Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Childishness of Extremist Morality

Reading Hirschman made me reflect on a symmetry between the far left and far right worldviews.  I've talked to probably more than my fair share of ideologues from both sides and something I've noticed is that they both tend to create a moral system, sometimes quite elaborate, that has first principles that lead inevitably to the views they hold.

For the far right, this tends to be a moral system that is all about responsibility for the actions you take.  There is very little about responsibility for the world as it exists, morality and responsibility are solely about the direct consequences of what you do, little, if anything, is said about inaction.

For the far left, the moral system is all about responsibility for the world as it is.  We are responsible to seek to change it, inaction is morally culpable.  It doesn't much matter if you can change the world, as long as you try.  Little is said about the consequences of our individual actions, what matters is that we seek to change

Both views reduce human beings to moral immaturity by denying any responsibility for consequences.  Both make moral action simple and prescriptive, we are responsible solely for intent, in the far right view only for our direct actions and not for any aggregate systemic effects and on the far left view only for our intent of changing the system and not for the immediate consequences of our actions.  Neither pays much attention to our action/inaction's consequences.

Moral maturity, however, requires accepting responsibility for both intent and consequence, individual and aggregate.  Children can get away with the argument that they were just doing what they were told, adults can't.  We must accept both that we have the capacity to change things and that we are responsible for the consequences of our individual actions of our attempts to bring about change.  We must act, but we must act responsibility.  The intent of our action does not excuse its consequences, neither can our fear of taking action excuse the consequences of being idle.  Denying either is immoral.

A corollary of this is that we have a responsibility to seek to understand the consequences of our actions.  We cannot plead ignorance when we have not tried to learn.  Ignorance is inevitable and will lead us astray but it is not ignorance that leads us to ignore inconvenient facts or to be idle rather than seeking to understand our world.  We can act only on our best knowledge of the consequences of our actions, but we must accept that we bear responsibility for the state of that knowledge.

Extremists tend to deny all this in order to maintain a simplistic worldview, either one where they are solely responsible for their own lives and not responsible for the inequities of the existing order or one where the inequities of the existing order excuses responsibility for their own failings and for the potential consequences of the change they seek.  I've encountered both attitudes far too often, I see these moral beliefs as the surest sign of an extremist closed mind.  Most people realize there must be a balance, we bear responsibility for ourselves as well as for the world we live in and we assign moral blame based on both intent and consequences.  We don't congratulate someone when they accidentally benefit another nor do we condemn someone as much when their ineptitude brings about negative consequences they never intended. 

Extremist rhetoric, however, is always pushing against this basic decency.  These techniques push us to either believe that change is futile and damaging and that we should focus solely on ourselves or that change is necessary and inevitable and that we should ignore potentially negative consequences.  Both moral visions seek to reduce us to immaturity denying us moral autonomy and control over our own lives and the society we live in.  We must be on guard for this rhetoric and speak out against these narrow, childish visions when we come across them.*

*Preferably in public venues like a blog rather than at dinner parties, though at times I can't resist.

No comments:

Post a Comment