I wish there were a God and It would appear as soon as any politician offered “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and survivors of a tragedy whose causes the politician had the power to address. It would say: “I do not actually “look” like anything. “Made in my image” means you have the power to solve your own problems. No one wants or needs your hypocritical prayers, so stop pontificating and address the causes. Oh, and by the way, you served the wrong master in life. You will be going to hell.”
I would gladly spend eternity burning with the likes of Marco Rubio if only I could see his face when he was confronted with his hypocrisy. Alas, we are all fated for death, oblivion, and the atomic recycling yard.
That there will be no final judgement does not mean that we should not render moral judgement while on earth, but this poses the problem of what “moral” judgement means, what its basis is, and what its goals are. The danger is that moral judgement collapses into moralism, because moralism leaves the social causes of preventable harm unaddressed.
Let us call “moralism” any position which, a) assumes, without argument, that there is right and wrong, b) that individuals have a responsibility to internalize the rules that define right and wrong, c) that all social problems result from a failure to internalize these rules, and, d) since, according to b), it is the individual’s responsibility to internalize the rules of right and wrong, there are no real social problems, but only individual failures.
People with something to hide always assume a moralistic posture. Moralism is a smokescreen behind which to hide one’s own complicity with the pattern of causes that lead to the atrocity. An “evil” character is invented to draw attention away from the real causes. Let me keep picking on Marco Rubio to illustrate my point. In order to hide the fact that he is major recipient of funding from the National Rifle Association, (NRA), Rubio argued (as everyone beholden to the gun industry and lobby in the US argues after every mass shooting) that gun laws would not have prevented the atrocity, because “the bad guys” don’t obey laws.
The argument studiously ignores the statistical evidence that the harder that it is to acquire guns, the less the bad guys have guns, and the less likely homicide by gun violence is. But that is not the real problem. The real problem is that the moralist failures to ask the crucial question: how does someone become a “bad guy” in the first place? And why do “bad guys” feel the need to deal with whatever problem plagues them by killing someone (either a specific person thought to be responsible for the problem, or random strangers).
Moralists, even self-professed “Christians” like Rubio, who would otherwise eschew scientific explanations, typically cherry pick psychological science to help them answer the question. In the hands of the moralist, the function of psychology is to take the focus away from social patterns and structures and locate the gaze firmly on the character of the individual. Hence responsibility for all problems can be laid at the feet of bad individuals who failed to internalize the rules of right behaviour, and responsibility for all atrocities can be laid at the feet of bad individuals who failed to internalize the rules of right behaviour because they are mentally ill (“sick,” as The Donald might say). The mental illness is not invoked to exonerate the person, but only to explain the greater scope of violence and depth of depravity.
Magic shows have persisted even into the age of quantum mechanics because human beings are easily distractable. While your attention is diverted, the magician performs the trick. Even if you know what is happening, it hard not to be led to the conclusion the performer wants to lead you toward. Moralists are like magicians: they divert our attention from the real problems. They are successful not because they are talented performers (although some are), but because social and cultural patterns that have persisted over decades or centuries develop their own momentum, and are profoundly difficult to change. My revolutionary friends are no doubt lamenting right now: that is the very principle of conservatism! It is, and it is not. I do not (like the conservative) value long standing practices just because they are of long standing. I am simply noting a universal fact of history. True revolutions are very rare, they arise only where it is impossible to live in the old way any longer, and even then older mindsets and patterns of behaviour persist for long periods after the revolutionary event (or, like Orthodox religion in Russia, return after long periods of repression).
The point is not that nothing can ever really be changed. Clearly, long established patterns can change, and for the better, as I will argue below. But changing them requires long persistent effort. In a world with multiple demands on our time, where economic pressures force most people to have to worry about work and saving, and where the next crisis is just a mouse click away, mobilizing significant numbers of people for significant amounts of time against deeply ingrained beliefs and patterns of action is very difficult. As commentators in the US have been saying, if Sandy Hook did not change gun culture, nothing will.
They do not say that to support gun culture, but to acknowledge how profoundly it marks a large proportion of the US population. So, while Rubio and others are obviously nothing more than paid apologists for gun manufacturers and sellers, his moralistic distraction will probably work.
If it is going to fail, then the sort of political,mobilizations that the student survivors have launched will have to attract huge numbers. Moral criticism is an essential part of the mobilization.
There are two essential differences between moralism and moral critique. First, moral criticism explains individual character and motives by reference to a social value system and a structure of political, economic, and cultural power. Second, it de-legitimates the ruling value system by exposing the ways in which it systematically harms people, typically, by subordinating the satisfaction of their needs to the goal of its own perpetuation. Whereas moralism distracts us from the causes, moral criticisms exposes the complicity of the moralist with the ruling value system. Moral criticism thus always leads to demands for fundamental change. Moralism, by contrast, is an attempt to prevent change.
In comparison with moralism, moral criticism sound positively amoral. It talks about dollars and cents, points out the economic interests that benefit from the ruling values, and unmasks hypocrisy and cynicism. It leaves exalted talk of God and evil for Church. It gets its hands dirty, and does not worry about souls. It is true that guns do not kill people, people kill people, but when they kill people with guns, they are using a product whose combined sales reach into the billions of dollars. How long would manufacturers care about gun rights if there were no money to be made? And if there were no money to be made, there would be no money to spend to buy congress members, and thus no gun lobby, and no NRA.
Of course, that picture is far too simplistic. There is a gun culture, and a deeply ingrained ethos of “Kill Thy Enemy” in America. But: (and people outside of America forget this fact too often): a majority of Americans do not own guns. They are as appalled by gun violence as everyone else, and feel hurt and embarrassed when they have to answer questions from their friends in other countries about “what is wrong with Americans?” Gun culture is real, but it does not drive the bus. Money drives the bus. If no one could buy a machine gun for personal use, machines guns for personal use would (eventually) disappear. Canada is very far from the peaceful society it portrays itself as being, but one would have a very hard time getting an automatic weapon to unload on concert goers from a hotel window.
So moral criticism gets down to social causes. Instead of pontificating, it aids mobilization by exposing the problem. All social problems may be understood, morally, in terms of harm and damage: to either or both of life-conditions and living things. Mass shootings provide a vivid illustration: death is the end of all possible life-value for the person who dies. Death as the natural end of life is inevitable, and not a harm when it comes at the end of a fulfilling life of personally enriching experience and contribution to the community. Death prior to that point, as the consequence of preventable disease or random violence, is an irreparable harm, since the person cannot be brought back to life. Unlike the case of willing self-sacrifice, they did not chose their own death so as to save more life. Hence, an actually moral ruling value system would prioritize the protection of health and life over the social causes of disease and random violence.
That means, concretely, curtailing the “rights” of organizations that cause the harm. Inevitably, regulation will be denounced as a violation of freedom. But it is actually a gain for freedom. Freedom presupposes life: early death is an absolute negation of the freedom of the dead person. Having a right to consume a potentially deadly commodity is a limit on one way of acting in freedom, which– unlike death– does not preclude another way of acting. If you can’t swing your sword, you can beat it into a plowshare, and become an organic farmer.
“But I want to shoot guns, fuck organic farming,” my AR-15 toting friend rejoins. Relax, friend, it is just an example. The deeper point is that changing the social rules we live by can force people to change, but the changes are good if the outcomes better protect and enable life. When I was a kid in the 1970’s in Northern Ontario, drinking and driving was commonplace, not taken seriously, a real part of the culture. People joked about how pissed they were driving home the night before. Tougher enforcement and public campaigns have changed the culture, and drinking and driving is much rarer, and not something anyone would brag about. No one, including people who used to drink and drive, would argue that the old situation was better just because people used to laugh about it.
Because we are free, we can change ourselves. Democratically deciding to change the rules we live by is an act of freedom. Moral criticism participates in this act of freedom by taking its stand on the principle that right is that which protects and enables life, and that legal rights and cultures both have to answer to this higher court. It thus exposes the causes of socially pervasive harms, rather than masks them, as the hypocritical moralist does.