Morality as a political issue

An essay by Isaiah Berlin, which I don’t happen to have at hand, discusses at length the implications of the belief that great, impersonal forces rule over human destinies.  Belief in such forces was the received wisdom of the twentieth century.  Some, like the Nazis, believed the controlling forces emanated from biology and race.  Most, I believe, followed Marx in bowing to blind economic processes as the determining cause of our behavior.

Various brands of economic determinism flourished, with equally various approaches to democracy and individual rights.  All agreed on one point:  individual action counted for nothing.  Whoever wished to improve the human condition had to seize the great levers that made the rest of us jump.

Americans today tend to believe in this, unthinkingly.  Our public discussion handles vague sociological labels as if they represented real things:  “single mothers,” for example, or “inner city children.”  But under what set of criteria does a mother whose soldier husband died in Iraq become identical to a nineteen-year-old who decides to have a baby for entertainment?  Why is the inner city kid who becomes a doctor the same as the one who becomes a killer?

The Victorians, as might be expected, had very different ideas on the matter.  They distinguished between the “deserving” and the “underserving” poor – a distinction derided by Bernard Shaw in Pygmalion, because by then, in the early years of the twentieth century, one knew better.  Shaw was a zealous socialist, and every good socialist understood that poverty was a function of the class struggle, that is, of the impersonal laws of capital and labor.  To make moral distinctions on this condition was as primitive and “unscientific” as the dunking of witches in medieval times.

If this faith in invisible forces had been put in practice, the result would have been a society in which individuals, as individuals, were never accountable for their actions.  We would be like billiard balls, bouncing off the bumpers at the whim of the players, our rulers, who’d apply to us something like Newtonian mechanics.

That never really happened, of course, not even in the Soviet Union.  The men pulling the levers weren’t the political equivalents of Isaac Newton, but of the Wizard of Oz.  The great forces became more elusive, the failure to manipulate them more comical, until socialism flickered out toward the end of the century.

But belief lingers, even after the theoretical structure has collapsed.  And that brings me to my subject, which is the eruption of morality as a political issue in this country.  Universally, this issue is believed to have a powerful hold on the minds of voters; no less universally, it is believed to favor the Republicans, possibly to have made the crucial  difference in the President’s re-election in 2004.

Democrats and the MSM punditry seem confused by the development.  Are Republicans perceived to be superior in morality because they are religious?  Should they be criticized for hypocrisy, and given rope to hang?  Or should Democrats take their bibles out of mothballs and talk about Jesus?  Isn’t a secular morality possible, at least in theory?  If so, what is it?  Once defined, will it sell with the voters?

In this article in the NYT Magazine, Matt Bai continues a new but already vigorous tradition of handwringing and doubt-mongering among Democratic analysts.  The piece is saner than most, more balanced than most, yet it ends on this utterly bizarre note:

When it comes to morality, our first instincts always tend toward tyranny. Moral issues bring out the worst in our two political parties because the parties seek to capitalize on those instincts, motivating voters by turning them against one another and pushing them toward extremes. What Republicans have managed to do is to dress up their particular brand of moral tyranny as a defense of life and piety in all its forms. The Democratic alternative, relying as it does on the moral judgments of Ph.D.’s and Oscar winners, subscribes to no such pretension. It simply smacks of boundless elitism.

This blog isn’t about politics; it’s about freedom and morality.  I want to make clear, from that perspective, what the place of moral debate should be in the public square.

That debate must concentrate on the rules by which we govern ourselves as individuals, before the laws of the state, and its policemen and judges, touch us.  The battlefield of morality isn’t really the political arena but the individual human heart.  The content of morality deals entirely with self-restraint and mutual respect.  The thief and the murderer break a law, and are punished.  The unwed mother and the runaway father aren’t criminals, but they have violated a powerful tradition of parenting within marriage:  how should we deal with them?  The right question, I would propose is:  how responsible are they for what they have done?

And here we return to the old, unthinking faith in unseen forces.  Is an alcoholic a sick person?  Is a murderer a psychopath?  Are the sexually promiscuous a mere consequence of bad parenting, or bad socioeconomic circumstances, or lack of education?  There are many in American public life today – maybe a majority – who would say yes to each question.  If they are right, then morality has no place in politics, or in the mind of any civilized person.  Let us by all means discuss medicine, sociology, education, economics, rather than human beings and their actions.

For myself, I believe some, maybe all, those questions must be answered in the negative.  The real divide carved by morality in American politics isn’t between Republicans and Democrats, or between Christians and secularists:  rather, it pits those who believe that each person acts to some purpose, and that each great movement of humanity is a sum of individual decisions, against those who reckon in the opposite direction and seek, from the best intentions, to dehumanize politics.

From this regard, Bai’s article is no more encouraging than the many others that preceded it.  To equate morality with tyranny is a piece of mind-boggling confusion – the worst tyrannies of the last century, after all, believed that morality was a weakness or a superstition.  Stalin and Hitler committed monstrous crimes precisely because some abstract dehumanizing principle required it.  Morality means self-policing and self-judgment, far more than the judgment of others.  Freedom requires some such set of personal rules; tyranny rightfully fears it.

Bai, it may be, envisions a sort of value-free application of scientific principles to government, as a way to escape the endless squabbling about morality.  I would find that depressing if true.  The debate we need can’t begin until we acknowledge the causal power of individual human actions.  At that point, we can discuss which individual actions enrich our common way of life, and which stain and pollute it; and what we can do, short of calling in the cops, to promote the first kind, and prevent the second.



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