David V. Johnson: Revolutionizing Ethics

By David V. Johnson, Opinion Editor at Al Jazeera America. Cross posted from Jacobin

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At the end of the go-go 90s, in the same year that Glass-Steagall was rescinded, the New York Times Magazine invited former Letterman comedy writer Randy Cohen to pen a column called “The Ethicist.” The feature’s success revealed the spirit of the era.

On the one hand, there was our general anxiety that the prosperity of the time was vacuous and undeserved. On the other hand, a serious column on ethics would have missed the mark. Cohen’s comedic touch and the irony of doing a “Miss Manners” column on the weighty topic of ethical conundrums struck just the right balance. If you were one of the fortunate getting rich e-trading or taking your start-up public, the least you could do is tip waiters with the utmost probity.

But as the scandals of the aughts piled on top of each other — Enron, WorldCom, the Iraq War, Halliburton, torture, Gitmo, liar’s loans, Madoff, financial piracy, drone assassinations, gross inequality, precarity, and the threat of environmental apocalypse — “The Ethicist” became absurdly out of step. Sure, Cohen occasionally devoted inches to the weightier problems of the day, but for the most part he stuck to his bread-and-butter topics: the rules of condominium parking, how far to push your child in the private-school meritocracy, and the requirements of being an upstanding co-op member. In 2011, the redesigned magazine, under new leadership, mercifully put Cohen to pasture.

Yet “The Ethicist” continues to this day, with less humor and more earnestness, under pop-culture journalist Chuck Klosterman. “The Ethicist” has become transfigured into a brand, floating free from the flesh-and-blood Cohen. It’s something Times editors think their readers expect every Sunday morning along with their brunch fare. The evils of the news section may be beyond our control, but at least we can be ethical in our weekly reading and in our private lives.

The continued survival of “The Ethicist” is a symptom of “moral sentimentalism” — an excessive, even obsessional tendency to view the world through the narrow lens of the moral. On the one hand, as “The Ethicist” shows us, this tendency inflates banal social niceties into matters of utmost ethical concern. On the other hand, it simplifies complex political and social problems into moral categories such as virtues and vices, individual choice, and personal responsibility. Calling for everyone to be more ethical becomes a serious political platform, even a policy recommendation.

It is easy for some on the Left to dismiss moral claims as nothing more than reflections of class ideology. As someone who has taught ethics professionally, I actually do take moral claims seriously and believe they have their place. But even moralizing liberals should be on guard against moral sentimentalism, because it ultimately serves immoral ends — it props up class stratification and impedes the realization of social justice. For ordinary folk, who have little control over public affairs, it offers the fantasy of feeling empowered, of taking pride in their own individual conduct as all that really matters. It is a new opiate for the masses in our post-religious age. For elites, it is a way of steering the public away from taking political action to reform their affairs. Moral sentimentalism is one of the principal ways in which our bourgeois society checks impulses towards radical change.

•   •   •

There is a tension at the core of bourgeois morality. On the one hand, its claims are supposed to be universal. Since its claims presume to govern everyone, the institution requires, both practically and as a matter of ethics, that everyone behave morally. It could scarcely survive without widespread compliance.

On the other hand, bourgeois morality is a matter of the heart. It governs the individual and his intentions. Although it makes universal demands, its demands are not political. Bourgeois morality restricts itself to individual persuasion, proselytizing, praise and condemnation. Whether one behaves morally is ultimately left to individual conscience.

This is a useful stance for a market-driven society. A sound economy requires trust, which demands that market players follow a shared set of rules. But great success in business can often depend on the entrepreneur’s willingness to take risks and bend rules. However, too much immoral conduct in the system becomes problematic, not only because it can have bad social consequences but also because it undermines the pretense that everyone is subject to its dictates. Such a state of affairs is also demoralizing. It makes the moral life — which is supposed to be its own reward —seem futile.

The tension becomes especially clear when bourgeois morality is faced with widespread, stark, and damaging immoral conduct like the sort we saw in the lead up to the financial crisis. It demands reform and yet since ethics is a matter of the heart, it restricts itself to individual conscience, persuasion, and proselytizing, which inevitably prove impotent.

“The Ethicist” captures this very tension: it rightly acknowledges that we’re living in a morally anxious time, but at the same time it quarantines that anxiety to light, front-of-the-book material. It channels such reflection inward, towards the personal and the banal. And even on the rare occasions when larger social issues are addressed, it becomes a matter of how we feel and what we believe about such issues (“at least I know this is wrong!”) rather than a matter of what collectively is to be done.

“The Ethicist” is also instructive — not in the way it purports to be, but because it assumes a posture similar to that taken by our elites. When they identify political and social problems as moral, they interpret that to suggest that reform will come from each individual looking into his own heart. From a political standpoint, this should be unsurprising. Since elites are, by definition, those who are rewarded under the status quo, they are the ones who tend to be most eager to persuade the public that widespread evil and bad conduct are moral issues rather than political ones. It’s never about failing institutions, political economies, or social conditions. No, it’s about individuals making bad choices and about the public tolerating (read: tacitly consenting) such behavior. The prescription is not political change — we of course have the best system possible — but calls for everyone to look within.

Consider our leaders’ stunningly lame responses to the massive fraud at the heart of the financial crisis. First there was President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner insisting (absurdly) that though there was plenty of greed, stupidity and immoral conduct behind the meltdown, no one broke any laws. Not only is this claim false, but it also condemns their subsequent political proposals. Just a decade prior, after Enron, when it became clear that some conduct by company executives may have been deeply immoral but not criminal, Congress passed Sarbanes-Oxley, which, among other things, required CEOs to certify to the accuracy of their companies’ financial statements. By contrast, despite grossly immoral conduct prior to the 2008 crash, Dodd-Frank focused on making the banks and the economic system more stable and less susceptible to meltdowns and bypassed criminalizing such conduct. Surely Sarbanes-Oxley criminalized the recent conduct of many executives, from Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld on down, but the Obama administration hasn’t pursued them. It seems Congress and the White House believed that vague condemnation and financial settlements (without admission of wrongdoing) sufficed.

The commentariat has chosen to echo our political leaders, despite the obvious inadequacy of their reactions. Take, for instance, Fareed Zakaria’s June 2009 Newsweek apologia on the financial crisis, “The Capitalist Manifesto.” (Yes, the cover even embossed the title on a red booklet.) His main thrust? Not a change of the system — in several years, he predicted, we’ll want more capitalism, not less. The revolution we need lies within:

Most of what happened over the past decade across the world was legal. Bankers did what they were allowed to do under the law. Politicians did what they thought the system asked of them. Bureaucrats were not exchanging cash for favors. But very few people acted responsibly, honorably or nobly (the very word sounds odd today). This might sound like a small point, but it is not. No system — capitalism, socialism, whatever — can work without a sense of ethics and values at its core. No matter what reforms we put in place, without common sense, judgment and an ethical standard, they will prove inadequate. We will never know where the next bubble will form, what the next innovations will look like and where excesses will build up. But we can ask that people steer themselves and their institutions with a greater reliance on a moral compass.

What is particularly noteworthy about Zakaria’s thoughts here is that they seem blind to the possibility that institutions steer people as much as people steer institutions. American capitalism, as William K. Black points out, is suffering from a Gresham’s dynamic, in which the profitability of immoral behavior is driving out moral behavior in the competitive market, thanks to lack of regulatory oversight and the inordinate influence of money.

Moral sentimentalisms such as Zakaria’s not only obscure real and effective means for economic reform, but they even lead otherwise expert commentators to abandon their most fundamental principles. In Finance and the Good Society, Yale economics professor Robert Shiller endorses the “financial crisis as moral failure” hypothesis, and goes so far as to claim that the institutional corruption and regulatory capture by banksters and the superrich is a chimera:

We suffer from an illusion that those in the business world will stand to benefit from business conquest, from aggressive and inhuman business tactics. Thus people think that the wealthy in our society — among them the financiers — have a real and genuine incentive to use devious means to attack and subjugate, economically, the majority of the population.

Surely rational self-interest—the bedrock of economics—tells us that if we can prove the means and the benefit of subjugating the majority of the population, the incentive becomes not only real but also genuine.

We can also see moral sentimentalism corrupting the debate on austerity. Michael Kinsley has served the public splendidly in his crusade against Paul Krugman on stimulus spending, precisely by showing how much the austerity argument rests on moral prejudice. In a 2010 story for The Atlantic, Kinsley intoned that our runaway spending could unleash hyperinflation. On what basis?

I can’t help feeling that the gold bugs are right. … My fear is not the result of economic analysis. It’s more from the realm of psychology. I mean mine. The last time I wrote about this subject, The Atlantic’s own Clive Crook called me a “fiscal sado-conservative.” I would put it differently (you won’t be surprised to hear). Maybe, at least on economic matters, I’m a puritan. … Obama has done the right things, mostly, pushing through a huge stimulus package and bailing out a few big corporations and banks. Krugman says we need yet another dose of stimulus, and maybe he’s right.

But this cure has been one ice-cream sundae after another. It can’t be that easy, can it? The puritan in me says that there has to be some pain.

Kinsley further underscored the moral basis of his support for austerity recently in the New Republic (n.b. three years after Kinsley warned of doom, with inflation remaining below two percent) when he took Krugman to task—not so much for his economic claims but for seizing the moral high ground. Kinsley could tolerate a disagreement about economics and even blithely ignore Krugman’s core argument that austerity is self-defeating as a policy for reducing long-term financial obligations (since it undermines the economic growth necessary for alleviating them). But what he simply could not accept was Krugman’s claims that austerity was immoral and that his own pro-spending stance was courageous:

Krugman also is on to something when he talks about paying a price for past sins. I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be. … Austerians don’t get off on other people’s suffering. … But the austerians deserve credit: They at least are talking about the spinach, while the Krugmanites are only talking about dessert.

Three years later, Kinsley is still happy to rest his argument on the intuition that the ‘Krugmanites’ are really just promising Fudgsicles for the kiddies.

Such moral sentimentalism isn’t restricted to economics and finance. Consider Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias’s comments about the April 24 collapse of a Bangladeshi textile plant that killed 1,127 people and sparked workers across the country to riot. Within 24 hours of the tragedy, Yglesias looked at the situation and saw that it was good:

It’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different — and, indeed, lower — workplace safety standards than the United States. The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. . . . And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum. There are also some good reasons to want to avoid a world of unlimited choice and see this as a sphere in which collective action is appropriate but that still leaves us with the question of “which collective” should make the collective choice.

Yglesias’ comments were not only insensitive to the massive loss of life but totally irrelevant, since the factory boss had violated Bangladeshi law, disobeyed orders from police not to open, and reportedly forced his apprehensive workers back into the crumbling building with threats and beating sticks. In other words, far from reflecting collective Bangladeshi choices, what occurred was in direct violation of them. Yglesias, to his credit, apologized for his carelessness, but nevertheless insisted that his conclusion was correct.

Taking up Yglesias’s conclusion, note its emphasis on moral concepts: what’s good, what’s appropriate, what’s chosen. Even if we generously granted him that Bangladeshis collectively made such a choice, such narrow focus would totally obscure the complexity of the situation: the historical circumstances that have led both to the relative poverty and restricted choices of the Bangladeshis that “choose” to work in such unsafe conditions for abusive factory bosses and to the relative wealth and privileged choices of Americans; the responsibility that American consumers and multinational corporations have in supporting these circumstances; and the dismissal of the myriad possibilities for improving this situation because this is, after all, what the Bangladeshis have “chosen.” In other words, his squinting to see the moral propriety of what occurred leads to moral blindness.

Or consider the chatter over Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor and GED-passer who revealed the National Security Agency’s PRISM electronic surveillance program to the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald. Obsessing over Snowden’s character rather than the substance of what he revealed is a case of moral sentimentalism. What is truly remarkable here, however, is how obvious it was that the pundits’ moralizing exposed the worst ways moral sentimentalism reinforces class ideology. A sampling of comments:

“A high school dropout who is a military washout” – Tom Brokaw

“The slacker who came in from the cold” – Roger Simon

“… his sense of balance … which is an intellectual maturation process — which, by the way, we hope occurs to some degree in college.” – Lawrence O’Donnell

“Booz Allen and the C.I.A. took a high-school dropout and offered him positions with lavish salaries. He is violating the honor codes of all those who enabled him to rise.” – David Brooks

“A grandiose narcissist” – Jeffrey Toobin

“Some young guy I’ve never heard of before” – Josh Micah Marshall

If only Snowden had graduated from Sidwell Friends School and Yale, then everyone could be certain about the nobility and propriety of his cause.

Or consider the growing wariness over the use of drone-assassinations in the Global War on Terror, even against American citizens. One particularly worried over the morality of such actions might be inclined to favor things like increased government transparency and judicial oversight. But instead the reassurance that the New York Times provided, with ample access provided by the Obama administration, was of a different sort. In a bizarre May 2012 front-page story, Jo Becker and Scott Shane reassured the public that the president was especially well-suited to the task, morally speaking:

Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.

Yes, we don’t need to worry about the incineration of American citizen Anwar Al-Alawki being “a no-brainer,” because the President thought about it in the light of a hackneyed ethics syllabus.

Floating this bubble obviously didn’t satisfy critics, or else Obama wouldn’t have felt the need to address the issue a year later in his epochal U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy speech at Fort McNair on May 23. There the president introduced the notion of “moral safe harbor” — namely how there’s none available for critics of drone strikes:

Our efforts must be measured against the history of putting American troops in distant lands among hostile populations. In Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of civilians died in a war where the boundaries of battle were blurred. In Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the extraordinary courage and discipline of our troops, thousands of civilians have been killed. So neither conventional military action nor waiting for attacks to occur offers moral safe harbor, and neither does a sole reliance on law enforcement in territories that have no functioning police or security services—and indeed, have no functioning law.

In other words, Obama’s drone policy, far from being immoral, is actually the only moral option available. The key point is to see how the president’s appeal to moral safe harbor actually obscures the morally salient issues. His speech made no mention of “signature strikes”—the CIA’s policy of ordering drone strikes against people whose identities are unknown but who are probably militants, based on a host of situational factors. (The topic was raised by a heckler in the crowd—and the president sidestepped it.) His speech gestured at greater oversight and accountability without offering any details. He said that his administration has briefed the appropriate Congressional committees on all strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, including the one against American citizen Anwar Awlaki, ignoring the obvious objection that executing a citizen might require judicial sanction. In other words, although Obama emphasized “morality” and “values,” there was little in his speech that actually demonstrated serious moral reflection.

Finally, consider climate change, the most pressing crisis we face. One of the few elites who speak about the topic with a radicalism equal to the problem is none other than Prince Charles of Wales. He taped a stirring plea on YouTube for last year’s G20 Rio summit, in which he said,

Like a sleepwalker, we seem unable to wake up to the fact that so many of the catastrophic consequences of carrying on with ‘business-as-usual’ are bearing down on us faster than we think, already dragging many millions more people into poverty and dangerously weakening global food, water and energy security for the future.

Such commentary should encourage consideration of truly radical measures such as a rethinking of capitalism, zero-growth economics, and massive government investment in mass transit and renewable energy sources. This, in turn, raises the question why these ideas are impossible to implement—the political and economic forces that control the world and the enormous popular upheaval it would take to supplant them. But Prince Charles recently published a book on what he thinks is responsible. In Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, a work he describes as “a call to revolution,” he claims the problem is simply one of perception: we don’t see ourselves as integrated with nature the way that the ancient Greeks and other cultures have. Ultimately, what this means is that we don’t need political change; we need moral change. If only everyone could read Plato and Aristotle in the original Greek, then we’d surely treat the Earth as proper stewards instead of exploiters.

•   •   •

For those on the Left who see morality as mere class ideology, there’s not much more to say beyond revealing moral discourse for the sham that it is. But for those on the Left who, like myself, think moral claims are legitimate, exposing moral sentimentalism can serve a useful purpose.

Moral passions, I submit, are the most potent lever available for moving the body politic, especially in the context of America’s religious and moralized politics. If there’s an example in U.S. history of a mass political movement that did not depend on moral outrage at perceived injustice or wrongdoing, I’d like to know what it is. Those on the Left who dismiss morality as ideology should consider what they’re losing by abandoning this tool for radical change.

For those of us who are sympathetic to serious moral discourse, it is precisely out of moral passion that we should condemn moral sentimentalism. In times like these, “The Ethicist” is unethical. It does for morality what wonk blogging does for politics: it fetishizes minutiae while blinding people to the awful problems we currently face. We are living in a depraved age, while “The Ethicist” frets about swiping umbrellas from restaurant bins.

As for elites who address our biggest problems with moral sentimentalism, the point is that if we take their moral claims seriously, then they demand serious political solutions—which is precisely what they try to obscure by speaking in moral terms. If greed caused the financial crisis, then we need to figure out how to reconfigure our financial institutions to neutralize it. If Bangladeshis really chose to have unsafe factories, then we need to figure out how to eliminate the conditions that force such a choice. If the right criterion for deciding economic policy is human welfare, then we need to discuss stimulus and austerity policies in terms of welfare, and not in terms of guilt or sin.

Ultimately those who act from genuine moral concern don’t talk much in moral terms, because morality is seen as a shared framework, shaping their behavior and that of others. You will know moral sentimentalists, by contrast, by their excessive moral talk—and their inaction.

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  1. Schofield

    What we call morality is Nature trying to effect a balance between self-interest (or advantage) and other-interest (or advantage) so of course we need morality, ethics and training in virtue. The Left just like the Right don’t understand socio-biology leaving themselves open to stupid Utopian ideologies.

    1. Theo

      Johnson is not saying we don’t need morality, only moral sentimentalism, which masks the problem we are ostensibly trying to correct by diverting attention away from the nuts and bolts of what is happening and who is responsible for what while allowing the problem to continue.

    2. Tiercelet

      What we call “morality” is a statement of personal preference about the world. It has no objective existence outside the human consciousness as generated by human minds. It certainly isn’t some reifed “Nature”-force stepping in to balance our desires, nor is there some culturally-neutral “Good” that we could point to in order to rank one culture’s or one person’s morality over another in a provable way.

      That said, social constructions still exist, even if they’re contingent and human rather than objective properties of the universe. ‘Morality’ is meaningful in the context of a society choosing what to do. And people have value systems, even if they are based on individual preferences about which types of actions ought to be chosen; appealing to those value systems can be a powerful lever for social change. Knowing people’s (moral) preferences makes for much more effective argumentation.

      Johnson is absolutely correct that hand-wringing moralizing is a self-contented distraction from actual improvements to society, and one that encourages priggish self-obsession in the audience. It’s precisely the distraction strategy that supports everything from the prison-industrial complex to punishing the poor to blaming victims of sexual assault: placing the onus of responsibility, building the discourse, around the failings of individuals and the violations of social niceties, rather than looking at the structure of systemic incentives.

      Leave aside worrying about the content of men’s characters, and restructure the system so that crime actually doesn’t pay, so that cheating is self-defeating. Then you needn’t worry about monitoring morality, because there’s no incentive to immoral action.

      (ah, but who bells the cat…)

  2. PaulArt

    What we have here is a bunch of parasites holed up in Washington DC and squawking the tune their Mother Host wants them to sing. Nothing more, nothing less. Zakaria, Kinsley, Yglesias, all these cretins are nothing more than a support ecosystem for the elite parasitical network which Washington has become ever since Carter and the Democrats abandoned their cause, viz, speaking and working for the middle and lower classes in USA. It is pointless to get worked up about what Kinsley and his shameless ilk say or write, they are merely the sock puppets of the corrupt elites like Obama, Bush, Pete Peterson and the Banksters. Do the elites fear anything? As Chris Hedges says, the only thing they fear is a danger to themselves, a danger to the faux models they have created which enslaves Society in the name of a bastardized Capitalism. Since all channels for the expression of popular discontent have been removed the only channel left is opportunistic violence on the persons who perpetrate this injustice. That surely is coming and as Hedges says again, we don’t know where it will happen or what form it will take but it surely is coming.

    1. allcoppedout

      That’s how I see it. The (British) abolition of slavery with pay=offs to the slavers is repeating itself through bail-out-in and QE.

    2. Nathanael

      “As Chris Hedges says, the only thing they fear is a danger to themselves, a danger to the faux models they have created which enslaves Society in the name of a bastardized Capitalism.”

      Then why are they destroying the very system which makes them rich? Because they are destroying it….

      I think they’re stupid. I’ve said before, Emperor Augustus wouldn’t make these mistakes.

  3. allcoppedout

    The Greeks “nurtured” their world on top of a slave economy whist spouting virtue ethics. Moralities vary from culture to culture. What we lack is the ability to direct investment and curtail excess accumulation that captures politics.

    1. F. Beard

      We still have a slave culture since the government subsidizes debt-creation (credit) when purchasing power could be issued as shares in equity (common stock) instead.

      The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave. Proverbs 22:7 [NASB]

      1. skippy

        If you had watched the video I offered you would see that the government is acting on behest of corporations, not anyone or thing else.

        The owners and members that make up the ruling functionary’s of these entity’s – is – where your ire should be aimed, but, is strangely not.

        skippy… banks are just another form of corporation and yes some pigs are better than others… please watch the linked video…

        1. F. Beard

          Banks are what allow corporations to be narrowly owned. Broadly owned corporations would be broadly democratic. Or do you have a problem with democracy?

          There’s NOTHING inherently wrong with people consolidating their capital for economies of scale via a common stock company. But government-backed banks, corporate or not, are THIEVES.

          1. skippy

            “Banks are what allow corporations to be narrowly owned” – beardo

            NO… “Law” is what dictates and corporations write the Laws, see the doco, a standing DC critter openly admits it. Although I don’t need their validation, reading and observation fixes that up, try it.

            skippy… no different than your Book of Law… cough… bible… not very democratic imo… ffs…

            1. F. Beard

              I don’t deny that corporations have bought government but if corporations were broadly owned then they’d be broadly representative of the population.

              1. skippy

                Do you have any actual experience or knowledge of domestic – international corporate infrastructure???

                skippy… your idea would infect ***everyone’s mind*** with “a priori” market fundamentalism* (*armchair thunkit template smashed down on a bio – tectonic environment billions of years old).

                PS. one is killing the other… which in the end will kill the killer… I call that a FAIL… energy, soil, bees, water, air, all dying… PROSPERITY!!! Barf!!!

        2. jonboinAR

          I don’t know where you linked a video. Could you tell us what thread that was on?

          1. skippy


            skippy… well done doco, not your agitprop variety. EPA guys on the ground saying… sorry orders from above.

            PS. remember when Bush tried to out flank Gore on environmental issues… until he was read the Right Act by the powers that be after taking office… shades of for O’Bummer.

    2. Bunk McNulty

      Careful: The Spartans nurtured their world on a slave economy. And a bizarre world it was. The Athenians had slaves, but their condition was very far from the modern definition of the word.

      1. Roland

        Mistaken. Spartans made negligable use of slave labour. Helots were like serfs. Perioeci were freemen, although without political rights.

        The Athenians used many slaves–probably about half of Attica’s total labour force. Conditions for slaves varied, from adequate to appalling (e.g. the silver mines of Laurium).

        The interesting thing is that these two ancient Greek states, conventionally regarded as having contrasting social systems, actually had social structures which were broadly similar.

        In both states, forced labour formed a substantial base of the economy. Land-bound Helots in Laconia, chattel slaves in Attica.

        In Lacedaemon, perioeci provided most of the skilled labour. In Athens, the foreign-born Metics provided much of the skilled labour force.

        There was a militarized minority class of full citizens in both states.

        The political differences between Athens and Sparta were important to the members of those states’ respective militarized citizen classes. However, to a 21st-cent. Occidental, what deserves most notice are the similarities between them.

  4. middle seaman

    Ethics on simple, everyday level does need changes. Religions all over the world have done a great service by dealing with ethics, morality and decency. What this article talks about is the public facade of our elites. Even that hasn’t changed in thousands of years. Call for charity, being humble and public service is also millennia old.

    Have no clue why this article was written.

  5. from Mexico

    After reading this essay, I came away feeling like I’m sure the jurists in the Zimmerman trial felt: confused. While the Zimmerman team put forth a very concise and easy to understand theory as to why Zimmerman did what he did, the prosecution did not. Instead the prosecution team picked around at the edges of Zimmerman’s narrative, and his moral justification for doing what he did, but never gave an alternative theoretical framework which the jury could take hold of. The reason for this is rather clear: the theoretical framework that the Zimmerman defense articulated was one the defense team itself is fully captive to. The prosecution team very much ascribes to, and are good soldiers of, the racial, social and economic order for which Zimmerman had become a proxy.

    And so it is with David Johnson. He tries to pass off all that ails us with a concept he has invented called “moral sentimentality” that “fetishizes” moral minutiae and trivia. “We are living in a depraved age, while “The Ethicist” frets about swiping umbrellas from restaurant bins,” he tells us. Empirically speaking, Johnson’s theory is nonsensical and flies in the face of common sense, for it would have us believe that sending drones to the four corners of the earth to exact extrajudicial killings or starting preventative wars that kill hundreds of thousands of people are “moral minutia.”

    Instead of making the debate about “moral sentimentality” we should be making it about moral hypocrisy. We should be making it about moral depravity. We should be making it about punishing those who transgress moral boundaries, boundaries that go far beyond “moral minutia.” We should be making it about the all-out war the lords of capital and their paid liars and bumsuckers, and I would put David Johnson in this category, are waging on common sense.

    1. GlassHammer

      “He tries to pass off all that ails us with a concept he has invented called “moral sentimentality” that “fetishizes” moral minutiae and trivia.”

      The best way to solve a problem is by creating new and uncommon language. Preferably language that falls somewhere between abstraction and gibberish.


    2. from Mexico


      I wrote: “The reason for this is rather clear: the theoretical framework that the Zimmerman defense articulated was one the defense team itself is fully captive to.”

      This should have read: The reason for this is rather clear: the theoretical framework that the Zimmerman defense articulated was one the prosecution team itself is fully captive to.

    3. diptherio

      I think you’re mis-reading Johnson. His whole point seems to be that while we should be discussing the morality of drone attacks, pre-emptive wars, domestic austerity, etc., we end up talking about what size tip is “ethical”.

      I think he is pointing out something important. Feelings of morality (or immorality) are powerful social levers. The left has neglected this truth for a long time, often addressing its appeals to the head and not the heart. Perhaps we should stop arguing that drone strikes create more terrorists and simply start calling them “immoral and unethical,” as one example.

      And then there is the flippant “Ethicist” in the New Yorker, essentially denying that we face real ethical problems by focusing on the (comical) minutia (full disclosure: I haven’t read the New Yorker in a couple of years, so my take on the Ethicist is coming strictly from this article).

    4. Jackrabbit

      I think he is saying that moral sentimentality is used to co-opt real morality.

      The same can be said of how the promise of “jobs” is used to co-opt the movement for economic fairness/wealth inequality.

      1. from Mexico

        Jackrabbit says:

        I think he is saying that moral sentimentality is used to co-opt real morality.

        He does indeed. But is moral sentimentality used to co-opt real morality, or are moral hypocrisy and moral depravity used to co-opt real morality? By making it about moral senimentality, he leads us off on a bunny trail. It’s kind of like accusing a perp who has commited captial murder with the far less serious charge of petty larceny.

        The Rev. Martin Luther King certainly never suffered from such muddled moral thinking, nor did he try to whitewash or minimize the moral depravity of TPTB the way Johnson does by calling it “moral sentimentality.” Here, for instance, King concisely captures what black and poor people in Florida are up against, what Zimmerman has become symbolic of, and why the Florida police, prosecution, and judge pulled out all the stops to insure that Zimmerman and what he stood for would win:

        [Negroes are] a minority population confronting a well-armed, wealthy majority with a fanatical right wing that is capable of exterminating the entire black population and which would not hesitate such an attempt if the survival of white Western materialism were at stake.

        –MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., “Nonviolence: The only road to freedom,” Ebony, October, 1966

        1. David

          When Obama or “liberal” commentators speak, I don’t think they’re being hypocritical or depraved. They are speaking in moral terms they believe in and they think they are doing and saying the right things — and many *do* think they are in the right.

          1. Brooklin Bridge

            I’m assuming that the tags “David” and “David Johnson” are both referring to the same David Johnson…

            When Obama removes his promise to protect whistle blowers from his website, when he ruthlessly goes after Bradley Manning and now Edward Snowden, that’s raw fear expressed as moral depravity AND hypocrisy. I don’t see how one could argue with From Mexico on that in any meaningful way. Obama thinks he’s right, ethically correct or good, morally correct when he says one thing during his campaign and then removes it from his web site when it conflicts with his desire to squash a huaman being because he is a threat? When David Idiot (what ever his name is), ah yes, Gregory does his television show, Face the Nation or Meet the Press or whatever, and argues that it’s not a reporter’s job to ask about weapons of mass destruction, that’s -possibly- moral sentimentality (simplistic and self serving belief in the “morality” or basic goodness of the system), but in neither case are the intentions good. In the former, they are patently depraved and deeply hypocritical and in the latter they are born of self indulgent hubris and sloth.

            I can see the argument that moral sentimentality explains some things, particularly as long as it does not negate moral hypocracy and depravity (which would be an awful stretch) but surely you don’t mean it explains everything liberals say and do and by the way, surely surely you don’t still imagine Obama to be a liberal?

          2. MaroonBulldog

            When BHO speaks clearly, he is often reading teleprompter lines written by others for him to deliver. I wonder whether he thinks much about what he says under those circumstances. When he speaks off the cuff, with not teleprompter, he has a tendency to stammer. Possibly indicative of deception.

    5. David Johnson

      ** Empirically speaking, Johnson’s theory is nonsensical and flies in the face of common sense, for it would have us believe that sending drones to the four corners of the earth to exact extrajudicial killings or starting preventative wars that kill hundreds of thousands of people are “moral minutia.**

      Quite the opposite: The extrajudicial killings are at the core of the moral issue here, not the minutiae My point is that Obama and other commentators speak about morality, but in doing so they manage to shelve or conceal the core issue: the focus instead is on how Obama has read just war theorists or how there’s no “moral safe habor” for drone critics.

      1. from Mexico

        There are some things we very much agree on. Let me just take the last section of your essay and re-write it to my liking:

        For those on the Left who see morality as mere class ideology, there’s not much more to say beyond revealing moral discourse for the sham that it is [that it has become under the aegis of the moral hypocrites and reprobates who currently preside over American discourse]. But for those on the Left who, like myself, think moral claims are legitimate, exposing moral sentimentalisman [excessive, even obsessional tendency to view the world through the narrow lens of the moral] [moral depravity and moral hypocriosy] can serve a useful purpose.

        Moral passions, I submit, are the most potent lever available for moving the body politic, especially in the context of America’s religious and moralized politics. If there’s an example in U.S. history of a mass political movement that did not depend on moral outrage at perceived injustice or wrongdoing, I’d like to know what it is. Those on the Left who dismiss morality as ideology should consider what they’re losing by abandoning this tool for radical change.

        For those of us who are sympathetic to serious moral discourse, it is precisely out of moral passion that we should condemn moral sentimentalisman [excessive, even obsessional tendency to view the world through the narrow lens of the moral] [moral depravity and hypocisy]. In times like these, “The Ethicist” is unethical. It does for morality what wonk blogging does for politics: it fetishizes minutiae while blinding people to the awful problems we currently face. We are living in a depraved age, while “The Ethicist” frets about swiping umbrellas from restaurant bins.

        As for elites who address our biggest problems with moral sentimentalisman [excessive, even obsessional tendency to view the world through the narrow lens of the moral] [moral depravity and hypocisy], the point is that if we take their moral claims seriously, then they demand serious political solutions—which is precisely what they try to obscure by speaking in moral terms. If greed caused the financial crisis, then we need to figure out how to reconfigure our financial institutions to neutralize it. If Bangladeshis really chose to have unsafe factories, then we need to figure out how to eliminate the conditions that force such a choice. If the right criterion for deciding economic policy is human welfare [human welfare, qualified by a deep sense of fairness and concern for justice], then we need to discuss stimulus and austerity policies in terms of welfare [welfare, fairness and justice] and not in terms of guilt or sin.

        Ultimately those who act from genuine moral concern don’t talk much in moral terms, because morality is seen as a shared framework, shaping their behavior and that of others. [must escalate the moral conflict, not shy away from it or retreat from it]. You will know moral sentimentalisman [excessive, even obsessional tendency to view the world through the narrow lens of the moral], by contrast [moral hypocrites] by their excessive moral talk and their inaction [and their inaction, or by the fact that they talk the talk but don’t walk the walk].

  6. GlassHammer

    “Moral sentimentalism is one of the principal ways in which our bourgeois society checks impulses towards radical change.”

    Funny, I used to say the same thing about “Positive Thinking”.

  7. from Mexico

    One also has to admire the way in which Johnson made a hash out of our traditional formulations which define and delineate the private and public realms. Moving the moral from the public to the private realm, at least in those cases where it behooves the interests of the bourgeoisie, has been the longtime goal of contemporary bourgeoisie thinkers. But even our seminal libertarian, Thomas Jefferson, did not put the moral within the private realm. As David Little explains in Religion and Civil Virtue in America:

    Jefferson and Madison presupposed a crucial distinction of longstanding significance in the Western Christian tradition between what was called the “internal forum,” or conscience, and the “external forum,” or civil government. Accordingly, human beings were believed to be subject to “two laws” and “two governments” – one an inner law of the spirit, enforced by reason and reflection of the mind and heart; and the other, an outer law, enforced, finally, by the magistrate’s sword.


    If morality, at bottom, concerns the regulation of physical, or outward, injury by physical, or outward, means, religion concerns the regulation of the inner, or spiritual, life by inner, or spiritual, means.

    Over time, the private realm has certainly been expanded, as David Little goes on to point out:

    The constitutional consequence for us as a people has been, of course, the development of a system of legally protected civil rights and liberties that only expands, as Leo Pfeffer suggests, the original right to free religious inquiry, exchange, assembly, and dissemination of ideas into our broader notions of free speech, free assembly, free press, and other freedoms. For Williams, Jefferson, and Madison, all these civil rights and liberties flow, finally, from the elemental right of free conscience, which, as Jefferson eloquently put it, “we have never submitted, we could not submit.”

    While the “internal forum” of religious inquiry, speech, assembly, press, and dissemination of ideas is indeed the basis from which morality derives, our tradition nevertheless holds that morality itself, and the regulation of morality, fall within the public realm. To place morality per se within the private realm, at least when this behooves bourgeoisie interests, and arguing that the public has no right to regulate morality, is an argument advanced by bourgeoisie apologists.

  8. Sublimejah

    This is one of the best discussions I have read on how our internal belief systems are pervasively decaying our ability to change. Most of the folks that post here are certainly of some higher social class, and have taken instruction in comforting themselves with their rational self interest and ability to follow social norms that support their continued prosperity. There are two fallacies of choice pointed out here and I see our culture swinging between them with no middle ground. The first is one he clearly points out, that a poor worker living under a civil regime such as Bangaladesh has limited choices defined by the conditions that are in their immediate realms, they must eat to live and any job will do. The second is the fallacy of choice we have here in the States. We are constantly bombarded with images and words indicating there is an infinte number competiting choices that can make one better, happier and prosperous. Here people also need to eat, but part of the system here is to make sure each regular person has internalized the belief that they are a failure when poverty and calamity strike them. How can the system be wrong when it offers so many choices? Don’t question the system, because you certainly did something wrong to deserve your fate. Can’t get back on your feet after a layoff? Retrain yourself, color your hair, work out, lose weight, be better than before. You can choose to be a lazy slug who doesn’t want to get off your can and work, or rise to the occasion. And there is no middle ground, no accounting for true failures of legal and moral systems that are making life for most people difficult and ugly. There is no metaphysical answer because capitalism is an inherently material system, making many ethical assumptions that are not supported by any physical incarnation of its premises. And any attempt to answer this question without calling into question the validity of its assumptions is not allowed. Capitalism is the new religion, it is it’s own answer, and it looks with disfavor upon those who are unbelievers, as it were. Every choice in the current US culture is fertilized in the petri dish of transactional biology and are unavoidble. Fortunately the arc of history tells us all systems end, some more quickly than others and we will have another era of human experience in the near future. Being able to see the larger arc is the teacher, but most of us will not learn.

  9. TomDor

    I see laws and, a constitution that are designed to prevent people from depriving others of their inalienable rights. How pleasant it would be for most to recognize how far and to what extent those rights have been tread upon by the predatory among us. I would add that those who tread upon others do so, not with prejudice, but, with ignorance and fear. I may be prejudice myself for saying this but, the scum that have risen to the top have no moral compass to speak of as they continue to operate from within the castle they have created….all their time devoted to maintaining the guards protection of their soul and heart – at the same time they prevent themselves from knowing who they themselves are because, they have never looked (out of fear) into their own heart and soul – ever afraid of what they may see. They operate outside themselves for they fear the unknown that is themselves – no moral compass will be found without first dismissing the guards.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      Visited the book store the other day. In the psychology section, I saw a book on the secrets of success that we can all learn from psychopaths. Didn’t buy it. It can’t be a guide to self-improvement.

      The most unscrupulous rise to the top because they are even more unscrupulous than their unscrupulous competition–no other reason: When the less unscrupulous pauses over a scruple, the more unscrupulous strikes from behind, then climbs over the body. (Not by any means an original thought, brought to you by F. A. Hayek, straight out of The Road to Serfdom.)

      Care to know what the prescription is? It’s refusing to engage in unscrupulous competions. It’s refusing to reward unscrupulous competition by others. It’s teaching children the same. If not for the sake of morality, then for the sake of your own safety, and theirs. There is nothing “sentimental” about it.

    2. MaroonBulldog

      Speaking further.

      It’s not from emotion or lack of instruction that psycopaths are psycopaths. It’s because their neurons are haywire.

  10. Brooklin Bridge

    The problem here is that Johnson’s catchy term, “moral sentimentality” trivializes his own criticism of those trivializing social issues with moral platitudes in much the same way as McLuhan’s catchy, “The medium is the message” trivialized the relationship between media and propaganda/social control. McLuhan’s penchant for catchy phrases ultimately led to him being a footnote and Johnson’s term is similarly inadequate and misleading.

    That said, I don’t see From Mexico’s subsequent argument that Johnson reduces the great issues of the day (royal assassinations dressed in democratic robes, etc.), to moral jingles. Au contraire, he has simply come up with a term that describes, “A penny saved is a penny earned”, as a trivializing response to someone who just lost their house to an illegal foreclosure.

    1. David Johnson

      It’s possible I didn’t pick the best phrase. See Sam Scheffler (philosopher at NYU) make a similar point about “moralism”:

      Samuel Scheffler offers what could be the most incisive and succinct of what moralism is:

      To describe a person as “moralistic” is to say that that person is too prone to make moral judgments: that the person relies on moral categories to an excessive degree, invoking them prematurely or in contexts where they are out of place, or using them in a rigid and simplistic way which ignores the nuances and complexities of human predicaments… Moralism is the enemy of insight and illumination, and one of its most common functions is to place obstacles in the way of genuine understanding. There are critics of moralism who think, in effect, that all moral judgment is moralistic, but moralism is in fact a moral flaw: a deformation or disfiguration of the moral. it is a moral failing to neglect the often complex reality of people’s circumstances or to subject them to unjustified criticism.”


    2. from Mexico

      @ Brooklin Bridge

      Well let’s take a look at how Johnson defines “moral sentimentalism”:

      “moral sentimentalism” — an excessive, even obsessional tendency to view the world through the narrow lens of the moral.

      Do you really believe that’s what TPTB are guilty of: the excessive viewing of the world through the narrow lens of the moral? Or do you, as I do, believe TPTB are guilty of moral depravity and moral hypocrisy?

      Johnson then uses his assumption that there is an excess of morality (as opposed to an excess of moral depravity and moral hypocrisy) upon which to launch his war on morality:

      But even moralizing liberals should be on guard against moral sentimentalism [an excessive, even obsessional tendency to view the world through the narrow lens of the moral], because it ultimately serves immoral ends — it props up class stratification and impedes the realization of social justice.

      But that statement only makes sense if one believes morality “props up class stratification and impedes the realization of social justice.” And there’s certainly a brand of morality which does that. But there’s a whole other world of morality out that that does just the opposite, and this is the world of morality that so inspired Martin Luther King, and which he spoke of constantly.

      My argument, which I believe mirrors that of King, is to engage the moral conflict. To retreat from it, leaving the field open for TPTB to define morality, is a recipe for defeat, and for disaster.

      1. David

        I am for a King-style moral politics of the Left.

        And, no, I don’t think that the figures I criticize are being hypocritical. Rather, they are seizing the moral high ground and lowering its standards. We need to seize it back.

      2. Jackrabbit

        I think you may be misreading. At the end, for example, he says:

        “Ultimately those who act from genuine moral concern don’t talk much in moral terms, because morality is seen as a shared framework, shaping their behavior and that of others. You will know moral sentimentalists, by contrast, by their excessive moral talk—and their inaction.

        He is CONDEMNING those that pay lip service to moral issues but have no real intention of taking a moral stance. Such people are really only interested in “foaming the runway” for their own agenda.

        1. from Mexico

          Well, if “Ultimately those who act from genuine moral concern don’t talk much in moral terms,” then we’d have to scratch the Rev. Martin Luther King off the list of those who “ultimatley act from genuine moral concern,” because he talked almost exclusively in moral terms.

  11. Eichmann agonistes

    The civilized world makes a simpler distinction between norms and laws. A norm is a law that you can’t enforce yet. Peremptory norms become law by acclamation.

    When statist intelligentsia talk in normative terms, that’s how you know that they’re trying to justify crimes. The US government’s moral handwringing over the peremptory norm of freedom from torture is not scrupulosity, it’s Ted Bundy giving a soul-searching pre-execution interview while angling for clemency.

    The US government is running from the law on several fronts, trying to get back to the normative zone of censure and impunity. One norm that’s gradually turning into law is the right to life and its immediate implication, the end of capital punishment. It’s an optional protocol in conventional international law and a US movement with strong regional momentum. Obama’s ridiculous invocation of dark-age theology is an attempt to obscure the war crime of his armed attacks on civilian populations with drone murder.

    Another norm is stamping out corruption, particularly in its characteristic US form, institutionalized abuse of function and trading in influence. This is a recommendation in conventional law but not yet a requirement. The US government fights it tooth and nail – that’s the reason for Obama’s contemptible shit-eating sermons wagging fingers at the bankers that he works for.

    The peremptory norm of the right to peace has been turning into law for 70 years. It got off to a good start after WWII with prosecutions and a project of codification. Despite setbacks from US government conduct and impunity, the norm will become law in 2017, and individual leaders that breach it will be guilty of the crime of aggression. The crime is understood although the law’s not there, so Obama will be indictable for aggression in Pakistan, Libya, and Syria. Bradley Manning is enforcing this law with his right to denunciation in full accord with the Nuremberg principles incorporated in the Army Field Manual.

    The right to development, as the sum of all rights secured by public participation, is a law that’s enforced by disgrace and rebellion like a norm. It’s currently being institutionalized in Latin America and dismantled in Europe (and in the USA, as Glabraith points out.) This law scares the US statists most of all.

  12. Anarcissie

    Some of this discussion exemplifies the problem, noted by Wittgenstein, of any critique: in order to criticize properly, we have to be able to criticize the method of criticism as well. But in order to do that, we have to be able to criticize the criticism of criticism. But, before we can do that…. Thus we are told above that we have both too much moralizing and not enough, or we have moralizing which is of the wrong kind. But how much is enough, and which is the right kind? Because the problem is reflective and recursive, there is no mechanism for grinding out the answer. Eventually, one must jump to a decision based on intuition, belief, aesthetics, will — and live with it. At that point we may have something other than the moralization quotients of our selves and our fellows to think about and deal with.

    1. from Mexico

      I don’t get the sense that Johnson marches in lockstep with the more extreme construcvists and moral relativists like Wittgenstein, Carnap, Rorty, Kuhn, Putnam, or Goodman, to name a few. I certainly do not.

      I suppose I should let Johnson speak for himself, but I for one certainly believe there are moral truths which are objective: which are universal and are not socially constructed. This is not, of course, to say that there are not other moral prerogatives which are parochial and socially constructed.

      1. MikeNY

        I adore reading your posts, from Mexico.

        When you say you believe there are certain moral truths that are objective, what precisely do you mean? Demonstrable by pure reason? Represented in all cultures? Inscribed in the heart? How are they objective?

        I ask not to criticize, but to understand.

        1. from Mexico

          When I say some moral truths are objective, what I mean is that they are universal and not socially constructed.

          Some of the more recent cross-cultural studies, such as those conducted by Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph, lend credence to the old Law of Human Nature theories as espoused by folks like Thomas Jefferson or C.S. Lewis. Haidt defines morality, based on his extensive cross-cultural studies, as follows:

          Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.

          When I first heard this, I was reminded of something Lewis wrote:

          Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to — whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or every one. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired.

          C.S. Lewis, “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe”

          And here’s something Jefferson wrote along the same lines:

          Nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct in short…impelling us to virtuous actions, and warning us against those which are vicious.

          –THOMAS JEFFERSON, letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814

          Haidt goes on to enumerate five psychological foundations of morality that his studies have found to be universal:

          1) fairness and justice
          2) care and protection of the vulnerable
          3) in-group loyalty
          4) authority and respect
          5) purity and sanctity

            1. from Mexico

              I don’t know.

              Joan Silk in “The Evolution of Cooperation in Primate Groups” writes that “Strong reciprocity in humans seems rooted in a deep sense of fairness and concern for justice that is extended even toward strangers.” (emphasis mine)

              And then there’s all the empathy we feel for strangers which Paul Zack speaks of here:


              It’s the “toward strangers” part that throws materialistic theories like evolutionary science for a loop. It has no problem explaining these sentiments towards family or friends. But evolutionary theory struggles to explain these sentiments towards strangers.

              Richard Dawkins says “the whole beauty of the Darwinian explanation for life is that it’s self-sufficient” and “nothing extraneous needs to be smuggled in.” But he contradicts himself when he says things like “we can override our biology with free will” and “we can deliberately take the decision to emancipate ourselves from the world of natural selection in which genes were naturally selected, and make a new world for ourselves to live in, which is an anti-Darwinian world.” If “nothing extraneous needs to smuggled in,” then Dawkins has to explain using evolutionary theory where free will came from. The interviewer calls Dawkins out on this, to which Dawkins responds that he is a Darwinian, a determinist and what we experience is an “illusory free will.” But if nature is omnipotent and the free will is illusory, then there is no free will and therefore we cannot “override our biology with free will” as Dawkins claims earlier.


              Without free will, it is difficult to see how man can be anything but an animal. Dawkins, just like the humanists, is entwined in an antimony from which there is no escape.

              1. Lambert Strether

                I am less than not an expert here, but I don’t see this logic:

                [E]volutionary theory struggles to explain these sentiments towards strangers.

                IIRC, altruism has survival value. I don’t think altruism is limited only to an in-group. Groups that are kind to strangers might azquire new skills, new artifacts, new genes. Hence, increased survival, and whatever genetic substrate supports those adaptive sentiments (granted, I’ve got no idea how that would work) gets passed on. Could be mix of body and culture…

                1. from Mexico

                  The evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson explains the problem as follows:

                  Within-group selection by itself creates a world without morality in which individuals merely use each other to maximize their relative fitness. Group selection creates a moral world within groups but doesn’t touch the world of between-group interactions, which remains exactly as instrumental as within-group interactions in the absence of group selection. Moral conduct among groups can evolve in principle, but only by extending the hirarchy to include groups of groups. This possibility is not as far-fetched as it may appear. Remember that individual organisms are already groups of groups of groups, if the emerging paradigm of major transitions is correct. Perhaps history will reveal the rudiments of moral conduct among human groups struggling to emerge against opposing forces, rather than the total absense of moral conduct among groups. Even so, we should expect far more naked exploitation among groups than within groups.

                  –DAVID SLOAN WILSON, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society

              2. Stephen A. Meigs

                The problem I have with evolutionary psychologists, etc., analyzing the evolution of morality is that they always seem to assume that moral nature can’t be detected otherwise than through game-theory approaches.

                Call the beautiful what moral people want to increase in the world. Moral people will try to (unselfishly) love fellow moral people more than other people because loving people who share their goal will encourage the fulfillment of their goal of making the world more beautiful. Moral people will love each other unselfishly, selfish people won’t, and so moral people will prosper more. Nothing mysterious about it. What is beautiful? A mixture of talent and effective love of beauty, i.e., goodness, would seem to be what it is most reasonable to suppose moral people consider beautiful, because that would be what it would be most rewarding for the group of moral people to love unselfishly, and mostly this seems about right.

                Of course, morality can only evolve to the extent that moral people can recognize other moral people. The most important love is in romantic relationships–e.g., females putting love ahead of money in deciding whom to have sex with, and males caring for a well-loved mate rather than excess mistress-chasing or buying a poorly-loved mate. The point is that if in the romantic sphere, a selfish person fools a mate into stupidly unselfish behavior, the rewards are an increased number of children by a person conned into stupidly unselfish behavior, presumably as a result of insensitivity toward the moral character of others. People who pretend to unselfishness to get unselfish love without being unselfish may get more children, but those children will likely be morally insensitive like the fooled parent. As long as the most important love is in the mating sphere, there will be a strong association between selfishness and insensitivity toward the moral character of others. And moral sensitivity is something that can be judged well directly, because with a little reflection and thought one may know comparatively well what one’s own moral character is like, and so can rather infallibly test another’s understanding of it. There may not be a direct test for moral deceptions, but there is a very good indirect test, which suggests that indeed it is entirely reasonable that moral sensitivity can usually overcome moral deceptions.

                People can sense the moral character of others (otherwise than by indirectly testing sensitivity toward one’s own character, which of course won’t suffice, e.g., because one can’t do that when one’s sensitivity is being directly tested) because moral people treasure and have treasured this sensitivity in others an extreme amount that has caused it to be extremely evolved in moral people. What presumption to think there be some simple explanation for the process or that it can only be mediated by some sort of game! For crying out loud, haven’t evolutionary psychologists heard of love at first sight? Arrgh, but they’re probably such cynics I suppose they don’t believe in such love and think it is all just being fetched by facial symmetry or something equally ridiculous.

              3. MikeNY

                Thank you very much for your response; you’ve given me some interesting avenues of reading.

                FWIW, I agree on your critique of Dawkins; evolution as a “grand unified theory”, subsuming even the human psyche, has always impressed me as another Tower of Babel, and Dawkins as an overreaching dogmatist.

                1. David Johnson

                  I am sympathetic to the view that there are objective moral norms but not to the view that they are “supernatural” in origin. Read Derek Parfit’s “On What Matters” for a noble attempt to demonstrate a form of utilitarian moral realism.

          1. Lambert Strether

            The 5 psychological foundation of morality instantly reminded me of Game of Thrones, where characters are constantly put into positions where their values conflict. Robb Stark, for example, marries for love (purity of feeling; care and protection of the vulnerable) but breaks an oath for an arranged marriage (violates justice). When he goes to make amends to the family to whose patriarch he swore the oath (authority and respect) he gets killed, his family and retainers are killed, and he loses a war (violates care and protection of the vulnerable).

            These 5 values may indeed be absolute (for unknown reasons). That does not, however, make them a coherent whole.

      2. Anarcissie

        Actually, I was mostly concerned, not with the objectivity or materialistic quality, if any, of morals — I am satisfied that they are the result of evolution in social groups and are now coded for in our genes — but with the difficulty of having to make up some sort of system of metamorals to judge between different moral systems. In the original article, one class of morals is deemed superior to another, or at least this is suggested; therefore, it strongly implies that there is some way of judging between differing moral systems. But as Witt points out, we may have conflicting ideas about the metamorals, in which case, to select the ‘right’ set, we will have to find or create a set of metametamorals — and so on. The problem is epistemological, not ontological.

        Evolution, of course, would not care about giving us conflicting or ambiguous moral impulses, so that later, when we started to make up systems about them, the systems conflicted.

  13. MaroonBulldog

    Maybe it would be a good start if we taught children to think about what they do before they do it, in place of teaching late adolescents and young adutls to talk about what other people have said after they said it.

  14. Hugh

    WordPress seems to be acting up again. I posted a comment. It did not appear. When I reloaded it, I got the duplicate comment message.

  15. Hugh

    I thought I would give it one more go to post, but don’t think it will come up.

    We live in a kleptocracy. It is all about the looting and the class war which is being waged by the rich and elites to hold on to the loot and the power which allows them to loot.

    A principal way they do this is by splitting economic constituents from their social purposes and filling the subsequent void with a mishmash of self-serving justifications. I am surprised that From Mexico did not cite it since it supports his argument, but here is certainly one of my favorite passages from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society:

    The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterised by universal self-deception and hypocrisy. The unconscious and conscious identification of their special interests with general interests and universal values, which we have noted in analysing national attitudes, is equally obvious in the attitude of classes. The reason why privileged classes are more hypocritical than underprivileged ones is that special privilege can be defended in terms of the rational ideal of equal justice only, by proving that it contributes something to the good of the whole. Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold. The most common form of hypocrisy among the privileged classes is to assume that their privileges are the just payments with which society rewards specially useful or meritorious functions.

    So money ceases to be a medium for the distribution of access to society’s resources for society’s ends and becomes a primordial constituent of the universe along with energy and matter, preceding and more important than any product made or any work done for it. It is not what you do but the money you make that measures your “success”. Similarly, it is deemed to be good, indeed the greatest good, for the rich to maximize their wealth and for corporations to maximize their profits, no matter how much damage this does to society as a whole. Upward transfers of wealth are inherently virtuous as is wealth from rents and speculation. Redistributions of wealth downward, on the other hand, are the rankest, crudest, vilest form of theft, a sin against nature.

    There are reasons why the rich and elites idolize Ayn Rand, glorify Nietzche, and embrace pop religions like Scientology. It is because they establish the myth of the all conquering, all justifying will. Psychopathy and greed are transmuted from character faults, even evidence of no character at all, into the highest virtues any in society can attain and so the most necessary to society.

    It is all twisted self-serving twaddle of second, and often fourth, rate thinkers, but if it keeps the rubes in their place and helps the criminal classes sleep better at night and plunder us more serenely during the day, then they will treat it as revealed truth, natural law, and science.

  16. Dr. Hackenbush

    This idea of quibbling over umbrella theft, etc., rather than larger problems, brings to mind Larry David’s show “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Often Larry (playing himself) gets exercised over peoples’ tiny indiscretions (so tiny that he may be the only person who notices them.) Or he wrestles with the propriety of his own tiny actions. Although unlike “The Ethicist” I suppose David’s show is a complete send-up of this fixation on minutiae.

  17. Hugh

    Bowing out of this thread because WordPress will not allow me to make any substantive comment on it.

      1. xo50rar

        Censorship is the hallmark of those who fear opposing ideas, and should be a big red flag. The intellectually honest are not so paranoid about criticsm.

  18. Hugh

    BTW I was always taught that ethics was about right and wrong and that morality was about good and evil. Ethics is about the individual and right action, that is acting in accordance with a set of principles. Morality is about placing values not just on actions but things and states of being. And this can be done at either the private or the public level.

    “Moral sentimentalism” as described by the author is in one sense propaganda which the rich and elites use to justify themselves to themselves and to us, and in another, pure distraction.

    1. Stephen A. Meigs

      It is indeed very useful to distinguish what is good from what is right. For instance, if a bad person is such that his existence makes the world a worse, more ugly place, technically it would seem more good to destroy that bad person if one can get away with it. But only in extreme circumstances is such destructive behavior right, because being the sort of person who by nature strongly tends to hurt others will make you quite disagreeable and shun worthy to many if not most people. You’ll have a hard time forming any useful associations–it’s an evolutionary dead-end. What it is good to be by nature (one who does what is right) is different from the state in which technical morality, concerned solely with making the world a more beautiful, better place, alone dictates what one should do. Fortunately, people tend to be more right than moral. Still, in most situations, especially those not involving groups where one might have to interact with unlikeable people, there is little difference, and the concept of rightness would seem to depend on the simpler concept of goodness in its definition: what is right is what a person who has the most good nature does. A person whose nature is strictly to try to make the world more beautiful won’t much make the world more beautiful, because, e.g., ugly selfish people will sense his nature and from fear so set up barriers against him that he will hardly be able to accomplish anything, and so in fact ordinary moral considerations suffice to demonstrate his wrong nature.

      Oppositely, sometimes people are bad in their motivations, but accidentally behave morally because it happens to be right. For instance, if a male is naturally beloved by young females, he will tend to try to force those girls to use their own judgments in forming their opinions of him even if merely copying other girls would suffice for the girls to love him. This is a very good thing, but his desire to behave thus is likely motivated by his wanting to make himself more impressive by way of getting more girls than by any moral desire on his part. If he behaves wrong, thus not getting much admiration from any appreciable number of girls being themselves, girls naturally will soon consider his success as the result of externally manufactured hype and end the fad. Unless, of course, girls are using the fad to pretend that they are attracted to males who don’t force girls to feel and think for themselves.

  19. RBHoughton

    We are talking of the way self-interest dominates our lives; looking after ourselves.

    Its a defining characteristic of our species and requires no stimulation. Indeed many cultures sought to suppress it – in Imperial China merchants were the lowest of the low, akin to untouchables, but they still flourished.

    We Westerners, on the other hand, stimulate it constantly through advertising and peer-group pressure.

    Raymond Baker’s book ‘Capitalism’s Achilles Heel’ reveals the philosophical basis to our acquisitiveness as Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. Its the source of “whatever is commercially right cannot be morally wrong”

    I think that’s the place to start. When the ideological basis to our economic system is examined and found wanting, we can all agree to make changes.

  20. RanDomino

    There’s a difference between “morality” and “ethics”. “Ethics” are between people (or from people to animals, I suppose). You can treat other people or animals unethically but you can’t treat yourself unethically. “Morality” is between individuals and God- only things which are done individually or between consenting adults are called “immoral”. Since God does not exist, the concept of “morality” should be retired.

      1. RanDomino

        Between one’s self and one’s conscience? I don’t know, that sounds like between one’s self and one’s self, which is hardly a ‘di’alogue.

  21. xo50rar

    > bourgeois society
    > bourgeois morality

    So we’re no longer hiding the communism, eh comrades?

    1. David Johnson

      One needn’t be a communisty to find the concept of “bourgeois morality” useful. I am not a Marxist. I believe in non-ideological moral norms. For me, there is true morality and then there is bourgeois morality. I wish I had made that clearer.

  22. Glenn Condell

    Late to this interesting piece, hard to keep pace with this blog when you’re busy, unless you’re Yves Smith obviously.

    For me though, the words morals and morality, ethics also, get too much of a workout, certainly in relation to ‘the left’, but in general too. These words are not useful, especially when paired with words like bourgeois.

    The strenuous efforts of elites and their lackeys in academe and the media over decades to tame words like ‘reform’ have worked by and large; it now officially means, for the general populace at least when they come across it in the newspaper, almost the opposite of what it used to. Elites now deform the polity for gain and call it reform. Similarly morality has been co-opted by the right (handmaidens to the elite) to fig-leaf the most immoral behaviour imaginable.

    Given the carefully cultivated image of the left as wet, weak, impractical ninnies (not quite as difficult a task as perhaps it should have been) hanging words like morality around its neck makes it less rather than more likely that its message will break through the defences of vested interest’s status quo and its protective zeitgeist, and into the full glare of national discourse.

    The concept and the word justice is more pointed, more accurate and less vulnerable to the sort of self-interested etymological abuse that reform and morality have suffered. I’d go further and use the more demotic ‘fairness’. It is a lot easier and more useful to ask in any given scenario – is it fair? – than is it moral? In any case, morality emerges out of a sense of fairness, not the other way around and our sense of it is closer to the root of our shared humanity, going back deep into our evolutionary past.

    I was brought up Christian but would class myself as an athiest now. I haven’t taken much from this background but I did embed a core concept of how I interpret morality/ethics/justice in all human transactions – ‘do unto others’ It very handily situates the nub of any human intention in a mirror-like frame of reference: how would I like it?

    ‘Bourgeois morality restricts itself to individual persuasion, proselytizing, praise and condemnation. Whether one behaves morally is ultimately left to individual conscience.’

    I don’t know that it restricts itself so much as it is restricted, limited, emasculated. Its a two-way dynamic I guess, but the original formulation leans too far in the direction of assumed blame, as if the ground is clear for a more collective version of lefty proselytizing if only they would quit their self-defeating individual evangelism.

    It has become increasingly obvious, indeed palpable that the ground isn’t clear for that sort of action at all, that in fact any move to organise such action will result in state-sponsored physical assault, surveillance and orchestrated community ridicule or even hatred. Which may go some way to explaining why bourgeois morality, or even just plain old decency, tends toward the safety of sermons, bromides and dreams.

  23. animalogic

    Great article — even better posts.
    I think many Posters are correct that ” moral sentimentalism” is littele more than a description of common hypocrasy. Morality employed for the immoral purpose of maintaining the ( corrupt )status quo.
    Do such writers KNOW how corrupt our western cuture has become ? Are they the frogs in the warming pot ? Or are they just dogs, barking for bones ?
    What I find so extraordinary is that regardless of morality, regardless of whether morality is objective, relative or deontological, regardless of whether social problems should be viewed through the perspective of morality or “science” it is plain and stark that the US and western economy/society is CORRUPT by its OWN standards. You dont need to examine moral systems or sociology to spot the foul rot. What economic or social theory has suggested that executives in the finance sector should have impunity from any prosecution for whatever fraud or theft or bribery they might choose to commit ? What theory suggests that companys be bailed out without ANY conditions on management ? What social theory suggests that an executive have carte blanch to ignore its country’s founding constitution ?
    Let’s face it: law, morality, theory, our elites are degenerate criminals…and those who support them are at best fools, at worst DOGS.

  24. Nathanael

    I guess we need people who think like John Brown.

    I’m too much of a shy, retiring, self-protective type myself.

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