The “All Decent People” Fallacy

The assumption that all decent people agree about some issue, regardless of what that issue is, may very well lead to more indecency than any other idea. For it implies that we can distinguish decent from indecent people by checking their opinions on the issue, and that decent people can reference this distinction to justify acting indecently toward indecent people. Decent people will presumably acknowledge, however, that their opinions, just like everyone else’s, have changed over time: including their opinions regarding issues about which “all decent people agree”. So whenever a decent person uses other peoples’ opinions to judge them as either decent or indecent, as if decency and indecency are fixed personal attributes, he either condemns as “indecent” all people who have ever held a different view on the issue of concern—condemning himself—or else he contradicts the idea that decent people can acknowledge changes in their own views on that issue. To avoid self-condemnation while also resolving this contradiction, he should regard decency, to the extent that it is an objective moral concept, not as an attribute of people (who change constantly in self-contradictory ways, and who thus cannot meaningfully be described as “decent” or “indecent”), but instead as an attribute of certain kinds of ideas: namely, the meanings behind peoples’ behaviors. Such meanings, if they are interpreted in their original contexts, are timeless and objective, and can therefore be meaningfully described in terms of objective moral truth: a concept implicit in the judgments “decent” and “indecent”. This proposed usage avoids contradictions and suggests no right to condemn a person for holding a different opinion. It also preserves common speech about decent and indecent actions. Most importantly, this usage encourages us all to engage seriously with criticism of our own ideas no matter who it comes from. If we think that some people are indecent and can therefore be ignored, then we may automatically refuse to engage with their criticisms of our ideas. Such refusal prevents corrections of our moral mistakes, which, given our fallibility, may be the most basic moral evil of all.

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