The Moral Mind-Readers Need to Stop

The more they do it, the worse they look.

By Clint Roberts Published on March 6, 2023

It’s perfectly fine to render judgment on the clear views and actions of people. But what about the possible or potential views they might conceivably hold? I mean, who knows, right? They could secretly harbor Nazi sympathies for all I know.

What is Moral Mind-Reading?

I want to focus on a practice that has become prevalent. We can call it “moral mind-reading” though it’s gone by other descriptions. It happens when you attribute the worst motives to those whose views you dislike. Without evidence, you suggest the “true” feelings and intentions of your opponent; you allege that the “real” reason they hold this or that position is something sinister or morally repugnant.

I started to notice this a lot back when Obama first ran for president. His views were further to the left than any candidate’s had been prior to him. Opposition from the right was to be expected. But Obama was bi-racial, which was categorized simply as “black.” Because of this, the charge was made that the “real” reason for criticizing him was on that basis. In other words, an immoral (in this case, racist) motive was attributed to his opponents.

More recently this has become so normalized as to be predictable. Whether you’re for or against a given thing, you can usually guess in advance the ways in which hidden wicked motives will be attributed to you.

Examples: Are you for border enforcement? Your true reason for this is that you hate immigrants (or maybe just Mexicans), or you fear the threat to the white majority status. Are you pro-life? That is actually about your desire to subjugate and control women. Got a problem with sexually explicit progressive material coming into your elementary student’s classroom? That is simply because you hate and wish to harm vulnerable “trans kids.” Do you believe the COVID virus originated in the Wuhan lab? You’re privately anti-Asian.

Why We Do It

Why do people engage in this semi-Freudian armchair psychoanalysis of people’s ethical motivations? Aside from the social reasons that help explain it — such as that it’s trendy, or it’s a lazy way to score cheap points on ideological opponents — there are a couple of strategic reasons people do it.

First, when you attack the person, you evade the argument. An ad hominem fallacy (“against the person”) can be a distraction mechanism. You point at the person and say “He’s BAD,” and thereby take the focus off of the content of the debate. You can ignore the case your opponent is making by switching the focus to his or her personal character.

Most hyper-reaction against Trump was like this. People started calling it “Orange Man Bad.” It made it difficult to discuss or debate his political plans or actions. People couldn’t see past the villainous caricature they’d created. To this day a lot of Trump’s most vexed opponents would struggle to describe his political activities in office — the actual stuff of the presidency. Just as some of his most ardent supporters can seem blind and slavish in their loyalty, his unhinged enemies are no different. They’re an oppositional cult of personality.

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And it’s not just the most prominent figures. It filters down to everyday common supporters of campaigns or causes that someone doesn’t like. If you see someone cruising across the lake on Memorial Day with a “Make America Great Again” flag, you can reasonably assume their political affiliation. What you can’t legitimately assume is that what they really mean by that slogan is “Make America more white.” You have no idea who they are; you have no right to impose your ideological fantasies upon them.

A second reason people are prone to moral mind-reading is we love to build straw men. A “straw man” fallacy is when you re-make your opponent’s view or argument as a much weaker or more vulnerable one. The moral mind-readers do this constantly.

A great example is in the recent controversy about the curriculum in Florida schools, where a new AP African-American Studies course drew heavy criticism and was thus revised by the College Board. As even NPR explained, the problems with the course were carefully and specifically highlighted. The course was not merely a teaching of history. It was a training course in contemporary leftist activism. The highlighted problems were with readings by BLM activists, Neo-Marxists, and Queer theorists. It included lessons on anti-capitalism, intersectionality, contemporary gender studies, leftist revolutionary doctrines, recent arguments for reparations, etc.

The position of the state of Florida is that these politically slanted lessons are more like political indoctrination than the appropriate academic study of history. But the straw man created by many political actors and their media allies is as follows: the state of Florida does not want to teach black history. They’re trying to erase the black experience. They want to hide uncomfortable truths about our history from kids. And if they say otherwise, well, we know what they’re “really” up to.

STOP Doing This!

People need to stop this. Those in the elitist circles should have enough dignity to be intellectually honest. They should know better. Mind-reading is slanderous. It’s foolish. A mind-reading accusation can’t be falsified because the accuser can always maintain that a person’s true, secret motives are evil no matter what they say. This is what makes thought-crimes the potential terror that Orwell depicted. Every word you say in your defense can be characterized as “code” for something sinister.

The next time you hear someone describe their political opponent’s words as a “dog whistle” for some kind of hateful point of view, take note. Don’t let people inject their ugliness into the minds and motives of other people. Judge people fairly by their actual words and deeds. If they communicate something vague, give them the benefit of the doubt until you’re shown otherwise. At least be neutral for the time being. Don’t rush to the chance to assume the worst about what they might have meant.


Clint Roberts is an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma and Southern Nazarene University.

Originally published on How to Read a News Story/ Reprinted with permission.

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