Even on the left, morality has its limits

3:16 pm - February 9th 2012

by Chris Dillow    

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Emma Burnell says that politics has to be about morality. I’m not sure, for at least four reasons.

1. Morality is weak against power. If there is any moral truth at all, it is that the mass murder of innocent civilians is wrong. But when it happens, the “international community” does nothing to stop it. Stalin’s famous sneer – “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” is true.

On a more prosaic level, a similar thing is true of bosses’ pay. A periodical fit of morality might stop one or two individuals from taking their bonuses. But a serious and systemic reduction in bosses’ pay requires a shift in the balance of class power.

2. Policies are often a mix of morals. Take for example the welfare cap. Is this moral, because it stops feckless scroungers fleecing the tax-payer? Or is it immoral because it threatens to make children homeless? Morality alone does not adjudicate. The issue is about the facts of the policy or about how the issue is framed.

3. Morality can distract us from structural explanations, and hence serve a conservative function. Take for example someone who doesn’t want to work. He might look like one of the undeserving poor. But is he? It could be that his “laziness” is an endogenous preference. Surrounded by mass unemployment – and perhaps brought up amidst it – he believes there’s no chance of work and so he adapts his wants to his circumstances. Is he undeserving or not? Again, morality does not adjudicate.

4. “Morality” just poses unresolved questions. Take high pay. Is this unfair because it betokens inequality, or is it fair because it represents (in the unsubsidized economy) a free and voluntary exchange between individuals? Adjudication is a matter of moral debate; those leftists who think it isn‘t miss the point.

But as Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out, we have lost the faculty for such debate with the result that our moral judgments are little more than emotivist spasms. 

There is, though, an alternative here.

The left should appeal more to efficiency. For example, the problem with bosses’ pay and bonuses is not that they are unfair, but that they are economically inefficient and the product of power, not merit.

And, I’d add, the structure of capitalism – at its current juncture – is inefficient, not (just) unfair.

In this sense, Emma is missing something. She’s right to want an alternative to a managerialism which tries, feebly and ineffectively, to work within the confines of capitalism. But the alternative is not a moralism which threatens to keep the left within a ghetto of impotent self-righteousness. There is a third possibility – Marxism.

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments

What a bizarre article.

It seems to rest on a conception of ‘morality’ as consisting of judgements arrived at in some sort of vacuum, taking no account of evidence and having no power to motivate action. It’s trivially true, I suppose, that ‘morality’ in that sense is politically useless. But who thinks of morality in those terms?

Appealing to efficiency makes sense if there’s agreement about what it is that we want to achieve – e.g. if we all want to achieve sustainable growth, there’s a debate to be had about what’s the most efficient way to do that. (Tax cuts? Investment in infrastructure? etc.) But it’s useless in debates about what we should be trying to achieve in the first place.

“the problem with bosses’ pay and bonuses is not that they are unfair, but that they are… the product of power, not merit. ”

What’s the objection to bosses’ pay and bonuses being ‘the product of power, not merit? Presumably not that that’s unfair.

Is it that that makes them inefficient? Inefficient at doing what? Not enriching the bosses – they do that very efficiently. Inefficient at promoting growth in a way that serves everyone’s interests, then? But then why should we think it’s a good thing to serve everyone’s interests rather than just those of the powerful?

In the end, it is going to come down to a moral judgement. If you think (in true Nietzschean fashion) morality demands that the powerful do well and the weak do badly, arguments about the most ‘efficient’ way to make everyone happy are going to cut no ice with you at all.

Too right sir!

Morality should be intrinsic in progressive politics otherwise they are essentially hollow and will lose their way. It seems to me that this is exactly what has happened to much of the Left. Allowing all sorts of special pleading has introduced a herd of sacred cows that dominate our view and prevent us from moving forwards.

Strong principled politics based on morality and liberal values need not be weak or ineffectual. How on earth do you think the Labour movement started or the progressive policies after WW2 came about? It’s not complicated, our aim should be to help more people live better lives. It’s a moral aim that can be used to guide and judge policies and it can just as well be used to show that resisting fascism was right just as opposing Stalin or any other despot would be.

Theres certainly no place for morality in The Labour Movement as the piece on “Red Ken” & homophobia demonstrates.

I tend to agree with the OP, morality has to function within an efficient economic system, which capitalism ain’t. What is the point of morality when we cannot apply it because of existing structures of power and inequality.
When we have to struggle for survival, morality comes way down the list, get the economic base right and it won’t become an issue.

How on earth can someone advocate marxism on the basis of efficiency? Is there even an agreed definition on what marxism is? Given the mass of contradictions in the bearded one’s work, and that he never bothered to finish Das Kapital (probably because he realised it was all wrong), despite the pleadings of his cheque-writer Engels, have latter-day followers come to an agreement of which Marx they follow?

I’m not too clear about which claimed Socialist state or which of the 57 varieties of Socialism had or has that eminently desirable morality so lacking in the 57 varieties of capitalism.

As I understood it, capitalism related to the market system of allocating resources between competing uses along with varing mixes of public and private ownership of business. Markets are amoral.

Morality is more the domain of politics, public opinion, the media and religions. Virtually all the governments of advanced market economies intervene in the functioning of their respective national markets to correct for social priorities (“merit wants”, in the public finance literature) or for the market failures discussed in an extensive literature going back to Adam Smith.

There is absolutely nothing new or untoward in suggesting that free competitive markets can lead to undesirable or inefficient social outcomes – inefficient in the sense that some agents can be made better off without making some other agent worse off – or that the governments of capitalist economies can or should intervene with the intention of achieving more socially desired outcomes. Whether governments actually succeed in effecting improvements is often disputed.

8. Chaise Guevara

What G.O. says. This is just weird, to the point where I wonder if you started with the headline. Point-by-point:

“1. Morality is weak against power. ”

It’s not an either/or option, is it? Morality informs how you should USE power. And if you abandon morality entirely to get power, it’s better if you don’t get it.

“2. Policies are often a mix of morals. […] Morality alone does not adjudicate. The issue is about the facts of the policy or about how the issue is framed.”

Most moral reasoning is about balancing contrasting beliefs. Morality DOES adjudicate, based on the facts of the issue. To echo G.O. again, this reads like you think morality is something that exists in a vacuum and can’t be applied to anything.

“3. Morality can distract us from structural explanations, and hence serve a conservative function. Take for example someone who doesn’t want to work. He might look like one of the undeserving poor. But is he? ”

Now you’re confusing “the limits of morality” with making snap judgements based on insufficient information. Say you have a moral model for what is “deserving”. To determine if John Smith is deserving, you need to examine his particular circumstances and see where they fit.

“4. “Morality” just poses unresolved questions. ”

How do you expect to answer a moral question without using morality?

“Adjudication is a matter of moral debate; those leftists who think it isn‘t miss the point.”

The only person who thinks morality and adjudication are mutually exclusive is you.

“The left should appeal more to efficiency. ”

Fine. But efficiency is only good if it’s chasing a good idea. Mass murderers no doubt kill in an efficient manner, but I doubt you want that as a policy for the UK. So how do you determine what should and should not be pursued efficiently? That’s right!

“Morality” does not mean a set of unbreakable values that cannot be compromised and therefore go into meltdown when faced with a complex scenario. It doesn’t mean your initial, ignorant gut reaction before you discover all the facts. It doesn’t mean pursuing one prioritised ideal without even considering the consequences. And it’s certainly not a yes-or-no choice where you have to pick Morality or Power like at the end of a bloody Disney film.

It’s how we get from “is” to “ought”. It’s how we decide what to do in the first place, without which power and efficiency are running blind. We’re fucked without it.

9. Chaise Guevara

Am I right in guessing that what this article MEANT to say is that we should be prepared to compromise on our moral values at times to get a mutually beneficial result: that’s it’s better to take a nuanced approach and gain a partial victory than stick to your guns and lose?

Cos if so, I agree. I just don’t see the need for all this philosobabble nonsense making out that morality is something it isn’t.

10. Chaise Guevara

AND, if you compromise on your perfect solution to get a better-than-nothing result, that’s still moral adjudication, because the positive effects of the compromise have more moral value to you than your “honour” or whatever in refusing to back down.

Who mentioned marxism?

There are so many examples of the failure of morality when the bottom line is before you, survival will nearly always trump morality, and survival doen’t always mean physical survival.
Remember the survivors of the Uruguayan plane crash who eventually turned to cannibilism

12. Chaise Guevara

@ 11

“Remember the survivors of the Uruguayan plane crash who eventually turned to cannibilism”

Are you suggesting that this was immoral given the circumstances?

@11 It’s definitely something the Tories ought to keep in mind as they force ever greater people into destitution and poverty. Hectoring the population about the evils of crime will mean nothing if robbing grannies and the middle classes is the only thing keeping you and your family fed.

Morality is subjective, never objective. And it’s not binary, it’s analogue. Things are rarely absolutely right and absolutely wrong. They’re nearly always a mixture of both.

That’s like saying that there is certainly such a thing as objective truth and your side knows what it is all the time.

If you do that, you are piously dismissing those who don’t share your view as being either ignorant or actively and willfully engaging in immorality.

You always then are characterising people on the Left as somehow being this monolithic mass of people who think exactly the same on every issue, rather than the broad church it actually is.

You’ve actually eliminated thoughtfulness and complexity from the equation entirely; “Is this possible?”, and “Can we do it?” are in fact equally important questions (arguably more so) compared with “Is this the morally right thing to do?

Only a religious zealot who’s sure that God loves him and is on his side would claim to have an absolute and clear understanding of right and wrong in every instance and that his behaviour is always moral in spite of the consensus of the wider group.

And there are plenty of absolutely horrors and attrocities committed in the world today by people (usually in the name of their god) who think they’re upholding morality by doing it. Do you think the people who perform female circumcision on their own family members do it because they hate women or wish to inflict pain or suffering on them just for the sake of it? They don’t. They would see it as protecting and enforcing public morality. Do you think Saudi law prevents women from driving a car because it’s fun to keep their wives and daughters down at heel? They don’t. They see it as immoral that women should drive.

The Catholic Church in Germany prayed for Hitler’s good health at the end of mass every day throughout the war right up until the end on direct instructions from the Vatican. Do I think that’s moral? No, it’s totally abhorant. But what I think doesn’t matter to a certain extent. Did the Church and the priests think that it was moral? I can’t say. But I do know that they were following both the teachings of both St Paul and Jesus himself by giving unto Ceaser what was his.

(The “Give unto Ceaser what is his” remark, by the way, comes from an event in the New Testament when Jesus explains to his followers why the people of Judea were morally obligated to pay a Poll Tax that Rome had just levied against the province, in exchange for which of course, they recieved no representation in the government. How’s that for morality?)

What’s more, if you’re positing that there is absolute right, an absolute wrong and there is nothing in between, with all things ordered as such by virtue of their nature, rather than by divine will, what you’re actually doing is engaging in Randian Objectivism.

Which is about as far away from left-wing thinking as you can get.

Given the loaded nature of appealing to the morality of your case, perhaps a better approach is convincing people that, pace Richard Wilkinson of “the Spirit Level” fame, economic inequality harms ALL the members of society, even the better off?

Looked at from the point of view of promoting a more equal society, it doesn’t even really “matter” (though of course people will get very animated about it) how you achieve equality, whether through high taxes as in e.g. Scandinavia, or relatively low taxes but within a society where the richest 20% are not vastly overcompensated vis a vis the poorest 20% such as Japan…. what matters is creating something better than we have now.

We can do better by doing good. We just have to convince New/Newer/Newest Labour to actually work to bring about a more equal society; I reckon we have our work cut out!

I don’t have a problem with morality – just so long as its based on secular arguments.

The problem is when people appeal to the supernatural forces to justify prohibiting behaviour which is either harmless, harmful only to those who practice it voluntarily, or simply nobody else’s fucking business.

You mean, the solution is to become what the left was, political and had sophisticated interpretations on how and why things work they do?

Sorry, is this a revelation, or have you and some people on here had their heads up their arse?

Sadly violence is the only weapon we have left to fight the increased militarisation of policing in this country.
if I saw a cop beating up on some woman in the street my instinct would be to go and restrain him.
I have been in situations where someone was being attacked and my instinct was to confront the attackers…it’s something that just takes over….I couldn’t stand by and watch, I’m no Buddhist.
I used to be close friends with a Buddhist monk and would go and meditate with him and seek his guidance, I once asked him what he would do if he saw a woman in the street being beaten….if he would go to her help and he said no…that he wouldn’t get involved…
I can’t agree with that sorry, I would and have on a number of occasions rushed to help and had to physically restrain people from beating up on other people….usually someone being attacked for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time!!!…
working as a bouncer in a club I have had to physically remove people when they have had too much to drink and began to attack some innocent bystander….
In my teens in the 60s I went on many peaceful protests and lived through the mods and rockers violence….
In the 70s I was very much a part of the punk scene which was a different kind of protest.
This current generation of young people have many who are political and willing to fight for their beliefs and thankfully the hippy dippy generation are old now and their ‘we shall overcome’ sit down protests and flower power are a dying breed…..
something a lot stronger is needed to fight this militarised police force than protest songs.
I see where Chris Hedges is coming from with his verbal attacks on militant anarchists but I don’t think it’s enough to stir people up and expect them to do nothing except sing folks songs and become passive while the police and military shoot us and beat us up….and I’m not talking mindless violence….but aggressive tactics are needed to fight the fight today….what we did in the 60s wouldn’t work today…..it’s a very different world.

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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Even on the left, morality has its limits http://t.co/Qx9LT8R8

  2. Jason Brickley

    Even on the left, morality has its limits http://t.co/s2uYwZHk

  3. Jennifer Hynes

    Even on the left, morality has its limits http://t.co/Qx9LT8R8

  4. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – Even on the left, morality has its limits http://t.co/4rNQlZoU

  5. Patron Press - #P2

    #UK : Even on the left, morality has its limits http://t.co/SZZfKAXi

  6. TruthBeckons

    Even on the left, morality has its limits | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/V59SvAoo via @libcon

  7. Andrew Old

    @Michael_Merrick @tombennett71 I blame RE teachers for this: http://t.co/YLsk2owT

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