The vital importance of being moral

Essay: To be moral requires something routinely denigrated today: individual freedom.

Angus Kennedy

Topics Politics

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At first sight, it might appear that society has taken a markedly positive moral turn over the past 20-or-so years. The example of the Conservative Party’s embrace of gay marriage alone shows how far we now are from the failure of Conservative prime minister John Major’s ‘back to basics’ campaign to restore traditional moral values in the early 1990s. Cultural and political trendsetters champion any number of apparently progressive moral campaigns: against female genital mutilation, child abuse, poverty, inequality, or any imaginable form of discrimination on the grounds of race, sex or disability. On the face of it, we seem to have the good fortune to be living in a new age of tolerance, born of a society confident and firm in its moral values.

One of contemporary society’s most prominent features is the wide level of support for non-judgementalism; namely, the idea that we do not have the right as individuals to lay down the law as to how others should live their lives. This moral-sounding sentiment reaches right to the top of society. Earlier this year no less an eminence than UK Supreme Court judge Lord Wilson of Culworth declared that marriage was ‘an elastic concept’ (ie, as empty as a rubber band), that the nuclear family had been replaced by a ‘blended’ variety, and that the Christian teaching on the family has been ‘malign’. The one (ironic) judgement that today’s non-judgemental morality is happy to make is to judge the judgemental and castigate strict moral codes as malign and abusive.

This residuum of people who still cling to traditional ideas of morality and concepts like duty are routinely denigrated by the right-thinking as intolerant ‘bigots’ or dismissed as reactionary religious rednecks. Society’s apparent moral confidence is betrayed to a degree by its own level of intolerance towards the supposedly morally intolerant and overly judgemental. Would there be a need for today’s moral crusades against child abuse or FGM to be quite so shrill and knee-jerk were they reflective of a society genuinely confident and secure in what is right and what is wrong? A morally confident society might not need to be on such a high-state of moral alert against the dangers supposedly posed to the social fabric by cases such as the black Christian couple in Derby whom Derby Council denied the right to be foster carers because of their belief that homosexuality is a sin.

Not only does much of what passes for morality today have a celebrity-endorsed character to it, it is also marked by tendency to exaggerate and, in some cases, to invent the existence of ‘very bad things indeed’ in order to divert attention from the moral vacuum that actually exists at the heart of society. We have seen it in the case of the moralistic finger pointers who let their intuition outweigh the need for evidence in the failed sexual-assault trials of Dave Lee Travis, William Roache and others. And we can see it again in the imperative to appear in public denouncing immoral behaviour, much as ex-Tory MP Louise Mensch when she announced on social media that Dylan Farrow’s ‘charge of abuse’ against Woody Allen ‘was instantly credible to me’. Rather than seeing society as confident in its moral values, it is truer to see certain sections of it (the state and public figures) as being in search of a moral project.

What passes for morality is in fact better characterised as a state of moral indifference. The routine question, ‘Who are you to judge?’, is actually expressive of a profound indifference to you: it represents a contemptuous dismissal of your judgement, of the public exercise of your reason, as something that does not matter. It was in this way that John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, and his wife Sally mounted a defence of their notably elastic marriage after she was photographed kissing another man in a West End nightclub. Sally told the Evening Standard she had ‘nothing to be ashamed of’, that ‘all marriages are different’, that she ‘couldn’t give a damn what people think’, and ‘let people judge me if they want’. John was equally on message in the Independent: ‘All marriages are different from each other and I think that there’s something to be said for people looking after their own business and allowing us to look after ours.’ What John’s each-to-his-own principle reveals is not tolerance, but an absence of moral standards and a plea that we should treat the Bercows’ marriage, and in fact marriage in general, as itself a matter of moral indifference: as something purely pragmatic. So pragmatic, in fact, that even insisting on some level of duty to one’s husband or wife on the basis of a publically declared commitment of mutual love can be considered as just so Victorian and strait-laced.

Thus, there are two sides to contemporary non-judgementalism. One is a form of easy-going moral relativism. If Sally wants to snog in nightclubs rather than mother her three children then who am I to judge? I should be indifferent to her behaviour because marriage itself is a matter of indifference. It is felt that there are certain areas of life where judgement is considered inappropriate or old-fashioned and not up to date with the complexity and messiness and blended poly-diversity of modern life. This side of non-judgementalism, then, is the idea that some things are beneath moral judgement in the sense that they are not worthy of being judged.

The other side to moral indifference is that there are certain things that are considered to be beyond judgement in the sense that they are manifestly and self-evidently Evil. Child abuse, rape and genocide fall into this category: moral absolutes that brook no questioning, admit of no extenuating circumstances, and, therefore, require no judgement. The action itself (or the accusation of it) sufficiently condemns the accused without the need for trial. As society has become less and less bound by traditional morality, so the number of moral absolutes has increased in compensation. The Holocaust has mushroomed into multiple holocausts at the same time as more and more child-abuse scandals have been discovered – and in some cases manufactured – to fit a need for moral certainty. Deny or question the force of these contemporary moral absolutes at the risk of your health, wealth and liberty.

Together, these two aspects of non-judgementalism serve to greatly reduce the space available to moral judgement, leaving it a narrower and narrower sphere of operation in between what is considered to be beneath and what is deemed beyond judgement.

The first puts moral judgement off limits because it is all too subjective. The second introduces an idea of moral objectivity which also precludes judgement: this is a form of ‘evidence-based’ morality which licenses the operation of moral experts and even moral scientists fearlessly to ‘tell it like it is’, to reveal to lesser mortals certain moral truths of which we would otherwise be ignorant or complicit in their cover-up and denial. The simultaneous operation and interaction of these two dimensions of non-judgementalism in moral thought – the subjective and the objective, the beneath and the beyond – explain the co-existence of the contemporary figures of the moral relativist and the moral entrepreneur. And, contrary to the superficial appearance of a society confident in its moral judgements, the existence of subjective and objective dimensions are part of a reaction against a loss of faith in our moral foundations through reducing much of the need and possibility for us to be moral.

The reasons for this loss of faith are complicated. There is the decline of the authority of traditional religion, and the inability of the square-peg of science to fill the resulting God-shaped hole. There is the profound loss of confidence in the moral fitness of bourgeois society after the horrors of the twentieth century. There has been an accommodation made by conservative thought to the cultural critique of the left, most notably in the form of relativism as well as the idea of the reality of the Other (as opposed to the self or the same). Maybe the one factor that can stand for the others, however, is the loss of faith – not so much in God or in tradition – but in man himself as a moral standard.

The twentieth century is often understood to have demonstrated man’s inhumanity more than it did his dignity. And we are maybe more likely to view man under the aspect of his unreason and lack of freedom than we are to expound upon the virtues of man as a rational being, or to seek to afford him more latitude. Whatever the reasons, there is a tendency to see man as faithless, committed to nothing but his self-interest. It is this tendency – this degraded perspective upon humanity – which gives rise to an increasingly irrational rejection of the one thing in which morality can be grounded: the public exercise of individual reason.

Moral conformity

An immediate knock-on effect of this shrinking of the intersubjective moral sphere – the erosion and attenuation of any moral sensibility held in common – is the existence of a powerful and self-perpetuating dynamic towards moral flabbiness and moral passivity. That is, flabbiness through lack of moral exercise, and passivity as a result of the exercise of moral judgement on our behalf by self-appointed moral experts. The net effect is a great deal of moral conformity, at least at the level of appearances, although it often conceals a considerable undercurrent of resentment.

To take an example from the now heavily moralised sphere of public health – in which what we privately choose to eat, drink or smoke is a matter of intense and prurient interest – the public condemnation of our behaviour by moral MDs coexists with a private, behind-closed-doors cynicism towards whatever ‘the science’ has told us is wrong this week. (As I write sugar and cheese are today’s silent killers.) The outcome is a form of moral schizophrenia and irrationalism in which we outwardly conform to society’s moral codes (more accurately its non-moral codes) by default and through inertia rather than because we have actively chosen to agree with them ourselves. To the degree we conform in this fashion – saying one thing but thinking another, or not thinking at all – we act in ‘bad’ rather than ‘good’ faith. An example is the public lip-service paid to society’s ‘you can’t say that’ speech codes, which forbid the giving of even imagined offence to increasingly large numbers of minority or victimised groups.

The existence of such speech codes is itself attributable to our failure to be moral insofar as once we stop judging for ourselves, we cease to imbue what we say and do with moral content. The subsequent moral formalism inevitably invites the moral policing of appearances as if they were real. Loss of faith in the possibility of moral universals – believing what is right for you is also right for everyone else – therefore leads to a hollowed-out moral nominalism in which words quite literally matter. One clear contemporary example on which spiked has reported is the policing of racist, sexist or sectarian speech at football games, even to the extent of condemning the positive self-identification of Tottenham fans as a ‘Yid Army’ as evidence of anti-Semitism. This ludicrous situation is the inevitable result of a logic which sees our moral thinking as determined by our speech and actions rather than the other way round. The non-exercise and the denial of moral autonomy results in the automatic handing down of moral sentencing as if we were moral automata rather than free and rational individuals.

The greater importance given to the impact of words is in direct relation to a decreased belief in the resilience and capacity of the human subject. From this starting premise comes an increased willingness to see the individual more as a thing or an object than as a person or a subject. This retreat from reason and the idea of freedom leads us to consider other individuals as a problem to be managed, as objects to be nudged (in one popular theory) into shape, as forms of behaviour to be analysed and modified. It also leads to a diminished faith in the ability of individuals to exercise free will against, for example, the blandishments of advertising or the power of alcohol or nicotine. And it finds expression in the idea that individuals are subject to forces outside their control, apparent in the credence given to popular neuroscientific theories of consciousness or ‘early years’ determinism.

The pernicious logic of the reduced terrain on which we are allowed to exercise our moral judgement merely compounds – through our moral flabbiness – the extent to which we are looked upon as ‘thing-like’ which, in turn, justifies yet more intervention and nudging on our behalf. Moral conformity, and the demand for moral conformity, is therefore something in which we are ourselves complicit insofar as we choose not to exercise individual judgement and reason. Although we do always remain conscious of our freedom as at least a niggle, the fearful voice of what Kant called our internal judge follows us like a shadow despite our attempts to escape it.

The roots of this perverse logic in bad faith and self-disgust are particularly marked in the postwar degeneration of left-wing movements and their gradual embrace of the politics of identity. Thus feminist and anti-racist movements began explaining the persistence of sexism and racism in society simply as a result of the existence of racist or sexist attitudes, caused by the existence of racist or sexist language. The solution? Change the language and change reality. The operation of this magical and fantastically self-serving logic can be seen in the explosion of the concept of gender. In just 60 years, it has gone from denoting grammatical categories to Facebook recently allowing its users to choose from 57 different genders instead of just boring old male or female. Non-exhaustive and non-hierarchical options now include: agender, cisgender, gender variant, genderqueer, intersex, neither, non-binary, pangender and trans. It is only a matter of time before the inevitable call for ‘one person, one gender’.

Individual experience is indeed often messy and denies easy categorisation. No one can live in a pigeon-hole. Yet the deconstruction, if not the exploding, of the concept of the individual as predicated upon a shared rational agency makes moral judgement impossible. The exponential multiplication of imagined differences between individuals reduces the real differences between people to a matter of indifference. The desire to remove all limits from the individual renders him un-limited and uncontrolled. All that is left is a view of human nature as a polymorphous bag of protean desire, and a view of most (other) people as incapable of managing those desires and, therefore, as being in need of help to lead their own lives. To put it another way, society comes to be seen as the solution to the problem posed by the individual, rather than as something itself constituted by individuals. What comes to be considered most dangerous are those individuals who persist in the ‘illusion’ that they have the freedom to act in the world as they themselves see fit, as individuals who can self-limit and do not need external help. The persistence of subjectivity, of moral autonomy, represents a potential rupture in the social fabric. Its repression is therefore licensed in the interests of society. This is the essence of contemporary moral thought.

What has emerged from the wreckage of traditional, ‘bourgeois’ morality is not – despite appearances to the contrary – liberation from stultifying moral orthodoxy and routine like some butterfly from a wheel. Rather, the waning of the force and authority of traditional morality was itself a precondition for the emergence of non-judgementalism. That is to say, the seeming strength of today’s non-moral code is an illusion caused by the weakness of any alternative. Traditional morality has no more bite than the teeth of the Cheshire Cat. What is left is at best a morality of repudiation, verging on moral nihilism, espoused by moral nothings in a discourse in which nothing means very much at all. This is a moral mirror world in which it appears as if the virtuous ones are those who have liberated themselves from the moral strictures of society, but in which the real truth is that society is deeply troubled by the idea of genuinely individual judgement, of being moral. What passes for virtue today is really the pretence that one has escaped at last from oneself.

This is a profoundly dangerous misperception of reality. When we dismiss individual judgement (the ‘you’ in who you are, your conscience) we dismiss the possibility of reasoned judgement on our world and our actions. And we dismiss with it our responsibility for our actions. That is, we dismiss our freedom insofar as when we act according to the dictates of reason – as opposed to being the slave of our passions – we are being free. Today’s cultural battles between competing lifestyle choices (see Culture War: the narcissism of minor differences), and the often passionate distaste for how others choose to live their lives, represent not a clash between conservative and progressive moral visions, but an assault on the concept of moral authority per se – that is, as something which necessarily rests on our individual freedom as moral law-makers.

The foundation of morals

Re-reading Major’s much-maligned ‘back to basics’ speech, one is struck by how uncontentious what he said should have been. Although the speech was interpreted as part of an assault on single mothers, Major actually called for a return to ‘basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting a responsibility for yourself and your family and not shuffling off on other people and the state’. This – in its stress on self-command and self-reliance – is an Enlightenment take on morality which would be right at home in the work of Adam Smith or Kant. Major’s mistake was to cast his call as an exhortation to ‘return’, rather than an inescapable imperative – still, he’s a politician, not a philosopher.

Moral thinking has only ever grappled with a single problem. We know that we could be good but we regularly fail to be. The moral question is: ‘How should I act?’ It is a practical issue. The truth, as Kant argued – that ought implies can – gives the moral dilemma bite. If we were simply unable to do what we ought – the child falls into the rushing river before me but I am in chains – then the question of being moral would not arise. It is with the emergence of our freedom as individuals that the moral question simultaneously swims into focus. The foundational figure of Socrates in Western intellectual history exemplifies the link between the latitude afforded to individual questioning in Athenian democracy and the force of the problem of morality. Socrates was famously conscious of that ‘internal judge’ (his daimon), which always told him what he should do. He was so aware of it that he famously argued in Plato’s Gorgias that one’s moral duty is, first of all, not to society, but to oneself.

The moral problem, then, emerges with the reality and awareness of the freedom of the individual over and above the order of society. In this sense, societies in which what the individual does was simply determined by established authority, there was no immorality and equally no morality.

The moral problem is also the problem of being God. If God is a being that is free without restraint, then God is unconditionally good. God can do whatever he wills, but only does good because his will is perfectly rational. Which is to say, we understand absolute freedom and absolute good as being the same thing. But human beings are only relatively free and only relatively good. So the question of how to be more good is related to the question of how to become more free.

Those that reacted against the idea of more freedom for everyone – as those that followed Socrates such as Plato and Aristotle did – responded with the idea of being more ordered. The Platonic conception of the philosopher-king as a kind of moral expert who finds moral authority ‘out there’ (in the laws of the land, or in the world of the Forms), rather than ‘in here’, is one that has informed an important current of moral thinking running throughout history. Such approaches seek to provide guides for our action. Consequentialists, for example, argue that we should act to bring about more good in the world – such as an increase in general happiness – while those who believe in virtue ethics look to habituate us to doing good by making us the right sort of person or character. Such theories can be said to be trying to determine our moral action.

But there is also a current of thought which finds its apogee in Enlightenment thinking – most particularly in Kant – which places its faith in the ability of every person to guide themselves towards the good, to be self-determined. This faith in man as an autonomous rational being, Kant argued, necessitates our treating each other as ends and not means – by which he really meant revering each other’s freedom. His approach famously straddled subjective and objective views of moral goodness, uniting them in us as rational beings with one foot in the sensible world subject to the laws of cause and effect, and the other in the intelligible world subject to reason. As a member of the intelligible world, one’s reason is an active principle which requires the idea of freedom in order to allow it to act. As a member of the sensible world, one is subject to forces (such as the natural instinct to self-preservation) and circumstances beyond our control. This means that it is by no means a given that we will do the right thing simply because it is the right thing. Instead, we experience the force of duty as an imperative: we ought to do the right thing, as our internal judge keeps reminding us, even though to do the right thing in practice may be a continual struggle.

As such, Kant shows us that the foundation of morality is our own freedom: a freedom we experience as a law we prescribe to ourselves. His view represents a highpoint of thinking about morality which bases what is right solely in what we reason to be right for ourselves and other rational beings like us.

Eclipse of the subject

Today we have fallen from those heights of individual reason. Moral thought today tends to land in one of two camps: the indeterminacy of moral relativism or the determinism of moral objectivism. From both perspectives, the individual is seen as lacking in moral authority. Either anything goes or nothing does, and what your reason tells you becomes a matter of indifference. What matters more is how you feel, or what society dictates, or what nature urges.

It is in this context that the individual starts to be viewed as a moral threat. The contemporary feeling that society suffers from an excess of what is called ‘rootless’ individualism is the single most dangerous misreading of reality. Time after time we hear that individuals need to be reined in to one extent or another. Bankers are too greedy; men are too misogynist; people are too addicted to consumption. Self-interest is held up as inimical to ideas of community and fairness. Little wonder calls for restrictions and limits on individual freedom are ubiquitous, from our freedom to eat as we see fit all the way through to our freedom of speech. The restriction of the moral terrain by narrowing the scope of our judgement leads to the eclipse of the moral subject. The growing objectification of morality and with it, the objectification of us, robs us of our very humanity.

This eclipse of the subject manifests itself in a diminution of our interiority, a weakening of that sense of my ‘inside-ness’, of that internal judge. As traditional morality ceded ground to the scientific authority of psychology, the notion of guilt was replaced by therapy, or to put it another way, the idea that our interiority was in need of help from outside in the form of moral ‘cures’. Equally, the marked suspicion, if not hostility, in which the private sphere is held by the state is another example of this trend. The family is seen more and more as a place where things can start to go very badly wrong – a site of potential abuse – rather than representing a place of safety in which we can develop the resources required to venture out and act in public. The equivalent moral therapy for the family is the idea of early intervention to ensure that there is sufficient ‘safeguarding’ of the individual and that, to take a topical example, radical extremists do not emerge from the bosom of the family to poison society. Meanwhile, across all walks of life, there is a demand for transparency. This is nothing less than a profound suspicion of anyone who seeks to remain private.

Good faith

If anything sums up the situation in which we find ourselves today, it is Sartre’s concept of mauvaise foi, or ‘bad faith’. What we have today is a bad faith which takes the form of conformity to non-judgementalism and contemporary non-moral codes. What this situation demands is moral resurgence, a rising up of the moral being. Moral flabbiness and passivity can only be countered through our willingness to experiment in living as freely as we can, through being moral. If we applied only a little of the effort that is put into combatting obesity to the state of our own conscience, then we would be some way down the road to moral self-determination. The moral imperative today must be directed towards overcoming those excuses – and we have many – which we throw up in order to escape the necessity of our own freedom. Rather than shrug our shoulders with a ‘who am I to judge?’, it would be better were we more willing to play God, and struggle towards freedom, instead of making excuses like children.

If we are to give any content to the notion of good faith, we need to refocus on the ‘I’ – the ‘I’ that is willing to stand in judgement on itself, on you and on the world in which we both live. For in this judging, we create and strengthen the relationship between us. If I act in bad faith and refuse to judge then I remain indifferent to you. You do not matter. Nor I to you. But in judging, I assert my difference from you but recognise you in the process. There is a shared nature of moral judgement that relies on a common-sense – a common sense rooted in our shared awareness of our freedom and our duty.

A resurgence of faith in the individual and his freedom is the logical precursor to the establishment of moral authority. Without it there is literally no sense in calls for new social movements that could provide some form of foundation or rootedness for the individual. Calls to bring about some form of good society which could bind us together simply raise the question of what good might be. The content-free nature of the Occupy protests is a case in point, as is the emptiness of its slogan of the 99 per cent. Failing to tackle the question of what the good might be is to evade the moral imperative every bit as much as any retreat into moral relativism or moral solipsism. It is the ultimate in bad faith to assume that someone who is not a member of a movement is a dupe of the status quo. Morality has never been a matter of their morals and ours; it’s a matter of my duty and, therefore, yours.

To the extent that we refuse to judge and pass over every marriage as different, every circumstance as special, then we increase the extent of our unfreedom, the extent of Evil understood as the absence of what is good; namely, our freedom or at least our struggle to be free. Being free is a matter of pushing back the boundaries of freedom, stretching them out to increase the kingdom of Good and reduce that of Evil. We only do that through having the courage to make public use of our private reason. It is, as Kant saw it, in the death of dogma that we can begin to hope for the birth of morality.

Angus Kennedy is convenor of The Academy, which this year examines the theme of morality over three days in July. For more information visit the Academy website here. Kennedy’s book, Being Cultured: In Defence of Discrimination, is published by Imprint Academic. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics


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