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.