Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Samuel Scheffler offers what could be the most incisive and succinct of what moralism is:
To describe a person as "moralistic" is to say that that person is too prone to make moral judgments: that the person relies on moral categories to an excessive degree, invoking them prematurely or in contexts where they are out of place, or using them in a rigid and simplistic way which ignores the nuances and complexities of human predicaments... Moralism is the enemy of insight and illumination, and one of its most common functions is to place obstacles in the way of genuine understanding. There are critics of moralism who think, in effect, that all moral judgment is moralistic, but moralism is in fact a moral flaw: a deformation or disfiguration of the moral. it is a moral failing to neglect the often complex reality of people's circumstances or to subject them to unjustified criticism.
I think this is spot on. Not only does Scheffler nicely characterize the usage of "moralistic" in Left circles (more on that below), he makes the important point that criticism of "moralism" does not entail a wholesale rejection of morality. Moralism, in Left circles, usually refers to the mistake of judging a political question to be a moral one (or judging a political failing to be a moral failing). It is, in other words, to invoke moral concepts in contexts where they are out of place, where what we really need are political concepts. Morality, however, is another matter. Morality has to do with what we owe to others, how we ought to treat them, etc. A critique of moralism, then, does not entail a critique of morality, the idea that we have obligations to other people, that their interests give us reasons for action, that we shouldn't treat them in certain ways, etc.

Moralism is simply the mistake of bringing moral concepts where they don't belong. And, as Scheffler points out, bring moral categories where they don't belong often hast he consequence of thwarting genuine understanding of the social and political factors at work. They obscure the political dynamics at work and thereby distort what's really going on. Ideology often (but not always) functions in just this way.

I recall reading something that Alex Callinicos says in Making History about moralism. I can't remember what he said, and I don't have the book on me at the moment, but I remember thinking it was good. I suppose his remark deserves runner-up for most concise accounts of moralism.


Jay Lang said...

i came across this post while googling something along the lines of 'criticism of moralism' or 'against moralising' since I've seen a general attitude deriding it and reading your post here similarly so.

Why should a political debate *not* be informed by *morality*? Maybe I'm confused about what morality means... i.e. belief in equal rights > is that not a moral position???

Jay Lang said...
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