Morality is for victims

Some years ago, back when I would occasionally flip through cable channels, I came across a bit of a news documentary about a professional ethicist analyzing the moral reasoning of grade school students.  First the students were interviewed and said rather unremarkable things such as that cheating on homework or tests is wrong.  These interviews were reviewed by the ethicist, who pronounced himself “disturbed” at how students never question the justice of school rules against cheating “…blah blah white supremacy patriarchy structural capitalist oppression blah blah…”

As an antidote, some quotes from wise men:

…if geometry were as much opposed to our passions and present interests as is ethics, we should contest it and violate it but little less, notwithstanding all the demonstrations of Euclid and Archimedes…

                                                                             — Gottfried Leibniz

Why, Sir, if the fellow does not think as he speaks, he is lying; and I see not what honour he can propose to himself from having the character of a liar. But if he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.

                                                                             — Samuel Johnson

The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

— Søren Kierkegaard

One might say, combining Leibniz and Kierkegaard, that ethics is really a matter of very simple rules that everybody knows and that the purpose of philosophical ethics is to invent sophistries to evade the inconveniences of this clarity.

Many think it naive to regard ethics as a matter of simple, inflexible rules, but naive or no, such a view does grant those students, and everyone else, the dignity of addressing them as free moral agents, of granting some significance to even the least powerful person’s choice to obey or disobey.  Ethicists of the mainstream schools give the mass of mankind excuses rather than commands, reducing them to the level of animals.

It is a commonplace assumption that morality is what condemns oppressors and vindicates victims.  The trouble with this is that we are each of us a victim in our own private little narrative.  Who doesn’t dwell more on the obstacles he has faced than on the advantages he has been given or the obstacle he has been to others?  Who doesn’t nurse the memory of insults to himself and his group?  (Indeed, without those insults, would that group membership even matter to him?)  When we are not oppressed by other people, we are oppressed by circumstances.  Even when subjugating others, we feel oppressed by the political logic that compels us to such acts.  Every group in history that we have learned to think villainous had good reason to think themselves aggrieved and to see their actions as at best righteous, at worst grimly necessary.

Public intellectuals try to solve this problem by pronouncing a putatively true, objective list of oppressors and victims.  This always does violence to true history, which is never so black and white.  The official division of oppressors and victims is always experienced as a denial of the subjectivity of the designated oppressor groups, a total negation of their perspective.

It would be better for social ethics to drop the idea of good guys and bad guys altogether, but regardless of what your group is called, you will perceive yourself as a victim of someone-or-other or something-or-other, and regardless you will need moral guidance.  Our primary experience of morality is of the claims others have on us, not the claims we can make on others.  If it were only the latter, there would be no use for it, because self-interest would serve just as well.  Morality must thus be for victims.  Paradoxically, moral constraint must be aimed more at victims, because this is the normal first-person perspective.

9 thoughts on “Morality is for victims

  1. Pingback: Morality is for victims | Reaction Times

  2. True morality is “for” victims in the sense that a football helmet is “for” head injuries. If it actually worked, there would be no victims. Now, to a modern ethicist, a world without victims would appear to be a world where morality is not needed, since he assumes that morality exists to repair injuries. It is “for” victims in the sense that a bandage and cold compress is “for” hear injuries.
    I suppose we could credit the modern ethicist with greater realism, for as your wise witnesses say, keeping the rules is not a human trait. But the modern ethicist is himself no respecter of true morality. He’s just a shady lawyer trying to win a large settlement for his client.

    • Would there be no victims if there were no sin? Could there, for instance, be cases of doubly-just wars, in which both sides are justified in waging war? Is this still possible in a world with no sin and no ignorance? There would still be conflicting interests, limited resources, incompatible loyalties. In the unfortunate case of a multicultural society, only one culture can define the common, public culture, and the rest must live with being “oppressed”. Each culture has valid reason to vie for the position of dominance.

  3. In the dual sense of both the end and the means to that end, the ethics of empiricism, based in the determinism of the physical sciences, and rationalism, based in the determinism of universal necessities, centres on the autonomous individual will – the philosophers being either determinists, in the case of Hobbes, Spinoza and Leibniz; or compatibilists, in the case of Locke, Rousseau or Kant. More accurately, the ethical position of the individual, for both schools is intrinsic, and prior to society – the individual determines their ethical position personally.
    Regardless, these systems of ethics share their justification in the principles discovered, or proved, by the school of thought. That is, the system of ethics is based in the prescriptive laws wholly deduced from reason or induced from experience. This series of prescriptive laws necessarily follows from these abstract principles, so that autonomous individuals might make decisions towards a correct and moral standard. This standard itself is dependent on the specific philosopher, being either a universal morality, or an outgrowth of the relationship between the relativity of morality and the necessity of laws for society. That is, the philosopher either attempts to supply a universal moral rationality, or otherwise reject moral rationality in all its forms. One of these thoughts necessarily follows from their universal truths; and these truths are always discovered by their system of knowledge alone.
    Therefore, the basis of both the rational and empirical ethic is the effective co-operation of distinct individuals, and the premise of action for each individual is their personal desires. Hence, this framework is necessarily neutral given the universality, or acknowledgement of relativity, of its moral laws. That is, for both philosophies, there is no shared order of goods, or virtues, but a series of laws that allow the individual to achieve their own desires without impeding on the desires of other individuals. The society, in its political structure, is, then the framework through which individuals barter and negotiate to realise these desires.

  4. I can’t really agree being the victim is the normal first-person narrative. Sure, in a culture of modern liberalism it tends to be, but it is not like it is a universal rule of human nature.

    Look. If all you know about someone that he is a victim, that he was hurt by someone else, all you know is he lost the conflict. That he proved to be the weaker one. It says nothing about justice, says nothing about whether the hurt was deserved.

    And does a masculine man like to think he is weak? No. The other guy just got lucky or something. Next time I win, for sure.

    Turning weakness or victimhood i.e. losing conflicts into a form of moral righteousness is a bad thing, it is very typical of modern liberalism, I think it has Christian roots or at least roots in popular misunderstandings of Christian martyrdom and of Paul, but it is not something inherently typical for men.

    I’m with Nietzsche that there is something petty and disgusting about impotent rage, resentment. But I don’t think it is slave morality. It is women’s morality and it is disgusting only for men. It’s biology. Wombs are more inherently valuable than penises. So when a woman says “I am being hurt, and that is WRONG”, she does not mean “I totally did not do anything to deserve this hurt, this hurt is unjust”, she is saying “you guys risk losing a perfectly good womb, come save it”. Wombs are valuable even if the person carrying them did something that deserves to get some amount of hurt as punishment or revenge. It is simply not about justice.

    While the same cry is disgusting for men because men are not inherently valuable as such. You are being hurt? Lost a conflict? You are not a cousin or ally or something to me, so who cares? Show that you are being hurt *unjustly*, that is when I start paying attention. Show that you are actually morally in the right and not just disguising weakness as a moral virtue.

    • Victims don’t have to be losers. Consider the Jews. They have mastered in every walk of life and impose their foreign morals on us, but still passionately consider themselves victims. Their being locked in their own perspective is their greatest strength.

      No doubt the victim mentality is exaggerated today, but I do think it’s somewhat natural to view oneself more as the one faced with obstacles than as the one who is an obstacle to others. To define whites by the inconvenience we cause others is simply to adopt their perspective and negate ours.

  5. From my secular angle ethics seemed always simple. If you are being consistent, logical, avoid lying to yourself, you are almost there. The very fact of communicating implies that we expect to be believed. Why bother otherwise, saying things nobody believes is wasted effort. This trust is a capital that gets spent by actual lying. Why there can be exceptional cases, the usual case is to not spend it. It is useful to have. So you don’t lie. You keep promises. And thus you only make keepable promises. Ideally, enforceable ones. You want to keep that trust. You are a social animal evolved for cooperation (for the purpose of group-level competition), after all. Next step is there are some implicit promises in social life. We are born into certain obligations that everybody is assumed to observe unless they state otherwise. We cannot make everybody promise us all the time they will not steal from us or kill us, but we can see it as a general, implicit promise.
    A lot of what is considered religious morality works along these lines in a secular way. Say, abortion. Suppose a woman does not want to lie to her future child. Not even by ommission. And saying it truthfully “well you could have had a cool older bro to play with, but I killed him in my womb” sounds terrible to the child. So, consistency, not lying requires no abortion.
    Then of course behind many abortions there is also a man who shirked his duty and disappeared after she announced she is pregnant. That is really the same thing. We have a general social convention how to raise kids, what roles both parents play, so having sex carries an implicit promise to pull your weight if the result is a child. Breaking such a promise is wrong.
    Truly undissolvable marriage does not follow from this method, but at least fault-only divorce does. You promised something at the altar. You have to make a good case that it was the other spouse who broke the promise, not you. Promises aren’t simply cancelled at will.
    Gays. Well, gender roles carry implicit promises. Think crisis situations. To get a fallen tree off someone, you look around and call those who look like men to help. If you find a crying baby abandoned, you probably hand him to the closest woman for comforting. Gays break such implicit gender role promises all kinds of ways and I am even somewhat sympathetic to the arguments they cannot help it, but I still want them to get away from normal society and make their ow gay island somewhere, where the implicit promises do not exist or are different.

  6. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkaton 27/01/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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