Philosophy professor Tully Borland has come under fire for his recent article in The Federalist, “Why Alabamians Should Vote for Roy Moore.” Actually, that’s putting it mildly. Apparently, writing an article that calls Moore a “terrible candidate,” but defends voting for him as the lesser of two evils, forces one to run the gauntlet between clubs on the Left and Right.
In complete disregard for academic freedom, many have called for Borland’s dismissal from his employment. In complete disregard for common decency or attention to Borland’s actual words, many have leveled the utterly false and malicious charge that he advocates pedophilia and is a defender of sexual assault. Witness the following Tweets:
@jeffreymarch9: The author of this column, Tully Borland, is cool with pedophelia [sic], says you gotta start early if you want a big family.
@dyrdaisy: “Well, actually, f-cking children is good.” is not a take I expected.
@binaryecho: “Hi I’m Tully Borland and I think raping children is ok.”
@ashleyruu: The author is a professor … teaching our future leaders. The University should remove him immediately.
How did we get here? What did Borland actually say? After a quick summary of what Borland said, I want to make a few observations about the reactions to it from the Left and the Right, both a snapshot of a larger, bleak picture of the current state of American public discourse.
What Borland Actually Said
Comparing Moore to opponent Doug Jones, Borland argues that a Moore victory would be the lesser of the two evils in a binary election in which these are the only two viable options. Why? Well, even if Moore is guilty of sexual assault and seeking sexual relationships with girls as young as 14 some 40 years ago, as accused, that is very unlikely to have policy ramifications today, whereas Jones supports a policy of unrestricted abortion today.
Don’t be misled here: Jones supports killing a fetus up to the moment of crowning, the moment a baby exits his mother during birth. That isn’t your typical pro-choice position. That’s almost as extreme as they come. So, as Borland sees it, “either Jones knows exactly what he’s doing in supporting killing babies in utero but doesn’t care, in which case he’s a moral monster, or his moral compass is in such need of calibration that one should never trust his judgment in moral matters.” Borland therefore concludes that one is morally justified in voting for Moore, whose win would result in lesser evil.
Like Borland, I am a philosophy professor. As such I know that sometimes, when we argue for a position, we can’t content ourselves with just one point that’s good enough. We throw in the gratuitous kitchen sink as well.
The kitchen sink, in Borland’s article, was his noting that there are at least two reasons to doubt what he is granting for the sake of argument; i.e., that a swift and harsh guilty verdict against Moore is justified. The first reason is that the evidence brought forth to substantiate the charges against Moore is questionable. Most recently, one of Moore’s accusers admitted to writing part of the yearbook inscription she’d formerly attributed to him as proof of her story.
The second reason Borland borrows from Keith Burgess Jackson, who observes that differences between Alabama’s social mores 40 years ago and ours today make it easy for us to see him as even more of a creep in pursuing those teens (of legal age) than he would have been back then. These points, however, are irrelevant to Borland’s main argument, which, again, assumes that Moore is in fact a guilty scumbag. Nearly every response to Borland, either maliciously or mistakenly, failed to take this into account.
Maliciousness From the Left
The Left almost uniformly seized on Borland’s quote from Burgess-Jackson about differences in social mores to suggest that Borland and The Federalist approve of pedophilia. The Daily Banter ran a “response” article titled “Holy. Sh*t. The Federalist Literally Just Endorsed Molesting Little Girls.”
Surprised by that headline, given what Borland actually said? You shouldn’t be. Libel is par for the leftist course. So is hypocrisy: the Left has been getting increasingly soft on pedophilia for some time now. Prominent leftist outlet Salon actually ran an article defending pedophilia not too long ago. Since then a Salon editor had the discretion to take the pro-pedophilia article down, no doubt realizing that it’s a tad too soon for the Left to come out of the closet on that.
But the hypocrisy continues. Perhaps the most common criticism of Borland from the Left is how appalling it is that someone would support a morally questionable politician for the sake of policy gains. Of course, such criticisms have exactly no purchase, because this is exactly what leftists have done for years. In light of sexual assault allegations against Bill Clinton, for example, feminist reporter Nina Burleigh famously said that she would be happy to perform oral sex on Clinton “just to thank him for keeping abortion legal.”
A huge difference between Borland and the Left, however, is that Borland never defended or denied that Moore did what is alleged, whereas the Left only recently decided to come to terms with Clinton’s sins because it is only now convenient for them to do so.
In our own profession, philosophy blogger Brian Leiter links to a Fox News article on the controversy, titling his post “Philosophers Defend Roy Moore’s Pedophilia.” Leiter gives us “no comment” besides being “hardly surprised by those involved.” The title of Leiter’s post, of course, is precisely the only comment he really wanted to make.
This brouhaha gave leftists all the ammunition they needed to launch one of their typical bully campaigns against Borland, doing their best to soil his reputation online and pressuring his university to fire him. This is pure ignorance-fueled malicious bloodlust, and is just plain wrong.
The suggestion that what Borland said even remotely implies a warm attitude toward pedophilia is, frankly, below the dignity of response. But as William Vallicella often says, there is no decency on the Left. If I were Borland, I’d seriously consider lawyering up against some of these slanderous thugs.
Mistakes from the Right
Reactions from the Right to Borland’s article have been mixed. National Review’s David French response simply failed to charitably grapple with Borland’s main argument. Robert Gagnon, who seems to have firmly grasped Borland’s argument aright, saw this. In a Facebook post, Gagnon wrote:
I recommend that you read this article by Tully Borland (associate professor of philosophy … and a former member of the 82nd Airborne Division). I think it makes some good points. Then read the biting (sadly, unnecessarily abusive) attack of Borland by David French (‘an embarrassing effort,’ ‘something so silly,” ‘making incredibly stupid analogies,’ ‘almost reach ‘Joseph married a teenager’ levels of insanity,’ ‘It just keeps getting worse,’ ‘a lame attempt,’ ‘This man is a philosopher?,’ ‘Can he possibly be serious?’). … Finally, make up your own mind. I don’t think the case is slam dunk in either direction, though one may lean one way or the other. I certainly don’t think that we should be abusing the other over it.
The closest French comes to a substantive response to Borland is in the following:
Of course we’re always choosing between imperfect men, but there are profound differences between conventional politicians and a man who tried to rape a teenager when he was a D.A. Believe it or not, the American political ranks are chock-full of politicians who possess better character than Moore, whose pasts are far less checkered. I don’t even have to get to the difficult process of line-drawing to have confidence in declaring that Christians should not vote to put a credibly-accused child abuser in the Senate.
But this is misdirection. That the American political ranks are chock-full of politicians who possess better character than Moore is beside the point, since they aren’t running against Moore. It’s Jones running against Moore, so that is the only comparison that matters.
Maybe French’s main argument is that Borland has given us the false dilemma of having to vote for either Moore or Jones, when we can always “Vote for a third candidate. Write someone in. Or stay home.” This argument is echoed by French’s NRO colleague Jonah Goldberg and the Washington Post’s Molly Roberts. But given that these other options would result in an increased likelihood of a radical abortion advocate winning a hotly contested Senate seat, neither French, Goldburg, nor Roberts have said why any of these third options is morally superior to voting for Moore.
More measured, though still mistaken, was Mike Austin at Psychology Today. Austin also charges Borland with a false dilemma. According to Austin, Borland’s contention that either Jones is a moral monster or a moral ignoramus is fallacious because there is a third option; namely, that “Jones is a morally decent human being, with a sufficiently functional moral compass, who is deeply mistaken about the moral status of the fetus.”
But two things should be pointed out here. First, to think that it is morally acceptable to kill a fetus all the way up to the point when you can see its head coming out of the vagina during full-term delivery is no honest mistake about its moral status. We’re not talking about pre- or post-viability arguments here. So, second, Austin’s third option is not in fact a third option at all: it is just a rosy restatement of Borland’s second option that Jones is a moral ignoramus (i.e., mistaken—indeed, in Austin’s words, “deeply mistaken”). Tertium non datur.
From maliciousness on the Left and mistakes on the Right, neither reaction has given Borland’s argument its due.
Final Observations About This Episode
Let me close by making two observations about these reactions. First, for all the moral preening in them, all also conveniently neglect to mention Borland’s position that Alabama should boot Moore from the Senate in the wake of victory to bring about another special election.
Mentioning that would, after all, make clear that Borland thinks as much of Moore as Borland’s critics do. But that robs his critics of their presumed moral high ground, placing them instead on the level playing field of philosophical argument. And who wants to argue with a philosophy professor? We throw kitchen sinks.
The second observation is this. As I’ve pointed out, nearly everyone has focused on points in Borland’s article that were, strictly speaking, gratuitous. His main argument was sufficient. Yet it is not his fault that people didn’t understand or engage that argument, either out of malice or mistake.
Both reactions, however, illustrate what we’ve known for a long time: public discourse is on life support. How have we gone from the Lincoln-Douglas debates—or the Federalist Papers, for that matter—to vicious 140 character tweets whose only design is to wreck the lives of people we disagree with? Borland’s article is, if nothing else, an honest, substantive take on what to do in an unfortunately frequent “lesser of two evils” election. Libel and straw men aren’t honest or sound critiques.
What happens to a country when its citizens, and even its lawmakers, cannot logically follow or properly engage an argument? We’ve got to do better than this for ourselves, our fellow citizens, and country, lest we be the generation that proves true Lincoln’s prediction of a time when passion fails to aid reason, and instead becomes its bitter enemy.