Monday, November 24, 2008

On the Genealogy of Moralism

Once upon a time, the left (or most of it) thought they had history all figured out: they could interpret day-to-day politics in light of the tectonic shifts in social formations, and they had an endpoint to aim at, a model of an alternative, noncapitalist economic system. For some, this became an excuse for amoralism, the notion that the glorious revolutionary ends justified actions that would be morally repugnant by any other yardstick. The intellectual reflections of this amoralism, the writings on this topic by Trotsky, Merleau-Ponty, Fanon and the rest, are now seen as little more than an embarrassment.

Today the problem is more likely to be the reverse. Lacking a convincing view of history or the potential transformation of the existing order—in other words, lacking the basis for a systematic strategy—activists on the left are at risk of embracing an extreme moralism. If we don’t know how to change society, at least we can separate ourselves ethically: we can be the good people in an evil world.

So much political debate today has the unspoken premise, “How can I protect myself from being guilty?” Not in my name, they say, although the horrors are no less when some other name is invoked. Actually, wanting to not be guilty is a fine emotion, but it should be a springboard to effective, strategic action, not a politics of personal virtue.


Barkley Rosser said...


I guess I am a bit mystified as to what is on your mind here. Aside from people trying to be "green" in their private lives and perhaps engaging in "politically correct" speech, what are you referring to here? You grant that such things are not bad in themselves, and if so, what is wrong with them or other such behaviors that may be on your mind? Certainly it is good to have a strategy, but what should that be? And does some of your concern have to do with how people are responding to the current economic crisis?

Peter Dorman said...

Sorry to be cryptic, Barkley. Actually, I didn't have the economic crisis on my mind (at that moment). I was thinking more of the anti-war movements and especially of the what-should-I-buy approach to issues of global poverty and injustice. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was giving a workshop on child labor to a non-academic group, and (again) the assumption in the room was that this is a problem mainly for our feelings of complicity. The only child labor that really got their attention was the small fraction that goes into the things we buy in the US. My response was to say, if global poverty and the stunting of lives is one of the great issues of our time (and surely it is), why was there zero mention of it during the recent election campaign? Why is there no pressure for changes in US policy that would address this problem? Especially in light of the vast sums being spent on bailouts, a lot of progress could be made at relatively low cost. But the real struggle is at a prior level, to get well-meaning people to take the leap from protecting their sense of personal virtue (what should I buy?) to acting through political channels to actually deal with the problem.