Thinking carefully about neutrality

According to C. S. Lewis, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” Basically, Lewis means that Christians should think carefully.

Christians should think extra carefully nowadays—especially when it comes to claims about philosophical neutrality.

Let me explain. I’ve noticed that many people wish to appear neutral on certain moral issues, but actually aren’t. Their claims seem sophisticated and intelligent—and neutral and above the fray—but this is a philosophical façade

Here is an example from a few years ago: “I’m neither for abortion nor against abortion.”

Sounds “neutral,” doesn’t it? But it isn’t. It actually assumes a particular view on the abortion issue. It takes the view that others can make the choice for an abortion if they want to. If you hold the view, it means that you don’t think the fetus is a human being with the right to life. That is a particular view—not neutral at all.

Think of it this way: If one says about slavery that one is neither for it nor against it, then one is assuming/taking the view that the slave isn’t a full human being with rights. And it means one will let people choose to have a slave if they wish. That’s not neutral.

Here is a more recent example. Hawk Newsome of Black Lives Matter stated the following: “I don’t condone nor do I condemn rioting.” And: “I just want black liberation, and black sovereignty. By any means necessary.” 

Newsome seems to be taking a neutral position on rioting. After all, he says he doesn’t condone it nor does he condemn it. Neutral, right?

Wrong. Newsome’s I-don’t-condone-or-condemn-rioting claim is not a neutral position. Rioting hurts innocent people. It destroys their livelihoods, and it usually escalates to such an extent that innocent people get killed.

Again, think about slavery. Not condemning or condoning slavery is not neutral. It’s to suggest that if you want a slave, then go ahead and have one. Or think of it this way: Not condemning or condoning, say, killing Jews isn’t neutral, either.  It’s to suggest that if you want to kill a Jew, that’s your choice. Newsome’s I-don’t-condone-or-condemn-rioting suggests/implies that you can go ahead and riot—it’s merely a matter of your choice. No big deal.

Yeah, right. Say that to the folks in Minneapolis who lost their livelihoods and to the families of those who lost their lives.

What is worse (for Newsome’s view) is that Newsome’s so-called neutral position—especially when it doesn’t condemn rioting—is legitimized as appropriate or right if it serves his ends (which are righteous in his eyes). Recall that he wants to get what he wants “by any means necessary.” But this anything-goes-if-it-supports-my-ideology is the reasoning of ruthless authoritarians, as history shows. (Think of the 1985 film The Killing Fields.) In other words, it’s anything but neutral. It’s like a bystander who shrugs his shoulders and walks away as somebody gets raped and murdered.

Here is another example. In Calgary a recently passed city bylaw concerning conversion therapy (helping a person resist his/her same-sex attractions if the person wishes to do so and asks for such help) requires that such therapy should be allowed only if it involves a “person’s non-judgmental exploration and acceptance of their identity or development.”

Jyoti Gondek, a Calgary city councillor, defended the bylaw as follows: “I think that the bylaw that’s before us has been written in such a manner that it is open to any conversations that people want to have as long as they’re non-judgmental. And for me it’s that phrase ‘non-judgmental’ that is key. The minute you pass a value judgment and call it a truth, you are going to hurt somebody. And that’s really all I want to say about this. We cannot say that just talking to somebody is not dangerous because it is. The words that you say will hurt that person.”

Sounds neutral and non-judgmental, doesn’t it?

It isn’t. First, Jyoti Gondek is talking to us and assuming that her view is true—so her assumption is a judgment that she’s already made and is passing off as “non-judgmental.” That’s a serious error of … judgment.

Second, for the law to claim under the banner of “non-judgmental” that it's okay only to promote views that go one particular way (i.e., “acceptance” in terms of how the city councillors such as Gondek think it should go) is also to make a judgment. It is to be the opposite of “non-judgmental.” And it is to be deceptive, whether wittingly or unwittingly. The banner of “non-judgmental” may make it seem that the position is neutral, but in fact it isn't neutral.

To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, careful thinking must exist, if for no other reason, because bad thinking needs to be answered.


Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, retired last year and was Associate Professor of Philosophy at Providence University College, Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada.

For further reading

On abortion

Untangling popular “pro-choice” claims and arguments concerning abortion

On Black Lives Matter

When we’re immersed in turmoil, what we need is clear ideas and a clear head

De-what the police?

Do two wrongs really make a right?

On conversion therapy

The Empirical Case against “Conversion-Therapy” Bans

JK Rowling is Right—Sex Is Real and It Is Not a “Spectrum”

When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment

A defense of the binary in human sex


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About the author


Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired philosophy professor who lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada.