Is society a moral order? I don’t think so. Morals are plastic. People’s morals change all the time in order to adapt to non-moral practical exigencies.
For instance, people change their morals to conform to the beliefs of a group of people with whom they identify. If the dominant beliefs in the group change, individual members of the group will shift their own beliefs to go along with the new common sense. This can happen without any instrumental calculation about the costs and benefits of dissidence; it can happen simply because one intuitively feels uncomfortable being eccentric, or because one trusts the opinions of the other members of the group, and so on. Morals adapt to the exigencies of collective identification.
People drift away from moral beliefs which they have no opportunity to put into practice, and especially those which create tension with their everyday lifestyle, and drift towards moral beliefs which they can effectively exercise. We can see this in the oft-cited phenomenon of middle-class people being idealistic in their young adulthood and becoming more conservative as they get older. For a young adult with a bit of new-found freedom, counterhegemonic ideals can fit with one’s life situation. Such ideals justify rebelling against paternalistic authority; they resonate with the feeling that the world is full of possibility and is open to being made anew; one has some free time to devote to political activism, and so on. Then one gets older, gets invested in a career and family life, acquires a certain enfranchisement and authority over others, has to save money for retirement, has to buy a car, and so on. Those youthful ideals have little opportunity for fulfillment and so people let go of them. Or, alternatively, people maintain activist involvements, find ways to modify the middle-class lifestyle, and remain committed to progressive ideals or even become more radical over time. Either way, people adapt their moral convictions to the changing opportunities to put those convictions into practice.
The same thing happens in the life of a social movement. When a movement is achieving incremental goals — attracting members, garnering attention, affecting legislation, etc. — then its moral claims have traction on the wider field of social practice. When a movement is blocked from achieving meaningful goals in the short to medium term, its moral claims lose force. Moral conviction needs to find an outlet in practice or else it withers.
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Even moral intransigence can come from non-moral sources. When I get into an arguments with someone who has a strong moral conviction, often I find one of two things happening. If that person is clever and articulate they will keep coming up with reasons to justify their conviction. Even if I refute their best reasoning, they will go away and come up with new reasons. (I do this myself all the time when people refute my best reasoning!) Or, if spinning arguments is not their forte, they will resort to essentialism — “it just is right” – or to symbolic violence — “you’re a horrible person and I won’t listen to you”. Moral conviction can be intense without being based on moral reason, if it appeals to some non-rational and non-moral emotion or intuition. Morals adapt to our libidinal investments and to our habitus.
I think that people who really base their actions on morality per se are few and far between and can be treated as a special case. Most of the time, if we want to understand morality, we need to look for the non-moral exigencies it is adapting to.
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For instance, if we want to understand the conservative opposition to LGBT rights, then by and large we should direct our attention not to the millennia-long tradition of Christian theology on the subject, but to the emotional and practical gains that people realize from adopting this position. Even a brief look at the US debate on this issue shows that much of the resistance to gay rights is about status or symbolic capital, and also about certain libidinal investments which organize people’s feelings of anxiety and shame in relation to sex. Tracing the social history of these investments will probably tell us more about how to overcome homophobia than will a rational critique of homophobic beliefs.
Of course the homophobic beliefs are not irrelevant and still do need to be critiqued. But I suspect that moral principles formulated in rational terms are only the most superficial line of defense for whatever it is that homophobes are trying to protect. If that’s correct, then the ideologues who articulate homophobic doctrines are acting as moral entrepreneurs, “selling” (so to speak) ideas which certain people will find intuitively appealing for pre-rational reasons, ideas which meet people’s emotional and practical needs. Such ideas are only as rational as they need to be to defend those who adopt them against criticisms which they themselves would find persuasive.
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This is just an example. There’s nothing special about conservative heteronormativity this way. Morals, and ideas in general, are almost always interwoven with and adapted to the practical demands of our physical embodiment.
The practices of morality include the things like formulating moral beliefs, advocating them, acting on them against resistance from non-moral motivations, and so on. These moral practices are always interwoven with other, non-moral practices like making a living, managing a household, negotiating one’s identity and social status, and so on. If these non-moral, ‘material’ practices do not determine the moral practices in any simple and straightforward way, neither does moral practice simply construct the material social world. Morality is one domain of practice among others, interwoven with the others, rarely if ever autonomous or autopoietic. To put all moral practices together in a category and treat that category as a reality sui generis capable of explaining other phenomena is a mistake. Society cannot be a moral order because morals do not form a bounded, self-organizing system of action, let alone one capable of regulating society as a whole.
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What this means for revolutionary socialism is that one cannot build a new social order on the basis of the right moral beliefs alone. (Conversely, the collapse of actually existing socialisms is not an indication of the wrongness of socialist moral beliefs; it is a practical failure.) To achieve the revolutionary transformation of society, socialism must do much more than appeal to moral convictions. It must articulate with the full range of practices with which morals are always intertwined. It must solve practical problems in people’s everyday and everynight life. It must put food on the table. It must relieve the pressures of housework and childcare. It must resolve people’s competitive struggles for esteem. It must calm inflamed emotions, and inspire healthy and sustainable passions. And so on.
To become a reality socialism has to solve problems, it has to work in practice, it has to get shit done. Of course, socialists have endeavoured to do just that, with varying degrees of success. But the non-moral practices of socialism are less well theorized than its moral dimensions. We have a fine tradition of moralistic theory inspired by the ideals of socialism and informed by its radical critique of existing society. There is, I think, rather less written about how to put socialism into practice under actually existing circumstances, circumstances that range from global geopolitics to the smallest and most intimate exchanges between individuals. This is an interesting area for further theoretical inquiry.
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Note on my terms:
I’m using the term ‘morals’ in a particular way, influenced by Emile Durkheim’s analysis. Durkheim defined morals as beliefs which are enforced by “widespread, repressive sanction, that is to say a condemnation by public opinion which consists of avenging any violation of the precept”. He further specified modern morals, those of societies with a complex division of labour, as having three elements Moral rules are those which we pursue for their own sake, not out of practical utility; they refer to some greater good beyond individual gain; and they provide individuals with an enlightened basis for conforming to social norms.
I think of morality as consisting of beliefs which override an individual’s self-interest in the name of a greater good. On this basis we can make distinction between morality properly so called, and actions which may be morally salutary but which are motivated by non-moral factors.
Specifically, what Zygmunt Bauman calls “animal pity” is not a form of morality, although it may be the basis for certain forms of morality. A person who refuses to harm another because they feel that harm in their own soul, because they have compassion or empathy, because they refuse to suffer the pain of pushing through those feelings to achieve some goal — that person is not acting morally, or more specifically their actions are not driven by morality, in the sense that is true for a person who refuses to harm another out of principle. Likewise, a person who does good for another because they feel that good as a pleasurable, as an enhancement or fulfillment of their own subjectivity, may be doing morally praiseworthy things but is not motivated by morality as such.
A parent who rushes into a burning building to save their child is not acting morally. Neither is a soldier who refuses to torture a prisoner out of sheer empathy for the suffering of the other. What is done out of love, as they say, takes place beyond good and evil.