We’ve all seen it in annoying tweets and chest-thumping Facebook posts ― items presented as casual observations or political arguments that carry a much different underlying meaning: I am good because I have said this important thing now, here, on the Internet! The social need to be perceived by our peers as being morally upright ― or to pile on, with tribal abandon, with our likes and faves ― has replaced our calling to pursue moral truth. Or to actually engage in morally useful activities.
Even more troubling to Tosi and his co-author, Bowling Green State University Assistant Professor of Philosophy Brandon Warmke, moral grandstanding is foreclosing meaningful debates about what the right thing to do might actually be. The nature of a just society is complicated, and the right answer to new issues can be difficult to decipher. Moral grandstanding encourages people to simply stake out successively extreme positions to impress their friends, instead of simply talking to each other. This eliminates nuance and forces people into bizarre partisan camps. People who share a great many moral intuitions become polarized as antagonists.
Not certain this is accurate – having just graduated from college, I question the assumption that those who perpetuate the shame culture have thought critically enough to realize its incompatibility with moral relativism (I remember reading an article from the school newspaper shaming the University administration, but also claiming that freedom of speech was not a universal norm because the Constitution was written by white men who didn’t understand minority experiences). Still, worth the read if only to demonstrate that total moral relativism is out… ironically, of course, for reasons that conservatives have always pointed out (moral relativism precludes the ability to make judgements about gross injustices).
Our schools do amazing things with our children. And they are, in a way, teaching moral standards when they ask students to treat one another humanely and to do their schoolwork with academic integrity. But at the same time, the curriculum sets our children up for doublethink. They are told that there are no moral facts in one breath even as the next tells them how they ought to behave.
David Brooks gives an excellent critique of contemporary society’s usage of the term “meaning” (e.g., how Susan Wolf seems to use it in much of her work):
Meaningfulness tries to replace structures, standards and disciplines with self-regarding emotion. The ultimate authority of meaningful is the warm tingling we get when we feel significant and meaningful. Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity. It’s a paltry substitute. Because meaningfulness is built solely on an emotion, it is contentless and irreducible. Because it is built solely on emotion, it’s subjective and relativistic. You get meaning one way. I get meaning another way. Who is any of us to judge another’s emotion? Because it’s based solely on sentiment, it is useless. There are no criteria to determine what kind of meaningfulness is higher. There’s no practical manual that would help guide each of us as we move from shallower forms of service to deeper ones. There is no hierarchy of values that would help us select, from among all the things we might do, that activity which is highest and best to do. Because it’s based solely on emotion, it’s fleeting. When the sensations of meaningful go away then the cause that once aroused them gets dropped, too. Ennui floods in. Personal crisis follows. There’s no reliable ground.
Note that Brooks is not arguing that we shouldn’t strive for meaning, but rather that self-defining the meaning of life is a self-defeating exercise. As he notes:
Let me put it this way: If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein gives a really straightforward against pure Humean emotivism and the primacy of moral psychology:
But moral psychology does not have to tell the whole story. There is no reason why we cannot have moral psychology and moral philosophy: moral psychology to explain why moral progress is both possible and painfully slow, and moral philosophy to clarify what constitutes moral progress and to push us in the appropriate direction.
We are reasoning, deliberating human beings, and our genes are not the masters of our fate. We should not become so enthralled by the explanatory power of the behavioral sciences that we succumb to the belief that moral progress is predetermined.
Psychology tells a diminished story that leaves out our past moral advances and the hard argumentative work required to expand those advances in the future. Plato would reject this view. So should we.
This is a journal article (ungated) from a few years ago (2007), but I found it absolutely fascinating. In it, Eric Gregory examines John Rawls’s Princeton senior thesis – there are some really fascinating findings here.
This paper examines a remarkable document that has escaped critical attention within the vast literature on John Rawls, religion, and liberalism: Rawls’s undergraduate thesis, “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An Interpretation Based on the Concept of Community” (1942). The thesis shows the extent to which a once regnant version of Protestant theology has retreated into seminaries and divinity schools where it now also meets resistance. Ironically, the young Rawls rejected social contract liberalism for reasons that anticipate many of the claims later made against him by secular and religious critics. The thesis and Rawls’s late unpublished remarks on religion and World War II offer a new dimension to his intellectual biography. They show the significance of his humanist response to the moral impossibility of political theology. Moreover, they also reveal a kind of Rawlsian piety marginalized by contemporary debates over religion and liberalism