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Gregory Rodriguez: Fundamental moral errors

Fanaticism led Shawna Forde, the Arizona anti-immigrant vigilante convicted of murder, to bypass morality.

February 21, 2011|Gregory Rodriguez

Political fanaticism fosters moral relativism. That's the lesson we should all learn from the gruesome case of Shawna Forde, the Arizona anti-immigrant vigilante who was convicted last week of two counts of first-degree murder.


FOR THE RECORD:
Morality: A Feb. 21 column about the way fanaticism breeds moral relativism referred to the murder of a landlady in Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment." The murder victim was a pawnbroker.

Prosecutors argued that Forde and two accomplices killed 29-year-old Raul Junior Flores and his 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia, in a botched robbery attempt meant to raise money to fund a splinter group of the anti-immigrant Minuteman movement.

Posing as border patrol and law enforcement officers, Forde and friends showed up at Flores' home after midnight and invaded it with tragic consequences. Prosecuters pointed to testimony that Forde had bragged about her plans to steal the money to finance her vigilantism just weeks before the assault. Evidently, Forde's political fixation overrode any belief in the injunction that "thou shalt not kill."

It'd be easy to dismiss the Forde case as a crazy one-off incident. And let's hope it isn't repeated. But her willingness to discard the most basic of moral standards for the sake of a political obsession is something we're all to familiar with in the 21st century.

The South Dakota Legislature's House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would have expanded the definition of justifiable homicide to include killing someone in the defense of an unborn child. The bill was shelved last week by cooler heads who feared it could provide legal cover for the killing of abortion providers.

During George W. Bush's administration, the issue of the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" had the U.S. government employing one well-establishd evil in an attempt to combat another. The primacy of the battle against terrorism allowed government lawyers to parse words and find loopholes in long-held legal standards protecting prisoners of war.

Of course, conservatives are not the only ones capable of ignoring one set of morals in the single-minded pursuit of another. I know scores of lefty believers in freedom who have condoned dictators — think Fidel Castro or, for an earlier generation, Josef Stalin — because they believe their ideological ends justify their repressive means.

Dostoevsky had this nailed in "Crime and Punishment": His protagonist, Raskolnikov, justified the murder of his landlady, reasoning that his life was worth more than hers — that his grand mission to serve "humanity and the good of all" justified a heinous act.

What may be most interesting about all these Raskolnikovs is the way they betray their beliefs — in lawfulness, in the sanctity of life, in liberty — at the same time they think they are pursuing them.

The great irony is that many observers believe that the global rise in political and religious fanaticism is a reaction against the freedom, choices and moral relativism of modernity.

"Under modern conditions," sociologist Peter Berger has noted, "almost everyone lives in communities in which diversity has taken the place of consensus." Some people react poorly to this "certainty scarcity." They adopt fervent convictions — fundmentalism, if you will — as a coping mechanism.

But as the Shawna Forde story suggests, the illusion of absolute certainty can itself breed moral relativism, in which right and wrong are situational and do not apply to all people equally, especially the true believer.

University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has gone so far as to argue that our moral beliefs and our behavior aren't really connected. He suggests that our sense of right and wrong is mostly based on emotional intuition, on how an action makes us feel. If it makes us "feel bad" to kick a dog, we're likely to think it's the wrong thing to do.

Such a disconnect between articulated moral stances and fundamental moral intuition helps explain how the former can ride roughshod over the latter. In Haidt's words, people "reason their way to a judgment by sheer force of logic, overriding their initial intuition."

What seems to happen to a Shawna Forde or an antiabortion legislator in South Dakota or a Castro-at-all-costs sympathizer is that the convictions they brew up in their heads give them permission to ignore the sense of right and wrong that comes from their hearts.

If nothing else, the Forde case suggests that the embrace of absolutes is proving to be at least as morally dangerous as relativism. Utter certainty about one issue is a poor substitute for simply doing the right thing.

grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com

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