Monday, March 5, 2012

Moralising anyone?


 Several days work researching and writing recently vanished with the collapse of my laptop. I’ve had some data recovered but there’s still a big loss. As a consequence I’m going to pause before returning to the topic I had almost completed on Roman Catholic attitudes to sex and contraception.

Quite frankly I also need a break from it. Whilst the highest Catholic authorities use a fairly cool language to describe the issues there are a lot of hotter heads amongst academics at Catholic institutions and writing for Catholic journals. Some of their comments are basically cruel and manipulative rhetoric. I’m more than a little sick of digesting it.

On a positive note I am now typing on a brand new computer! Closer to the point of this blog my discussions with people about contraception and general sexual ethics have raised a fascinating question;

What is Moralising?

When I think of moralising I think of a negative term meaning to go on excessively or inappropriately about morality. I don’t so much mean a certain type of discussing morality that is negative however, as I mean morality itself as seen from an angle that reveals its insufficiency – it’s inherent tendency to excessiveness and inappropriateness.

Moralising is therefore a trigger word for me that recalls a range of alternative ammoral perspectives which are pragmatic, non-dualistic and sensualist. The Book of Chung Tzu is a stand out example.

The Standard English Desk Dictionary of 1975 (in two volumes of actual paper on my shelf) defines Moralise as to indulge in moral reflection or to interpret morally. There’s no clear negative quality given to it at all. This surprised me although its also reflected most other dictionaries I perused.

Those dictionaries that did include a negative weight to the word moralising seem to be aimed at  non-english speakers. It’s as if they are trying to bring people who may not be aware of a cultural phenomenon up to speed. That cultural phenomenon is a broad disdain for moralising which isn’t hard to discover.

Ask almost anyone who doesn’t have a dictionary in their hand and they’ll have a negative pejorative association with moralising. Just as I do. What’s really interesting however is how diverse those negatives are. Mine emphasises a lack of pragmatics – the unhelpfulness of morality. My partner’s idea of what moralising means emphasised the inflexibility, the black and white vision, the lack of context that morality can sometimes have. For others it has been the weight of imposition and imbalanced power behind it.

Yet another theme is that morality can have sinister motives, either to herd us in ways that serve powerful interests or for an individual moraliser to make their wrong actions seem right. Moralising is used to describe the conduct of these insincere endeavours. That’s quite similar to how the word rationalising (which merely means to find reason for) is often colloquially understood as to manufacture excuses for bad behaviour. "Rationalising" is done by companies that chop down rainforests and "moralising" is done by Preachers who want brow-beaten flocks.

Equally fascinating about all these concerns is they come from outside the game so to speak. Let me explain what I mean by that. 

Morality is about right and wrong, defining what should be done and what one should  avoid doing. If I propose that something like living with your partner without being married is some kind of bad then from according to the logical flow of our discussion (“inside the game”) you are obliged to either concede the point or argue how it is not so bad and possibly even good. There are several types of “evidence” we can point to – a sympathetic connection with “the victim” as we see them, how this arrangement meets or fails certain rights, a social effect beyond the parties involved. If we agree on a morally authoritative text or understanding of natural law then we can also skip to that reference as well.

To say that my criticism of unmarried cohabitation is merely trying to excuse other behaviour, that this kind of morality is part of an agenda to control us, that other people’s relationships are none of my business, that it’s all too abstract a way to look at the situation or that I should “lighten up” are all refusals to play along. They are comments made from outside the game.

These responses don’t make logical sense in the conversation. They don’t flow or reflect what precedes them in a logical way. It is as I have said one plus one equals seven and rather than correcting my addition you have said “Maths is dumb.” If logic is our master then we should dismiss these responses.

However there are many instances when logic clearly is not a good master and needs to be reminded of its servant’s role. Seven is more than two, and two point two, four eight is also more than two. There are no arguments against accuracy to be found inside mathematics. However if two children argue because one got point two, four eight of a minutes more time with the favourite doll than the other then the aggrieved party can expect to have their case dismissed for lack of importance. In fact as a parent I think its important at this point to stand outside the game and point out the fruitlessness of the argument. We call that “not buying into it”. Maths (and logic) is for getting things done and there’s nothing to do here. Maths in this instance really is dumb.

In the same way labelling a discussion pejoratively as “Moralising” is an outside the game criticism of moral logic that can be purposeful and valid. Very few people would bother to defend writing with your left hand as morally sound even though it was once considered “sinister”.  A roll of the eyes is about all we’d give such a concern today and I consider that progress. However there are decent objections to the idea that the charge of Moralising (in its negative, pejorative meaning) really does come from outside the game. Criticising moralising is itself a statement of values; it is itself a moral statement. At a very fundamental level saying you shouldn’t tell people what to do is a contradiction. When I make this statement I am after all telling you what to do.

I am not the first person to make this argument. We live in a time when what was once intolerable is now increasingly a right, such as writing with your left hand but also the acceptance of the cohabitation of unmarried lovers and same sex relationships.  People who argue against these cultural changes run up against the growing belief that they moralise excessively, inappropriately, with the desire to control and impose behind their speech and a failure to consider nuance and context. In short they are accused of the pejorative form of “moralising”. They counter with the argument that anti-moralising is the aggressive new morality and that tolerance is now promoted with zealous intolerance.

As much as I eye-roll at those who preach intolerance of defacto or same sex relationships (or left handedness) I think they have a point that the criticisms they face are not truly outside the game. Or rather I don’t think there’s any clear inside or outside of the game of morality. There is a category of moral statements we consider legitimate moral discussion and another category of statements we consider “moralising” in a bad way. There is a struggle for our moral concerns to be included in the former category and for those concerns we don’t share to be in the latter. That struggle is no different to that of parent and child; where the child wants the parent to impose fairness over the fraction of a minute’s difference in time spent with the doll, and the parent wants the child to let it go. Just as eye-rolling doesn’t really cut it as an explanation to the child neither should it cut it for us.

As adults (pretend adults perhaps) this struggle is fought along the lines we define by our use of the term moralising. To give an example that puts me in the moralising corner you could consider the flippant use of gay to describe things as corny and trite. Leaving aside the fact that the fear of corny and trite inspires more shallowness than it avoids, I object to the use of gay in this way. I will ruin the party mood at times by pointing out how hurtful such speech could be to a gay person and how it is lazy and inaccurate. For this I get labelled as “moralising” which refuses to engage with any of my arguments but dismisses as stuffy the whole of discussing this topic as moral.

Looking specifically at my objection to morality as not pragmatic enough (that’s a blog post right there) you could consider my refusal to give much shrift to pragmatic concerns regarding the indefinite detention of refugees. Indefinite detention for child abusing priests is something I would not even agree with. They should at least know their sentence. Indefinite detention for people fleeing situations of torture and oppression because they might not be genuine but almost definitely aren’t is deeply immoral. Just think about what indefinite detention means for a second, apply it to your self and it should be obvious. However to some people I am moralising here in exactly the way I object to. I am drawing a line in the sand and refusing to even countenance any kind of cost-benefit analysis of the situation.

I feel that the people calling my attitude to gay jokes and refugee detention “moralising” in order to dismiss it, are actually proposing their own morality. It’s a morality that specifically excludes my concerns. I even think that, as much as any morality, it can be disingenuous, dichotomous, and inappropriate, with the desire to control and impose on behalf of power. In summary I think their use of  the criticism “moralising” is “moralising”!


I don’t really believe there’s a pax rationality that can solve these kinds of contradictions. I think language is supposed to be useful, and even normative, more than it is supposed to be consistent. And it’s massively worthwhile to limit morality to those matters which are of concern, as well as to point out when morality is being used to control us for hidden interests or when it reflects gross power imbalances. However we should be cautious using “moralising” in a pejorative fashion as our sole argument for anything. It’s worth recognising we aren’t really coming from an amoral and unassailable position. We are just trying to make ourselves unassailable. 

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Note: I was recently and deeply impressed by an article by Hugo Rifkind  which makes a similar point to this post. He writes about how sport claims to be above politics and how that is in itself a politic. It is a politic that allows dictatorships to use the neutrality of sport to soften their tyranny and murdering corporate sponsors to connect themselves with health and hard work;
“In theory it’s about putting sport first; rising above the petty wrangles of current affairs. But in reality, current affairs are the things that kick down your door and drag you off to a torture dungeon. Rising above them turns you into a whitewashing service for any global villain with a cheque.”;
Essentially no morality is a morality.

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