Fighting the moral fight

Written By: - Date published: 11:16 am, October 5th, 2008 - 34 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, election 2008 - Tags:

There are two core strains to left-wing thought. Both of them can be seen as rooted in the evolution of the scientific method during the 18th and 19th centuries, although the essential ideas, of course, existed long before. The first is liberalism. Liberalism holds that we must always keep an element of self-doubt and criticism at the heart of our philosophy; that no-one has a monopoly on truth, so we must allow everyone into the social decision-making process, regardless of class, race, gender, sexuality, or other trait. The second is socialism. Socialism holds that there is an essential sameness, an essential equality amongst all people. There is no scientific reason and, therefore, no moral reason why any class, race, gender, sexuality or other group should be advantaged by the social order or subjected by another.

Now, on the Left we tend to hold both strains inside our philosophies, and they are largely compatible. The problem arises that liberalism taken to its extreme loses the ability to criticise or moralise. We’re all aware of moral relativism, where a blind adherence to liberal ideals prevents us from criticising behaviour in other cultures that would be viewed as abhorrent in our own culture or from a socialist perspective. You hear people defending brutal dictatorships by claiming this is just the way other cultures operate. But liberalism can also hog-tie us into not fighting illiberal forces within our own society. After all, ‘they might be right’ is something we can never discount. The problem is this prevents us from putting any moral force behind our beliefs. It is a constraint that socialism does not face it is free to argue any system that subjugates one group to another is immoral and can be attacked as such.

It is letting our liberalism make us weak kneed that has prevented us from making a moral argument for left-wing government. Instead, ridiculously, the moral high ground is associated with the Right. The Right fights for the established order against the forces of liberalism and socialism they fight against free universal health care, education, and basic income, against full employment and a whole suite of other policies. The result of them having power is that power and resources stay concentrated with the ruling (capitalist) elite and the rest living less healthy, more crime-ridden, poorer, shorter lives than need be the case. Yet overly liberal sentiments have prevented us from saying that the Right’s policies and methods are immoral. By failing to do so, we come to rule only by default; only when the people are utterly disgusted by the Right’s policies and manage to find a political alternative*. All the surveys and studies show that people overwhelming favour more socialist policies, the redistribution of wealth to moderate the unjust, unequal outcomes inherent in capitalism. Yet, we do not say that the Right stands against those value; we do not call the Right’s principles immoral. The Right should never win because they don’t stand for what most people want; as long as we continue to fail to show the immorality of their policies, they will continue to win.

*[in the 50s and 60s, the left-wing vote was split between Labour, Social Democrats, and Values, in 1978 and 1981, left-wing Labour won more votes than National but lost under FPP, in 1990, voters deserted right-wing Labour for any alternative NewLabour and National, in 1993 and 1996, the Left won more votes but failed to establish Parliamentary majorities]

34 comments on “Fighting the moral fight”

  1. PFraser 1

    What a great read for a wet Sunday morning. Thank you Steve, and to the Standard for existing. After reading and listening to some of the light weight and inaccurate political analysis available lately, it is great to have something both reflective and activist to think about. And I agree. We are a nation of real human beings and to lead us is a moral responsibility – not just a game.

  2. deemac 2

    the Right win (a) because they have more resources (being as they represent the people with the most money) and (b) because they use those resources to scare people into voting against their class interests.
    The Standard is a small step towards giving us the arguments to counter this. It’s an indication of how unbalanced the system is that the media think Clark and Key refusing to debate with the minnows (an event that happens once every three years) is a big story while the far bigger picture, that the vast majority of the media are owned and controlled by powerful vested interests (which colours what people hear every day) is ignored.

  3. Chris 3

    You’re right steve, but would I support the left if it took a moral high ground? The thing I like about the new left is one is free to pursue their own thing (be it becoming a super-capitalist or becoming an artist). We just keep somewhat equal redistribution there and a few safety nets to make sure that for those who aren’t at the winning end they can still survive and perhaps their children will get a chance. If we were to bring morality into this I think it would lead to some ugliness. Sure it enables the right to appeal to the moral minority, but i think the amoral majority is more important. At the end of the day the moralists have to be vocal, otherwise they will disappear. Most people are happy in their amorality so they remain complacent. Is this good? No, but making the left a more moral cause is not the answer either, if that is what you are advocating?

  4. randal 4

    it is a moral cause insamuch that if the policies of a government cause wide spread social dislocation and a breakdown in the health of the people then only a party with a conscience can do anything about it. laisser faire economics says there is to be only one definition of well being and that is profit so it excludes conscience and leaves the health and wellbeing of the population to the individual paternalistic inclinations of the profit taker and that is immoral and worthy of the most strenuous opposition.

  5. Chris 5

    Yes true randal, but in assuming that the profit motive is a bad thing you make the usual assumptions that economists make that the only thing they can measure is cash in the hand. If you include other measures in profit (albeit intangible hard to measure ones) such as happiness for the sake of argument, then the profit motive becomes a whole lot more sensible and not just a boring accounting standard.

  6. randal 6

    I did not assume nor did I postulate that the profit motive is a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing if it attempts to justify itself only by itself using a circular argument and therefore invalid. profit relies on certain things like double enty book keeping and the laws of compound interest that have no logical connection to the person in need of employment or medical treatment or a decent way of life. Only morality can connect all these abstact things into a synthesis that serves the whole of humanity rather than just a few.

  7. There is a definite need to acknowledge the truth (if I may be so gauche) of relativism in the face of near-unassailable post-structuralist theory, but this does not detract from the fact that within the multitude of small-“T” truths that make up the marketplace of ideas we find ourselves in (and have endlessly done so) there are certain narratives that represent the best narratives for basic material wellbeing across the population.

    Neo-liberal thought is not one of these narratives. But it has done well and it has done so simply because a discourse’s short-term success is not dependent on it’s ability to generate broad utility but on its ability to exist symbiotically with power.

    It is important to remember at this point that both power and discourse do not emanate from individual human beings but rather we are functions of such things – much as our bodies are merely carriers of genes blindly shaped to replicate.

    Thus a discourse such as neo-liberalism can gain hegemony not by way of its fundamental capacity to provide for the best interests of all human beings but by way of its ability to win an evolutionary “arms-race”. This can be seen quite clearly in the way neo-liberal thought has, by (blindly) manipulating the concept of what is valuable toward a strictly narrow notion of immediate pecuniary gain, succeeded in stifling dissent in the media (cutting newsrooms for short-term profit), in our universities (in which efts systems have distorted the market toward quantity outcomes rather than quality outcomes), and in the voting booth (as can be witnessed in the spread of consumerist logics to the political discourse – witness brand Key).

    The question is how are leftists expected to counter such a successful discourse (or indeed the other successful discourses promulgated under what we can broadly describe as “right-wing” (although I would claim a more accurate description would be “ideas we don’t like because they undermine ours” – something that can be equally described in similar terms from the other side of the fence also))?

    Stalin’s answer was of course to eliminate the carriers of “ideas we don’t like… etc” directly (ah, command and control). That didn’t work.

    To a certain extent neo-liberalism (although at this point I am tempted to open the description of this phenomenally successful discourse as “late-capitalism” as it provides a better description for the myriad of rhizomic narratological relationships that constitute this thing I am trying to describe)… anyway to a certain extent late-capitalism is responsible for the destruction of carriers of threatening memes as can be seen in such things as the cold-war, the war on drugs, the war on terror, etc.

    But its main strength as an idea has been its ability to inoculate dissent before it grows. In effect its ability to manufacture consent.

    Which brings me to my point of difference with you Steve. I don’t believe people are disgusted with the narrative of the right. I believe that they are unaware of the “immorality” of such narratives and I think they are tuned to be untroubled by the contradictions of capitalism as they have evolved within an environment in which such point to point relationships no longer have meaning or affect.

    An example of this is eating meat. If you ask 100 people on the street if they ate meat the vast majority would say yes. The vast minority would have ever engaged in the act of killing their own meat (I have). When confronted with the visceral reality of what is required to place that meat on their plate (gutting a beast is not a pleasant experience) many would be disgusted. Even though they would all have the intellectual capacity to explain what happens they have been sufficiently removed from the experience to be unable to properly comprehend it. Nor do they wish to.

    That is the beauty of late-capitalism and its cultural logic. It effectively sits between people of power (ie inhabitants of the first world such as you and me) and reality and therefore substitutes being in the world.

    There will be no salvaging the first-world from the narratives of late-capitalism because (excluding an extremely unlikely total and sudden collapse of the system) the ontological barrier is too great.

    There may be an extinction of the discursive “right-wing” memes we all carry but I suspect it will come as a result of meme from China or Venezuela and it is likely it will not fit with the christological framework of “morality” you have described and it will be nested in a totally different context of power.

    That doesn’t mean small shifts can’t achieve good results from within the system and there are definitely ideological fights worth having but the idea that true socialism can be achieved here and now is naive. And it pains me to write that.

  8. Draco T Bastard 8

    Cultural Relativism is actually an anthropological method. What most people are referring to when they speak of cultural relativism is actually Moral Relativism which is completely bunk.

    Chris:

    Sure it enables the right to appeal to the moral minority, but i think the amoral majority is more important.

    The Right may appeal to morality but that doesn’t mean that they are moral. Numerous studies have shown that the majority of people, ~90%, are moral and that they tend to vote left.

    The biggest problem with todays society, IMO, is that legality has become synonymous with morality. This can be seen in the actions of National in regards to their trusts that managed to hide the identity of major donors. Their actions were legal but hardly moral considering why the law against large anonymous donations was put in place.

    [chur on the cultural/moral relativism distinction. My rusty anthropological theory asserting itself while writing at 2am while drunk. SP]

  9. But liberalism can also hog-tie us into not fighting illiberal forces within our own society. After all, ‘they might be right’ is something we can never discount.

    I think you’re misconstruing liberalism here (and earlier where you talk about it being all about not having a monopoly on truth). It’s not that “they might be right”, it’s that whether they’re right or not doesn’t matter in an important sense. People have a right to hold and express their beliefs regardless of whether they’re true or false, realistic or ridiculous.

    This doesn’t prevent us from putting moral force behind our beliefs (and the C19th liberals who gave us much of our early social progress certainly did). It only prevents us from jailing or censoring people for saying things we disagree with. Ask a liberal what is wrong with racism, or sexism, or homophobia, and they will say “it is morally wrong”.

    (I’d also characterise liberalism as being also based on fundamental moral equality – see Rawls for an example of this. But that’s a late development in a philosophy which really grew out of a social truce to the problem of religious warfare).

    Where liberalism tends to fall down is that historically it has been focused on expanding the circle of freedom from the state, and so has focused less on poverty and economic inequality as barriers to freedom. And we have focused primarily on removing barriers rather than implementing social conditions which give people real control over their own lives.

  10. Steve,

    neat change of orientation and style.. but you wrote: “free universal health care, education, and basic income, against full employment and a whole suite of other policies.”

    NOT free. Tax-paid. Dare I say willingly.. hence the high ground of moral sentience..

    Just thinking it over right here and now I’d add how there’s considerable merit is us – ie those advocating this – in not hiding behind veils or curtains.. or being accused of ‘smoke and mirrors’ etc. The willing provision through taxes for the betterment of less fortunate others is to argue FOR human justice..

  11. Pascal's bookie 11

    I’d hardly say that moral relativism is complete bunk. We use it all the time.

    Whenever we say that so and so was a ‘man of his time’ in order to excuse his actions in some respect, we are engaging in moral relativism.

    Essentially the problem becomes what is a system of morality for. Is it primarily something we use to guide our own behaviour, in which case it becomes subjective and inherently relative, or should it be something society uses to judge people’s behaviour, in which case we need an objective standard. Which raises the question of what standard to use. Simply dismissing relativism gets you nowhere.

    In reality we use it to do both, we apply our standard of behaviour for ourselves to other people. When we agree that a certain behaviour is immoral we are merely agreeing on a standard. When we convince other people to use the standard that we ourselves use, we are not really proving anything about objective reality. We are just getting them to adopt our own subjective view about what is moral.

    Any moral system will be based around codes of behaviour, metrics, balancing acts, principles and so on, and in that sense it will be objective. We are applying those objective standards to a persons behaviour. But the standards themselves will stem from subjective views about the world and how we should behave in it. Just because we can convince 10 or a billion other people to adopt the same standard doesn’t change it from a subjective view of how the world should be, into an objective fact about how the world is.

    There are very very few people that hold the extremist strawman version of relativism that supposedly makes moral judgements impossible.

    Relativism in my view, does not say that we can’t think someone is bad, it just says that the universe doesn’t think they are bad. We can obviously make moral judgements about people, based on our own frameworks, (and they can return the favour).

  12. PB – agreed. I get tired of people claiming a disgust with moral relativity, post-modernism, etc. It’s like they think it leads to some kind of inaction and moral failure…

    Just goes to show how many folk haven’t come to grips with that god-shaped hole in their existences yet. What a bunch of f*ckin savages…

  13. Ruth 13

    Also most on the hard right don’t know what post-modernism or moral relativism is – they just know it is something they should not like. Or something to do with Muslims. This is where a lot of the pseudo-intellectualism comes in.

    National under Key does not represent what SP seems to suggest – Key is only slightly to the right of Obama.

    Even Ayn Rand said people are drawn to the left because they are more intellectual – the right that we see – the group that is overly represented on talk radio and the blogosphere – are as dumb as a bag of rocks.

  14. Draco T Bastard 14

    PB:

    I’d hardly say that moral relativism is complete bunk.

    Na, it’s completely bunk. Just because two people disagree on what’s right doesn’t meant that both are correct. In fact, that conclusion is the only one that can’t be true.

    Whenever we say that so and so was a ‘man of his time’ in order to excuse his actions in some respect, we are engaging in moral relativism.

    But we still accept that what he did was wrong and that it was just as wrong in his time as now. That’s not relativism but accepting that we’ve learned and grown since then.

    There are very very few people that hold the extremist strawman version of relativism that supposedly makes moral judgements impossible.

    This can only be true if they haven’t thought about it and the (lack of) logical conclusions of relativism.

  15. rave 15

    Writing at 4.20 on Sunday and perfectly sober the following comes to mind.

    Socialists of the sort Steve describes are also liberals. Individuals cannot be equal without equality of opportunity. Liberals who oppose equality of opportunity and claim that only the market can solve moral questions are neo-liberals. Those who propose equality of opportunity by means of redistribution are social liberals or bourgeois socialists, and possibly delirious.
    The only way that social liberals can mount a convincing moral argument against neo-liberals is to prove that capitalism requires inequality in the social relations of production. When that argument is made equality of opportunity flows from the equalising of the ownership of the means of production – proletarian or revolutionary socialism.

  16. randal 16

    Read William P Manchesters account of the Pacific war and you will seee that at the end all theories of right and wrong had flown out the window. His only duty was to his friends mates and survivors and the same is true today. Whatever argument is constructed someone can construct another but the reality of doing for others what one would have done for oneself never goes away. And it is noted that the deridas and all the other big mouth french post modernists watched the 60’s parisian streetbattles from behind their curtains and never took part.

  17. “Draco T Bastard
    PB:

    I’d hardly say that moral relativism is complete bunk.

    Na, it’s completely bunk. Just because two people disagree on what’s right doesn’t meant that both are correct. In fact, that conclusion is the only one that can’t be true.”

    The point is to not automatically assume your own point of view is the correct one.

  18. No the point is to assume that all truths iterate to meaninglessness when interrogated…

  19. randal 19

    too true sod but we live in the real world so the only way out is to list the similarities then compare and contrast the differences… and place a judgement according to the evidential chain and legislate if necessary.

  20. Carol 20

    In my experience the term “liberal” is understood differently in different places – and hence is somewhat relativistic in itself.

    I have always thought it was in the US that they equated liberal with the left, and that has been a pretty centre version of left politics. John Howard was leader of the Liberal Party in Aussie and that was considered right wing.

    A lot of lefties I have known use the term “liberal” as a criticism of being pretty centrist or right wing.

    I also thought a key feature of liberalism, was the focus on individual rights, hence the liberal in neo-liberal. They tend to see society as a level playing field – meritocratic approach. And are critical of too much government intervention in society.

    But I can see in being focused strongly on individual rights, each person would have their own view, and critique of things, and it would become fairly relativistic. And thus it does tend to be associated by some people with being very accepting of different lifestyles.

  21. Chris S 21

    This is a great post, thanks for that Steve.

  22. Pascal's bookie 22

    Draco;

    Just because two people disagree on what’s right doesn’t meant that both are correct.

    Correct by what standard?

    But we still accept that what he did was wrong and that it was just as wrong in his time as now. That’s not relativism but accepting that we’ve learned and grown since then

    Sure we say that ‘he was wrong’, but that’s not really the point. Are we saying that he was a bad bugger? Does his ignorance cut him some moral slack? Usually we mean the latter, which is relativism.

    If the former then we have to accept that everyone that came before us enlightened holders of our current moral code were wankers. But we also have to accept that we ourselves will be judged just as ignorant by future generations about things we consider perfectly acceptable. How does this help? Everyone is a moral cretin because there exists some objective code of morality that we have imperfect knowledge of.

    How is that different from nihilism? How can we judge actions if we know that moral knowledge is incomplete? Or are we there yet?

    If ignorance of this alleged correct morality does cut someone some slack, then morality is relativistic.

  23. How is that different from nihilism?

    Oh for f*ck’s sake – you’re not getting all cardigan-wearing over nihilism now are you?

  24. Pascal's bookie 24

    I’m not judging nihilism ‘sod.

  25. Draco T Bastard 25

    Sure we say that ‘he was wrong’, but that’s not really the point. Are we saying that he was a bad bugger? Does his ignorance cut him some moral slack? Usually we mean the latter, which is relativism.

    Please note the difference between Cultural Relativism and Moral Relativism that I linked to earlier. The one you’re arguing here seems to be the former while the one that I said was bunk is the latter. It’s bunk because it essentially holds that there is no morality.

  26. randal 26

    There is no morality except what we say is moral and there is a test for this. Would we agree to the same thing being done to us. quite simple really. Its like lying. If everybody told a lie then there would be no way to ascertain the truth.

  27. Bill 27

    “Socialism holds that there is an essential sameness, an essential equality amongst all people.”

    What? This ‘essential’ sameness/ equality? What that be when it’s at home then?

    By any meaningful measure I can think of, we are all different and unequal.

    Our life and cultural experiences and knowledge are very different.

    Our abilities and inabilities are varied. They will fit somewhere on a scale of comparison, where ‘this, that or the other’ ability you have will be better, or not as good as the same ‘this, that or other’ ability I have.

    Sorry. But to talk of ‘essential’ something or other sounds like wishful thinking. Or faith. Or phenomenology.

    It’s not necessary, and definitely not desirable to predicate socialist thought or philosophy on some underlying homogeneity.

    It’s poison.

  28. Peter Wilson 28

    Bill, when SP describes the core of socialism as accepting an “essential sameness/equality” he is referring to the thought that all human beings have equal worth, simply by being members of the same species.

    Regardless of how far the scale of comparison extends, boil down those differences and you will always be left with the same reality, we are all human beings, and as a result, we all have essentially the same basic needs.

    This stands in stark contrast to ideologies that continue to believe that a small, privileged elite somehow has the right to rule over the rest.

  29. randal 29

    Bill whats poison is the right wing belief that possessing money is the key to enforcing , slavery, humiliation, beating, torture, hunger, etc on others to satisfy what are basically psychological desires. If that is you then admit it.

  30. Ben R 30

    “This stands in stark contrast to ideologies that continue to believe that a small, privileged elite somehow has the right to rule over the rest.”

    You mean meritocracy?

  31. Ben – meritocracy requires a measure of merit. What exactly constitutes merit is itself a rather subjective idea don’t you think?

  32. Peter Wilson 32

    Meritocracy also requires people to start on an equal playing field, otherwise all sorts of unfairness is carried down through the generations, which throws the whole concept out.

  33. Bill 33

    Peter Wilson.

    I disagree that simply being of the same species bestows equal worth. Can we ignore for the moment, please, that philosophers have argued since the year dot argued over what it is that defines being human?

    Worth is tied up in a sense self and varies from person to person; or worth is a subjective perception of an other or others shaped by outside criteria.

    So for example,in a given situation I might be of more worth than you because of a particular skill, talent or ability I possess. That’s fine. It’s not a static thing but determined by a plethora of criteria that change from situation to situation. That I have a particular talent you lack does not translate in to a universal truism about my worth compared to yours.

    Which is possibly why I don’t understand why you go on and attempt to obliterate the differences between people by ‘boiling them down’ to basic needs? I don’t understand the point of the exercise.

    If you look at basic needs, then we need food, shelter and water. Just the same as chickens or any other animal. So all invertebrates are of equal worth? Or maybe we should logically include a number of insects too, like ants and bees who also have as their basic needs food, shelter and water. And pretty soon we become paralysed and unable to perform basic functions lest we kill a living thing that is of equal worth to ourselves.

    All of that aside, the basic point I was making was that to insist on some undefinable equalness and sameness opens the door to aspects of these things ( or an idea of these things)being imposed ; whether by a Lenin, a Stalin or a Paul Pot or a whoever/whatever.

    We are enormously varied and have different strengths and weaknesses. We can recognise that reality and behave equitably and afford one another dignity; construct social and political systems that are not exploitative or oppressive.

    The danger with not recognising our rich diversity and varying abilities is, as I said, that we leave ourselves open to re-creating precisely the type of situation we apparently deplore and see as implicit in right wing ideologies.

    Hope that’s sort of clear.

  34. Ben R 34

    “Meritocracy also requires people to start on an equal playing field, otherwise all sorts of unfairness is carried down through the generations, which throws the whole concept out.”

    Yep, I think most people would agree that we should aim to provide equal opportunity. The birth lottery of endowed wealth, intelligence & peer culture obviously play a major role in determining a persons economic outcomes. So a fair system should account for this lottery (ie. John Rawls veil of ignorance).

    “we do not call the Right’s principles immoral”

    What you’re referring to as right wing ideas aren’t necessarily immoral though. For instance, in terms of ensuring equal opportunities, right wing education ideas of school vouchers/merit pay are possibly ways to improve the education standards for those less well off?(I’m not saying they necessarily would, but the justification is based on the moral idea of fairness).

    Also, requiring welfare recipients to enter training, or do some form of work is based on the idea of reciprocity.

    Steven Pinker wrote an interesting article about research on morality earlier this year. He noted a survey on different moral themes which divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States:

    “Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.”

    “At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us.”

    http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/The%20Moral%20Instinct%20-%20New%20York%20Times.htm

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