Think a Second Time
by Dennis Prager
Making an argument for ethical monotheism, Dennis Prager packs 46 essays between these covers. Two types of essays dominate Prager's work: Easy issues and weakly supported issues. The easy issues include the wrongness of pacifism, the error of ad hominem attacks, and the wrongness of psychologizing. Prager's title is ironic. Americans already hold many of Prager's beliefs, including myself.
This brand of feel-good ethics is still fighting the Cold War, World War II, and less important battles, never mind the threats from present day oligarchism, ideologies, and indifference. When evils blindside individuals, the followers of this stuff start blaming everyone but themselves. Or if they have a personal crises mode, start wondering, as Dosteyevsky put it: How can it be, I did everything so properly?
Some basic ideas offered: If you are dissatisfied with something in your life, do “whatever [uh-oh!] you can” to get it, or let it go. (I prefer teenager's usage of the word whatever much more than the usage of whatever in ultraconservatism.) A self-described moderate, Prager develops his own version of The Devil's Dictionary, except every term excoriates liberals, indicating how worthless the term moderate is. (Rule #419 of life: Beware of neoconservatives, neodemocrats, and neorepublicans calling themselves centrists and moderates. It ain't even close to being true.)
This work uses much ink on peripheral issues: A stripper who strips for her dad on the Phil Donahue show is worse than a man who goes to a strip club, notes Prager, because it's in public and has incestuous implications—good point but still a trivial national issue. And the difference between private and public behavior is important—good point. Prager also writes that a bad politician does more harm than all the strippers in America.
But how do we prevent bad politicians? Apparently, by emphasizing personal kindness, not what Prager derisively calls “macro goodness.” (I want to vomit whenever I hear people talk about what nice guys Ronald Reagan and George W Bush were.)
Prager makes the point that millions of worse things exist than mild hypocrisy on trivial issues. (Eating a grape when you said you shouldn't is nothing like murder.) But Prager is mistaken in saying that only religious individuals can be called "hypocrites," that deviation from official religious rules of religious leaders makes you a hypocrite. Hypocrisy results from contradicting yourself, not contradicting the beliefs of others, including religious leaders. In addition, many individuals cannot tell the difference between real contradictions and illusory contradictions. It is not a contradiction to change beliefs or actions when strong moral evidence suggests they should change. It is not a contradiction to promote one policy for one country and a different policy for another country when the situations in the two countries differ.
Some of Prager's work almost looks recycled from Bertrand Russell, though Russell’s version is better: “Christians think the adulterer more wicked than the corrupt politician, though the latter does more harm... the medieval conception of virtue was wishy-washy, feeble and sentimental... Spaniards baptized Indian infants and dashed their brains out—securing that they would go to heaven.” Holiness served those who were morally evil or impotent. The good person does good, argued Russell. He does not strive to "be" good. Those who reform politics, argued Russell, are not accorded saintly status. Early Christians excoriated family affection. The result: Holiness served selfishness and asceticism. “Christ tells us to become children, but children can not understand calculus, currency or disease prevention.” Adults who act as children children get eaten or allow others to get eaten.
(The anti-macro goodness crowd shoves important issues into oblivion using all-to-easy reasons: The bigger world is too heartless for me to bother. I'm too little to accomplish much. Private actions ripple outward and are enough to change the world. Goodness is uncool. A world-weary cynicism is wisdom.
Claiming that promiscuous heterosexual nonmarital sex is not wrong but a “Lower Ideal,” Prager makes a not good point. Prage claims premarital sex is “Less Ideal,” and monogamous heterosexual sex is “The Ideal.” All other sex, he argues, is sinful or evil.
Prager defines holiness as the difference between human and animal behavior. Thus, if you imitate an animal to entertain a child, you may be unholy. If a bear defends its cubs and you defend your children, you may be unholy.
Prager's claims he supports the primacy of moral reasoning. But his work is flat-out loaded with reasoning errors. Irrelevant, ad populum, inadequate expert, ad hominem, and unclear claims clutter this work, as well as jumbled issues, straw folks, bad definitions, missing quantifications, and loads of problems with causal relationships. In one essay, Prager calls for a one-year moratorium on motive ad hominems. It must have been a different year from the other essays. Most conspicuous, in an ostensibly ethical work, is the near absence of the words benefit, harm, and duty. But unlike the hackneyed glittering generalities and glittering demonizations found in other books, Prager's work is a comparitively original collection of glittering generalities and glittering demonizations.
Developing his own brand of nurture assumptions, Prager alleges parents can make kids good by reducing parental emphasis on spankings, feelings, ridicule, romanticism, self-esteem, neediness, and macro goodness (public policies). Parents, he claims, should increase their emphasis on quantity time, higher authorities, and interpersonal kindness.
Prager makes the good point that goodness is more important than art, law, literacy, religion, and other things. But Prager’s narrow conception of character fails. Prager is in good territory pointing out the rottenness of moral equivalence. Another good point: Self-pity is self-degrading.
Prager, a radio host, prints an embarrassing exchange between himself and a caller (a single, professional woman). Prager claims the woman should not have a child, thinking he has proven his case using offal, irrelevancies, and constant repetition of the would-be child’s right to a father, an absolute rule, apparently. (One rule of radio and television success: Keep hitting opponents with the same sledgehammers, while maintaining authoritative visual images and voice tones, while avoiding pauses. Pausing to think does not make you look careful or thoughtful. It makes you look confused. Being a battering ram of claims is seen as better than improving the arguments.) Prager's exchange is pathetic, even by radio standards, but somehow Prager saw fit to include this “essay.” Prager has at least one thing in common with Ronald Dworkin and the ultraliberalism Prager excoriates: Prager thinks his rules serve as automatic trump cards. Prager accuses her of being selfish. Call me crazy, but a life with a single professional in the U.S. of A. sounds much better than no life at all.
Television is bad, opines Prager, but fixable. If so, it has a long way to go. It appears that almost everything on TV is moral or aesthetic refuse, as in at least 999 of 1000 broadcasts. Prager appears to think reading five newspapers a day makes one wise. This book reminds me of the movie Clueless. The main character (Alicia Silverstone) was presented as clueless. Her love interest was a couch potato character who supposedly represented wisdom because he watched CNN and read Nietzsche. Ugh.
Prager subscribes to the view that abstract arguments do not motivate and that abstract arguments do not change the world. Like others I have heard this view from, Prager does not provide evidence to support this belief.
Pacifism, Prager splendidly points out, leads to more deaths—the deaths of those who do not deserve death. A big difference exists between justified killing and murder. Prager also correctly criticizes some of the apathetic and anti-nomianist strands within Christianity.
This work is helpful in reminding us to avoid these: Fascism, Communism, Christian fundamentalism, Muslim fundamentalism, and blood tribalism. Of course, Prager offers almost nothing on how to prevent fanaticism.
Then there's this error: “[T]he pursuit of profits is obviously value neutral.” Oh, really! Sort of like the way some claim science and technologies are value neutral.
Prager also draws us an “argument” data table with the bad, buzzword, straw person conclusions in one column and the good, buzzword conclusions in another column. Prager has ideas on men and women, too. He could be a stand-up comedian saying, “Men and women be different, maaaaaaan.” He claims boys and young men listen to men, not women (without evidence). If you are looking for the ethical part in ethical monotheism, look elsewhere.
This work is for work averse individuals who feel vague unease and want their own goodness reassured by having correct beliefs on emotively loaded issues such as the death penalty. Nearly a billion individuals are malnourished and millions of children die each year from easily preventable evils, yet according to Prager, your beliefs on the death penalty are the morality litmus test. The death penalty is a litmus test like euthanasia and genetically modified food are--morality by intuition, publicity, and scare tactics.
Prager suggests that morality is more than a list of don’ts, yet he never argues that the reader do anything inspiring and important. Prager does argue for a human chain around a house. Whup-dee-do. Maybe the chain can link with Hands Across America.
Think a Second Time contains an atrocious essay on extremism. He would have been better off writing an essay on fanaticism, the closing of the mind to evidence. A big distinction between the two exists. Winston Churchill practiced extremism. There's nothing wrong with extremism done for the right reasons. Some of the best people in the world are extremists and some of the worst are not extremists.
Combine the new virtue ethics with the new natural law ethics and this is what you get pop self-justification 101.
Book review article by JT Fournier, last updated March 2, 2014.