I’m writing an article for CFI about alternative moralities to religion, focusing on the left’s morality, which is based on the concept of oppression. The basic form of an immoral act is to deny someone else rights and dignity, through action or inaction. This is especially egregious when it’s systematic rather than essentially random; thus, if you discriminate against women at work it’s very bad because women are subject to systematic discrimination, but if you fire a worker because he’s friends with someone who bullied you at school it’s no big deal. That also applies to inaction: not standing up for the oppressed is considered immoral.
Anyway, this article exists in embryonic form in these two old blog posts of mine. I’m going to write more about the bugs of religious morality the left’s fixes, the bugs it doesn’t fix, and what conclusions we can draw about the limits of secularism in general, but the kernel of what I’m going to talk about is in these two posts. If you have any comments - explanations why I’m totally off base, for example - feel free to air them.
What do you mean by “left” - Troskyists? Civil Rights activists? Liberation theology? Hillary Clinton? Socialists? Sans-culottes? Anarchists? Hugo Chavez? Cesar Chavez? Unitarians? Teamsters? The P.R.C.?
Interesting articles! A number of questions flitted through my head while reading them, so I thought I’d toss them out to get the discussion going. I haven’t given them a lot of thought, but I hope a little devil’s advocating might be useful for you.
1. Is the difference between a sin-based system and a rights-based system more than semantic? If I were to say that oppression of a group or abrogation of an individual’s rights is wrong, it would sound a lot like saying that’s a sin, a violation of an explecit code. Enumerating rights is not itself an ethical system or a morality, it is just a list of sins not to be committed phrased differently. Is the distinction you’re making meaningful enough to categorize religious and liberal systems as fundamentally different? If so, you might want to elaborate more on why/how.
2. The rights and oppression-based apporach seems to work better for groups than individuals. As you point out, an unethical individual act that is not part of a system that is immoral is “no big deal.” Yet, if the harm done by the act for the individual is equivalent, you’re going to have a hard time convincing most people that the difference between the acts is meaningful. Do you think liberal morality is inherently more community-oriented and less individual oriented than religious morality? It sounds like the mitigating factors involved in judging an immoral act are just as arbitrary as in a religious system. Religion tends to come down especially hard on sins that involve sex or questioning the overall ethical paradigm. It sounds like a liberal system comes down especially hard on sins against groups, but is less concerned about individuals’ well-being.
3. As an old-fashioned liberal, I’d love to see my values replace religon. But how are you going to argue that these values are more than just a particular perspective, that they deserve to be the foundation for a universal eethical ssytem? Religion just says their morality comes from the creator of the universe or is inherent in reality already. How will you deal with the relativism problem?
OK if you are discussing right to life, let me put it this way- If a woman has the potential of dying while giving birth and this is known in the early stages, IMHO, it is better that one should die instead of two. It is possible that both mother and child will die in the process. So, the idea of Right to Life can possibly kill two people, thus they take away the right to life and this, IMO, makes Right to Life VERY immoral. Thus, the Right to Choose is far more moral to me than the Rigth to Life ideas. Again, with homosexuality, if two people want to be together for life and are happy together, it could very well cut down on the 1:2 divorce rate and therefore we should allow same sex unions. I think you get the drift and I fall in the liberal catagory with these things, but I also think about the down side of the oppression and what it does to all involved. If you think about it, the death of a mother with children already and a husband affects more than just that unborn child. Same with denying same sex marriages. I think about more than just the individual. I think about the majority involved. As you mentioned: What is for the greater good.
As far as a baby conceived via rape, I can see it affecting the child because the mother could very well look at the child and have flashbacks to when she was rape and thus adversely affect the child. It could be difficult to be a good parent in such a situation. Stem cell research could very well keep embryos left over from artificle incimination from being flushed or cooked and give those with diabetes or what have a chance for a healthier life. Again, it is for the greater good and not some evil plan of distruction or bad science used for harming others.
Don’t know if my thoughts help you any, but that’s how I feel about it.
First, when I say left, I generally mean ideological liberals, and everyone to their left. You don’t have to be opposed to the capitalist system to support the left’s morality, though many are.
Second, the relativism problem never crops up here, because it’s understood that some acts are oppressive and others aren’t. Conservatives never condemn left-wing moral judgments as relativistic, except when the judgment is no judgment; instead, they poke fun at excesses like political correctness. Beyond that, you don’t really need a lawgiver. Chinese conservatives, whose moral system is based on an abstract notion of order rather than on a god, are perfectly capable of producing the same kind of society as Western conservatives. Metaphysical questions like who makes the laws only matter to the ethicists and the theologians; everyone else cares only about the front end of the moral system.
Third, I’d reverse the individual/group difference. To the left, there are sins against groups… but ultimately, the individual matters more than in religious morality. The old left imitated conservative judgments about sex and other forms of individual behavior; the new left has gotten rid of them. Some segment of the new left, such as radical feminism, is very concerned about personal actions and even thought - to even think lewd thoughts, much less watch porn, is heinous according to people like Catharine MacKinnon - but even those are getting purged in favor of more sex-positive leftists. This is not to say leftist morality is individualist, but the issues it considers crimes against groups are analogous to crimes against public order or tradition in conservatism.
And fourth, it does matter whether you think in terms of sin or oppression. It doesn’t change everything, and in particular issues of guilt and shame are entirely unchanged, but it affects how interpersonal the morality is. For example, if you commit a racist act, you can’t ask for forgiveness from God; you have to ask forgiveness from the people your acts affected, and atone by some kind of consciousness raising. Jesus was actually very much an interpersonal moralist, who emphasized sins against man and deemphasized sins against God (e.g. working on the Sabbath), but very early on Christianity evolved into a traditional religious morality. Tellingly, the left, which has been around for about 200 years, has only become more interpersonal over time.
Regarding your third point, you can assume that ethics is not and never will be some perfect system, and that the best you can do is to put as much thought into what you do as what you are doing requires. The relativism need not come down to a question of good or bad, but of better or worse. The vast majority of religious confrontations are over fairly trivial matters as far as doctrine is concerned, and I think the same can be said of most issues of secular morality. There are a few basic rules that the vast majority of people agree on. The big fights come over issues of prestige and power - not what is moral, but who gets to say what is moral. One of the most fatuous claims of religious people is that their morality is perfect and final.
I don’t agree that the morality of the left is based in oppression. You might be able to reconfigure some moral questions to imply some kind of oppression, but in many cases it is a stretch. For example, some sexual ethics and most environmental issues would have to be twisted up pretty good to make them into oppressions. Also, some moral issues do not rely on the relieving of oppression as a motive, though they may be a part of some kind of oppression or oppressive regime, and their resolution might result in decreasing oppression (for example, free access to abortion may be restricted owing to some kind of oppression, but you do not need to refer to oppression to come up with a moral argument against restricting it, i.e., there is no necessary theoretical connection between abortion and sexism, even if in practice the two are almost always related). The difference between the religious and the left in ethics are the criteria which each uses in order to determine what is right, as well as a fundamental difference in what constitutes good. Oppression figures large in the worldview of the left because certain kinds of equality constitute a fundamental principle of leftist justice, and because oppression is by definition the unjustified denial of those kinds of equality. Equality in religion is far more ambiguous. But there is far more to leftist morality (which is by no means monolithic) than curing oppression.
I’d like to read your article - will you post a link to it?
But there is far more to leftist morality (which is by no means monolithic) than curing oppression.
I’m speaking for the spectrum of the Left that I am admittingly on. But, I emphatically agree.
No doubt oppression plays a big part in my lens, but it is in no way the center piece. If I was to sum it up as much as possible to include both the positive and negative aspects of determining morality I would say it comes down to:
first, the golden rule.
Second, the questioning and challenging of coercive authority.
And, last, the participation in the management of our affairs; whether at home, school, work, government, etc.
The most important thing is the purpose: to create a new and better world. And, I prefer to start at home.
My daughter is only three, but already (thoug admittedly within limits because she is still developing) I give her a voice in the things that effects her. Say, we are trying to figure out what to do for dinner, or what to do for fun. I include her opinion (which she definitely has. Already she will show her disagreement with others. If I like this and say so, she might says, “Well, I dont like that.” And vice versa. The other thing we push her to do is to explain herself and, even when she was two she showed a great deal of understanding and ability to do so.) So far, so good.
I would say that curing “oppression” is a miniscule part of Leftist views/morality. We have to be able to recognize it - in all its forms - and be able to offer solutions.
Anyway, in the off chance that anyone wants more information on Anarchism. Here is some selected reading:
1) Living My Life by Emma Goldman
2) Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman
3) God and the State by Mikhal Bakunin
4) What Is Property? by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
5) Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Peter Kropotkin
6) Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings by Peter Kropotkin
7) Anarchy by Errico Malatesta
8) At the Cafe: Conversations on Anarchism by Errico Malatesta
9) What Is Anarchism? by Alexander Berkman
10) The ABC of Anarchism by Alexander Berkman
11) Durruti in the Spanish Revolution by Abel Paz
12) Post-Scarcity Anarchism by Murray Bookchin
13) The Ecology Of Freedom: The Emergence And Dissolution Of Hierarchy by Murray Bookchin
14) The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936 by Murray Bookchin
15) On Anarchism by Noam Chomsky
16) Government in the Future by Noam Chomsky
17) No Gods, No Masters by Daniel Guerin
18) Anarchism: From Theory to Practice by Daniel Guerin
19) Ya Basta! Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
20) Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice by Rudolph Rocker
For example, some sexual ethics and most environmental issues would have to be twisted up pretty good to make them into oppressions.
On the contrary. Western Environmentalism has had two main stages. In the first stage, it was fairly hierarchical, and based on things like preserving hunting grounds for the gentry. That’s the environmentalism of Teddy Roosevelt. The left was then very anti-environmentalist, culminating in red/green wars. In the second stage, starting around the 1960s, it became more egalitarian, using rhetoric of rape of the natural world and attacking capitalism and hierarchy. That’s the environmentalism of Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich. That resonated with the left, to the point that when Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky developed the cultural theory of risk, they considered the environmental movement as a paradigm case of egalitarianism.
It’s not quite as simple as that, of course. Part of the red/green wars were about Marx’s vision of industrial socialism. The hierarchistic form of environmentalism was powerful long after the 1960s; its main contribution then was damming every available river in the third world, which the egalitarian environmentalists bring up as an example of how even well-meaning projects can harm people and the environment by not listening to what the locals have to say. And in the last 20 years, egalitarian environmentalism has become increasingly mainstream, out of concerns first with the ozone hole and now with global warming. It’s not making anyone abandon capitalism or even consent to the necessary externality taxes and regulations, but Al Gore is a respectable liberal who has no trouble using egalitarian arguments among others.
Sexual ethics for the new left are pretty paradigmatic of oppression-based thinking, though. The sexual revolution was all about rebelling against the conservative sexual mores that had reigned in the US since the 1930s. Then, radical feminists countered that it only made women more powerless by creating an expectation that they be promiscuous. Radical feminism itself was created out of resentment with rape and pornography. The most mainstream liberal movement at the time, civil rights, was pushing for greater protections for defendants out of concern with trumped-up charges against black men; pornography became more common in the 1960s and 70s, playing well into feminist rhetoric about exploitation. By the 1980s, when radical feminists were petitioning for more censorship, there emerged a sex-positive feminism, arguing that no, sexual oppression of women was the notion that sex degraded them and could only empower men. Part of the sex-positive narrative was about GLBT rights, which the radical feminists of the 1970s neglected.
“rape of the natural world” can hardly be called oppression. It may be bad, but who is being oppressed, and on what basis? That a cleaner and greener economy would necessarily be less oppressive and less capitalist is a cute idea, but there is zero evidence for it. You may as well have said that eliminating child labour, or enforcing equal pay for equal work is “anti-capitalist”, simply because child labour and inequalities in pay can arise in a capitalist economy. The connection is not true; it is a selling point tuned for people who want to stick it to anything that smacks of business, or fit it into a broader leftist program. In any case capitalism has absorbed the critique by making “eco-friendly” and other such labels part of their marketing plans.
“Egalitarian” as used in Risk and Culture is a label. The egalitarians described are not all that egalitarian in any liberal sense, except maybe amongst themselves, and are actually deeply conservative.
How is that hole in the ozone these days? It’s been out of the news so long that I’d almost forgotten about it.
You can obviously point to the oppression of women (though, of course, some women have been more oppressed than others), and o the oppression (largely in the form of suppression) of lgbt, but you cannot always point to an oppression when it comes to some sexual “evils” because they are so widespread that to use them to identify a group to oppress would be self-defeating. You can find laws against masturbation and anal sex, yet there is very little talk of masturbators or anal-sex-havers as an oppressed group.
I disagree that the origins of radical feminism were in a reaction to rape and pornography. Those were, of course, important issues, but the root of the radicalism came from a transplant of a broader radical program. It reads like Lenin (or for that matter right-wing revolutionaries), only with the terms changed - instead of an evil global capitalist system operating in obscure ways to oppress the workers, you have an evil patriarchy operating in obscure ways to oppress women. The separatists even envisaged themselves as a kind of vanguard, who would reform all of society on behalf of all women, even those who were not ideologically ready. And so on.
I also dispute this notion of a more sex-positive feminism. It may declare itself so, but just like women who have petitioned to have various laws against going topless repealed (they unfairly “oppress” women, because men can go topless), you don’t see too many topless women in the streets, or a big trend in women being sexually aggressive. There may be “feminist” porn, but it is a drop in the bucket, for lack of a mass market. If anything, the whole sex-positive thing has been either a dissociation from the McKinnon and Dworkin kind of radicalism (which made them allies of Edwin Meese of all people), or a lack of interest in feminism of any kind (owing to younger women taking for granted what older women had to fight for tooth and nail - from career prospects down to orgasms).
That’s all off the top of my head, though, and I haven’t really put all that much thought into it. I guess my point is that the left does not always need oppression to make a moral case, nor does it always use the idea in practice.
Suppose we try to justify the Golden Rule on a purely logical basis?
If I consider any particular action to be justifiable then I should expect anyone else to come to the same conclusion. So If I regard it as OK to murder anyone I choose then I should expect everyone in society to operate on the same principle unless I can justify an egotistical delusion that only give me permission.
So then I have to think, wouldn’t it be kind of inconvenient to live in such a society? Having to constantly guard against random mayhem. So how much other behavior could be rationally excluded simply on the basis that if I should be allowed to do it then everyone should?
This is the same kind of strawman argument the religious use to claim that without an abjective, absolute morality dictated by God, morality is completely without foundation and anything can be declared arbitrarily “good,” including murder. The reality is that there are strong commonalities among cultures in how “good” and “bad” are defined, even though it’s more fun to focus on differences, and I suspect there are innate, evolutionarily-derived principles that confine the range of likely moral standards. So the Golden Rule is unlikely to lead to the situation you describe because people are highly unlikley to declare random murder, or other socially destructive acts, justifiable or “good.” You might check out Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds, which talks about some of the apparently innate principles we use as foundations for moral systems. I don’t buy his entire argument, but there is good evidence that moral standards are not as arbitrary of free as your example suggetsts.
speaking of alternative moralities. I just read this letter to the editors of NYT by Howard Zinn (see below).
this has been on my mind for awhile now and Im glad the NYT published Zinn’s letter. Hopefully it reached some folks and got them thinking. I, too, see no difference whether you intend to kill any particular persons or just accept that there deaths with be “inevitable.”
Samantha Power has done extraordinary work in chronicling the genocides of our time, and in exposing how the Western powers were complicit by their inaction.
However, in her review of four books on terrorism, especially Talal Asad’s “On Suicide Bombing” (July 29), she claims a moral distinction between “inadvertent” killing of civilians in bombings and “deliberate” targeting of civilians in suicide attacks. Her position is not only illogical, but (against her intention, I believe) makes it easier to justify such bombings.
She believes that “there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective.” Of course, there’s a difference, but is there a “moral” difference? That is, can you say one action is more reprehensible than the other?
In countless news briefings, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, responding to reporters’ questions about civilian deaths in bombing, would say those deaths were “unintentional” or “inadvertent” or “accidental,” as if that disposed of the problem. In the Vietnam War, the massive deaths of civilians by bombing were justified in the same way by Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon and various generals.
These words are misleading because they assume an action is either “deliberate” or “unintentional.” There is something in between, for which the word is “inevitable.” If you engage in an action, like aerial bombing, in which you cannot possibly distinguish between combatants and civilians (as a former Air Force bombardier, I will attest to that), the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if not “intentional.” Does that difference exonerate you morally?
The terrorism of the suicide bomber and the terrorism of aerial bombardment are indeed morally equivalent. To say otherwise (as either side might) is to give one moral superiority over the other, and thus serve to perpetuate the horrors of our time.