Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Abusing morality

There's something odd about immoral uses of morality, something striking about the brazenness involved. Is there a general name for such abuses? 'Moralism', perhaps, but the dictionary definitions I've just consulted don't seem to be talking about exactly the phenomenon I'm thinking of. Here are some examples of what I have in mind:
  1. it is sometimes said, or at least implied, that nurses and teachers ought to do their jobs from the goodness of their hearts and that therefore they should not be paid more (because that would attract the wrong sort of person into these professions)
  2. someone involved in the drone program once said that he told the men under his command that he didn't care how they did it but he wanted them to get their job done. When I asked him whether this might lead to the use of immoral means he reacted indignantly, with moral outrage, at the suggestion that his men might behave immorally
  3. unrealistic ideas about what morality requires can lead to the abandonment of moral concern as unrealistic (see Anscombe on pacifism)
  4. sentimental ideas about morality or goodness can lead to people's regarding moral behavior either as unrealistic for them (it is something for saints or for women or for civilians, perhaps) or as something that applies only in a very limited sphere
Sentimentality is a theme here, but so is cynicism. Case 1 involves implicit sexism but also sentimentality, cynicism, and a kind of self-righteousness. The people who do these jobs (traditionally mostly women, of course) shouldn't be soiled or insulted by giving them the money they are asking for! Morality is used here to promote political interests. The second case is not sexist, but it does involve a fantasy of the military as incorruptibly honorable, and a use of morality as a kind of weapon to be resorted to when faced with a particular kind of attack. It also involves righteous indignation. The third case is different, and tricky (and Anscombe was close enough to pacifism that she opposed even World War II), but it too involves a failure to be realistic, as well as, perhaps, self-righteousness and/or sentimentality. Case 4 is really at least two different cases. I'm thinking of men whose ideas of morally good behavior are incompatible with their ideas of manly behavior, of people who believe that someone (i.e. them) has to "get their hands dirty" so that others can live "good" lives (self-righteousness about their own immoral behavior, in other words), and about people who focus on virtues such as not swearing and being courteous toward women in response to criticisms of their violent racism, for instance. Another example is the song about Jesse James that emphasizes his wife's having been a lady, his children's having been brave, and the cowardice of the men who shot him. Murder and robbery are outward, superficial things. If his wife was a lady then he must have been a gentleman, and that's what really counts. 

In each case there is a lack of realism, an indulgence in fantasy, and (which is part of the same thing) a division or compartmentalization that enables evasion. But in the very idea of morality (or ethics) as a thing, or of values as things, there is already division (of morality from everything else). And the solution might be to dissolve morality into everything else. This is related, I think, to Anscombe's and Wittgenstein's philosophical projects, although I wonder how far the dissolution has to go. (Heidegger has things to say about 'values', too, as I recall.) It seems as though it would have to be all the way. And then I find it hard to see how Anscombe's Christianity, for instance, could survive. Not that I see clearly that it could not. Nor do I have an argument here. It's just a sort of intuition. And what it would mean to dissolve ethics into everything else is hard to say, but I suppose it would mean dropping certain 'moral' concepts. Especially the thinnest ones. That alone wouldn't obviously make any of the abuses I listed above impossible. Sexism, sentimentality, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy are always going to be possible. 


  1. Thanks for putting your finger on this.

    I agree with almost everything you say. I'm not sure i agree about getting rid of concepts--even thin moral ones. For one thing, I don't think this gets to the heart of the matter. I'm sort of pessimistic enough to believe that even if you took away people's ability to use certain concepts, the spirit of righteousness will find other ways to express itself. And I'm also not sure what image you have of a morality that has been completely dissolved. Would we care about things any more if morality were dissolved? But anyway, it strikes me that one theme here in this kind of righteous attitude is that adopting it involves a kind of treating certain things as beyond question (beyond reflection), which in turn leads to a kind of unwillingness to participate in certain conversations (even if one is sensitive to the problems, to some extent at least). - Is that also the kind of thing you have in mind?

    Thanks for this post. I think it is really important.

    1. Thanks, Reshef.

      I agree that the spirit of righteousness will find ways to express itself even if we somehow got rid of certain concepts. And I doubt we can do that anyway.

      The image I have of dissolving morality is like dissolving sugar in tea. The sugar doesn't go away, it just sweetens the drink and is no longer perceptible as a distinct thing. So I'm imagining a kind of re-enchantment of the world, such that we would care about things more if morality were dissolved in it because our care would not be divided (and perhaps lost or hidden) between things and values. If this could work at all it isn't something that can be done by fiat though.

      And yes, a refusal to think about or question certain things is part of the attitude I have in mind.

  2. I just came across this quotation from Cavell, which I thought might be relevant (Claim of Reason 175):

    "[...] Wittgenstein’s originality lies in having developed modes of criticism that are not moralistic, that is, that do not leave the critic imagining himself free of the faults he sees around him [...]"

    1. Thanks. Presumably it's always possible to imagine oneself free of the faults one sees in others, but some modes of criticism might make this more or less likely than others. It's certainly possible to be a self-righteous "Wittgensteinian". But maybe not without the inverted commas.

    2. there is even i think an implied critique of purity of self-conception driving the last chapter of the book, so a perspective on ethics which was cautious about moral purism might also be able to make similar hay of even these non-moralistic modes of philosophical criticism

    3. I don't want to ignore this comment but I don't have anything to say except, "yes." And even that implies greater familiarity with the last chapter of the book than is really honest.