fashion say something like, "There is no law against it," as if this were a completely satisfactory and conclusive reply. For such people, the law determines not only what is legal to do but what is right and proper to do.

This way of thinking is both a symptom and a cause of the absence of an unenforceable moral code that is held, if not universally, at least by a large proportion of the population. As Edmund Burke knew, where there is no inner restraint, there will have to be external restraint — in other words, the law, which will be permissive and repressive at the same time.

(COMMENT, BELOW)

Theodore Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journal, where this first appeared, is the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of many books, including Not with a Bang but a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline.

Previously:
04/06/21 Manufacturing Dissent
03/22/21: Montaigne's Humanity: The great essayist warns us against intellectual pride --- but also delights in the variety and contradictoriness of life
01/11/21: The Dystopian Imagination: Why did the twentieth century produce so many works of fiction depicting not an ideal future but a future as terrible as could be imagined?
11/30/20: The Age of Cant: These days, you must hold the right opinions and express none of the wrong ones --- or else
08/10/20: The Covid Occupation
07/13/20: Shakespeare's Richards: The Bard's two historical dramas offer contrasts between political pathologies
06/09/20: Call It Abuse: On bringing children to political protests
02/06/20: Recipe for Chaos: A disruptive 'ethical vegan' launches a religious-discrimination debate
01/06/20: No Final Victories
01/03/20: A Matter of Truth: On Ricky Gervais, J. K. Rowling, and speaking frankly
12/03/19: Deadly Superstitions in London: Another terrorist attack reveals Britain's delusions about rehabilitation
12/02/19: Labour's Lethal Manifesto
10/16/19: Deniable Dishonesty: Elites deride traditional views of marriage, while adhering to them in their own lives
10/07/19: European Gloom
08/06/19: Again, and Again: On mass shootings and the role of imitation
05/06/19: Every Pronoun Must Go: To root out gender inequity, we must search every corner
04/15/19: Just Deserts: To deny that some cases have more merit than others is to dehumanize life
03/18/19: Theresa May's Lucky Defeat
03/11/19: Where 'positive discrimination' keeps a qualified candidate off the police force
12/31/18: Because I Say So
12/17/18: Enforceable Subjectivity
12/06/18: Boiling Over in Paris
11/13/18: Psychiatrist, Heal Thyself
10/31/18: Rationalizing Ugliness: How the modern intellectual screens reality
08/18/18: Spelling That's Right for Moi
08/07/18: Any pol who lives by cleanliness dies by dirt
02/26/18: 'Steal what you like, but do not flaunt it'?
01/29/18: Human Condition Commission
12/21/17: O, Brave Old World!
11/30/17: Mugabism Without Mugabe
11/27/17: Trash Studies
10/24/17: The Devil's in the Diction: The vague terms that populate our political discourse encourage lazy and often deeply biased thinking
10/17/17: What Happened to Memoirs? An acerbic Gallic take on Hillary Clinton's book
10/09/17: The Unanswerable
09/26/17: Of Dotards and Dithyrambs: On learning English from the North Koreans
09/12/17: Freedom and Art: What paintings from Lenin's Russia and Depression America tell us about turbulent times
07/05/17: Rights: Health even for the dying? Or immortality, perhaps?
12/28/16: Like a Candle In Berlin: On the curious habits of the spiritual-but-not-religious

Columnists

Toons

Lifestyles