The locus of morality


This blog is predicated on the notion that freedom requires self-discipline:  a moral framework by means of which we restrain the force of our desires.  Otherwise, political power, in the form of the police, will compel restraint.  Either we rule ourselves or government will regulate our behavior – ultimately, at the point of a gun.

All this seems trivially true to me.

Yet it rubs against the intellectual grain of the times.  Power has swallowed morality.  That is taken for granted in our everyday talk and in our great public decisions.  Virtue descends from above – it’s a question of budgets and policies, wholly divorced from behavior.  Personal responsibility has become social responsibility.  Conscience, now also socialized, is no longer focused on my private failings:  it’s all about yours.

Even justice has been depersonalized.  People speak of social justice and economic justice – foggy abstractions that can only be realized, if ever, with massive applications of power.

So we have two possible loci of morality.  One is the individual, judged on his behavior.  The other is government, judged politically.  The two are not commensurate.  If morality pertains to the individual, I can still judge the individuals in government by the morality of their actions.  Metaphorically, I can even treat the government as an individual, and pass moral judgement on its actions.

But if good and evil are government responsibilities like taxation and war-making, my personal behavior becomes morally irrelevant.  On my own, as a private person, I can play no part in moral decision-making any more than I can tax my co-worker with the BMW or make war on annoying foreigners.  All that is required of me is the right political posture – or failing that, obedience to those who wield political authority.

The transfer of morality to state power must be paid for in the coin of personal freedom and ultimately of morality itself:  so I will argue in this post.


Morality, as I use the term, consists of those shared models of behavior that make social life possible.  These models evolved in the harsh landscape of history, and are enforced far more stringently by custom and convention than by law.

I thus inherited an ideal of how to be a good husband and father.  My character is judged by the degree to which I approximate the ideal.  I judge myself by how far I can stretch the limits of my personality in the direction of the ideal.  I could, of course, invent a whole new model of fatherhood, and if I’m a moral genius my innovation might spread.  But that’s a bad bet on both counts.  Moral genius is rare, and moral innovations must compete with battle-tested adaptive behaviors.

The human condition is partial, flawed:  tragic.  I will never be a perfect husband or father.  Ideals are direction markers, not final destinations.  I can only inch toward perfection.  The same applies to you, good reader – and our shared ideals help us to harmonize our progress.  But we do have choices:  without them, there can be no morality.  We can inch forward or slip back.  We can be strong or weak.  We can do good or evil.  The drama of life may be a struggle against imperfection, but we have a say in the plot.

Morality is most persuasive where the power of convention is greatest:  in the “small world” of family, friends, neighborhood, and church.  Ideals at this level are often shared to a minute level of detail – food and clothes can be moralized, for example.  Personal histories are known in some depth, and moral judgments have immediate, and personal, consequences.  I can forbid my kids from playing in my weird neighbor’s house, but I still have to stare at him across the driveway.

The small world is regulated almost entirely by moral conduct.  We feel it a violation of the right order of things when siblings or neighbors take to the courts to settle disputes.


Moral communities are constituted by adherence to some system of shared ideals.  Such communities usually transcend the small world but are never equivalent to society.  A modern nation, therefore, is a patchwork of competing moral communities, with conflict over fundamental principles baked into the arrangement.  In the past, despotic rulers used brute force to pick winners.  Louis XIV, a Catholic, abolished the rights of his Protestant subjects and sent the dragoons after those who objected.

Liberal democracy must take a less direct approach.

The political system that became liberal democracy emerged from Europe’s wars of religion.  Its founding document was John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.  Then like now, the dilemma was how to manage “the divisions that are amongst sects.”  The liberal trick was to detach personal morality from legal and political compulsion to the greatest extent possible.

Government, Locke argued, existed to protect persons and property.  Morality – the “care of each man’s soul” – was “left entirely to every man’s self.”  The path to heaven could be determined only by the private person.  Government officials, who dealt in worldly affairs, lacked any special knowledge on the subject.

But there were limits to toleration.  Liberal democracy has never endorsed the principle that everything goes.  Eventually you came to a boundary.  For Locke, a Protestant, Catholics and atheists were beyond the pale.  So were communities that promoted public disturbance.  Today, of course, we are puzzled by Locke’s choices.  Catholics and atheists, we know, belong to perfectly legitimate moral communities.  Public disturbance, seventeenth-century style, we often identify with free expression.

So why did Locke draw the boundaries where he did?  The answer is that they were self-evident, if you grant his purposes.  Locke was pleading for an unprecedented expansion of tolerance and moral diversity.  He proscribed the absolute minimum acceptable to an educated English Protestant of his time and place.

Convention – the gravitational pull of opinion across history – determined the limits of behavior for him as it does for us.

We may consider Locke’s judgments exclusionary, but we still follow his method.  As citizens of a liberal democracy that is forced to adjudicate between competing moral communities, we tolerate most practices and prohibit an absolute minimum.  The arbiter is again convention.  To a future historian, our boundaries will seem no less arbitrary than Locke’s.

We now embrace gay marriage but prohibit polygamy.  What principles support either judgment?  We tolerate much public nudity but have expanded the definition of rape.  What’s the underlying logic?

At the national level, under liberal democracy, we appeal to grand principles but the principles contradict each other.  If we compel Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, we are trampling on freedom of religion on behalf of the right to privacy.  If we accept that white supremacists must enjoy freedom of expression, we threaten racial equality.

Present-day moral communities can turn to God or some universal principle to justify banning unwanted behaviors.  The same was true of traditional monarchy and twentieth-century totalitarian dictatorship:  both systems were, in essence, the moral tyranny of one sect over all others.

Liberal democracy has chosen to tread on thinner ice:  being secular and tolerant, it can only appeal to public opinion.  The principles behind prohibition, however universal in scope, can be enforced only on conventional grounds.  The public must support them over rival principles – and, as with race, abortion, or gay marriage, it retains the right to change its mind.

“There is something fundamentally indeterminate about democracy,” Pierre Rosanvallon observed, quite correctly, in Counter-Democracy.


Governments of every stripe rest uneasily upon this tangle of fault lines.  Their job is to preserve a peace constantly threatened by competing communities and principles – Locke’s “divisions that are amongst sects.”

The church of social justice, currently dominant over our institutions, would invert the terms of Locke’s equation, have government assume moral leadership, and apply political power to crush evil.  Sexuality, for example, would be subject to minute regulation much like, say, the pharmaceutical industry.

The question begged is how, precisely, this will be achieved.

One way to locate morality in government is the Louis XIV way:  winner take all.  But cuius regio, eius religio is hardly a principle of social justice.

A second way is Platonic:  the rule of experts who manipulate vast social forces for the benefit of the majority or, alternately, of those who are now marginalized.  But his assumes that such a class exists.  Consider 2008.  Consider Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.  Those still in doubt, read Philip Tetlock.  Faith in experts is much easier to disprove empirically than faith in a personal God.

A third way is Rosanvallon’s “counter-democracy”:  enlightened groups browbeat the government into right action, usually on an issue-by-issue basis.  Here public opinion turns against itself, and the indeterminacy of liberal democratic government becomes its only virtue.

This approach manages to be at once sectarian and universal, controlling and anti-establishment, unbendingly orthodox and – Rosanvallon’s term – radical:

Radicalism no longer looks forward to un grand soir, a “great night” of revolutionary upheaval; to be radical is to persist in criticizing the powerful of the world in moral terms and to seek to awaken passive citizens from their slumbers.  To be radical is to point the finger of blame every day; it is to twist a knife in each of society’s wounds.

But the rule of radical opinion is just a form of moral tyranny by one sect over all others, no different, in this respect, from the purges and final solutions perpetrated by the “vanguards” of the last century.  To implement the model systematically would mean the end of pluralism, of liberalism, in our politics.

Advocates might assert that a higher morality based on social justice trumps, and should trump, a false consciousness of individual freedom.  This assumes that governments could bring about social justice, if only they tried.  The longish track record of modern government refutes this claim.  It doesn’t have a clue about, for example, how to bring about income equality or racial integration in housing.  Neither do scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, the markets, the socially conscious, or the socially unconscious.

In the complexities of the “big world” beyond our immediate circle, no person or class or institution has a clue about consequences.  (For the empirical evidence, look up Paul Ormerod and my own book on the matter.)  So the expectation of utopia by government action forever fuels the rage of the righteous over government failure.


Personal morality depends on local knowledge applied to the small world where personal life plays out.  Consequences are felt directly, yet matter less than character.  If I try to save a drowning man, I risk drowning myself – but it’s still the right thing to do.

Government can only work statistically, and bet on the law of large numbers.  Given what we know about complex systems, that is rarely a winning game.  Consequences are experienced by the public, never by officials or lawmakers.  If this is morality, it’s morality for the masses, shot full of waivers and exemptions.

To the extent that power controls personal choices and we acquiesce, we are infantilized:  that is, we become like children in the care of parents, and cease to be moral or political agents.  That is a servile condition.  Masters have always stereotyped slaves as carefree but irresponsible children.

To the extent that morality becomes a political prize, the consent necessary for legitimacy will fracture along the lines of the moral communities.  Catholics will demand the re-imposition of the ban on abortion.  Progressives will demand the silencing of hate speech.  Feminists will transform the sex act into a series of elaborate legal agreements, with appropriate punishment for violators.

With every step, politics will become less political, morality less moral, and our poor, battered democracy less liberal.


What is the way out?  I don’t pretend to know with certainty, but I suspect that it will be found in the relationship between morality, reality, and fear.

Morality is a striving against reality.  We direct our behavior toward some ideal that, given the ways of the world, can never be perfected.  Morality can’t be a denial of reality.  It can’t set the standard at utopia, complete happiness, or brilliant self-actuation.  To insist that the human condition be other than what nature and history have made it is a sign of immaturity:  a temper tantrum against the universe.

Every 12-year-old wants to be a superhero.  They all grow up to be accountants and college administrators.

Part of the way out, then, is acceptance of the tragic dimension in striving against reality.

Morality is the enemy of fear.  The individual’s sense of right has always been a bulwark against the predations of naked power.  Conversely, state terror is the enemy of morality.  The same is true of the lynch mob.  Both use fear of force to end the argument in their favor.

We live in a moment dominated by the internet mob.  Grown-up children, outraged by reality, make up this mob.  They are self-anointed enforcers of official morality, as they imagine it ought to be.  They patrol social media for offending statements – and, when these are found, they indulge in orgies of digital hatred.  Threats of death, violence, rape, loss of employment, violation of privacy, all are flung in defense of grand humanitarian principles.  It’s a short walk from utopia to the jungle.

People in high places and low have become afraid to contradict the mob.  I encounter this more and more.  People fear for their jobs and reputations:  they don’t want controversy, they don’t want to be at the center of a public shitstorm.  So they measure their words.  They tailor their opinions.  They keep quiet when they disagree with official doctrine.

Part of the way out, I submit, is for all of us to show the courage to say and act as we think is right, and let the mob be damned.

atticus finch


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