I disagree with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s politics. I do not believe we are facing an imminent climate crisis, certainly not one requiring the massive tax increases and environmental regulations she proposes. I also do not believe that our predominantly free-market economy is “rigged” in favor of the rich.
Like many of Ocasio-Cortez’s critics, I am concerned that a U.S. congresswoman, especially one touted as a new leader within the Democratic Party, consistently displays a profound ignorance of basic economics and civics, while routinely spouting off wildly inaccurate statistical claims. One such claim, that the Pentagon had “misplaced” $21 trillion, earned her four Pinocchios from the Washington Post.
But there is at least one issue about which “AOC” and I can agree: moral truth is more important than empirical facts.
A Matter of Perspective
When Anderson Cooper confronted Ocasio-Cortez on “60 Minutes” about her Pentagon claim and other voluminous factual blunders, her answer caused quite a stir: “If people want to really blow up one figure here, or one word there, I would argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees,” the congresswoman said. “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”
Naturally, Ocasio-Cortez was roundly mocked for her answer, and received criticism from both the right and the left. But if we can consider Ocasio-Cortez’s comments apart from her personal history, we can see that her assertion is not really that controversial.
Most people would agree that, in the grand scheme of things, dispensing accurate and precise figures matters little if your worldview is essentially immoral. Indeed, two people with opposing political philosophies can look at the same empirical information and argue that it “really” supports their contention.
Take, for example, the debate over illegal immigration. While conservatives tend to think the crimes illegal aliens commit warrant a far more active border security policy, liberals assert the opposite. Both sides generally recognize that illegally present foreign citizens commit fewer crimes (including homicides) than native-born Americans.
Yet conservatives also point out that illegal aliens commit more crimes than do those with legal residency. And even if just one American is killed by an illegal immigrant, it is worth taking action because the murderer “was not supposed to be here.”
For folks like Ocasio-Cortez, however, the moral imperative to help impoverished foreigners outweighs the risk of admitting criminals. There are no statistics, no data, no set of empirical research that could bridge the gap between these two positions. At bottom, the current immigration dispute is moral and philosophical; it is not primarily a disagreement over “hard facts.”
Moral Truth Is Paramount
Of course, understanding that morality takes logical precedence over empirical facts does not entail that moral assertions are all that is needed when crafting policy. If anything, modern politics suffers from an overabundance of moralistic rhetoric and a dearth of empirical reasoning. But that is hardly a justification for discarding moral dialectics completely, as the reactions to Ocasio-Cortez’s comments imply.
Inverting Ben Shapiro’s classic aphorism, some have summarized her remarks with the pithy “Feelings don’t care about your facts,” as though moral precepts were simply “feelings.” Such relativistic reasoning is incredibly dangerous. This is apparent when applied to a profound evil like abortion.
No compendium of scientific facts would be sufficient to demonstrate that abortion is immoral. Sure, one may come to condemn abortion after learning a particular fact about prenatal life—for instance, that a child’s heart begins to beat about six weeks after conception—but it is not enough to logically determine that a pre-born child has moral value, and that is certainly not enough to prove the immorality of abortion. Reducing moral truths to “feelings” would turn both the pro-life and pro-choice positions into mere preferences, leaving us without a rational method by which we could settle the debate.
That is not to say that facts ought to be disregarded to advance a particular moral cause. When one-time Senate-hopeful Todd Akin made ludicrous statements about women being able to “shut down” the process of conception, he was not doing the pro-life cause any favors. A good end does not excuse willful ignorance.
But if we simply engage in a war of information, one in which we haphazardly hurl facts and figures at the opposition and dismiss their rebuttals as “fake news,” we risk overlooking what truly divides us as a nation. Ours is a conflict of visions, not of facts.