Towards A Moral Amorality?

When I was in college I had a suitemate named Paul who was not known for his subtlety but certainly for his undying loyalty to the Green Bay Packers, even referring to Green Bay as the “Holy Land.” One day Paul and I were discussing a friend of ours when I commented that this friend was a fan of those detested Chicago Bears. Paul responded by saying “that’s okay, we have all sin in our lives.”

Of course, Paul was joking…at least I think he was joking. Yet, Paul’s comment reveals a human tendency to treat our individual amoral opinions, attitudes, and loyalties as moral issues. We address rather mundane concerns such as which athletic team we cheer for, what restaurant or drink we prefer, and the like as if those selections are intrinsically moral. And while that may simply lead to comical responses like Paul’s, this tendency often causes us to view those with different viewpoints and outlooks as immoral. As we demonize others’ dissimilarities, we justify our negative treatment and slander of their diversity of thought by placing ourselves upon a moral pedestal above the immoral riffraff beneath us.

This is not to say that morality fails to impact our opinion of amoral topics. For instance, I detest particular professional athletic teams because of my perception that those teams in question are more likely to cheat and break the rules of the game in order to get ahead, no matter the cost. I have boycotted brands because of my knowledge of the way they treat their workers, their involvement in sweatshops, or because of the immoral views of the parent company. This is how our understanding of morality should be applied to the world around us. But to assume that a team like the Green Bay Packers is the one I should cheer for, not because I live in Wisconsin or because I appreciate a city-owned team, but because it is moral to do so is simply plain foolish.

Sadly, nowhere does this seem to be more common than in the realm of politics. An individual’s basis for morality should impact their vote and their political views. But it has become common in this heated election year to claim one’s own positions to be the moral view and to demonize the other parties’ viewpoints as immoral. Within in the last month I stood in my kitchen listening to a friend of mine attempt to make the political argument that inefficiency is immoral. Perhaps efficiency is economically valuable, good for individual growth and flourishing, but it certainly cannot be viewed as either moral or immoral. There are efficient ways to help the poor but also efficient ways to kill them!

Efficiency and a wide range of other political views are claimed to be moral or immoral while not having an intrinsic morality. Consider that both major Presidential candidates have attacked the other’s view of economics using the word “immoral,” which is ironic considering the morality of manipulating the truth is not addressed. Yet these various economic positions have little to do with the realm of morality. Sure, it would be immoral to say “As President, I promise to take everyone’s money for myself.” That’s stealing, which is immoral. There are some political positions in our nation that I would claim are immoral. But to claim that someone’s economic viewpoint is immoral because it is different is quite baffling. It appears to be an attempt to gain an appearance of moral superiority and demonize alternative options.

As one who works daily within the field of “morality,” I cringe whenever I hear someone claim that a differing political viewpoint on an amoral topic is ‘immoral.’ Here at Hang Together our underlying goal is to build ‘moral consensus for a united America.’ This is an incredibly arduous undertaking, a task made even more difficult if we attempt to gain a ‘moral consensus’ on amoral issues! Such an effort would be impossible, and quite frankly, a waste of time. Our attempts here are not to gain a uniformity of application and action but a consensus on ‘morality.’ We will be united even with in our diversity. Is that not what it means to be American? E Pluribus Unum…Out of the many, one…unity in diversity?

Within this election year, I have greatly enjoyed the way I have been challenged by people of many different political stripes to think about a plethora of issues from new perspectives. I hope that this continues throughout the year and I hope it can occur on a national level as well. Yet, nothing will staunch this flow of ideas and interaction of viewpoints like attempting to label our opinions as moral and the opposition as immoral. To do such would is foolish, slanderous, and simply wrong. Kind of like being a Chicago Bears fan.


4 Thoughts.

  1. Thanks for a sobering reminder not to absolutize our political differences! However, I would resist the characterization of any area of social action as simply “amoral.” Human beings are irreducibly moral creatures, and anything involving human action is going to be a moral question. If feeding the hungry is a moral imperative (and it is) then discovering the best way to feed the hungry is a moral topic.

    To my mind, the problem is not that we consider the economy a moral topic, but that we elevate differences of opinion over prudential judgments to differences over moral principles. There are, of course, people who hold genuinely evil moral principles about the economy. Some examples would be (on the far right) that we have no duty to care about anyone but ourselves, or (on the far left) that government has an unlimited right to rearrange people’s lives however it wants to accomplish its economic goals. I’ll bet that if you and I compared our guesses, my guess as to how many people fall into these categories would be larger than yours. And Dan’s, I’ll bet, would be larger still! However, we would probably agree that the large majority don’t fall into either category. Most of our disagreements fall into the category of differing opinions about prudential judgments.

    The economy is a great example of an issue that presents the problems of moral consensus in a form that breaks free of the stale assumptions that have been built up around “social issues.” Is it possible for us to talk about economics as a place of moral significance without calling other people immoral for reaching different prudential judgments?

    • I could not agree more…our morality must impact our view of economics. We just have to be careful to let our morals impact our views, not assume our views are the basis of morals.

  2. Pingback: PowerLinks – 09.11.12 | @ActonInstitute PowerBlog

  3. Kyle, I agree with Greg that you point out an important guardrail — we mustn’t succumb to the temptation of throwing the morality card in an attempt to win an argument or give the appearance of taking the high ground.

    The trick is determining which subjects, or parts of them, are susceptible to a moral analysis. You mention economics, and that’s actually a good example. It is jarring to hear someone disparage another’s economic policies as immoral. But that’s mostly because we speak in a sort of shorthand adapted to campaign speeches and 30-second commercials.

    When we speak of the “economy,” we are talking not of a singular thing but of an aggregate. Before we can even begin to engage moral analysis, we have to break down the subject into its constitutive pieces. The economy is, after all, nothing more than the sum total of economic decisions made by a large number of people. These people may act individually (as when someone buys lunch or harvests a field), corporately (as a partnership, corporation or other business type), or coercively (as when they act through their government).

    Addressing the economy in each of its disaggregated decisions gets us closer to the place where we can usefully speak in terms of morality. So we next ask whether the economic actor had the authority to take the decision under consideration. For example, when he acted in his individual capacity in taking money from a financial institution was he withdrawing funds he had on deposit or was he robbing the bank? The moral implications there are obvious.

    This distinction also exists when we wear our governmental hats. When we choose to impose a federal tax are we doing so to pay for expenditures authorized by the Constitution, or simply so that we may “spread the wealth around”? There are moral implications to this too; Hayek recognized that the power to control economic decisions is the power to control pretty much every aspect of your life. At the very least, this raises the question of whether we really are created equal, or whether there are some who have a right to make our decisions for us — that is, to diminish us as independent moral actors.

    Beyond that, once we have determined our economic actor has the authority to take the decision we are questioning, there is the realm of prudence. While your friend’s use of “efficiency” as a measure of morality may not neatly capture the moral aspect of our prudential decisions, there is something there. We are called to be good stewards of those things within our control or custody. A careless inefficiency may be a mark of bad stewardship. Or it may simply be an indication that the actor does not know how to be more efficient. And there are moral implications to being a bad steward (not, necessarily, ones of which government may take cognizance, but they are there nevertheless).

    So I completely agree with you that we must not hastily paste the “morality” placard on everything we see. But when we encounter something that seems on its face to exist in a morality-free zone, we should carefully disassemble it to determine whether it really is something that is entirely free of any moral claims or obligations.

    I must say, however, that I am a little baffled by your apparent position that there are no moral implications to supporting our football team. When I came to Wisconsin for college all those many years ago, I was stopped at the border and made to swear, on my oath, to always be faithful to the Packers. Well, I’m no oath-breaker. That would be immoral.

Leave a Reply to Kyle Ferguson Cancel reply