A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 7 November 2016

Naive Moralism and Manichaeism

London, 1750

WILLIAM: Slavery is an abomination, which must be ended this instant!

CHARLES: Oh, you're on about slavery again? Why don't you just knock it off.

WILLIAM: How can I be silent about monstrous injustice? The negros are our fellow men and brothers, and their subordination goes against every law of God and man!

CHARLES: Nonsense. Slaves exist, and slaveholders are not punished, so slavery is quite clearly permitted by the law. Besides which, would you have all slaves freed? Think of the chaos that would be loosed upon England if they were all released tomorrow!

WILLIAM: If the law does not forbid slavery, then the law is unjust. And justice must be done, even though the heavens fall.

CHARLES: Justice is simply the rules that we, as a society, agree to live by. Perhaps in the future those rules will outlaw slavery. But for now, they do not and slaves are legitimate property in every sense.

The dialogue above is intended to illustrate two competing ways of thinking about morality. The first, represented by William, is what I like to call Naive Moralism. Naive Moralism consists of three apparently uncontroversial propositions:

  1. There exist moral truths independently of human-made laws.
  2. These moral truths are knowable.
  3. We ought to behave as these truths demand.
The opposing picture is much vaguer, and is united only by a single rather vague thought: "It's more complicated than that." Charles is a classic examplar of this picture, which for lack of a better term I will call anti-Manichaeism. Charles recognises that in some sense William is right, that future generations will side with William rather than Charles, but he sees no need to contribute to that change. Perhaps he personally benefits from slavery, perhaps he genuinely fears the consequences of freeing slaves en masse.

Being a naive moralist or an anti-manachaeist on one issue does not, by the way, mean that you will hold this perspective on all issues. I know a great many people who are naive moralists when it comes to making the rich pay their fair share of taxes and achieving equality within the polity, but when faced with the much bigger issue of global inequality and the suggestion that they personally might have to give up a lot of their wealth, suddenly become convinced that justice surely can't be all that demanding (see pages 3-4). Far be it from me to suggest that anti-Manichaeism is frequently motivated by self-interest, of course. With that said, people genuinely differ in their tendency to views issues in a particular light - most obviously, there is a strong negative correlation between age and naive realism. One key thesis of this essay, which I will eventually get around to explaining, is that certain ideologies naturally lend themselves towards one or the other type of moral reasoning and this can explain a lot about the far left and about feminism.

At this point, hopefully anti-Manichaeism is sounding rather unappealing. (If you don't think ending slavery was a moral imperative, then I really don't know what to say to you other than "Stop being evil!") But naive moralism causes its share of problems too, even in the cases where the cause at stake is one as worthy and just as abolitionism.

Against Doing the Right Thing

1. The problem of moral dissent

People who hold views about morality which are heavily out of step with the society in which they live tend to be viewed somewhere on a spectrum between annoyances and traitors. To take a relatively mild example, consider the conscientious objectors of the Great War. Nowadays we debate whether or not Britain was justified in intervening in the war, but we would agree that whatever reason supported going to war were hardly strong enough to justify conscription. At the time, however, conscientious objectors were viewed as cowards; 6000 of them, most famously Bertrand Russell, were imprisoned for their refusal to fight; and the public at large would shun not only the objectors but also their families, sometimes leaving wives and children destitute and unable to access charity when their husbands and fathers were imprisoned.

A more modern example is that of vegetarianism. Many people regard vegetarianism as a kind of self-indulgence: not morally wrong, but a personal preference that can be awfully inconvenient to other people. Amanda Askell wrote a recent piece incisively attacking this perspective:
I have had many conversations with people who complain about vegetarians and vegans coming to parties or restaurants, and expecting their weird tastes to be accommodated. But ethical vegetarians and vegans are not merely acting on a whim: they think that it’s morally wrong to eat meat. If you were to be told that ritual cannibalism was practiced by your friends, you would presumably say “either don’t serve me human flesh for dinner, or I’m not coming to your house” (you might even say a little more than this: e.g. “please stop eating people” or “I’m calling the police”). If it’s reasonable to want your anti-cannibalism moral beliefs to be accommodated, then why is it not reasonable for the vegetarian to want their anti-meat eating beliefs to be accommodated?
People have even thought that it’s acceptable or funny to trick vegetarians into eating meat. It’s cruel enough to trick someone into eating something they don’t like the taste of. It seems even more cruel to trick someone into doing something that they believe is wrong simply because we don’t agree that it’s wrong. After all, we’d be rightly horrified and upset if we went to our friend’s house and were tricked into eating human flesh disguised as beef or pork.
Similarly, near the all-time top of reddit.com/r/rage is people taking umbrage at the following cartoon:
To a vegetarian, meat-eating is wrong for the same reason that lynching, genocide, and domestic violence are wrong: there are innocent moral patients being harmed by these acts. The cartoon is pointing out, in a not very gentle way, that a sometimes-given defence of meat-eating sounds absolutely abominable when used to defend these other acts.

Pacifism and vegetarianism are rather progressive practices, so it is perhaps worth pointing out that naive moralists from more traditional viewpoints can cause just as much annoyance for those who do not share their principles. Abortion is one example: there are many people who oppose abortion, for the entirely respectable reason that they view foetuses as moral patients with many of the same rights as humans (e.g. the right not to be killed). In some places, there are enough people who believe foetuses have moral status that they are able to enforce this as law, causing severe inconvenience to women in those areas who want to have abortions.

Another example is Christian evangelism. Perhaps you wish that street preachers would mind their own business and stop harassing you in public; from the evangelists' perspective, however, this would be horrendously immoral of them. They earnestly believe that if you do not come to accept Jesus Christ as your saviour, you will burn in hell for eternity. For all of the annoyance they cause, if a single soul is saved as a result then their preaching will be a net benefit to humanity.

In all of these cases, it's important to note that the inconvenience exists whether or not the moral dissenters are correct. The inconvenience of having to cook separate meals for vegetarians is caused not by vegetarians being wrong (if they indeed are), but simply by their being different from society at large. It may well be that foetuses are moral patients who deserve our protection; that doesn't negate the very real suffering to women burdened with pregnancies they don't want to go through and cannot end.

2. Utopianism

In order to abolish slavery within the British Empire, it was necessary for the government to compensate every slaveholder in the Empire. With the benefit of hindsight, this was an outrage: the slaveholders were carrying out a great injustice, and yet rather than punish them for this we not only let them off scot-free, but even paid them to stop doing it! Frankly, what they deserved was to have their slaves freed whether or not the slaveholders agreed, with their lands and property confiscated and divided up among the former slaves, and the slaveholders should have been imprisoned in the same conditions to which they subjected their slaves.

From the naive moralist perspective, this is all true. But it was also impossible to implement given the powers that were. The best that could be hoped for was the marginal improvement of freeing the slaves while compensating their former owners. Similarly, there are to this day a great many dictators around the world who deserve to go the way of Saddam Hussein, but unless the West is committed to recreating the Iraq War a hundred times over, in countries far more powerful than Iraq, the hope of removing all illegitimate governments is forlorn. (And if we're honest, the governments of even the most civilised countries are rather less legitimate than we typically like to think).

3. Ends-justify-the-means reasoning

Let's go back to the 18th-century gentlemen who were debating the morality of slavery. As it so happens, Charles owns several slaves who he treats poorly - beating them, providing them with only the basics for survival, chaining them up whenever they are not working, and raping the women among them. However, he has no living family, which means that were he to die these slaves would go free. Charles is currently in good health, but William comes to you with a plan. Next month Charles will be travelling by coach to Birmingham, along a road notorious for being infested with highwaymen. You could hide along the route and murder Charles, making it look like a robbery gone awry. William, who has always been true to his word in the past, promises that he has no plans to keep any of the proceeds for himself; moreover, it's not like Charles doesn't thoroughly deserve this!

Perhaps you're still uncomfortable and would refuse to assist William, even if this makes the plan impossible to carry out. But hopefully you can see that there is a strong moral justification for it, such that a morally upstanding person could reasonably decide that they are not only morally entitled, but positively obliged to take part in this murder. Of course, such behaviour is entirely at odds with living in a peaceful and civilised society.

Similar reasoning would have been used by Stalin during his early years as a bank-robber: the money held the bank was itself stolen from the working class, and so by taking that money for the Communist Party he was not only putting the money to the best use but also preventing criminals from benefiting from their crimes. Similarly, however justified the American Revolution may have been there can be no doubt that it caused a great many deaths and injuries which could have been averted if the colonies had been willing to remain colonies rather than states.

I should be clear that this kind of reasoning does not have to be an ex post justification of thuggery. There are well-respected ethicists willing to defend future applications of this kind of behaviour; for example, Peter Unger (a professor at NYU) has argued that our obligations to the globally poor are so strong that we should not only give all that we have, but moreover that we should steal from others in order to donate. To take a less objectionable behaviour, members of the Effective Altruism movement have frequently argued that individuals should enter well-paid but morally dubious occupations such as quantitative finance in order to donate more to the third world.

4. Unwillingness to tolerate alternative viewpoints

I mentioned at the beginning my inability to comprehend people who would oppose abolition. So far as I am concerned, if you are not in favour of abolitionism then you are either a hypocrite who does wrong by your own lights, too cowardly to think through the morality of your actions in a rigorous way, or else simply you simply have evil values. Perhaps that sounds reasonable, in which case it's time to lay some more of my cards on the table.

As it happens, I am a vegetarian. I don't believe that animals have all of the same rights as humans, but I believe that they are significant enough and cruelty in the meat industry so ubiquitous that eating meat is pretty much always immoral. As such, I believe that if you eat meat, then* you are a hypocrite, a moral coward, or evil. This probably sounds profoundly unreasonable to many people, and there are good reasons why vegetarians don't tend to say such things. In general we don't like to think of our friends and family this way, but ultimately if you want to avoid this conclusion then you're going to have to engage in an awful lot of "it's more complicated than that".

If you're a generally enlightened but non-vegetarian westerner, you're probably feeling rather insulted at the moment. If that is the case, please relax while I insult much of the developing world. Another belief I hold strongly is that women ought to have the same rights as men, including but not limited to sexual autonomy. If you genuinely believe that a woman has no right to deny sex to her husband, for example, then I - along with most people in the developed world - consider you to be a barbarian.

Hopefully by this point you see that naive moralism, even when it is correct, makes social life very difficult. To a large extent the Enlightenment came about by our agreeing to drop naive moralism regarding certain topics - to agree that while it may well be in people's interest to be compelled to believe in the One True God, we would nevertheless let them continue in their sin and damnation.

Another key thing to take note of is that these problems with naive moralism exist, even when the moralism is for a genuinely righteous cause! There is a failure mode which comes about when people become Manichean in defence of evil causes, and there is a failure mode where two groups of people opposed to each other both adopt Manichaeism, but this kind of moral certainty is perfectly capable of causing problems without any need for poor moral judgement.

Why Have Naive Moralism At All?

Considerations like those above have led some people, including well-respected moral philosophers, to completely reject naive moralism and instead proclaim that morality is nothing more than the set of rules which allow us to get along with each other. This involves biting one hell of a bullet, however: it means rejecting the very notion of moral progress, and indeed any minimally satisfying form of moral realism.

In the 18th century, society was able to function despite the blight of slavery. We needed some naive moralists to recognise that slavery was inconsistent with the professed morals of the land, and to build up the social consensus necessary to abolishing slavery.

*with some very few exceptions that would be too weird to explain here.

NM and AM not personality types, but rather ways of seeing moral claims. One might be NM about domestic redistribution but AM about global redistribution, for example. (Far be it from me to suggest, of course, that AM often motivated by status quo bias and self-interest!)

Problems with NM:

inconvenience of their moralising: pacifism, vegetarianism
demands that others see things from their perspective
ends justify means
can be wrong!


they are ultimately our source of moral progress


moral progress not necessarily in a "progressive" direction - consider abortion

Which groups tend to inspire particular kinds of moral reasoning:

anti-manichaeism inherently conservative; left (particularly the far-left) and feminists tend to be correspondingly naively moralist, hence tendency towards trashing etc
religion naive realist
israel anti-manichaeist - in some ways relies on the same racialism it is supposed to protect against

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