Moralism without morality

Unorthodoxy By Patrick J. Deneen A recent post on this site raises some serious issues, and I think reveals a … Continued


By Patrick J. Deneen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Patrick J. Deneen | 
December 15, 2009; 2:38 PM ET

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  • ccnl1

    More “yackety-yak” from a professor at greedy Georgetown U. who sold its soul to Islam for $20 million.

  • DouginMoz

    Aleluia!!!! Someone that can see the forest beyond the trees.

  • mammyyel

    If the Christian right had any leaning toward morality they would remember that if they offend against God’s law in anything they’re guilty of all, and that the only standing available to be in God’s presence is on the basis of the shed blood of His Son for them and the faith given to them, not of themselves, pertaining to the efficacy of that. Their morality, should they be inclined, would derive soley from that constant relationship.

  • Athena4

    “… the American Right currently exhibits the same pathologies and contradictions, more often than not condemning immorality (particularly of the sexual variety) while out of the other side of its mouth praising greed (in the form of unfettered free markets).”Not to mention the sexual immorality of various stalwarts of the Republican Party, who love to condemn Lefties for the outdated “if it feels good, do it” mantra – yet having mistresses or being on the “down low”. I’m talking to YOU, Rep. Foley, Sens. Craig, Vitter, Ensign, and our favorite Appalacian Trail hiker Gov. Sanford. True, the Dems have their own problems with guys not keeping it zipped (Edwards and Spitzer). But they’re not the ones that were condemning others for the same faults.

  • Dermitt

    About the founder of pragmatism, “Even to the most unsympathetic, Peirce’s thought cannot fail to convey something of lasting value. It has a peculiar property, like that of the Lernean hydra: Discover a weak point, and two strong ones spring up beside it. Despite the elaborate architectonic planning of its creator, it is everywhere uncompleted, often distressingly so. There are many who have small regard for things uncompleted, and no doubt what they value is much to be valued. In his quest for magnificent array, in his design for a mighty temple that should house his ideas, Peirce failed. He succeeded only in advancing philosophy.” His house is still there.