Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Moralism Without Morality

On the Washington Post Georgetown/On Faith website, I've posted a response to a previous posting by another author on that site. I have been struck by the growing use of the language of moral condemnation on the Left - particularly directed at greedy "fat cat" Wall Street bankers - yet without any accompanying belief in the need for the inculcation of morality. I'm struck that this is a form of "moralism without morality," and find it to be deeply disingenuous. Here's what I wrote:

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A recent post on this site raises some serious issues, and I think reveals a significant problem on the Left. In a previous post by Katherine Marshall entitled "Greed (Not America) Gets the Blame," Ms. Marshall describes a recent international conference attended presumably by many in the international Left where the language of "greed" made a significant appearance. What is worth noting about this post is its confirmation that the Left has firmly returned to the use of strong moral language and even terms of moral judgment and condemnation. The Left's rediscovery of moral language has been particularly the consequence of what are regarded as the moral failings of Wall Street and its role in precipitating the financial crisis. President Obama has championed this return to moral language, and efforts by Left religious leaders (such as Jim Wallis) to circumscribe a Left Christianity have given permission for the revival of such moral categories as "greed" in the language of Left political leaders and movements.

Yet - as the conclusion of Katherine Marshall's post suggests - this reinvigoration of moral language comes without an accompanying code that translates judgment into action. What we are seeing is moralism without morality: we are hearing the remnant of moral language without a comprehensive moral system, particularly one that can confidently demand and expect changes in behavior, particularly efforts to restrict or limit behavior that is deemed sinful or vicious. The discomfort with the implications attending the use of moral language is revealed at the conclusion of Katherine Marshall's post, which emphasizes the difficulty of arriving at a solution to the problem of greed, and offers "complexity" rather than the simpler conclusion that the behavior of greed requires the exercise of and inculcation in virtue.

The Left's rediscovery of moral language marks a sea change from its more recent ways of speaking, derived from its dominant philosophical stances of the past forty years or so, when much of the language of the Left became either riven with technocratic dispassion (think Michael Dukakis) or relativistic non-judgmentalism (think "multiculturalism"). The language of morality tended to be found more staunchly on the Right, from the stirring moral tones of President Reagan to the invocations of "Good and Evil" often pronounced by George W. Bush. Most on the Left at the time found such moral language to be inappropriate in what they regarded as an increasingly secular age; if God was dead, then so was the old-fashioned language of moral condemnation and judgment. Ours was to be a new age of getting along, and getting beyond old-fashioned divisions to one in which most problems could be solved by the application of technical and technological advances or simple letting live. As John F. Kennedy declared in the 1960s,

Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint - Republican or Democratic, liberal, conservative, or moderate. The fact of the matter is that most of the problems ... that we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments, which do not lend themselves to the great sort of passionate movements which have stirred the country so often in the past.


The Left has been particularly uncomfortable with moral language because it has historically been linked to demands for moral strictures and restraints on behavior. The Left today denounces Wall Street for excessive greed, and at the moment Congress is considering legislation to put new regulations on the financial industry. In a sense this is to seek to alter behavior, but to treat the issue as a matter of legislative policy is to treat it as a "technical" problem, one in which the excesses of capitalism can be reined in without truly addressing the problem of greed. In fact, what the legislative solution largely seeks to achieve is leaving intact the motive of greed while minimizing the systemic damage it can wreak while increasing the opportunity for redistribution of its fruits. Further, what we have seen is condemnation of excessive greed even as the Administration calls for increased borrowing and spending by "consumers," i.e., those who "consume." This is hardly a stance that seeks to comprehensively redress the problem of greed in modern economic life. Ms. Marshall acknowledges that she doesn't really want to kill the golden calf that provides the engine for (among other things) international development, and underlying the fantasies of many Progressives is not a world of self-denying moralists, but one of ever-increasing wealth. Asceticism and self-denial are out; endless growth and personal autonomy are "in."

Above all, the Left is uncomfortable with moral strictures because such codes ultimately apply to corporeal "greediness" - that is, human sexuality. The Left is currently the party of unfettered sexual license, one that seeks to defend nearly every form of sexual appetite short of those few forms that it still regards as forbidden (sex with minors or those in positions of inferior power are still regarded as off-limits; polygamy is a contested area, as is - surprisingly - bestiality. Homosexuality and serial monogamy, of course, are wholly accepted, even praised). The discomfort with urging truly moral consequences that one would expect to accompany the language of moral condemnation is most often lacking because the Left has come to define itself as the "Party of Progress," in opposition to the "Party of Memory" (or, "Tradition"), to use Emerson's language. Morality is problematic because, more often than not, it forestalls those "experiments in living" that were praised and recommended by John Stuart Mill. Morality consists primarily of injunctions against - the language of morality begins most often with the words "Thou shalt NOT..." Any such assertion of traditional limits has been historically a standing challenge for the Left, the barriers against which it has struggled to overcome. As D.C. councilman David Catania was quoted to say in the wake of the Council's vote to legalize gay marriage, the "other side" (i.e. conservatives) are wrong because they are "tethered to the past." To be tethered - restrained - is a sign of being on the "wrong side of history."

In short, a distinctive feature of today's Left is Moralism without Morality. It consists of the language of morality without a willingness to seriously entertain a comprehensive moral code, one that at its heart would assert injunctions and limitations upon behavior, and endorses the necessary accompanying moral formation and ethical political and cultural habits and behaviors that would reinforce such formation. The Left is in a bind, and what Marshall describes is the inevitable frustrations of a moralism combined with the absence of a morality, or a diagnosis that resists the hard demands of the necessary cure (e.g., the Left is akin to the morbidly obese patient who prefers a pill or an operation, not the hard discipline of diet and exercise).

One sees this problem today in the area most revered by the Left, namely Environmentalism. Here again one is wont to hear the language of moral judgment, even invocations of inter-generational responsibility and duty that have historically been more likely to be invoked by conservatives (think Edmund Burke's social contract, composed of the "living, the dead, and the not yet born..."). The Left recognizes that such threats as global warming, species extinction, and resource depletion are caused by various wild excesses of human behavior. But it is fundamentally unwilling to entertain the prospect of demanding the kinds of changes of human behavior that would be needed to redress the environmental threats we face, above all because the very forms of individual autonomy at the heart of the Left's agenda are deeply premised upon the current arrangements that otherwise lead to environmental degradation. The Left is largely wed to technical solutions to the problems of morality, proposing solutions such as "clean coal" (is there a "clean" way to strip mine mountains?) and massive government expenditures in the pursuit of "green energy" - rather than simply using and doing less. Just so, Marshall dismisses the notion that one rational conclusion is that "we should fly less," instead calling for "complex solutions."

We can be sure of a few things. Any such "complex solutions" almost surely will seek to avoid any serious demands for change in our behavior, but will almost certainly ramp up the need for further expansion of the governmental-industrial (and military) complex. Marshall writes of her frustration "that the solutions are so unconvincing," and lists among those unconvincing solutions the admonition to "temper your consumption." But isn't this precisely the point: if the moral failing we most exhibit is greed, then temperance must be the answer. Yet, for a political disposition wishing to retain moralism without the hard demands and self-chastening of an accompanying morality, such a path is finally "unconvincing."

One final note: it must be acknowledged that the American Right currently exhibits the same pathologies and contradictions, more often than not condemning immorality (particularly of the sexual variety) while out of the other side of its mouth praising greed (in the form of unfettered free markets). Still, I think the path to reconciliation of the contradictions on the Right is more visible, given that philosophically the Right has not jettisoned morality. The Right remains imperfectly the "Party of Memory," making its path to the reconciliation of the language of moralism with the fullness of morality less treacherous than that facing the Left. For, the Left, in the end, faces the reality of its own self-contradiction: the Party of Progress is unlikely ever to be the Party of Morality. And a Party of Moralists without Morality must face the distinct possibility that it is above all a Party of disingenuous scolds.

4 comments:

Caryl said...

An excellent piece. Neither party it seems to me has any possiblility for real leadership. There are a few exceptional individuals, like Ron Paul.

HanZiBoi said...

Thank you Patrick! Once again you have eloquently diagnosed an incongruity I have often struggled with at an intuitive level, but have not been able to put clearly into words.

Your posting reminded me of the taboo subjects I butted my head against as a citizen member of the Wisconsin Governor's Task Force on Global Warming. To wit: it was not OK to question the LEGITICIMACY or UTILITY of greenhouse-gas emitting activities. Examples: I would point out that there are plenty of ways for us to play and amuse ourselves which do not require significant inputs of non-anthropogenic energy, and that there is no pressing human need to mow an acreage of land in the state of Wisconsin equal to about half of that which is planted to corn. No discussion would follow; no one would respond…on the record. True, no one told me to shut up, but I may as well have been speaking to stones.

I must disagree with you about the Right being closer to reconciliation, however. I know many Lefties and Progressives who subscribe to an ecological morality which imposes plenty of proscriptions against consumptive behaviors. They firmly believe we have a duty to teach ourselves and our children the difficult and demanding lessons not only of stewardship, but of self-restraint. Interestingly, they “come around” to embracing fidelity to place, local businesses, neighbors, and family. OK, maybe they don’t condemn gay marriage, but they don’t condone promiscuity or abandoning one’s children either. When Wendell Berry spoke to a packed Overture Center in Madison at the Wisconsin Book Festival this fall (he was the featured speaker), nearly all attendees were Progressive and Lefty types.

I know few people with Rightward or Capitalist leanings who have begun to acknowledge the severe restraints on material consumption that will be necessary to avoid catastrophe. Many may say their god is God, but practically speaking their lord and master is Economic Growth. To them, a future without Growth is a hell more terrifying – and certainly more imminent – than any prophesied in the Bible.

Meanwhile, more than a few of the Progressives and Lefties that I know are already choosing to make a transition to a materially-frugal no-Growth lifestyle.

Anonymous said...

"The Left is largely wed to technical solutions to the problems of morality, proposing solutions such as "clean coal" (is there a "clean" way to strip mine mountains?) and massive government expenditures in the pursuit of "green energy" - rather than simply using and doing less. Just so, Marshall dismisses the notion that one rational conclusion is that "we should fly less," instead calling for "complex solutions.""

"The Left" is not generally a fan of "clean coal," unless we're talking about politicans representing coal-producing regions. Indeed, this passage is completely disconnected from the current state of environmental politics. "The Left" (understood as center-left politicans) embraces technocratic solutions and equates green policies with a positive-sum "green growth" strategy in no small measure because calling explicitly for significant economic sacrifices--or adopting policies that require them--is a sure road to electoral ruin. There's no shortage of blame to go around for this state of affairs, but one large-ish figure would have to be pointed at "the Right" in this country, which relentlessly attacks the rationale for, and policies required for, significant restrictions on emissions. It even mocks the very conservation you call for, as witnessed in the last election campaign.

Anonymous said...

I think there's a real risk that you've conflated "comprehensive moral code" with "my comprehensive moral code."

Most self-styled progressives support gay marriage not because they believe in license, but because (1) they do not see intimate relations between members of the same sex as a form of license and (2) they believe prohibitions on gay marriage contravene moral principles concerning human equality.

You may disagree, but you will have to debate the merits. I fail to see how you are able to rule out that position ex ante on the grounds that it does not (cannot?) involve a comprehensive moral code.

On a (related) aside: your thouthfulness and deep intellectual strengths would be better served if you refrained from weasle terms such as "The Left" and "The Right," which serve mainly to allow commentators to avoid grappling with actual arguments advanced by actual people. You're better than that.