Put down that Flaming Sword of Righteousness!

I have a very short list of writers I treasure for their common sense. (These folks also write in a spare, flowing, lucid, and generally delightful way that I admire—I think there’s a connection.) I expect I’ll cite them often in the months to come, basing my own thoughts on things they’ve written.

Megan McArdle is one of them. I began reading her pieces in The Atlantic, and followed her when she moved to Bloomberg News. She writes about economics from a libertarian viewpoint, but never lets theory get in the way of practical, sensible thinking. And she is fearless about drawing illustrations from everyday life, so much so that they often interest me more than the political or economic topics she applies them to.

In a recent piece about political divisions and how to heal them, she began with this:

Shortly before I got married, I received a piece of sterling advice that I have been mulling a lot over the last year: “You have a big decision to make: Do you want to be married, or do you want to be right?”

Even a good marriage offers a lot of opportunities for grievance. Suddenly, you cannot make any major decision without consulting this other person — who will, inconveniently, often have very different ideas from yours about where to live, what to spend the money on, how to raise the children, and whether to turn the basement into a home theater space or a library. (The correct answer, for those who are wondering, is “library.”)

Although I grant that this leads solidly into her main topic, the illustration is way more interesting to me than political divisions. Marriage may be where we first confront this dilemma, but it really encompasses all relationships in a life—in the case of conflict what should be more important to us, peace or victory?

If you spend your marriage trying to ensure that everything is always rigorously fair and just, and grabbing the flaming sword of righteousness every time some minor wrong is done to you, you may soon find that you spend more time fighting than you would have picking up their towels or going into the other room to watch a movie because your spouse is in a bad mood. Or you may find that you have a peaceful, clean house that’s exactly as you want it — because you’re living there alone.

I can’t say when the shift began for me, but by now there is hardly any situation where I will insist on getting my way, or that someone else meet my standards. Which isn’t to say that I never steer things in a preferred direction, but only after due consideration of the needs and wishes of others. And I am always on the lookout for potential conflict, and will concede just about anything to avoid it.

A related point I’ve lately been trying to convey to my kids: too often we only bring fairness and justice to bear when it will gain us something. That is, I never hear “That’s not fair!” from the person who got the better part of the deal. Which is also why I’m reluctant to resolve any such conflict between kids with “fairness”. There’s a real temptation to dole out justice as a means of exercising power, making it clear that the household must be run according to my standards—something that itself could do more damage than the wrong I am supposedly righting.

One final observation: where McArdle writes “… do you want to be right?” I can only read it as “… do you want to win?” I’ve found it very helpful to remember that being right doesn’t require that anyone acknowledge I am right. And it is often more gracious and loving to yield to someone else’s notion—it’s rare that following any path forward, however suboptimal, will do more damage than wielding the flaming sword of righteousness against it.

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3 thoughts on “Put down that Flaming Sword of Righteousness!

  1. I often enjoy her writing, too. I agree with McArdle if I add the assumption that disagreements are between relatively equal parties or about grievances where the level of inequity between the parties is relatively irrelevant, i.e., if the argument is primarily about principle vs pragmatism. If we’re going to talk about politics, then I would say, for instance, that there is probably a center somewhere in the debate about health insurance in which conservatives realize that there are political or social problems and significant costs that stem from a completely unregulated insurance market that excludes millions of people and liberals realize that the health insurance market probably needs to include some kinds of incentives and rules about access and medical care actually does have costs and universal health care is not “free.”

    The problem I see with her argument, though, is that I regularly notice groups in the US (I don’t know that I’m a member of any of them, but they are there) that have just grievances in part because they are or have been powerless. Cries of “it’s not fair” from the privileged or the only slightly underprivileged are different in my book from cries of “it’s not fair” from the oppressed. I can’t imagine that you as a parent would consistently treat your children inequitably (or your family life would be significantly unhappier than it seems to be from what you write about it), but our society does treat people in truly inequitable ways.

    The oppressed need representation and I can see why they resort to one of the parties to get it, even if it’s not the most efficient or peaceful strategy, because what other redress do they have?

  2. Cries of “it’s not fair” from the privileged or the only slightly underprivileged are different in my book from cries of “it’s not fair” from the oppressed.

    Servetus,

    I wholeheartedly agree that they come from a different place, and that the oppressed have a real and substantial claim to justice while the rest are engaged in cynical maneuvering. My qualms are about appealing to fairness at all. I wouldn’t deny the oppressed any advantage they might gain through such an appeal—but I think they will only be tactical gains, and those who use them successfully run the risk of developing their own taste for power.

    I need to emphasize that I have no vision of my own for what would lead to a more just society. My instincts tell me that a more compassionate society would also be more just, and that emphasizing fairness can undermine compassion by giving the oppressors a technical escape clause—as long as we’re fair, we don’t need to care. But I have no confidence that compassion can be imposed by any external mechanism, societal or religious or ethical. I think we only learn to care for others one at a time.

    I can’t imagine that you as a parent would consistently treat your children inequitably (or your family life would be significantly unhappier than it seems to be from what you write about it), but our society does treat people in truly inequitable ways.

    I think we’ve been largely successful at eliminating fairness as a principle in our family life, at least in its zero-sum form. I try to give each the best I have to offer, and rarely does doing that for one steal from what I have for the others. I succeed to the extent that each one thinks they are my favorite—and I don’t see that as a pipedream.

    The oppressed need representation and I can see why they resort to one of the parties to get it, even if it’s not the most efficient or peaceful strategy, because what other redress do they have?

    As a practical matter in present-day society, I agree. And I think it’s an excellent character-building exercise for the privileged (including me) to concede, regularly and generously.

    The points you raise here resonate with this blog post from Adam Roberts which ruminates on (among many other things) the challenge that privilege presents to Christians in a time of Christendom. I’d say we haven’t met the challenge well, or even recognized it for what it is.

  3. I personally prefer fairness to compassion because I think fairness is something that can be multiply determined (or debated from the outside) while compassion seems to fall into the realm of the individual, and can be retracted at any time. As you say, it’s a one at a time thing, and some people shouldn’t need to wait.

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