THE ILLUSIONS OF MORALISM
By A. J. Baker
Discussions of moral or ethical concepts can involve a number of things, such as an investigation of the exact way in which moral words arc used, how they are related to each other and to non-moral uses, and how they vary from group to group. This paper, however, deals with prevalent moral justifications and with the social role of moralism, and is intended to give an outline account of the illusions which lie behind everyday moral pronouncements.
The moralism prevalent in our society can be most simply indicated by thinking of those people who seek to enforce or prescribe certain types of conduct in the name of “good”, “right”, “what is in the best interests of the community”, and so on; and who, at the same time, want to repress or proscribe other types of conduct on the ground that it is “bad”, “wrong”, “immoral”, “anti-social”, and so on. What types of activity are advanced or opposed are less important here than the desire for enforcement and repression; the latter are marks of the moralist outlook. That outlook is, of course, found most commonly and most crudely in the pronouncements of religious spokesmen, especially on sexual conduct—as when they seek to promote chastity, or uphold the sanctity of marriage. But it is not confined to religious spokesmen, or to sexual matters. Policemen, magistrate’s and lawyers in the course of their work, spokesmen for censorship, educators extolling the virtues of citizenship and patriotism, or, again, newspaper editorials and almost any speech of a politician on, say, the merits of the United Nations—all these give examples of overt or covert moralism.
Practizing moralists of these kinds, as well as people in everyday life, usually make little attempt to give reasons for their moral pronouncements. They just speak in the name of an assumed set of moral truths. In fact, that is one of the main difficulties in exposing moralism; from environment and teaching we inherit a set of unexamined moral assumptions, which we are made to feel are axiomatically true. If, however, we do try to examine these assumptions we find that, when a defense is offered at all, it is made by appealing to the traditional reasons or justifications of religious leaders and other moralist spokesmen.
Thus, suppose we do ask for a justification of a moral pronouncement. Justifications which satisfy the moralist will in every case take the form of referring us to some ultimate moral authority or sanction which upholds the pronouncement in question. The history of moral philosophy is mainly the history of appeals to different moral sanctions, but I want to begin with the simplest case of all, that of the appeal to God— for this is truly a paradigm case, it provides a model for all the more complex or more sophisticated moral justifications. So, take the view that we must obey the Ten Commandments because God commands us to do so. Considered fully, we could reject this view by pointing out the illogical character of the “proofs” of God’s existence, and of the whole conception of a supernatural being. But this would be a side point. The important point is that even if we assumed for the sake of argument that it made sense to speak of an existing God, this would not provide the required moral justification. To be told “God commands us to obey the Ten Commandments gives no moral explanation of why we should do what God commands. The position is exactly the same as with command: that may be given in everyday life; we are just told we must do such and such, and a moral reason for obeying has not been given. And if it is said that God is so powerful that we cannot or dare not disobey him, we have (as sometimes with everyday orders) simply a case of coercion. God is now treated as an all-powerful policeman who by force or threats tries to intimidate us into doing what he wants. In this case the moral appeal to God turns out merely to be an appeal to a pure authoritarian—which is something we can indicate by saying, in the spirit of Bakunin, “If God did exist, it would be necessary to oppose him”.
Many moral apologists, including theologians, appear to have recognized part of the criticism just made, and that is why they have usually tried to find a moral sanction different from God’s commands. In effect, they have seen through saying “Right actions are right because God commands them” and want to say instead “God commands them because they are right”, so that a new account of right is required. But although more complicated sanctions arc usually offered, it is only their complication which makes them more plausible; logically, they arc in the same position as the simple appeal to God.
Thus, appeal is often made to our “Duty”, “Conscience” or “Moral Sense”, which are said to tell us what we ought to do (for instance, that we ought to do what God commands). Again as a side point, we could object here to the theory of mind implied, and could argue that mental agencies such as Duty, Conscience or Moral Sense are fictitious entities (unless, indeed, they are connected with an empirical Freudian account of the super-ego, in which case their non-moral character is apparent). .But the main point is that instead of an external policeman or censor, God, we now have an internal policeman or censor, such as Duty. And again no moral reason has been given for obeying the commands in question, for while it will be said they are “morally obligatory”, this is just another way of saying “they must be obeyed”. This is all the more evident when we remember that the main point of referring to Duty is to enforce its demands as against those of what is called “Inclination”. We have the position: Duty or our Moral Sense tells us to do X, and Inclination or our Immoral Sense tells us to do Y; but it has not been shown why we ought to do X lather than Y. Of course, we may be told that it is axiomatic that we ought to do what Duty says, that this is what Duty means. Taken seriously this begs the question, for “We ought to obey Duty becomes “We ought to obey that which ought to be obeyed”. Otherwise, what it comes to in practical situations is that some professional moralist Z commands us to obey the commands of Duty, and no reason has been given to show why we must obey the commands of Z.
The view I am presenting is thus that the quest for a moral santion, for an absolute ought, never gets beyond the disguised expression of simple commands. To this the reply may be made that the word “ought” regularly occurs in everyday life and that we can all distinguish between orders like “Close the door”, “Put out that cigarette”, and more binding exhortations of the form “You ought to do such and such”. However, when we examine these uses of “ought” we find they work in the following way: Suppose someone says, “You ought to change your golf-grip”; it is clear that there are certain assumptions made which can be expressed by saying more fully “If you want to improve your golf (and presumably you do) you ought to change your golf-grip”. Similarly, if it is said “You ought to be more careful discussing politics in front of the manager”, what is meant is “If you want to get on in your job you ought to be more careful . . . “. In these cases, if a man accepts the statement as true and has the wishes and interests assumed, there is a sense in which the “ought” may be said to apply to him. But it does not apply to a man with different wishes and interests—a man might not worry about improving his golf or getting on in his job. Now the moralist would be in the same position if he were prepared to express his “oughts” like this: “If you want to please God you ought to obey his commands”, “If you want to conform to social pressures you ought in do what prevailing moralists tell you to do”. But the moralist, of course, is not content with this because it is left open for people not to want to please God or to conform to social pressures. The moralist wants to find a sanction which will allow him to say that people of all sorts, including those with wishes and interests opposed to his own, ought to have his wishes and interests and ought to do what he says and this is why he tries to disguise his commands as absolute moral obligations.
Another type of moral justification which nowadays is particularly influential depends on appeals to what can be labeled “the common good”. This is the kind of appeal made in the name of “the moral standards of society”, “the welfare of the community”, “natural rights” and so on—compare such statements as “We cannot over-estimate the damage that will be done to society if people are allowed to read obscene publications of this kind” or “The spread of birth control and abortion is contrary to the best interests of Australia”. The appeal to the common good can be attacked in the same way as previous appeals, i.e., on the ground that there is no such thing as the common good, and that even if there were it would not provide the required moral sanction, for suppose the common good requires that we do X, no reason has been given to show that we must do what it requires. However, there is the difference that whereas the existence of God or Duty can be treated as a side issue, the existence of the common good is here an important issue. It is easy to see that even people metaphysically-minded enough to accept the existence of entity’s like God and Duty have to treat them as simply expressing particular social commands. But it is more difficult to see through the common good in the same way. Suppose, parallel to the statements above, we have “If you want to further the common good, work for the best interests of society, etc., you ought to do X”. It may be felt that here there is not the same possibility of different interests that there is with golf, God or Duty; in other words, that it is more plausible to say that we all really want to further the common good. (Compare the beliefs of socialists and other social reformers.) Accordingly, I want to underline the fact that the common good is a phony conception.
References to the common good appear plausible because, for instance, of the way people talk about the morality, or the moral standards, of society. But a little reflection reveals that what the the refers to are really the prevailing or dominating standards at a given time. A glance at history, or anthropology, or at our own contemporary society, shows that there are in society various different and often opposed groups, each making special moral demands on its own members and on society at large. Of course, these groups are not of the same strength, and that is why the moral demands of the most powerful groups come to be identified with those of society. This is also shown by the way in which the competition between different moral demands may result in a different social balance or compromise at different times and places—as an obvious example, consider authoritarian sexual morality; this has been more and less powerful at different periods in history, and also varies in different places today.
At any rate, it is this diversity of social habits and interests, and consequently of moral demands, that undermines the moralist’s case. His assumed social theory is that there is a single, indivisible thing, society, with a single set of interests, and to this he adds the moral theory that these interests are moral interests. But neither theory will bear examination. For (1) if there were a single set of interests of society, what was good or moral about them would not have been shown (cf., if all men wanted to be healthy at all costs this would be a social, not a moral, fact); and (2) the monistic theory of society is falsified by the diversity of groups and interests, and, indeed, by the diversity of moralists. This is further revealed by the fact that appeals to the common good are usually made precisely in those cases where there is manifest diversity and opposition. For example, suppose there is a dispute about whether birth control information should be allowed to be widely advertised; it is just then that moralists will talk about “the needs of society,” “the best interests of Australia,” etc., that is, at a time when the existence of controversy and opposition shows that there is not the identity of interests assumed, in other words, the function of the slogan, “the common good,” and its synonyms is to conceal the fact that there is opposition and to advance the special interests of the group using the slogan.
The last point illustrates the social role of moralism generally, viz., to assist in the illusory and unconscious objectification of social demands. There are in society various groups which want to make various specific demands and exhortations—that all people are, or are to be made, to act in certain ways, to have access only to prescribed books and films, to avoid obscenity, to be socially adjusted, and so on. Behind every moral pronouncement lie real commands, demands or preferences of these- and other kinds. The social facts are that Group A is interested in promoting X and wants to persuade or coerce other people into doing or supporting X, Group B wants to promote T, and so on. But moralists rarely state their demands in this open way. Instead, their real but special demands are concealed by a process of rationalization or objectification; the quite straightforward statement, “Group A wants X,” is turned into a spurious appeal to a moral sanction: “X is good, or morally obligatory, or in the true interests of society.”
The question may be asked: Why does this illusory process of objectification occur, why does the appeal to moral sanctions, like other forms of ideology, have such a vital role in society? The answer turns on two main reasons. (1) It is just sound politics. If the moralist did not use words like “good” and “right,” but stated his demands in an open, undistorted way, he would weaken his influence in society. As a simple example, consider sexual moralism. If instead of talking about “the good life,’ “moral health,” “purity,” etc., moralists merely made straightforward demands that people restrict themselves to marital procreation, the fact that they spoke in their own name and not the name of society would be obvious, and they would not be nearly so effective in inducing frustration and feelings of guilt about sex. More sophisticated examples are provided by descriptions of certain things as “natural rights,” or as “good,” for this way of talking gains the political advantage of suggesting that there is something odd or absurd about anyone who is opposed to good or to a natural right. However, it is not just a matter of successful politics, or of conscious planning on (lie part of moralists. There is (2) the psychology of moralists themselves, the fact that they are on the whole taken in by their own moral ideology. A full explanation of this would involve Freudian psychology and detailed social theory, but what I am referring to is the fact that the process of illusory objectification is largely an unconscious one. As pointed out above, the political function of moral slogans is to camouflage special interests, which are being promoted in opposition to other special interests. But this is not only concealed from the people whose support is enlisted, it is also concealed from the moralists themselves. If we continue with the example of sexual guilts, sexual moralists and censors are themselves very often people who feel guilty and repressed about sex; there is a sense in which their moral taboos represent an unconscious attempt to project on to other people their own guilts and repressions. Likewise, with less crude cases, the tenacity with which moral illusions are cherished is connected with the urge to identify personal wishes and interests with those of the world, and to seek to make the world conform, if not in social reality, at least in moral fantasy—all of which, incidentally, indicates an important reason why it would be Utopian to expect any widespread disappearance of moralism.
The situation is thus that moral standards or values arc not absolute or objective, they are relative to the particular interests and preferences of particular groups in society. It follows that the interests and preferences of groups opposed to moral illusions are not in a privileged position; they also are particular interests and preferences. Take, for instance, libertarian views and activities in past and present society, and the interests and preferences associated with them; they are no more “good,” “natural.’ “in the interests of society.” or “what ought to be pursued,” than any other special social interests. Whether people accept these or other interests, including moralists’ interests depends on the interplay of social forces. There is, however, one important way in which (apart from the different interests they have) opponents of moral illusions clearly differ from moralistic groups. The latter, whether groups whose aims are obviously repressive, or reformist groups which seek to improve society as a whole, are impelled in an authoritarian direction: their desire to have their own interests over-ride all other interests leads them to make use both of overt authoritarianism and of the covert authoritarianism of moral justification. On the other hand, opponents of moralism try to defend and forward their interests in an open and unauthoritarian way. They express and exhibit their interests and preferences, and thus may persuade or influence other people in the same direction by enabling them to find these interests in themselves. But (in so far as they do escape moral illusions) they do not seek to impose their wishes on other people by cajolery or coercion; for amongst the particular things they stand for, is precisely opposition to moral ideology and authoritarianism.
One of the reasons why I am out of employment now, why I have been out of employment for years, is simply that I have other ideas than the gentlemen who give the places ot men who think as they do.
VINCENT VAN GOGH. to Theo van Gogh, July l880