Sunday, 7 May 2017

Who Has A Lock On Morality — The Left, The Liberals, Or The Right?

The political see-saw, cartoon by Wendy Cockcroft for On t'Internet
One of the most fascinating aspects of political discourse at the moment is the role of morality in framing discussions over healthcare and the welfare state. With the passage of the AHCA in America and elections looming over here I think it's time we took a closer look at it.

The way morality is addressed on both sides of the aisle is a matter of the individual V the public, in which the public is 'othered' to the point where it is perceived as a threat on the right, and 'our friends and neighbours' on the left. How did it come to this? There are three reasons I can think of:

  • The decline of Christianity
  • Neoliberalism
  • The decline of empiricism

The decline of Christianity

I've seen Christians and other people of faith bashed and blamed for "All The Things!" but now that we're being taken out of the equation is that really true? The problem, as I've pointed out over and over and over again, is authoritarianism. Stop blaming {$group} and look at the attitude. There's the problem. Anyway, the role of faith has traditionally been to be the benchmark by which our moral compasses are set. Like it or not, the rule of law is based on religious principles. Secularism is the Johnny-come-lately of philosophies. Deal with it. If you disagree, find me an ancient atheist culture. Animism doesn't count as atheism. Good luck with that. Religion is failing itself and the communities in which its adherents live, but I'd argue that abandoning its principles is taking us into some horrible places.

Religion as a cloak of respectability

One of the reasons why people of faith behave badly, then invite accusations of "No true Scotsman" logical fallacies when the rest of us try to distance ourselves from them, is because the notion of morality is so tangled up in it that professing a religious faith has, for some time, been considered shorthand for "I'm a good moral person."

"No true Scotsman would..."

Do a search for "church child abuse." There are over twenty two MILLION results. This is not the result of a conspiracy to defame Christians. Some of my co-religionists have used faith as a cloak of respectability, a Trojan horse to get them into positions of trust in the community where they can commit the most heinous of crimes. It's basically fraud: we're not supposed to do that kind of thing so the "No true Scotsman" fallacy accusation doesn't hold. You can't claim to be a golfer just because you've got the gear and have joined a club. You've got to actually play the game. Nonetheless the fact that, in many cases, friends and colleagues of abusers connived at their crimes by assisting in cover-ups and denial which subsequently were revealed in the media has cost Christianity — and indeed other faith groups, its spot on the moral high ground. We lose the right to tell others how to be moral when we ourselves behave more badly than our secular peers.

Religion as justification for appalling crimes

From the appalling genocide dismissed by historians of Manifest Destiny to the horrific atrocities of the Crusades (the Arabs still hate the West for this) to the industrial-scale slaughter of both world wars, religion has been accused of being the driver. Actually, that's not really true. The deal was done; religion was brought in to harden men's hearts to persuade them of the justness of the cause when jingoistic rhetoric was not enough to provoke them to violence.


Thus it is that religion, and Christianity in particular, has got itself a bad rap. To be fair it's the authoritarians of organised centralised systems such as Catholicism and the bigger Protestant denominations who are to blame: once they had secular power they consolidated it by use of force, implicating their members in their crimes. Result: people felt that what they were doing, however bad, was justified and therefore okay. This is why I'm so ardently anti-authoritarian: they either do awful things or make you do awful things. In case you haven't noticed, this is not confined to religious groups.

The moral maze

The decline of Christianity has left a vacuum in public discourse where morality is concerned, into which political and social philosophies have poured, and, well, the new master is just like the old one. I've seen Christians and atheists go head-to-head over faith, each of them arguing that their people weren't as murder-y as the other side. Whatever. People have either been oppressed because some authoritarian convinced his adherents that they were doing a good thing or they have not.

Individualism V collectivism as a moral issue

I've seen selfishness exalted as a virtue and self-sacrifice demonised as a vice. And I've seen people worrying about being denied healthcare because they were raped since it's "a pre-existing condition." When people believe that your healthcare is your problem and none of their concern, the moralities being pitted against each other are basically the individual's responsibility to carry their own load and not be a burden, and the interdependence of society. This might make for a good debate but these are real people and they're suffering now, whether they have insurance or not, because of an allegedly moral principle.

Is this okay with you? It's been building for a while. As the Republicans celebrate finally "repealing" Obamacare, bear in mind how people with health issues will be effectively punished for having the temerity to either fall ill or suffer abuse.

Is this the new manifest destiny? Is it really inevitable that the sick and the vulnerable will be forced to beg for their lives on crowdfunding platforms in the name of freedom for the tax-is-theft brigade? And is this actually moral, good, and right? Surely to goodness the value of such thinking will be revealed in the society it produces, right? Well we don't have to wait for long; remember that interaction I had with the Scots Tories? For them, morality is about not being a burden. Since I disagreed with them I surely had to be a burden trying to justify my scrounging. I think they were shocked by the fact that I'm working with no kids and claim nothing.

The noble lie

The concept of the noble lie goes thus: if it's for a good cause, it's okay. Heck, it's even in the Bible:

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”
19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” - Exodus 1:15-19 (New International Version (NIV))

So it is that we see American conservatives claim nobility for their outright lies in this post claiming that healthcare is a scarcity:

Health care is physical, not metaphysical. It consists of goods, such as penicillin and heart stents, and services, such as oncological attention and radiological expertise. Even if we entirely eliminated money from the equation, conscripting doctors into service and nationalizing the pharmaceutical factories, the basic economic question would remain.
We tend to retreat into cheap moralizing when the economic realities become uncomfortable for us. No matter the health-care model you choose — British-style public monopoly, Swiss-style subsidized insurance, pure market capitalism — you end up with rationing: Markets ration through prices, bureaucracies ration through politics. Price rationing is pretty straightforward: Think of Jesse James and his “Pay Up, Sucker!” tattoo on his palm. Political rationing is a little different: Sometimes it happens through waiting lists and the like, and sometimes it is just a question of money and clout. American progressives love the Western European medical model, but when Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi needed a pacemaker, he came to the United States to have it implanted. -  The ‘Right’ to Health Care, by Kevin D. Williamson

Williamson reserves healthcare to the rich on the ground that it can be expensive. In his view, they alone have the right to it because they can afford it. The noble lies here are "scarcity" and "monopoly," the idea being that the protected object is the American taxpayer, who should, to his mind, not be obliged to pay for other people's healthcare and certainly not for services they don't need or use themselves.

Healthcare provision for the poor is usually via the ER in America because hospitals aren't allowed to turn people away; the noble lie isn't protecting anyone from being taxed for services they don't use or need, or from paying for other people's healthcare. This is actually a lot more costly than the single payer option "Medicare for all." As for the "British-style public monopoly," I submit BUPA, BMI, and Care UK as examples of our thriving private healthcare providers. What monopoly? Williams's noble lies depend on your not doing any research or thinking for yourself. No, it is not moral, right, and good that healthcare be reserved to the rich. My response:

I'll be waiting for a while for a response, methinks. I've seen the noble lie rolled out for Brexit — supporters claim we've got trading partners queuing round the block but when I ask for specifics it turns out that all the ones they thought we'd be trading with have already told us to go elsewhere. There is nothing noble about these lies on the grounds that they're not protecting anyone, they're a fig leaf for a delusion that is easily exposed.

Is morality partisan?

I've been advocating for a communitarian, socially-responsible version of conservatism for a while now on the grounds that the left and the progressive liberals have planted their flags on kind and caring morality. Why should they be allowed to keep it for themselves? Selfishness and greed are either conservative values or they're not. I don't think they are. I don't approve of such thinking but that's due to my Christian faith: "Love one another as I have loved you" is a command rooted in the self-sacrifice decried by the Randian capitalists I love to slag off.

This is what alternative morality looks like in practice:

In the thread you can see me argue the case for traditional values while he pretends that selfish anarchy is conservative. The two moralities are pitted against each other until I point out that even the tasks he would leave to government probably shouldn't be — by the standards of his own philosophy. That's when he blocked me. Laugh at the Tea Party twerp if you will, but what about the Harvard alumnus David French, who hasn't blocked me? He makes similar arguments, now with added sophistry, in his post "We're All Murderers Now" in the National Review. The Twitter thread in which he linked it shows the same back-and-forth between the forces of the commonwealth and of the allegedly self-sufficient. Well whether caring for your community is considered to be conservative or not these days, the right have hijacked the movement and stolen the name so now there are two divergent, polar opposite moralities: "Us," and "Them v us." The reduction of Christianity in public life to authoritarian judgmentalism feeds into this to the point where I've become a liberal socialist by default; my political position hasn't changed much in thirty years.

The divergence of morality into individualism and collectivism is due to partisanship. Each has their own and each, in their own way, is relatively moral.


The philosophy that underpins the alternative morality described above has many names. Mercantilism, laissez-faire, classical liberalism, and neoliberalism are but a few. The basic idea is that the market is the ultimate arbiter and it will decide on the value of everyone and everything. It's pernicious because it's poisonous: people get suckered into the alternative morality it presents because they believe it portrays them in the light of the suffering martyr paying for the upkeep of the idle and the feckless.

How it kills the left

It sure as hell explains why Labour and the other parties got hammered in the local elections despite Our Glorious Leader Theresa May making a mess of Brexit — perhaps deliberately (since she voted Remain) — and cutting public services to the bone. When people believe the alternative is to create a situation that leaves us like Venezuela, of course they'll vote Fascist. Some people are stupid: they really believe that there is only either austere neoliberalism or extreme Marxism and nothing else at all. Neoliberals can push that lie because they have their fingers in every pie. It's how they're convincing Trump to abandon the alt-right and gut public healthcare.

The left has no strategy to combat this

The main reason why I don't identify with the left even though I share many of their concerns is that they can be dreadfully authoritarian. They can also be overly idealistic and ideologically hidebound. Basically, they're obsessed with class and hating the Royal Family, which tends to alienate people who might want to vote for them. Their echo chamber mentality doesn't help; I'm the only one I know who actively tries to understand the opposition — lefties just lock horns with them because they don't want to understand them, they want them to change. Their strategy, such as it is, consists of complaining about how mean and cruel right wing policies are without engaging with the rationale behind it. Basically, it's their morality v right wing morality. So far it's not proving effective. They've been on the back foot since Thatcher came to power, and until they can find a way of effectively engaging the right and beating them on their own turf that's where they'll stay.

The decline of empiricism

Since the 1980s post-modernism and relativism have ruled the intellectual roost. It was therefore just a matter of time until morality itself became a mere matter of opinion. If you look at the conversations I have with people I disagree with, particularly over Brexit, you will usually find that they cling like grim death to their delusions because, to them, it's a matter of principle. The principle precipitates the noble lie in order to ring-fence it and truth is relative to what one chooses to believe.

Most people believe what they're taught. One of my Nigerian co-religionists voted Brexit on the grounds that it would return national sovereignty to Britain. When I pointed out the problems faced by EU residents such as myself and the fact that even if we didn't exist, there's still the matter of ISDS, which reserves sovereignty to corporations on the grounds that raising the minimum wage can result in a lawsuit over breach of contract for raising the company's operating costs. She was shocked. She had basically heard and absorbed all the right wing talking points and paid no attention to the Remain case. Why? She was swayed by emotive rhetoric, not evidence. When I asked here what she would do in future she said she'd rather not vote at all. That's a shame. She needs to educate herself. We all do.

How this affects morality

The way we approach moral issues used to be on the basis of due process: innocent till proven guilty. Where sanity prevails, this is the case. Extenuating factors are taken into account. These days we moral panic over All The Things! and seek revenge instead of rehabilitation. This is because moral relativism and the rightward march of political discourse have made crime and punishment a more black-and-white, less nuanced discussion; a deed is done and must be atoned for, end of. The dehumanisation of transgressors against social norms and the sensationalising of their actions basically means that an "If it bleeds, it leads" mentality pervades the press and results in a lynch mob mentality among the public. I'm not joking — our money-first society's faux morality is convincing people that it's moral, right, and good to persecute people because the papers told them they deserve punishment and haven't received it — and if they did, it wasn't sufficient.

Social media

Social media has an amplifying effect on political discourse; whenever I post a link to a blog post, I'm expanding the reach of that post by broadcasting it to an audience that might never have accessed it. Sound bites and memes are deployed to convince people to think one way or another about various issues; Jeremy Corbyn is either BFFs with the IRA and Hamas or is the saviour-to-be of this nation's welfare state, depending on which camp you're in. Since I follow people with a range of opinions I end up seeing both sides of the argument. Partisan relative morality reigns supreme: if Jeremy Corbyn is evil because he associated with the IRA and with Hamas, what about Theresa May trading with the Saudi regime, holding hands with Trump, and sucking up to Erdogan? Apparently, it's okay if our side does it. Again: mass torture, disappearing, and murder is all well and good if "our" side does it, particularly if it's in the name of a cause. This is because we've thrown empiricism out of the window and let opinion rule the roost instead.

Which side of the political axis is the most moral?

The Twofold Principle: the individual must be free to act and the will of the people must be respected, by Wendy Cockcroft for On t'Internet
This is not a question I can answer until we have agreed on what "morality" means. Personally I believe it means, "Adherence to a set of standards of behaviour and attitude conducive to a healthy society. This requires making a clear distinction between and definition of good and evil." Actually the Twofold Principle pretty much covers it, don't you think?

It's not that simple

If we can't agree on my definition of morality, and we have no written code that we all accept as an authoritative standard, we can't agree on which side of the political axis is the most moral; it becomes a matter of opinion. I personally lean towards the progressive left/liberal right side of the axis because that's where I'm comfortable; that's where personal freedom and community interdependence meet. In that case and with that criteria, that's the side I'd award the moral medal to on the grounds that I hate being lied to (nobly or not!) and I hate being told what to do by people who don't care about me.

That said, it's easy enough to find dirt on anyone online, whether it's true or not. Does anyone have a lock on morality? No. We all have our own moralities, it seems, and for as long as that continues we'll continue to argue. Whether that's a good or bad thing appears to be a matter of opinion.

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